Everyday Violence: It’s Not Just Mass Shootings Women Fear
by Victoria A. Brownworth
copyright c 2014 Victoria A. Brownworth
Women live in fear. It might not be obvious, palpable, heart-pounding, horror-movie-style fear, but it’s fear, nevertheless. We know what can happen to us. We know one in five of us will be a victim of rape. One in four of us was already a victim of child sex abuse by the time we turned 18. We know that one in three of us in the U.S. will be a victim of domestic violence, one in four in the U.K. We know that murder is the second-leading cause of death for women between the ages of 17 and 35 and that it is the leading cause of death among pregnant women.
We know that the night is not our friend. We are told that what we wear and where we go and how much we drink when we get there all makes us vulnerable to assault. We know that we will, most likely, be blamed for any violence that is perpetrated against us because we see how the media minimizes violence against women and maximizes the concept of the violent assaults on women as “isolated incidents.”
Elliot Rodger is the most recent example of that “isolated incident” meme, but he is also a clear example of exactly why women live in fear: because we never know who is the abuser, rapist or killer among us because so many men are abusive, so many are rapists and men who kill women almost always were people who said they loved them.
The mass-killing by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista outside Santa Barbara, California on May 23 has raised the voices of myriad feminists and other women in a chorus of outrage. More than other killers in recent similar incidents in the U.S., Rodger stands out. Not because of his youth–he was 22 and the last ten mass shooters have been under 25. Not because of the number of weapons and ammunition he had–three semi-automatic pistols plus more than 400 rounds of bullets, according to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. Not because he was male–the overwhelming majority of mass shooters in the U.S. have been male.
It was his plan. Elliot Rodger wanted to kill women–as many women as possible. He wrote about it, he vlogged about it on his YouTube channel, he talked about it to the few friends he had. The content was so disturbing, Rodger’s parents, British director Peter Rodger and his Malaysian mother, Chin Rodger, called police to report their son, fearful of what he might do. According to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department Rodger’s parents were on their way to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles–a 100 mile drive in the worst traffic in the country–when their son went on his murderous rampage. They’d been sent the text of his manifesto and an email outlining his plan to kill. They were frantic to stop him.
They were, as we know, too late.
This was not their first effort. They had already gone to police to report their fears after seeing his videos. Police did a “welfare check” on April 30 at the request of Rodger’s mother, to determine if Rodger was a threat to himself or others.
Police came away from that visit referencing Elliot as “polite, kind and wonderful.”
Elliot Rodger was near-gleeful at that response, writing in his manifesto that he had fooled them all and if they had asked to see his room–well within their purview–it would have been all over. Rodger wrote: “The police interrogated me outside for a few minutes, asking me if I hadsuicidal thoughts. I tactfully told them that it was all a misunderstanding, and they finally left. If they had demanded to search my room… That would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me.”
Did the police see the videos? Did Rodger’s mother explain the nature of her fear? (Rodger also writes about his desire to murder his family members.) Or did no one care especially about this son of a director who wasn’t Muslim, wasn’t black, wasn’t poor and presented like the “beautiful Eurasian” he described himself as in his videos?
Was Rodger not taken in for a temporary involuntary psychiatric hold because he was “polite” or because his proposed victims were “just” women?
Rodger’s videos are unnervingly violent, but it’s the text of his 141-page manifesto that is bone-chilling.
Rodger wanted to put women in concentration camps to be starved, tortured, flayed alive. He wanted to “punish all women.” He wanted to “kill as many blonde girls as I can” because he loved blonde “girls” and they didn’t love him back. (He did kill two young blonde women–Veronika Weiss, 19 and Katie Cooper, 22–who were standing outside the sorority he tried to enter to slaughter the women there. He shot at several others.)
The standard scenario is being promulgated in the media about him–he was mentally ill (he had been under the care of therapists and was being seen by a social worker hired by his parents at the time he set about the killings). He has Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. He had been bullied. He never fit in among his peers. He was lonely–his writings and videos are an endless litany of misery inflicted, Rodger insists, by cruel women who chose “ugly guys” over the “beautiful Eurasian” and “perfect gentleman” he proclaimed himself to be.
The Elliot Rodger story unsettles me more than most. I’m used to mass shootings in America. I live in the city with the highest body count of the most populous cities in the U.S. Philadelphia is often referred to as “Killadelphia” because unlike New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, the four cities larger than ours, this fifth-largest city in the U.S. has not lowered the body count. There are still a dozen shootings here a day, at least one resulting in death. In the past month a dozen children have been shot, several have died.
I’m not inured to gun violence, it just doesn’t surprise me in a country where over 100,000 people are shot each year, more than a third of whom die. Mass shootings–characterized by the FBI as the killing of four or more people at a time by one person–happen about every two weeks here. Yet they still only comprise one percent of the total number of shooting victims.
Those victims concern me, however. How long before we forget the names of Rodger’s victims, if we ever really know them? He killed two women and four men. Two of the 13 other wounded remain in critical condition. The violence he inflicted: six killed–his three roommates stabbed multiple times and three others shot, 13 wounded, himself a suicide–took a total of ten minutes.
America and possibly the world–at least the social media world–will be fascinated by Rodger for a news cycle. A week, likely two, until the next such event. One of his victims or possibly more will appear on the morning TV talk shows to discuss their experience.
And then it will be over. Rodger’s name will be consigned to the rolls of young, male killers and the victims themselves will be forgotten.
But the victims and their families won’t forget. For the victims, as one woman victim of a violent crime tweeted me when I was writing about this, the crime will be replayed again and again.
That victim is right, of course. For victims of violence, the news cycle never ends. That’s certainly been true for countless victims and their families I have interviewed over my years as a reporter.
It was also true for me.
I, too, am a victim of violence. I was raped and almost killed on a bright, sunny September afternoon less than 100 yards from my front door. A man walking down my street offered to help me with a chore. I told him cheerily, thanks but no, and seconds after I turned my back he grabbed me from behind. He dragged me into a neighbor’s yard where he beat, punched, slapped, bit, choked, raped and sodomized me. I was left bloodied and torn, with bruises black as night, the size of dinner plates on both thighs and my back. The mark of his fingers were on my throat and my arms for weeks. As were the marks of his teeth around my nipples.
I couldn’t undress or bathe without seeing his mark upon me for months. In addition, the outline of my body remained in the ivy in my neighbor’s yard for many weeks. I saw it every day when I left my house, like one of those chalk outlines in a TV crime drama.
Like the rampage of Elliot Rodger, it didn’t take long for my rapist to repeatedly threaten to kill me, repeatedly assault me, to change my life forever.
I wasn’t his first victim. As I discovered from the police detective who interviewed me, mine was a serial rapist who had been assaulting women in the middle of the day using exactly the same m.o. as was used on me. Five other women had reported similar rapes. There were five other victims like me, but likely far more, since according to the FBI, only 40% of women report when they are raped.
There were, though, at least five other women who had thought they would die, whose bodies were broken, whose psyches would never be the same again. Who were not only afraid of being out alone at night like all women, but now also had to fear the day–something none of us ever thought to fear.
Yet the police had said nothing, even though the rapist was operating only in my neighborhood, which meant he either lived or worked here.
Most rapists and killers commit their crimes close to home. Half of all mass shootings in the U.S. are actually domestic violence killings–the shooter kills family and self. Elliot Rodger committed his crimes within two miles of where he lived–first in his own apartment, then at the sorority house, then just randomly until it was over.
The mayhem Elliot Rodger wreaked in Isla Vista has turned the town itself into a victim, but most definitely the wounded and the families of those killed.
All their lives are changed forever.
We’re not supposed to say victim anymore. Especially not feminists. We’re supposed to say survivor. Many men and a plethora of anti-feminist handmaidens constantly claim feminists demand to be seen as victims, that victimology rules feminism, that all we do is talk about being victims night and day and night.
I’ve thought about that, of course. Women who have experienced violence can’t help but think about it. How do we situate ourselves in the chronology of our own lives when so often that timeline reads “before incest/abuse/rape” and “after incest/abuse/rape”?
I’m not opposed to the term survivor. That may be the path to healing for some. But I prefer victim because I want it made clear that I am not the same as I was before. What happened to me altered me forever. Just as I can never see my neighbor’s yard without thinking that’s where I almost died, I can never get back the parts of me that rapist took with him.
One of the things that is taken by violence is one’s sense of safety. One’s equilibrium is shattered. PTSD has become a meme on social media, but for actual victims, there are indeed triggers and they may diminish over time, but they never disappear.
Every day for the rest of their lives the parents of the six students Rodger killed will wake up to the memory that their child is dead.
Every day the others Rodger wounded will replay what happened to them, how lucky they are to be alive and wonder, why am I alive when others died and worse, what if it happens again?
The most insidious element of male violence is the sure knowledge that this is no one-off: What happened to you once could very easily happen again. Violence is not like lightning–it strikes in the same place time and again. Twenty percent of all rape victims are raped again. I had been raped years before this recent rape, back when I was a college student.
All those women at the University of California Santa Barbara will remember Elliot Rodger’s crime and who his intended victims were. Praise accounts for Rodger have already sprung up on Twitter and Facebook, protected by free speech, but unsettling women who are already victimized by abuse on social media on a daily basis.
We know about everyday sexism and everyday misogyny, but what we don’t talk about is everyday violence.
Elliot Rodger put a spotlight on what Germaine Greer said more than 40 years ago–that women have no idea how much men hate us. The Internet has made it much more clear.
As we wring our societal hands in the U.S. and beyond over Elliot Rodger and who is to blame for his crimes and who might have done more, we ignore the reality that he is not the only one. Rodger is extreme because of his manifesto, because of his videos, because he killed more than one woman.
But as was reported in the BBC, last month in the U.K., of the eight women killed by their partners/spouses or former partners/spouses, several of those men also murdered other members of the primary victim’s family.
Is that really so different from Elliot Rodger’s crime? Or is it just his weaponry that’s different?
And as we know, it is not one man raping all the girl children and adult women. It’s not one man beating all the girlfriends and wives.
Everyday violence against women is a thing, now. As it always was. We just know more about it. But when we focus on extremes like Elliot Rodger, we forget women’s reality: We’re being raped and killed every day by men who never posted a YouTube video about it and never wrote a manifesto.
What are we going to do about that?
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA, the Keystone Award, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Enterprise/Investigative Reporting. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine, Curve digital and Lambda Literary Review. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Her collection, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction. Her Y/A novel, Cutting will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX