In the wake of the tragic massacre at UCSB on Friday night in which Elliott Rodger murdered 6 people and injured 13 more before taking his own life, much has been written about Rodger’s motivations for the murders. In a series of misogynist, racist posts, videos and a 141-page manifesto he sent to media, Rodger outlined plans for what he called his “Day of Retribution.”
Many commentators have rightfully critiqued Rodger’s horrific actions as examples of extreme misogyny and even terrorism. His response to feelings of isolation, alienation, misogyny and racism is extreme and inexcusable, but perhaps it is also the extreme endpoint of a culture that, as sociologist Michael Kimmel argues, demands an impossible standard of masculinity (and then denigrates all those who do not live up to it—be they women, non-heterosexual, non-cismales, or the men who do not or cannot achieve these impossible standards.)
If, as Kimmel points out, masculinity is a “nightmare” from which men do not awaken that establishes impossible standards of masculinity, leaving most men feeling inadequate, why does society continue to reinforce these standards?
Many commentators have discussed the “pick up artist” (PUA) culture in which Rodger’s ideology is based, but broader cultural forces shape the exaggerated ideas of gender roles that are the foundation of Rodger’s misguided notions of masculinity and entitlement—including most conservative Christian constructions of strict gender roles. Though they approach beliefs about masculinity from different perspectives, both PUA and contemporary portrayals of conservative Christian masculinity share some similar points. Rodger himself was not directly influenced by conservative Christianity, and I do not mean to imply he was. Rather, what I want to suggest through these comparisons is a larger cultural framework that shapes American notions of masculinity and sexuality.
Distinctive gender roles
Just as conservative Christianity defines sharp distinctions between the genders, the PUA movement sees men and women as having distinct characteristics. Evenbloggers who claim to eschew “anyone else’s ideal or gender role,” refer to men and women by broadly generalized gender stereotypes, breaking men into “alphas” or “betas” and women into “hoes” or “housewives” (among other clichéd and disparaging gender portrayals).
Most conservative Christians believe distinctive gender roles are divinely-ordained, essential traits that are as inherent as genetic differences, and that those who transgress these gender roles or believe in gender equality (rather than equity) have been (misguidedly) influenced by (mostly secular) society. PUA culture, on the other hand, seems to see these differences as as a mix of inherent characteristics and differences exacerbated by society, especially the media, which empowers women to believe (misguidedly) that they are in “control” or “have the power.” So while these differences are positive and God-given in a Christian context, in the PUA worldview they represent many of the problems between men and women. For both conservative Christians and the PUA, however, these gender differences establish the framework for the rest of their ideologies.
Man as leader
In both conservative Christianity and PUA movements, the man is in charge: the leader, the head of the household, the provider. In this interpretation of Christianity, this is the natural, God-ordained role and how the world operates.
Within the PUA world, the man as leader and provider is again a mix of how they believe the world ought to operate—PUAs frequently suggest that if they are financially successful, they deserve to be “scoring” with “hot bodies” and express anger and frustration when that does not happen—yet also what is wrong with the world: women, whom they repeatedly portray as looking only for successful, powerful men, are criticized for expecting and desiring these qualities in a man.
Woman as submissive
The counterpart to the male leader is the submissive woman. The model of marriage that positions the husband as the head of the couple/family and the wife as the submissive “helper” are not just gender roles defined in conservative branches of Christianity, it’s at the root of much of PUA ideology as well. That the movement refers to women as “targets” or even “opponents” might be enough to demonstrate that they don’t consider women as equal human beings. PUA sites continually advise men that they’re better than women, that women are worth less than they are—if they’re worth anything at all. Christian Pick Up Artist, albeit a dubious PUA blog, even provides biblical justification for this, citing 1 Cor 11:9 “for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man,” to support his claim that, with regard to any woman he might be interested in picking up, “I am special [and] she is not.”
When PUAs describe women as “manipulative,” “sluts,” etc. (the list of derogatory terms for women on PUA sites is extensive, if not terribly creative), the implication is that women have somehow transgressed their natural roles of submitting to men and instead exercise agency and autonomy. Many PUA sites lament that this unnatural situation is in part the fault of a society that allows women to believe they’re worth more than they are.
One obvious distinction between the goals of these frameworks is that Christian gender roles are thought to achieve complementarity (to an extent, as long as it is clear the man is the leader) in marriage, and to refrain from sex before marriage, whereas the PUA movement is primarily about having as much sex with as many women as possible and is mostly (though not always) antagonistic to any kind of long-term relationship, especially marriage.
And yet, despite the different contexts for sex and different overall beliefs about marriage, there are still some striking similarities in some of their beliefs about sex roles: both portray women as the “keepers” of sex and men as uncontrollable sex machines, constructing strikingly similar images of masculinity.
Women are responsible for ensuring sex does not happen
Both Christian and PUA constructions of gender believe women are the “gatekeepers” of sex, but while Christians encourage this role, infuriated posters on PUA sites repeatedly blame women as the reason men aren’t getting all the sex they want. Rodger is explicit about this in the video he made before the shooting:
College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. But in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.
With women as the guardians of sex, the focus of much of these groups is to learn how to “trick” women into letting the men have sex with them.
Instead of “gaming” women into having sex with them, conservative Christianity focuses on ensuring girls and young women prevent sex from happening, assuming, as in PUA culture, that females are the gatekeepers of sex. While PUA culture blames women for preventing sex, conservative Christian culture disproportionately blames women for allowing sex to happen.1
Masculinity as sex
Secular and evangelical cultures portray an insatiable sex drive as an innate part of maleness, and the ability to get sex as a defining characteristic of masculinity. In an evangelical worldview, this sex should only occur within the context of marriage, but it is still a defining feature of masculinity.2
A culture that frames masculinity as an insatiable sex drive shapes sex as something to which men have a right. As Heather Hendershot warns in relation to evangelical abstinence materials, maintaining “essentialist notions of gender” that portray “masculinity as aggression, and sexual urges and femininity as passive submission,” ultimately leads to a loss of control in which “boys give in to their urge to rape and girls give in to their urge to submit to rape.”
Likewise, in PUA culture, sex is framed as something to which men are entitled—and that entitlement is clearly evident in Rodger’s video. PUA websites include advice for how to trick women into sex, or how to “escalate” sex when a woman indicates she is not interested; basically, ways to break a woman down so she submits to sex, because it’s their role as sexually aggressive men to overpower her and her role as a woman to submit to it.
Rodger’s response to what he perceived as insults to his masculinity and a denial of that to which he believed himself entitled were, again, examples of extreme misogyny and are inexcusable. But sadly his violent actions are not isolated; A few hours after Rodger’s murders, Keith Binder, 21, allegedly opened fire on threewomen in Sacramento who refused to have sex with him. Fortunately no one was harmed, so this event has a less tragic outcome than the Santa Barbara shootings.
But the lack of media coverage on this shooting—as an independent story or even in relation to the shooting at Santa Barbara—demonstrates an unwillingness to acknowledge just how pervasive rape culture is in our society—and how much something needs to be done to change it. Perhaps religious perspectives that highlight strict gender roles have a responsibility to respond when gendered ideologies that bear more than a passing resemblance to theirs lead to violence and murder.
Of course, versions of Christianity that espouse essentialist notions of gender presumably do not intend for them to be taken to the point of Rodger’s extreme misogyny. Yet the insistence on strictly differentiated gender roles in both conservative Christian and PUA cultures can lead to inequality, a devaluing of women and, in an already patriarchal society, a definition of masculinity that isn’t just a nightmare for men, but a tragedy for all.
1 See Hendershot, Heather. “Virgins for Jesus.” Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2004, for an excellent analysis of the ways in which evangelical materials directed at encouraging teenage girls and boys to remain chaste put much more emphasis on the role girls and young women need to play in preventing boys’ and mens’ nearly unstoppable sexual urges
2See, for example, Amy DeRogatis. “What Would Jesus Do? Sexuality and Salvation in Protestant Evangelical Sex Manuals, 1950s to the Present.” Church History.Vol. 74, No. 1, Mar. 2005. DeRogatis’ analysis of evangelical sex manuals demonstrates a common assumption of nearly uncontrollable male desire: though the manuals address issues women might have with sexual desire, the notion that men might not always be ready for sex does not seem to occur to these authors. Likewise, in recent years, pastors such as Marc Driscoll who have challenged their married congregants to have sex more often frequently portray their advice in ways that suggest the husbands are always ready and it is the wives who need convincing.