In the wake of the multiple murders committed by 22 year-old Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, there has been a brilliant response on the part of numerous writers across the web tackling both Rodger’s motivations and their relationship to the broader cultural backdrop against which his rampage unfolded (see for example this piece by Laurie Penny, this one by Jessica Valenti, and this piece by Chauncey DeVega).
There’s also been a largely predictable backlash from figures on the right, from stigmatizing the mentally ill, to blaming Hollywood media, to cravenly attacking the families of victims in a pre-emptive effort to fend off (highly unlikely) new gun control legislation. Somewhat new to the landscape, though, is the special pleading from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates, who have taken the trenchant analyses linking their own retrogressive ideology and Rodger’s misogyny as a reason to double-down on blaming women for their own victimization at the hands of men. In particular, one of the more wretched purveyors of this argument has announced that “more people will die unless you give men sexual options.”
Before anything else, let’s flag this vileness for what it is – a proclamation, in so many words, that unless women make themselves sexually available to men who desire them, they deserve to die. Having acknowledged that, and recognizing the fact that Rodger’s crimes were indisputably acts of misogynistic violence, I want to state something obvious – but which I haven’t seen brought up elsewhere – and then dwell on it for a bit. This is a tremendously difficult thing to talk about, and I hope to try to do so with some degree of delicacy, welcoming whatever responses I can get in the process.
Here’s the thing. Rodger did have “sexual options.” Sex workers in San Diego, not far from where Rodger lived, participate in a market that generated some $97 million dollars in 2007 alone. Had he been willing to make a day trip to Nevada, only a five-to-six-hour drive from Santa Barbara, Rodger could have paid for sex quite legally. Bracketing the immensely complicated question of how sex work should be considered as a legal matter (for a compendium of excellent articles on sex workers and the sex trade, try this Slate Long Form Collection), and stressing that I believe that sex workers, like all other workers and human beings, deserve respect and legal protection, the question arises: if Rodger, a self-professed virgin who had “never even kissed a girl,” was so incredibly driven by the need to have sex, and if our society, for better and for worse, makes it possible for men to purchase sexual encounters, then why didn’t he pay for it?
It’s not that he couldn’t afford it. We know that Rodger came from a background of considerable wealth and privilege. We know that he ultimately spent some three thousand dollars on the handguns, ammunition, and magazines he used in his rampage. We also know that, for years before, he appears to have been an avid purchaser of body-building paraphernalia, and was a member of an online forum for men united by the common experience of being “duped” into spending money on expensive courses, videos, and books supposedly guaranteed to improve their “game” at picking up women. Rodger’s memoir-manifesto is preoccupied with issues of money, and documents numerous expenditures, particularly on clothing, that were intended to improve his attractiveness and self-image: “Buying new clothes would always give me a temporary boost of confidence, and I practiced it as if it was a drug.” Given such willingness to shell out for what he understood to be the accoutrements of sexual attractiveness – the body-building, the clothes, etcetera – and his single-minded obsession with doing so for the purpose of having sex, why didn’t he just pay for sex itself?
Answering this question requires diving into Rodger’s grandiose memoir-manifesto, “My Twisted World.” That document reveals that, for all the money Rodger spent, he was also convinced not just that he needed more, but that he was mystically destined to receive it. In particular, Rodger was obsessed with winning the lottery. “I believed that it was destiny for me to win the Megamillions Lottery…People win the lottery every single month, so why not me? I was meant to live a life of significance and extravagance. I was meant to win this jackpot. It was destiny.” The money Rodger would win in the lottery would have one function above all: to make him sexually desirable. “As I sat meditating in my room, I imagined the ecstasy I would feel as scores of beautiful girls look at me with admiration as I drive up to college in a Lamborghini. Such an experience would make up for everything.”
Of course, winning the lottery is easier said than done, but Rodger was not easily dissuaded. After spending some $900 on lottery tickets to no avail, when he learned that the jackpot would hit $656 million, Rodger grew convinced that this win would be his.
“I was astounded and filled with a feverish enthusiasm of hope and desire. This was the highest lottery jackpot in history. I knew I was always destined for great things. This must be it! I was destined to be the winner of the highest lottery jackpot in existence. I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation. With my whole body filled with feverish hope, I spent $700 dollars on lottery tickets for this drawing. As I spent this money, I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.”
Needless to say, Rodger didn’t win, and he describes this disappointment – like practically every other negative experience he recounts – as an overwhelming loss.
“What I saw crushed all of my hope completely. My whole body shivered with horrific agony. I didn’t win. Three people won that jackpot, and it was split between them. But none of those three people were me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was certain I would be the winner. It was destiny… fate. But no, the world continued to give me no justice or salvation whatsoever.”
The Lamborghini and model girlfriend were not to be his. Meanwhile, the people who cared about Rodger were attempting more realistic measures to get him to socialize and engage with other people. Specifically, Rodger’s psychiatrist and parents arranged for him to see a series of “social skills counselors.” These counselors were also in their early twenties, and were intended to help Rodger improve in his abilities to relate to others and otherwise boost his confidence (as was the purpose of his mother’s gift of a BMW). But it didn’t work. The first counselor, a young man, displeased Rodger at their very first meeting, activating both his racial prejudices and sexual insecurities all at once:
“I asked him if he had ever had sex with girls in Isla Vista, and he told me he had sex with four girls! I was very jealous. Karlin was half Hawaiian and half Mexican, and he wasn’t that good looking. How on earth could he have managed to sleep with four girls in Isla Vista, while I had been there for two years and had none? It seemed absolutely preposterous. I didn’t want to see him at all after I found this out.”
The second counselor, though, appeared more promising, at least at first – because she was a woman.
“She was the first young girl I had interacted with in the entire time I stayed in Santa Barbara, and she was only hired to talk to me. How pathetic is that? At first, I didn’t want to have a female counsellor, but when I was introduced to her, I saw that she was quite a pretty looking blonde. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to hang out with a blonde girl, despite the fact that she was a hired friend. It was the only time in my life that I had the experience of spending time with a girl my age, and even though it was all fake, I really enjoyed it. I felt so much better about life after each time we met. But then, I thought about how unfair it was that I could only get a fake little taste of such an experience, while other men get to do such a thing every single day with their girlfriends.”
But eventually this young woman moved away from Santa Barbara, leaving Rodger feeling even further alienated. “I decided not to have any more female counsellors. It has the same effect as hiring a prostitute, I imagine. It temporarily feels good for the moment, but afterward it makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men could get the experience for free.”
It makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men could get the experience for free. There’s a huge blind spot here. The young man who sees a Megamillions lotto jackpot as his ticket to a Lamborghini and sex with a supermodel is contemptuous of the idea of paying an actual woman for sex. Rodger disdains the idea of paying for sex, yet simultaneously conceives of wealth as his entrée into a world of sexual pleasure. What bridges the gap is the theme that both wealth and sex ought to be his by virtue of simple entitlement – they are prerogatives of privilege, rightfully his without effort or responsibility. His “destiny” is to accumulate and enjoy objects and experiences, not to form relationships with actual people.
The overarching sense that emerges from reading Rodger’s “My Twisted World” is that his “world” is only “twisted” to the extent that it isn’t entirely and unqualifiedly his, to the extent that it recedes or escapes his grasp. The child destined for greatness discovers that life is not simply a succession of rewards, sexual and monetary, but instead something more disappointing. But rather than understanding that monetary success and sexual fulfillment are objects and experiences to be encountered and shared through life in a world populated by other living subjects, all of whom struggle and suffer in their own ways, Rodger elevates his own grievance into a cosmic injustice. It is an injustice that, in one final act of entitlement, he in his “magnificence” is empowered to rectify through violent judgment: if the world cannot be his, he will destroy it, and himself.
And that’s the thing, the ultimate reason why I don’t think Rodger was ever willing to pay for sex. Not just because it presumably would have gone against the grain of his belief in his own entitlement, his conviction that it should have been his for “free,” or because it would have offended his delicate class sensibilities, or even because it would, in a sense, have been real – an actual encounter with another human body, however alienated, however tawdry. He couldn’t do it, didn’t do it, and wouldn’t do it, because actually having sex with another human being would have obviated his fundamental self-understanding as wounded and wronged. You can’t be aggrieved if you don’t have a grievance to nurse. In other words, I think that Rodger was aggrieved first, primarily and fundamentally – and the rhetoric of sexual frustration is a channel for that, an expression of it.
Here we come back, full circle, to the kernel of Rodger’s misogyny. Saying that a misogynist “objectifies” women is absolutely true, in that he views them as something other than equally human, that he makes them the mere objects of his will – playthings to win, abuse, display, and dispose of. They are the expendable corollaries to his desires. This is the logic that underwrites the vile demand that men “be given more sexual options.” Women are to be marshaled and made available to men, object-like, as resources for the fulfillment of their desires. And from this logic also flows the obvious threat: If women are not placed at men’s disposal, like objects, well, then, like displeasing objects, they deserve to be disposed of, men’s fervent desire transmuting into equally destructive rage the moment it is thwarted. If you can’t play with your toys the way you want, you break them and go home.
Rodger himself expresses this transition, writing about the development of his attitudes towards a family friend whom he knew as a child and with whom he later re-connected in Santa Barbara. Prior to meeting her again, he “stalked” her on Facebook, looking at pictures of her and her friends, and growing enraged as he did.
“She was a popular, spoiled girl who partied with her hot, beautiful blonde-haired clique of friends. All of them looked like absolute cunts, and my hatred for them all grew from each picture I saw on her profile. They were the kind of beautiful, popular people who lived pleasurable lives and would look down on me as inferior scum, never accepting me as one of them. They were my enemies. They represented everything that was wrong with this world. [She] was my first friend in America. As a child, I played with her as an equal. Now she was my enemy. I would take great delight in torturing and flaying her and every single one of her spoiled, obnoxious evil friends.”
“My Twisted World” is a deeply disturbing read, but this section is, for me at least, the most horrifying. I can’t imagine what happens inside a person to change him from a young boy who can play with a young girl into a man who sees her as nothing but a cunt to fuck and kill and consume – a man who can slip between all those verbs so freely. I don’t know where individual pathology ends and where cultural pathology begins, how social and personal sicknesses form and reinforce one another. A chasm yawns between the fantasy in which Rodger wanted to live and the “twisted” world he made for himself – a gap between the fantasy of willing women, fast cars, and outrageous luxury that he felt he was owed and the snuff film he came obsessively to imagine and ultimately to enact, at least in part. What he did last Friday irrupted from that gap, and we are left to pick up the pieces, bury the bodies, and untwist the world as best we can.