Romantic rejection, gendered blame, and narratives we need to change

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. Continue reading

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