I’ve been reading so much–probably more than I should–about the Isla Vista shootings. There’s been so much important analysis of Elliot Rodger’s misogyny and racism. There have been so many women sharing their stories of everyday sexism, harassment, and abuse–and their experiences of not being believed by men. There have been reminders that stigmatizing mental illness and Asperger’s syndrome is not the answer. I’ll be rounding up the best of these pieces soon.
But what jumped out at me is the tiny, innocent kernel of pain hidden somewhere deep inside Rodger’s twisted worldview: the pain of romantic and sexual rejection. And the ways that men and women are socialized to deal with that rejection differently. (I will note that this post deals with the socialization of men who date women, and women who date men. As a straight woman, I can’t speak to the experiences of queer people, but I would not be surprised if they’re similar in some ways, different in others, and compounded by constant cultural erasure.)
When I read about Elliot Rodger–or any of the innumerable men whose sense of entitlement to women’s bodies has turned deadly–I always have a brief glimmer of recognition of that pain, mixed with overwhelming sadness, disgust, and rage. Obviously, no amount of pain excuses Rodger’s actions, and most people manage to deal with rejection without resorting to violence. But his case is an extreme example of cultural dynamics that are all too common.
I know that primal need for connection. I know what it’s like to spend years wanting it, watching seemingly everyone else have it, wondering why you’re left out.
But what I don’t know is a feeling of entitlement to anyone else’s body. When men are rejected, they’re socialized to blame women; when women are rejected, we’re socialized to blame ourselves. This is what patriarchy looks like: no matter who does the rejecting, women are at fault.
I still remember trying not to cry at a school dance in sixth grade because my crush was slow-dancing with his girlfriend and I had no one to dance with. Over the years, it didn’t get better–I just got used to it.
Yes, I was angry. But I turned my anger inwards, like women are taught to do in a million insidious ways. Before I came across fat acceptance, I blamed my body; afterwards, I just wondered what was wrong with me, even when I knew intellectually that it was a matter of luck. I clung to Kate Harding’s “On Dumb Luck” like a life preserver, trying so hard to believe it.
Then, by sheer dumb luck, I was in the right place at the right time to meet Steve, and the rest is history.
Rejection happens. Dating is never going to be smooth or seamless or pain-free. Sadness and anger about that are perfectly normal. But too often our culture twists that anger into woman-hatred, both internalized and externalized. It’s time to say, enough. We need new cultural narratives, new coping strategies.
This is what I wish I could say to every young person–male, female, or non-binary–reeling from romantic rejection or lack of attention. This is what I want teenagers to know in their bones, long before their desires have the chance to twist into something malignant.
1.) You are enough. You are whole just as you are, whether or not you have a partner(s).
2.) Your desires are normal and natural. It’s human to want connection and to hurt when you can’t find it. (It’s also normal and natural not to want sex or romance, or to prioritize other things over them. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t care that much right now, or ever.)
3.) It’s ok to feel pain and anger. It’s not ok to take that anger out on other people. Punch a pillow instead, or buy some cheap porcelain mugs and smash them on the ground. Cry. Write in a journal. Write angry letters and then burn them. Rant to your friends. See a therapist if you think it might help. There’s no shame in that–going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re broken. It just means that sometimes shit is hard, and it can help to process it with someone neutral.
4.) You are never entitled to another person’s body. Repeat: you are never entitled to another person’s body.
5.) Likewise, no one is entitled to your body. No matter what. (Updated 5/30/14 to add this after Ziya suggested it.)
6.) As unfair as it can feel–and believe me, I remember exactly what that aching unfairness felt like–the world doesn’t owe you a partner. It’ll happen if and when it happens. There are things you can do to increase the odds of meeting someone, and to make yourself more interesting to potential partners, but ultimately it’s a matter of sheer dumb luck.
7.) Dating can be especially hard if you’re a member of one or more marginalized groups that are culturally desexualized and/or hypersexualized. That’s not fair, and it’s fucked-up as hell. It’s important to speak up, to call out the ways that racism, fatphobia, ableism, classism, transphobia, biphobia, and other forms of oppression play out in the dating scene. But it still doesn’t mean that any one person, or the world in general, owes you a partner.
8.) It’s ok to be jealous of people who have what you want. It’s ok to withdraw from them when it’s just too painful to be around happy couples. It’s even ok to hate them within the privacy of your own head. But it’s never ok to hurt them, or anyone.
9.) When you hear things like “The only common factor in your failed relationships/dates/etc is you,” take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes a string of rejections genuinely isn’t about you, especially if you’re dating within a small pool where the odds of finding a compatible partner are lower. But if you stop thinking of potential partners as human, and start seeing them as objects to be won or conquered, then you become the problem. So don’t do that. Remember that the people you want to date are people too, with their own interests and desires.
10.) You will get through this. You’re stronger than you think.