Elliot Rodger and the Toxic Weight of Virginity

By Harry Cheadle

A screenshot from the now famous YouTube video in which Elliot Rodger announced his murderous intentions

In the days following Friday’s shooting in Santa Barbara, California, during which 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 13 more before putting a bullet in his head, the media has exhausted itself dissecting the whys and hows of the incident. Rodger’s long manifesto, in which he rages against women for not giving him the sex and affection he felt entitled to, has been picked apart along with his similarly seething YouTube videos and comments on bodybuilding forums. The ever-classy New York Post put his childhood crush on its cover. One Washington Post writer connected Rodger’s loneliness to Judd Apatow films; some local politicians have proposed making it harder for psychologically disturbed people to get and keep guns. Even the fact that his family wasn’t particularly wealthy was worth writing about. All in all, it's a fine example of the news cycle going through its “week after a mass shooting” playbook.

Commentators more inclined to discussing broad societal trends have focused on Rodger’s horrific hatred of women, which can be seen as a form of “misogynist extremism.” That conversation has morphed into a discussion of sexism in general, along with the ways in which women and girls are viewed by men as something less than full people. But just as Friday’s shooting has provided us with a chance to discuss a depressingly common type of misogyny, we should also pause for a second to examine Rodger’s twisted fixation on sex and losing his virginity, and how frequent those sorts of ideas are.

Rodger’s manifesto is uncomfortable to read, not least because some of the sentiments in it aren’t too far divorced from thoughts plenty of awkward unsexed dudes have, or dialogue spouted by nerdy characters in American Pie 14: Cashing In Again. If you take the melodramatic edge out of these statements, they are fairly ordinary reflections that could have come from any unhappy masturbator:

Not getting any sex is what will shape the very foundation of my miserable youth.

The boys who girls find attractive will live pleasure-filled lives while they dominate the boys who girls deem unworthy.

No one respects a man who is unable to get a woman… A man having a beautiful girl by his side shows the world that he is worth something, because obviously the beautiful girl sees some sort of worth in him.

Thinking of yourself as a lesser person because you haven’t put your penis inside a vagina isn’t a rare pathology; it’s the default state of being for many young men. A lot of that confusion and LiveJournal-esque angst is perfectly natural, but that frustration can mature and curdle to the point where the state of not having had sex becomes a self-imposed identity. The endpoint of this way of thinking can be found on the forums where Rodger discovered some slightly sympathetic posters who refer to themselves as “incels”—men who are “involuntarily celibate.” These are people who have given themselves a name and banded together over something they haven’t done. It’s like forming a group where you and I complain about never having been to Europe, or eaten a steak, or gone white-water rafting.

Hello, I am a billboard. Can I make you feel uncomfortable about yourself and your sexual prowess? Photo via Flickr user Don

Sex, we’re told, is far more important than any clothed activity. Churches, pop culture, the schools, and other authority figures tend to teach the same lessons about the beast with two backs: Girls who have too much or the wrong kind of sex are “sluts”; boys aren’t real men until they’ve lost their virginity. Religions often ascribe a moral and spiritual importance to where penises are put, but the secular world also gets hysterical over the subject. Think of teen movies where characters spend 90-plus minutes panicking over their V-cards, or romantic comedies that equate a monogamous sexual relationship with love and happiness, or TV shows that feature will-they-or-won’t-they subplots centered around whether two characters will fuck—which of course will signify that they are soulmates who have Found Each Other and will stride into the future, arm in arm, in the series finale.

If you’re young and were raised on mainstream media you could be forgiven for thinking, as incels presumably do, that losing your virginity is the defining moment of everyone’s adolescence, that attractive people are constantly having amazing sex, and that sex will lead to love and fulfillment.

None of that is true, of course. Now, sex is fine, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great way to occupy that spare half hour between dinner and Game of Thrones, not to mention the most convenient way to have an orgasm with someone. Most people really like it, and despite the mess it remains the number one way of getting pregnant. But it won’t change your life. It’s like Monopoly—a fun activity for two or more people that sometimes ends in hurt feelings. When you think of it as being more significant than that, you’re likely to run into problems.

The cast of the first season of The Pickup Artist, a show about the importance of getting awkward guys to have sex. Photo via Wikipedia

One of the striking things about Rodger’s manifesto is that, New York Post headlines aside, his rage didn't have a single target. He was furious at every woman in the world, conventionally attractive ones in particular, to the extent that in planning his “Day of Retribution” he decided to attack the sorority that had the “most beautiful girls.” He fantasized constantly about women, but his manifesto never elaborates on what he wanted out of a relationship other than sex and some vague sense of companionship—the girl of his dreams could have been any girl at all.

God knows he’s not the only person who’s imagined that a lithe naked body next to him would magic his problems away, nor is he the only guy who has thought that success—measured in physical contact—with women could make up for all kinds of failure. It’s a mental trap I’ve fallen into before, and I know I’m not the only one.

At its worst, the philosophy behind pick-up artists (PUAs) exploits this idea that a sexual relationship will solve everything. The promise that men can come out of their antisocial shells and get some sweet poontang through “game”—a method of carefully calibrating one’s interactions with women—has attracted plenty of adherents who are so into it they’ve invented a whole world of incomprehensible lingo.

If you squint, pick-up artistry can be a harmless way for shambling shy guys to build confidence and improve themselves through acquiring “inner game.” Still, the community as a whole often expresses some ugly attitudes toward women and seems to exist within its own occasionally toxic bubble—after Friday’s shooting, some PUAs opined that if Rodger had only become one of them (and, presumably, had himself some sex as a result), the whole tragedy could have been averted.

Obviously that’s bullshit. Even if he had gotten laid, Rodger would have remained profoundly sick. But that line of reasoning shows how the PUA worldview works: They imagine that the problems of the aggrieved, involuntarily celibate men stem from their lack of access to vaginas, when it’s their obsession with sex that is making them miserable in the first place.

"Don't have sex," Lady Gaga says, which is good advice even if the person giving it is involved in whatever is going on here. Photo via Flickr user Alfred Hermida

What would it look like if we made an effort—individually, collectively, whatever—to stop letting sex have so much power over our lives? For starters, it would mean more celebrities would say, like Lady Gaga did in 2010, “It’s OK not to have sex.” It would involve, as Jaclyn Friedman said in TIME this week, banishing the idea that sex is something men “get” and women “give up.” It shouldn’t be approached as the end result of a game, but a way for people to enjoy their time together. Explained Friedman:

When we stop treating sex like an accomplishment and start approaching it as a creative, collaborative encounter with a fellow human being, we learn to expect more satisfaction from our sex lives, and we increase our odds of getting it.

Treating sex more casually could also entail having more casual sex, à la the French model as described by sex columnist Maïa Mazaurette in a recent interview with New York magazine. Her countrymen, Mazaurette told Maureen O’Connor, “don’t connect sex with ethics or morality or values in general,” and apparently bang without necessarily attaching intimacy to the experience. However you feel about that sort of freewheeling promiscuity, you’ve got to admit that it would be nice to have sex without that hideous weight of morality hanging over your head.

But along with this message that sex could just be a fun way to spend 15 to 40 minutes, we should also say that sometimes sex isn’t even that great—it can be awkward or unintentionally stir up bad feelings and wreck friendships. And though it may distract you from your problems, you won’t find yourself suddenly healthier or otherwise transformed when your orgasm fades.

You can find positive messages about the benefits of not being tormented by sex or your lack thereof on, of all places, r/seduction, a Reddit community devoted to "self-improvement and pick-up." Yesterday a redditor created a post to let the group know that he had lost his virginity at the age of 28, not by perfecting a pick-up routine but by getting his shit together. “I picked up productive hobbies and bettered myself through them,” he wrote. “I quit jerking off and quit smoking pot, both of which (as I firmly believe) were hindering my advancement in life.” He continued:

Not only did I get to experience sex, but I legitimately have feelings for this girl and I will continue seeing her for the time being.

[…]

All in all, sex was whatever. Not the end all of earthly pleasures but yea it felt pretty good.

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