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Elliot Rodger and the price of toxic masculinity

Elliot Rodger didn't kill six people because he was crazy. It was because he was a virgin.


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Posted on May 27, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 6:11 am CDT


On Friday night, May 23, Elliot Rodger allegedly stabbed three men to death in his apartment. He then got behind the wheel of his BMW and proceeded to murder three more people and injure 13 others before dying of a gunshot wound to the head.

He did this because he was a virgin.

This isn’t speculation. In a blood-chilling video titled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” (link includes a transcript; the video itself is incredibly hard to watch) the 22-year-old delivered a long rant about being a virgin—about how since he hit puberty he has been afflicted with unfulfilled desires. He was 22 years old and had never even kissed a girl.

In college, he felt as if he were surrounded by a world that he was not allowed to participate in, a world of sex and desire and love that he was cruelly excluded from. He wanted sex, but women refused to be attracted to him. He complained that it wasn’t “fair” that everybody else got to experience “sex, fun and pleasure,” and he was left out.

He couldn’t stand how women would snub him, a self-proclaimed “supreme gentleman,” while throwing themselves at “obnoxious brutes.” For these crimes, in his words—“the crime of living a better life than me”—they deserved to die. Because they supposedly forced him to suffer, they deserved to be made to suffer in return.

And so he killed six people and sent 13 more to the hospital.

I wrote a little about this on the NerdLove Tumblr on Saturday when things were still fresh, but there’s still a lot to unpack here—about virginity, about society, about entitlement and—most of all—about hatred and pain. This isn’t a simple issue, and we shouldn’t let it be. Because it’s about so much more than just one lone nut killing people. It’s about what it means to be a man.

It’s Not About “Game”

Elliot Rodger thought a lot about sex. More specifically: He thought about the sex he wasn’t having. From his final video:

For the last 8 years of my life, ever since I’ve hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires. All because girls have never been attracted to me.

Girls gave their affection, and sex, and love, to other men but never to me.

I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl.

I’ve been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I’m still a virgin.

It has been very torturous.

A lot of people have used this to complain about the “cruelty” of women for denying men sex. Even more disgustingly, several pick-up artist “gurus” have used this as a way of advertising their services. A site Strategic Dating Coach plugged themselves repeatedly in the comments of Rodger’s videos as a way of “preventing” this tragedy.

You’ll pardon me if I never stop throwing up now.

I suppose I should pause to examine the irony about a dating coach complaining about other dating coaches pimping their wares—after all, part of the purpose of this site is to help people date better. But focusing on the fact that Elliot Rodger was a virgin is missing the point. Because his crime was never about sex, not really.

Let’s go back to his statement about how he’s been denied sex.

On the surface, this isn’t very different from the complaints that a lot of men have. In fact, I hear similar laments from men all the time: They’re still virgins at 20, 30, 40, even 50 or older and they believe that this means there’s something inherently wrong with them. They’re legitimately in pain, feeling anguish and torment over the fact that they’ve never had sex, never seen a woman naked in person, never felt bare skin against theirs or the sweetness of somebody else’s lips.

However, there’s a critical difference—and that difference is all about entitlement, pain, and hate.

You see it all over the language in Rodger’s rant. He complains about how he’s been snubbed, about how he’s been “denied” sex, about how he’s been judged “unworthy” despite being “the supreme gentleman” and a “true alpha male.” He says that if he can’t have them, then the only thing left to do is to destroy them.

In other videos from his YouTube channel, he complains about how unfair it is that women don’t like him, despite all the effort he’s put in:

“I don’t know why you girls are so repulsed by me. I do everything I can to appear attractive to you. I dress nice, I am sophisticated, I am magnificent. I have a nice car, a BMW… I am polite. I am the ultimate gentleman. And yet, you girls never give me a chance. I don’t know why.”

He’s mystified that women are going for men who aren’t as “magnificent” as him:

“I deserve girls much more than all those slobs… I should be the one with the girls. I mean, look at me? I’m gorgeous. But you girls don’t see it.”

The subtext is clear: he’s got all the surface signs of being an “alpha” (a true “high status man,” in PUA terms); therefore, women should be falling all over themselves to fuck him—and yet they aren’t. It mystifies him. And yet, he barely sees women as being people. He betrays his true feelings when he says:

“I feel so invisible as I walk through my college. Your revealing shorts, your cascading blonde hair, your pretty faces. I want one for a girlfriend.”

One. Not “her.” Not someone specific. Just “one of them.” They’re not individuals, they’re objects. And worse, objects that aren’t responding the way that they’re supposed to and giving him the sex he’s owed.

It’s critical to note: he’s pre-emptively judging women for not just giving the sex to him. He doesn’t seem to have actually approached anyone. In fact, he’s said in a few places that he didn’t so much as talk to a woman before he was 20. He’s literally expecting sex to be thrown at him, with no effort on his part. Because he’s Elliot Rodger, the Supreme Gentleman with the Beemer and the $300 sunglasses.

But it wasn’t just that he wasn’t getting laid; it was the fact that women were giving his sex to other men—especially minorities. Rodger regularly complained about seeing white women with Asian, black, and Indian men, calling them “disgusting” and “undeserving.”

Rodger’s murderous rampage had nothing to do with sex or his lack of social skill with women. He clearly was a disturbed individual, but even just labeling him as “crazy” isn’t quite right. In fact, it misses the point entirely.

Elliot Rodger’s Toxic Manhood

Right now there are a lot of people who are going out of their way to paint Rodger as “sick,” “unhinged,” or “mentally ill.” They want to make it a story about how he had a head full of bad wiring.

And to be fair, it’s very tempting to let the narrative end there. It’s very simple and clean: He was a nut. He snapped. If it hadn’t been a lack of sex, it would’ve been power lines or chem-trails or something else. Do some hand-wringing about the state of mental health care in this country and call it a day.

But we shouldn’t let the story end there. We can’t let it end there. Not because we know or don’t know that he was suffering from any sort of mental illness, no. Rodger was clearly disturbed—there’s no real question there. His videos plainly show someone dealing with depression and mental anguish. According to his family, he was seeing several therapists. We know he was given at least one medication that apparently he refused to take. His parents called the police after seeing some of his videos; the police let him go, saying he was “polite and kind,” seeing no reason to hold him further. Many people have seized onto the fact that the family lawyer made a statement that Rodger had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

But that doesn’t actually mean anything. Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t a mental illness; it’s a neurological disorder that makes it hard to connect with people or to read social cues. It has nothing to do with violence. People with Asperger’s aren’t “out of control” or prone to hurting others.

Maybe he was dealing with some sort of mental health issue. Maybe he was a sociopath. Maybe it was both. Maybe he was a skilled enough manipulator that he was able to tell the therapists what they wanted to hear. We don’t know. We may never know.

But in the end, that’s not an explanation. That is just a way of compartmentalizing him, separating him out from the rest of the male population. A systematic “Not All Men,” as it were. It does far more harm, increasing the stigma of people who do suffer from mental illness and—more importantly—glosses over the real issue.

Regardless of whether any theoretical mental illness had anything to do with his rampage, it doesn’t negate the fact that he was part of a culture that promotes an incredibly toxic form of masculinity, one that encouraged and promoted his belief in his entitlement to women’s bodies and his unmistakable hatred for women as a whole.

Elliot Rodger was interested in the men’s rights movement and involved in sites like PUAHate—a gathering place for the incel or “involuntarily celibate” community. PUAHate is a deeply mysoginistic congregation, indulging in self-pity and ranting about the duplicity and cruelty of women.

On its surface, PUAHate is about criticizing the PUA community. However, the reason for the anger towards PUAs isn’t because of the misogyny and poisonous attitudes towards sex, but because the forum members tried it and didn’t get laid as promised, and they blame women for this. Rodger himself believed that there needed to be an armed revolution against women:

One day incels will realize their true strength and numbers and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system.

Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.

His long, rambling manifesto is full of similar rants about the duplicity of women and how they needed to be put in their place. He believed he was entitled to women’s affections and to women’s bodies—and that being “denied” what he thought was his due meant that the best thing he could do is go murder as many people as he could to punish them. Because that was exactly what he was doing: punishing people for the crime of not fucking him. They were forcing him to be an “incel,” forcing him to be a virgin, making him less than a man. And he was spending his time in online communities and YouTube channels that encouraged and promoted that view.

Because that is exactly what the cultural narrative of masculinity says: that manhood is inherently tied to sex. A man’s “coming of age” is linked to becoming sexually active—as early as possible.

In fact, the idea of “man as sexual being” is so ingrained that a man who was sexually assaulted as a child is seen as being that much more manly and potent. If Chris Brown can get laid at 8, what does that mean for you if you can’t get laid at 15? At 17? At 20? The older you get, the more terrifying it becomes to reveal that you’re a virgin—surely this means that something’s wrong with you, right?

It becomes a self-reinforcing loop of negative feedback: You’re still a virgin because you’re inherently damaged somehow and therefore other people won’t sleep with you so you stay a virgin for longer. And as a result, you’re not a man. You’re defective.

The Red Pill forum of Reddit is all about dividing the world up into “alphas”—people who’ve taken the Red Pill, who’ve woken themselves up to the manipulations of women and have taken back control to prove that they’re real, virile men—and “betas”—sexless losers who suck up to women in hopes of getting a whiff of sex. PUAHate is full of men raging because they’re “incomplete,” about how they’ll never be “real” men because of how women deny them what they’re due.

This is the message we’re sold over and over again: A woman who is a virgin is a prize beyond rubies, holding her “special gift” for a “special person.” A male (not a man, a male) is a failure. He is a boy, not a man. He is a failure, despite being wealthy, despite being privileged (in every sense of the word) because masculinity is rated on two axes—in our capacity for sex and our capacity for violence. These are the two ways that men establish our masculine credentials: by being a stud or being a badass.

By murdering those people, Elliot Rodger was accomplishing two goals: reclaiming his manliness through the only venue left to him (violence) and “punishing” the women for daring to choose who got to have sex and who didn’t. Elliot Rodger wanted to prove he was “alpha,” to prove his manhood. He couldn’t fuck his way to manliness, so he decided to prove it by murdering people.

That toxic view of manliness—of men and women inherently in opposition to one another—is deeply ingrained into our culture and reinforced by groups like the men’s rights movement and many pick-up artist communities. It reinforces the antagonistic, marketplace view of sex—that women “control” access to sex and men have to meet their “market price” to gain access to it. It puts women in the position of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Men are taught that women are bad for not having sex with them when they want, and that they’re bad for doing it, too. It sets up the field nicely for men: We want to fuck them and we judge them for letting us fuck them.

We call them sluts when they say “yes.” We complain about the friend zone when they say “no.”

This is the stew that Rodger matured in. The men’s rights movement and the PUA scene aren’t causes; they’re symptoms of how our culture views masculinity. They’re just concentrated, purified examples of the toxicity of what men are taught to believe. This is what encouraged Rodger’s hatred. This is what spurred his belief that he was owed sex. This is why he believed that the only things he needed to do were hit the check-marks in order to get sex. “Fancy car: check. Money, check. Expensive sunglasses, check. Nice GuyTM: check.”

This is what led him to commit murder.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Elliot Rodger’s crime is heinous, but unfortunately, it’s not unusual or even rare.

Last month, Christopher Plaskon stabbed Meran Sanchez to death for refusing to go to prom with him. In 2009, George Soldini killed four people (including himself) and wounded nine others; like Elliot Rodger, he complained that women wouldn’t fuck him. 

This is what happens when we grow up in a culture that teaches men that hypermasculinity is what defines them. It tells them that they’re only as good as the sex that they’re having or the ass that they’re kicking. It teaches them that being rejected isn’t a sign of a lack of compatibility or a need to improve but a referendum on their value as a man. That they’re being robbed of what they’re owed. 

And critically—it teaches that men cannot show weakness. To show weakness or emotion makes you less of a man. It makes you a pussy—not even a woman, just a part of a woman, something to be fucked by “real men.”

There’s no question that Elliot Rodger was in deep, emotional pain. But our culture tells men that they keep that shit inside. You don’t let that out. You don’t let it show. You hide that shit. Because real men don’t hurt. Real men don’t cry, and they sure as shit don’t ask for help.

You can see in his videos: Rodger was hurting. He was lonely. He was in pain. But he didn’t think there was something wrong with him, he thought there was something wrong with the world—because it couldn’t possibly be something wrong with him.

The men’s rights community that Rodger was attracted to talks about how they’re trying to “help” men. But that “help” consists of berating and insulting women and talking about how women “manipulate” men and how women are men’s “natural enemy”. They’re obsessed with being “alpha,” with being “real men,” not “manginas.” They’re all about asserting manhood by force, “showing” women and punishing them. Manhood by violence. Manhood by force. Manhood by sex.

This is the world that Rodger was drowning himself in.

It’s too late for Elliot Rodger. But it’s not too late for the other people out there who feel frustrated, who feel hurt, who feel lonely and lost and afraid, if we can just reach them. If we can change the narrative that says they’re not allowed to ask for help. That they’re not allowed to be inexperienced. That there’s only one way to be a “real man.”

Let’s just imagine a world where being a virgin wasn’t stigmatizing, where men didn’t fear being inexperienced or unsure around women. Where their value isn’t in the number of women they fuck or don’t fuck. Where they don’t believe that sex is something owed to them or negotiated for but a collaboration between equals. Where they’re not shamed for not having sex and women aren’t shamed for doing so. Where women aren’t “the enemy,” the “other,” our antagonists or our inferiors.

Let’s just take a moment and imagine a world where someone feeling as hurt and lost as Rodger did goes to somebody—his father, a therapist, a priest, somebody—and said, “Help me. Please. I’m hurting. I’m scared. I need someone to help me right now,” without fearing that this made him weak. Without believing that this made him less. Without believing that the answer to feeling weak was to try to reassert himself through violence and pain.

Imagine if we had that world even a week ago. Maybe six people would still be alive right now. Maybe 13 more wouldn’t be in the hospital.

It’s on us to admit the truth: This wasn’t because Elliot Rodger was crazy. He wasn’t a “lone nut.” He was a young man in pain, who stewed in a culture of hate and resentment and entitlement. He didn’t murder those people because he was crazy. He murdered those people because he wanted to punish women for not being what he demanded they should be.

It’s on us to change the dialogue.

It’s on us to look at the price of the toxic version of masculinity we peddle to ourselves and to our children and finally admit that it’s time to change.

Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog, Paging Dr. NerdLove, and Kotaku. His new book Simplified Dating is available exclusively through Amazon. He is also a regular guest at One of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLoveThis post was originally featured on Paging Dr. NerdLove and reposted with permission. 

Photo via John-Morgan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 27, 2014, 8:00 am CDT