Was alleged Isla Vista mass murderer Elliot Rodger “driven” to commit his monstrous crimes by the narcissistic and misogynist ideology of sexual grievance he so obviously embraced? I don’t know. But it’s probably a good thing that this tragedy has cast a light on the subculture from which Rodger emerged, largely unknown outside its own ranks and that of the (mostly) feminists who have tried to draw attention to it. At the American Prospect over the weekend, Amanda Marcotte offered the best brief recap of the world of PUAs, or Nerds Gone Very Bad, as revealed in videos Rodger posted on YouTube (warning: some relatively mild sexual terms ahead):
This video and others that Rodger put on his YouTube channel were full of language that was immediately recognizable to many: He was speaking the lingo of the “pick-up artist” (PUA) community that feminists have been raising alarms about for many years now, arguing that it’s a breeding ground for misogynist resentment and may even be encouraging violence against women.
“Alpha,” PUA lingo for a dominant male, was in the video threatening the mass murder. Rodger identified as an “incel,” which means “involuntarily celibate,” a term that was developed on web-based bulletin boards devoted to PUA enthusiasts that weren’t finding much luck getting laid. His theories about what “women” are thinking and why they are denying him the sex he felt entitled to came straight out of the theories of mating and dating that underlie the entire concept of PUA. He followed many PUAs on YouTube and was a frequent poster at forums that purported to analyze PUA theory.
Pick-up artistry is a huge, if generally ignored industry, with self-appointed PUAs selling an endless stream of videos, books, and seminars purporting to teach “the game,” which is invariably packaged as a surefire way for men who learn it to get laid. PUAs like to portray themselves to outsiders as doing nothing more than trying to provide dating advice to men, in an environment where most dating advice is aimed at women. But there’s one major difference. Dating advice of the sort you find in Cosmo magazine and other women’s media usually starts from the premise that the advice-seeker has flaws that need to be fixed in order to make her more attractive. But pick-up artistry argues that men who can’t get laid are fine the way they are, and it’s women—the entire lot of them—who are broken. And that by accepting that women are the ones to blame here, the student of PUA can finally start getting the sex he feels entitled to.
Most PUA philosophy is based in a half-baked pseudo-scientific theory of the genders derived from evolutionary psychology. The argument is that women are programmed to overlook “nice guys”, sometimes called “betas,” who are gentlemanly and kind and and instead are drawn to cocky assholes who mistreat them, usually nicknamed “alphas,” Often, women are accused of “friend zoning” the betas, exploiting them for companionship and gifts while getting sexual satisfaction from the alphas. (It’s taken as a given that “alphas” are bad men who can’t treat a woman right and “betas” are nice, though the seething misogyny of many self-identified betas gives lie to that notion.)
There’s no scientific evidence to support this theory, but since it allows adherents to believe themselves to be unimpeachable victims and to blame women for their loneliness, it remains wildly popular, so much so that men seeking non-misogynist dating advice cannot find it in a sea of PUA literature.
If there’s anything more alarming than the PUA “community,” it’s the anti-PUA “community” of men who’ve tried some of the “tricks” for manipulating women into sex and have failed, making them even more confirmed in their hatred and fear of women and even more convinced denying women sexual self-determination is the key to their own happiness. That’s the milieu in which Elliot Rodger spent much of his time, and it’s hardly surprising his 141-page “manifesto” reflects it in every particular. Here’s the beating heart of his complaint:
Women are incapable of having morals or thinking rationally. They are completely controlled by their depraved emotions and vile sexual impulses. Because of this, the men who do get to experience the pleasures of sex and the privilege of breeding are the men who women are sexually attracted to… the stupid, degenerate, obnoxious men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magnificent gentlemen like myself.
This pathetic stew of self-pity, cultural backlash, half-baked evolutionary biology, and fantasy-projection is typical of the PUAs in a way that, say, the utterances of the Unabomber were never typical of even the most radical of environmentalists:
This sort of rhetoric is fairly common on some of the more embittered PUA forums, and the “men’s rights” forums that have quite a bit of overlap with them. (Jaclyn Friedman wrote about the “men’s rights” (MRA) movement for the Prospect, which you can read here.) The argument that it’s not women who are oppressed, but men who are kept down by women’s “unfair” systems of distributing sexual favors (for PUAs and MRAs, sex is a commodity, not really an activity) is the central organizing principle of both pick-up artistry and “men’s rights” organizing, so much so that the main text of “men’s rights”—Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power—features a woman’s naked butt on the cover, to drive home how men are supposedly helpless pawns of women’s game of sexual distribution.
Without—again—saying these twisted beliefs “caused” Rodger’s alleged acts, it’s troubling enough to know that there are a significant number of men in our society who harbor these toxic and dehumanizing attitudes towards over half the human population. It’s also illuminating in the sense of reminding us that the emancipation of women—far from complete as it is—has represented the demolition of a patriarchal system of enormous psychological as well as economic, political and religious power, which will not give up without a bloody fight.
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