The Search for Meaning

Science, spirituality, and our desire for satisfaction

Rage and the Problem of Male Sexual Privilege

How our oldest story was made new again in Santa Barbara

“Rage” is the very first word of the oldest and one of the most influential stories in all of Western literature: Homer’s Iliad, composed nearly three thousand years ago. The Iliad and its sequel, the Odyssey, were the Hunger Games of the ancient world: epic in length, encyclopedic in scope, and wildly popular.

The word refers to the rage of the Greek hero Achilles, who becomes enraged when his share of war “plunder,” a young maiden named Briseis, is taken from him by the Greek commander Agamemnon. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad, the story opens with these words: “The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters, leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.”

Elliot Rodger’s 137-page manifesto, which he emailed to his parents minutes before he began his killing spree in Santa Barbara, declares: “I hated all of those obnoxious, boisterous men who were able to enjoy pleasurable sex lives with beautiful girls, but I hated the girls even more… My hatred and rage toward all women festered inside me like a plague.” Rodger adds: “Women’s rejection of me is a declaration of war, and if it’s war they want, then war they shall have.”

It’s worth noting that the idea of sexually frustrated men going on the warpath, whether individually or collectively, whether physically or emotionally or institutionally, is an idea that’s deeply embedded in our culture. In the opening lines of the Iliad, Homer assumes that it’s the prerogative of Achilles and Agamemnon – their privilege as males – to fight over sexual possession of Briseis. Which man she may have wanted, if indeed she wanted either of them, isn’t part of the story. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto contains a lot of fantasies, but male sexual privilege has been all too real for thousands of years.

There’s another moment in Homer’s ancient tale that’s worth noting as well. It occurs in the Odyssey, which is part two of the story. Midway through a ten-year journey back to Ithaca after defeating the Trojans, the Greek warrior Odysseus and his men sail close by an island where two Sirens cavort in a meadow and beguile men with their come-hither music. A helpful goddess named Circe warns Odysseus beforehand that anyone who hears their alluring voices will be doomed. His bones will join the other dead men who have succumbed to the Sirens’ deadly charm.

Following Circe’s advice, Odysseus softens wax and uses it to plug the ears of his men, so they will be unable to hear. He also instructs his men to use ropes to lash him to the mast as they approach the Sirens. He warns the men that he will beg to be released so that he can cavort with the Sirens. When this happens, he says, they should pull the ropes even tighter around him, which they do.

Everyone passes the island unscathed – but only because Odysseus was lashed to the mast. Left to his own devices, as the story goes, he would have been powerless to resist the Sirens’ allure. While their song promises knowledge, this is knowledge in the biblical sense; the dangerous pleasure they offer is fundamentally sexual in nature. The unstated moral of this story insists that men are utterly unable to resist the sexual allure of women.

In Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, he says, speaking of women, “I desired them intensely, but I could never have them.” At age 14, he confessed, “Finding out about sex is one of the things that truly destroyed my entire life. Sex… the very word fills me with hate. Once I hit puberty, I would always want it, like any other boy. I would always hunger for it, I would always covet it, I would always fantasize about it. But I would never get it. Not getting any sex is what will shape the very foundation of my miserable youth… Finding out about sex was just the beginning of my horrific downfall.”

Several years later, at age 17, Rodger came to what he described as a turning point. He decided that sex should be outlawed. He said, “If I can’t have it, I will destroy it.” Over the following few years, his idea of destroying sex altogether metastasized into a plan to annihilate women and the men who engage in sex with them.

Rodger’s manifesto traces his descent from sexual frustration into misogyny. He blames women for his sexual desire and then hates them for not fulfilling it.

In this sense, Odysseus and Rodger represent two different ways of managing male sexual desire. One sees male sexual desire, however overwhelming it may be at times, as ultimately the responsibility of men. And if they sometimes have to lash themselves to the mast in order to safeguard themselves and those around them, so be it.

The other approach, which has predominated throughout history, blames women and makes them responsible. If men can’t control their desire for women, then women must themselves be controlled by men – how they dress, how they act, and especially when and with whom they have sex and reproduce.

When women through the centuries have rebelled against these political and religious constraints, they’ve often been viewed as morally depraved, emotionally unstable, and even physically defective. Rodger agrees with this view when he says, “I concluded that women are flawed…They are incapable of reason or thinking rationally. They are like animals, completely controlled by their primal, depraved emotions and impulses… Women are like a plague that must be quarantined.”

In the wake of Rodger’s actions, many people have rushed to point out his psychiatric condition, his parents’ divorce, his life of privilege, his obsession with online gaming, the ease with which he purchased guns, and so on. While many of these factors doubtless played a role in his actions, he was also a child of our culture as a whole. It’s a culture in which freely available sex-on-demand is the presumptive basis of a satisfying life, whether you’re a teen or a senior. And it’s mostly men who make the demands, and it’s mostly women who live in fear of what will happen if they don’t give in. Male sexual privilege has been built into the system from the very beginning.

In her column in TIME magazine on the shortcomings of sex education in America, Jaclyn Friedman examines the stubborn myth that sex is a commodity that men acquire from women. “Under this paradigm,” she says, “women’s bodies are a means to an end for men, whether that end is physical gratification, validation of their masculinity, or both. For women, that means that sex may be about us, but it’s not for us… If we sleep with men we’re sluts who are “asking for” sexual assault, and if we say no we’re cruel bitches,” a crime Elliot Rodger and his ilk see as punishable by death.

Since Santa Barbara, more and more women have been talking openly about the constant threat and the persistent reality of the violence they suffer under this paradigm. Many men – maybe most men – react to the problem by getting defensive. I feel that in myself at times.

In Slate magazine, Phil Plait addresses men who respond by saying, “Not all men are like that.” While this is not an unexpected response, Plait points out, it’s also not a helpful one. Why not? Plait suggests four reasons:

“For one, women know this. They already know not every man is a rapist, or a murderer, or violent. They don’t need you to tell them.

“Second, it’s defensive. When people are defensive, they aren’t listening to the other person; they’re busy thinking of ways to defend themselves.

“Third, the people saying it aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem. Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.

“Fourth—and this is important, so listen carefully—when a woman is walking down the street, or on a blind date, or, yes, in an elevator alone, she doesn’t know which group you’re in. You might be the potential best guy ever in the history of history, but there’s no way for her to know that. A fraction of men out there are most definitely not in that group. Which are you? Inside your head you know, but outside your head it’s impossible to. This is the reality women deal with all the time.” I would add that it’s a reality that more of us men need to acknowledge more of the time.

The problem of sexualized violence has been around since before Odysseus, and it’s not likely to disappear anytime soon. Even so, the problem is now ours to confront.

Galen Guengerich, Ph.D., is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan and author of the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

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