What Isla Vista revealed about sexual violence

June 2, 2014

The horror in Isla Vista has sparked an angry response against the depths of sexism and violence in our society. Jen Roesch looks at where the discussion must go now.

WHEN ELLIOT Rodger killed six people and then himself in Isla Vista, Calif., last weekend, he left behind a 140-page "manifesto" and a trail of YouTube videos that contain a toxic mixture of misogyny, racial resentment, self-loathing and profound alienation.

As people have tried to make sense of this horrific act over the past week, the issue that has emerged most clearly is the epidemic level of violence against women.

The tragic events in Isla Vista tapped into a simmering fear and anger felt by millions of women. When someone created the hashtag #yesallwomen to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and violence, more than a million people responded in less than 24 hours. The accumulated 140-character testimonies form a veritable road map of what it means to be a woman in a society saturated with sexism.

Another woman set up the Tumblr site When Women Refuse to document the stories of women who have been physically attacked and abused after refusing men's advances or breaking off relationships.

A vigil in Isla Vista for the mass shootings victims

These Internet outpourings have struck a chord because they reveal an ugly truth: violence against women is deeply rooted in our society. By the most conservative estimates, one in five women will be a victim of sexual assault or rape in her lifetime. One in four women will suffer domestic violence. And every day in this country, three women are killed as a result of domestic violence.

All of this has led to an important discussion of what it is in our society that sustains such high levels of violence.

INCREASINGLY--AND particularly in response to the Isla Vista killings--feminists have focused on questions of culture. They have argued that we live in a rape culture that allows violence to flourish and leads men to believe that they have a social license to abuse women. As writer Jessica Valenti put it, "There is no such thing as a lone misogynist--they are created by our culture, and by communities that tell them their hatred is both commonplace and justified."

This focus on the broader social context is a welcome departure from previous discussions of sexual and gender-based violence, which have explained it in terms of an inherent male drive to dominate women or as the act of individual criminals and monsters. What women like Valenti insist, above all, is that individual acts of violence against women must be understood in relationship to a wider system that degrades and devalues women.

For evidence of that broader culture, one need look no further than a recent cover of the New York Post in response to the Isla Vista killings. In one of the more grotesque displays of victim-blaming, the tabloid published the name and photo--in a bikini, no less--of one of the women who was the object of Rodger's rage in his "manifesto," under the headline: "Killer crush."

Though even mainstream media outlets and commentators criticized the Post's front page, it is a clear example of the kind of twisted response to sexual violence and sexism that is commonplace. We live in a society in which women who are sexually assaulted are routinely blamed and questioned for their own behavior--and in which men are routinely excused for theirs.

Just in the last month, a man who was convicted of repeatedly drugging and raping his wife over several years ended up doing no jail time. Worse, the judge in the case advised the woman to forgive her husband. Another judge rejected the possibility that a woman could have been raped because her vagina wasn't "shredded."

And it was recently discovered that over a period of years, thousands of rape kits have gone untested by police departments around the country. The likely reason is that police everywhere share the opinion of the Philadelphia officer who described the Special Victims Unit he headed as the "lying bitches unit."

HORROR STORIES like these abound, and they aren't confined to the criminal justice system. On campuses across the country, administrators refuse over and over again to take action against students who commit rape and sexual assault. Respected mainstream media outlets like the New York Times feel free to describe the clothing and behavior of sexual assault survivors. Politicians like Wisconsin state Rep. Roger Rivard talk about women who just "rape easy."

When a young woman was gang-raped in Steubenville, Ohio, by members of the revered high school football team, her attackers were protected by their coach, the district attorney and the school's principal. The players operated with such a sense of social approval that they felt no compunction about live-tweeting the assault and making vicious jokes about the victim.

When "rape culture" is used to describe the pervasive and institutionalized ways in which sexual assault is sanctioned or justified, it can be a useful starting point for making sense of the continuing high levels of violence against women. In recent years, the concept helped provide a framework for a new movement that expressed itself most forcefully in the SlutWalk demonstrations, and in struggles targeting campus administrations for their inaction regarding sexual assault.

However, more and more, I find the focus on "culture" both limiting and distorting when it comes to understanding and combating sexual and gender-based violence. I was particularly struck by these limitations when I read the discussions that ensued after the Isla Vista killings. When we talk about culture, we need to talk about how it is generated and perpetuated--as well as what it takes to transform it.

Among the many analyses of Elliot Rodger and the Isla Vista killings, it's striking how often they start--and end--with a description of the myriad cultural expressions of sexism in our society. Everything from "nerd culture" to Seth Rogan films have been deconstructed to expose their casual, implicit and unquestioned sexism.

While these cultural manifestations of sexism can make for an alternately mind-numbing and enraging landscape in which we must navigate interpersonal relationships, they cannot by themselves explain why some men assault, rape and abuse women.

To explain that, we need to broaden the lens to talk about the institutional and systemic conditions that set the stage for violence against women--and how these conditions then shape the dominant culture. It's important to understand the material facts about these conditions--and also how they developed historically.

SEXISM IS the set of ideas that both flow from and serve to justify the unequal status of women. This inequality is entrenched and enforced by the most powerful institutions in our society.

The women's liberation movement of the early 1970s posed a direct challenge to women's second-class status and transformed the lives of millions of women in profound ways. There are many aspects of women's lives today that would be unrecognizable to previous generations--just like aspects of their lives seem very distant from ours today. But the gains of the movement were always limited--and even more importantly, those gains, especially the ones with the widest impact, have come under sustained assault.

This backlash against women, carried out in the context of a decades-long assault on working class living standards and the social safety net, has shaped the ways in which this inequality is organized and justified in today's society. Understanding the contours of this is crucial for making sense of sexual and gender-based violence today.

On the one hand, women have been able to crack the glass ceiling and play more of a role in public life--women have access to higher education, a wider range of occupations and, in a minority of cases, positions of genuine power. At the same time, however, the movement's struggles for equal pay, paid maternity leave and accessible child care--which would have allowed much larger numbers of women to participate more equally in social life--were lost.

During this whole process, the idea of women's liberation became de-linked from questions of social and economic equality, and instead was confined to an individual question. It's in this context that trickle-down feminists like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg tell us women just need to "lean in" and get past the social conditioning that holds them back.

In reality, women are told that they can participate in public life, but they must do so on profoundly unequal terms. When they run up against barriers to full participation--like sexual harassment and violence or simply the impossible choices posed by the demands of home and work--they are told this is their own individual problem. The victim-blaming that is so hideous and obvious in cases of sexual assault and rape is not confined to this alone--it exists in all realms of women's lives, and serves to place the blame on them for all of the diminished expectations they face.

This dynamic of liberation delinked from actual equality has profoundly shaped understandings of sexuality today.

One of the aspirations of the women's liberation movement was sexual freedom for women. But without a corresponding rise in the social and economic status of women, the liberalization of sexual attitudes has not advanced the ability of women to control their own sexual lives. On the contrary, it has allowed the market to invade, commodify and transform this most intimate aspect of our lives.

In advertising and culture generally, women's bodies are turned into objects that are used to sell products. Yet it's not only a physical product being sold, but also an ideal. Our own sexuality has been re-packaged and sold back to us--but not an authentic sexuality that could be capable of reflecting the multiplicity of desires that might exist, the unique attributes of individuals, or the many types of connections that people might form with one another. Instead, it is a sexuality that is deeply distorted by social relations structured by oppression.

In the images of sexuality perpetrated by the dominant institutions of society, women's bodies exist as objects for male pleasure. This contributes to an extreme degree of alienation: sex, something innate and pleasurable for human beings, comes to exist outside of human relationships, and instead is transferred onto objects that can be bought and sold, changing what should be a personal and mutual exchange between individuals into a market exchange.

This has a profoundly distorting and damaging impact on how both men and women understand their sexuality. But because of women's oppression, it creates a particularly dangerous situation for women. Ideas of female subordination are reinforced simultaneously with an unattainable ideal of what women should be.

This relentless commodification has risen in tandem with efforts to deprive women of control over their own bodies and sexuality. Even as women are portrayed as endlessly sexually available, real women are stigmatized for their sexual activity--and their reproductive rights have been under sustained attack for more than three decades.

This helps to maintain a sexual double standard that is nearly impossible to navigate, while depriving women of basic, physical autonomy over their lives--a loss that is most brutally expressed when women experience sexual or gender-based violence.

ALL OF this has taken place in the context of an attack on working-class living standards, deepening inequality and the destruction of what little social protections exist. Women have borne the brunt of this, too, since they remain economically vulnerable as a result of systematic inequality, both in the workplace and in the home.

Contrary to the post-feminist fairytales about how women are now the new dominant class, real-life women have seen their economic situation worsen.

They remain concentrated in traditionally gendered jobs that are low-paying and insecure. Almost 60 percent of families headed by a single mother live in poverty. And the decline of social supports--from the destruction of welfare programs to reductions in food stamps and cutbacks in child care services--have made the situation of women and their children even more precarious.

When women are economically dependent and face worsening poverty without partners, they are even more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Half of women on welfare have suffered some kind of sexual or physical abuse. Almost a third of homeless families are homeless as a direct result of domestic violence. Women who suffer from domestic violence find their work lives violently disrupted--victims lose more than 8 million days of paid work each year as a result. This only worsens the cycle of economic dependency.

Even when intimate partner violence isn't present, economic inequality makes it impossible for the majority of women to have any real autonomy over their lives. When a woman's life chances are directly impacted by the ability to secure and maintain a partner, this constrains the choices she can make and shapes interpersonal relationships in subtle, but very real ways.

These dynamics are driven by powerful social forces that flow from the top of our society. The worsening of conditions and tightening of control over women's lives has gone hand in hand with an ideological strengthening of some of the most reactionary ideas about women. Thus--to return to the point made above--if we are going to talk about culture, we need to understand it as something that grows out of these material economic, political and social realities.

THESE ARE precisely the questions that I believe have been missing, or at least underemphasized, in the discussions that emerged in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings.

Too often, analysis and discussion of sexism and rape culture focuses on interpersonal dynamics and cultural scripts. It is not that these are unimportant or not worth examining. But to discuss them without reference to the social realities and institutional forces that shape them narrows the range of our analysis when we most need to be widening it.

This was most evident in what author Rebecca Solnit called "the battle of the story." She was referring to the attempt to inject the issues of misogyny and violence against women into the center of the response to the Isla Vista shootings, and as the primary lens through which to understand Elliot Rodger's actions.

In the face of backward responses like the New York Post's "Killer crush" cover, these are decisive elements to emphasize. But they have also been counterposed by some writers to other aspects of the tragedy that must also be understood--most notably, alienation, social isolation and mental illness. As a result, the explanation for Isla Vista can become a one-dimensional--and, in certain ways, simply false--depiction of Rodger as a privileged, wealthy, sexually entitled white man, when the reality is much more complicated.

It is impossible to read about the frantic attempts of Rodger's parents to track down their son even as the killings were taking place without recognizing the inadequate, patchwork nature of a mental health care system that is inaccessible in even the most extreme and life-threatening of moments, much less the day-to-day circumstances that plague much larger numbers of people in this society.

It is impossible to think about the desperation of those parents without recognizing the cruelty of a system where individual families are expected to cope with incredibly difficult situations in isolation.

It is impossible to read about Rodger's attempts to bleach his hair and his hatred of other people of color without thinking about the ways in which standards of attractiveness and desirability are racialized in our society, and how easily this gets internalized.

It is impossible to consider how Rodger's desire to "love and be loved" mutated into a violent hatred of women and not think about the ways in which our society's constructions of sexuality and masculinity pervert and distort what should be the most intimate of human relationships.

And it is terrifying to realize that the most readily available explanations offered to Elliot Rodger came from misogynistic hate groups that gave an ideological structure and coherence to his rage.

Acknowledging the complexity and multiplicity of factors that drove the Isla Vista tragedy does not weaken our focus on violence against women. On the contrary, it strengthens that focus. It does so by situating Rodger's misogyny--and the pervasive sexism and violence experienced by women generally--in the context of a society that has dismantled social services, produced profound social dislocation and alienation, and perpetuated high levels of state-organized and -sanctioned violence.

SEXUAL AND gender-based violence, like other forms of the oppression of women, is embedded in a set of social relations that affect every aspect of our society. Thus, the fight against sexual violence cannot be understood independently of these larger social realities. Understanding this can also begin to point toward the basis for building a new movement.

And a movement is what we desperately need. It is not enough to speak back to sexist aspects of our culture and make explicit the sexist assumptions that underlay so many of our individual relations and experiences. As much as I share the "you're not crazy, it's sexism" validation and confidence of the #yesallwomen hashtag, I don't believe we can, as one commentator pointed out, dismantle misogyny one tweet at a time.

It's not just because this will take a struggle that goes beyond social media and Internet commentary. It's also because that struggle, if we want to transform the sexist culture in which we live, will have to take aim at the entrenched inequalities and institutions that shape that culture.

In recent years, we've made a great start. Through the SlutWalk demonstrations, the protests in Steubenville and the struggles demanding action from campus administrations, we have begun to make the issue of sexual violence a national discussion--and, in the process, to expose the rampant victim-blaming that helps to excuse rape.

In the wake of the Isla Vista killings, activists have organized to protest against a "men's rights" conference in Detroit. Impromptu discussions and vigils are being held across the country. We should continue to build, expand and deepen these efforts.

But if we understand that gender-based violence springs from the fundamentally unequal status of women in our society, we must also begin to revive demands aimed at increasing the physical, social and economic autonomy of women.

This would mean fighting for fully funded, quality child care and paid parental leave. It would mean demanding measures that make it possible for women to walk away from abusive relationships--not only rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, but a social safety net and welfare provisions so women don't have to choose between dependency and poverty.

It would mean teaching both women and men that women, and women alone, can make decisions about their own bodies and sexuality. It would mean making that a reality by giving women full reproductive rights.

These demands shouldn't be counterposed to the fight against the most toxic aspects of our sexist culture. But neither can they be excluded from that fight. We will begin to transform our culture when we transform the institutions and social relations that shape it. Men will see women as full, autonomous human beings when women are actually able to participate in social life as full, autonomous human beings.

We're told over and over again that we live in a post-sexist society, and that liberation is a question of individual choice. It is enraging, confusing and downright debilitating to live as a woman in this society and be told that if you're angry about the way you're treated, you just don't have a sense of humor, and you're an out-of-date feminist with a chip on your shoulder.

The shootings in Isla Vista, like the gang rape in Steubenville and the rape crisis on college campuses, have exposed those smears as lies in the most violent and dehumanizing of ways. But millions of women are speaking out and exposing that terrible reality.

Now is the time to build a movement--both against the virulent sexism and violence our culture is steeped in, and against the system that generates and sustains them.

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