Over the past week, women from around the world have shared their stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault on Twitter. These #YesAllWomen stories, over 2 million and counting now, are reactions to the killing rampage of Elliot Rodger, which was at least partially driven by misogyny.
At first, I didn't think I had much to say. It wasn't until Thursday evening while out walking my dog that I realized that #YesAllWomen includes me, too.
While in graduate school, I spent a summer studying at a private university in Mexico. The school boasted a highly secure campus, encircled by a stone wall broken only in two places to accommodate the guarded entrances. One afternoon while walking around town, I noticed I was being followed by a young man, whose clothing and shoes suggested he was a local and not a university student. I made my way back to the university, passed through the gates, and attempted to decompress by walking through a quiet garden that was a slight detour from the main road back to my dorm. Just as my heart began to settle back into its regular rhythm, I heard something. It was the guy running toward me. I began to run and scream, my head facing back to track his movements as my body moved forward at a fight-or-flight clip. He tripped, and apparently twisted his ankle, impeding any more running. I continued to race back to my dorm.
I told a few of the fellow students and word made it to our professors. The next day they pulled me aside and asked if I needed to talk about it with someone. I told them no, that I was a little shaken-up, but I would be fine. I was, and soon enough I would put the whole thing behind me, uninterested or unwilling to make that victim moment part of my identity. Honestly, I had mostly forgotten about this event until this week.
Why was I so willing to put it all behind me, to think that just because I didn't experience any residual trauma, that the situation didn't merit rage, or even a memory? It's disturbing how easy it is for all women, even feminist writers like myself, to accept a status quo where such incidents are easily forgotten and brushed aside.
Now, to what degree was Rodger's recent violent actions driven by misogyny? We'll never know. The particulars of his motives and horrific act are bound up in a multitude of circumstances, propensities, and psychological imbalances, some of which came from without, and others from within. Contextualizing the murders within any singular context would be to ignore the complexity and irrationality behind human beings doing horrible things.
But here's something we can say with absolute certainty: Rodger was a misogynist. His manifesto and YouTube videos make it all too clear that he believed he was entitled to women. "All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women." "It's all because girls have never been attracted to me." "Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, but never to me." And this: "I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it."
There is a risk to using the singular act of a deranged person as the motive for a public outcry about everyday misogyny. It opens those of us who take part in #YesAllWomen to the criticism that we don't know the difference between a sexist person and a maniacal sexist person. It also places us at risk for over-identifying with Rodger's victims, conflating that which is tragic and gory with being catcalled on the Subway or aggressively courted at a bar.
It is an unfortunate truth of human behavior that it often takes the manifestation of evil in an extreme form to shed light on the more mundane appearances of that evil in our lives. That is certainly what happened with me, and it clearly has happened with millions of others as they come to realize that there are aspects of the status quo that they are fed up with. Rodger may not represent the status quo, but he has sure woken us up to it. And considering there were over 10,000 new #YesAllWomen Tweets posted in course of the few hours it took me to write this, it doesn't seem like this roaring lion is going back to sleep anytime soon.
Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for TheWeek.com.
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