The single piece of Elliot Rodger commentary that upset me more than any other armchair diagnosis, and which perfectly illustrated how mainstream media was further fueling “toxic masculinity” under the guise of discussing mental health, was watching a doctor on The Today Show blame porn for a murderous misogynist’s perception of women. In a segment entitled “Understanding mental health: How to act on signs,” psychiatrist Sue Varma discussed possible warning signs parents should watch out for that may indicate their child is heading toward acts of violence:
“There might be more time spent on the computer. They might be watching violent images. Perhaps pornography, as we did see in this case. Elliot Rodger talks about being exposed to pornography at a very young age, and that affected his impression of women and what he wanted from them.”
In other words, porn watched at an early age shaped Elliot Rodger’s misogyny. What Rodger actually documents in his manifesto is inadvertently seeing porn at age 13 (before, he says, he knew what sex was), and feeling “traumatized” but also aroused by the sight of a man and woman having intercourse. Later, after coming to fantasize and learning to masturbate on his own, he chronicles his “high sex drive” and how it would never diminish.
(I won’t make the case for early sex education here, but might he have been less traumatically disgusted by an image of sex if someone had explained to him at an appropriate age — which is long before age 13, might I add — that penis-in-vagina is a loving, intimate, non-violent action that feels good for some grown-ups and also makes babies?)
In his final YouTube video, he complains of “unfulfilled desires” and being a 22-year-old virgin who has never kissed a girl: “College is the time where everyone experiences those things such as sex, and fun, and pleasure… It’s not fair.”
Here’s the thing, though: if he was consuming porn, if he was fantasizing about being with “hot girls” and masturbating to the tune of his high sex drive in an effort to satisfy his urges, then he was experiencing sex, fun, and pleasure. He was in on it the whole time! But because of the way we frame male consumption of porn and masturbation, self-professed “incels” (involuntary celibates) like Elliot Roger who engage in such behaviors are branded pervy, pathetic mouth-breathers.
And even though — according to this particular community of men — women are allegedly having all the sex ever, you don’t have to look much further than any women’s mag touting sex tips to see that women have plenty of unfulfilled sexual desires, too.
When a woman can’t get off with a partner, every sex columnist on the planet swiftly advises her to practice masturbating to learn what she likes. When women can get off, but are feeling bored, we tell them to work sex toys into their repertoire to arouse different sensations. When women are in a sex rut, we encourage them to watch porn to rev up their fantasy life.
But dudes who jerk off, watch porn, or buy fleshlights to ease those very same urges in a bout of lonesomeness are deemed unmanly, failures, unattractive to women, “betas.” When horrific tragedy strikes, we refer to those behaviors in men as “warning signs.”
It’s the flip side of the “misogyny doesn’t only hurt women” argument: sex-positive feminism doesn’t only benefit them, either. We talk about how important it is to teach boys not to rape instead of teaching girls how not to get raped. Why aren’t we doing that by teaching boys that it’s okay to masturbate, watch porn, and buy sex toys if they want to get off but don’t have an enthusiastically consenting partner on hand to help out? That, in fact, it’s a fantastic option and alternative to entering a less-than-ideal sexual contract?
“Girl power” sources as innocuous, mainstream, and otherwise non-radical as Seventeen Magazine encourage tween girls (because let’s be serious about the demographic who’s actually reading Seventeen) to masturbate as a normal, healthy means of coping with their sexual urges until they feel ready for activity with a partner.
Why can’t we also teach boys about the myriad ways in which they can honor their desires within themselves, instead of imposing sex forcibly on an unwilling partner, or conditioning them to believe that they’re entitled to sex with whomever they’d like as a reward for some perceived accomplishment?
We don’t seem to have a problem teaching women to take their sexual gratification into their own hands. Why not, in the same breath as teaching men that they don’t have agency over another person’s body, remind them that what they do have agency over is their own? What they do have at their disposal to experience Elliot Rodger’s much-longed-for “sex, pleasure, and fun” is their own bodies, their own imaginations, the help of sex toys, and a wide world of sex media that is almost exclusively designed to cater just to them.
It’s okay to masturbate when you don’t have an enthusiastically consenting partner in your life. It’s okay to watch porn at an early age to learn about the different forms that sexual fantasies can take. It’s okay to buy and use sex toys that make you feel good. As far as sex-positive feminism is concerned, it’s even okay to seek out a responsible, ethical, risk-aware, autonomous, consenting, adult sex worker to help you out if you’re unhappy about being a 22-year-old virgin. (It just isn’t always legal.)
Consuming porn at an early age didn’t color Elliot Rodger’s impression of women. A society that likes to pretend that children are asexual, that refuses to teach them about sex/pleasure/fun and how to safely achieve it, that shames adolescents for taking agency over their own gratification, and then that later teaches boys that their masculinity is dependent on sexual conquests — did. And that wasn’t fair to him.
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