1. Opinion

This is the sexist stuff you don't see, guys

Published May 29, 2014

When Santa Barbara police arrived at Elliot Rodger's apartment last month — after Rodger's mother alerted authorities to her son's YouTube videos, where he expressed his resentment of women who don't have sex with him, and stated his intentions to remedy this "injustice" — they left with the impression that he was a "perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human." Then Rodger killed six people and himself, leaving a manifesto that spelled out his hatred for women in more explicit terms, and Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown deemed him a "madman."

Another rude awakening played out on social media as news of Rodger's attack spread. When women took to Twitter to share their own everyday experiences with men who had reduced them to sexual conquests and threatened them with violence for failing to comply — filing their anecdotes under #YesAllWomen — some men joined in to express surprise at these revelations. How could this dynamic be so obvious to so many women, yet completely foreign to so many men?

Among men, misogyny hides in plain sight, and not just because most men are oblivious to the problem or callous toward its impact.

The night after the California murders, I was at a backyard party in New York, talking with a female friend, when a drunk man stepped between us. "I was thinking the exact same thing," he said. As we had been discussing pay discrepancies between male and female journalists, we informed him that this was unlikely. But we politely endured him as he dominated our conversation, insisted on hugging me, and talked too long about his obsession with my friend's hair.

I escaped inside, and my friend followed a few minutes later. The guy had asked for her phone number, and she had declined, informing him that she was married and, by the way, her husband was at the party. "Why did I say that? I wouldn't have been interested in him even if I weren't married," she told me. "Being married was, like, the sixth most pressing reason you weren't into him," I said. We agreed that she had said this because aggressive men are more likely to defer to another man's domain than to accept a woman's autonomous rejection of him.

A week before the murders, I experienced a similar dynamic when I went for a jog. It was early on a weekend morning, and the streets were quiet. When I paused outside a convenience store to stretch, a man sitting at a bus stop across the street began yelling obscene comments about my body. When my boyfriend came out of the store, he shut up.

These are forms of male aggression that only women see. But even when men are afforded a front seat to harassment, they don't always have the correct vantage point for recognizing the subtlety of its operation. I remember sitting in a bar in Washington, D.C., with a male friend. Another young woman was alone at the bar when an older man scooted next to her. He was aggressive, wasted and sitting too close, but she smiled curtly at his ramblings and laughed softly at his jokes as she patiently downed her drink.

"Why is she humoring him?" my friend asked me. "You would never do that."

I was too embarrassed to say, "Because he looks scary," and "I do it all the time."

Women who have experienced this can recognize that placating these men is a rational choice, a form of self-defense to protect against setting off an aggressor. But to male bystanders, it often looks like a warm welcome, and that helps to shift blame in the public eye from the harasser and onto his target, who's failed to respond with the type of masculine bravado that men more easily recognize.

A few weeks ago, Louis C.K. spelled out how this works in an episode of Louie. He recalled watching a man and a woman walking together on a date. "He goes to kiss her, and she does an amazing thing that women somehow learn how to do — she hugged him very warmly. Men think this is affection, but what this is is a boxing maneuver." Women "are better at rejecting us than we are," C.K. said. "They have the skills to reject men in the way that we can then not kill them."

When Elliot Rodger finally snapped, he drove to a sorority house as part of his plan to give the "female gender one last chance to provide me with the pleasures I deserved," and killed two women who were walking outside. Before he hit the sorority house, he stabbed three men in his apartment; after he left the sorority, he killed a man who was at a deli.

Some men are using this male-female death count to claim that Rodger's killings were not motivated by misogyny, but that is a simplistic account of how misogyny operates in our society.

Rodger hated all the women who did not provide him sex, but he also resented the men he felt had been standing in the way of his conquests. (Many men die of domestic-violence-related murders this way, killed by ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands, and family members of the women in their lives.)