There’s been a lot of debate in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Isla Vista, California. Prior to going on his rampage, the shooter posted a video on Youtube explaining his motivations. I won’t link it; it’s easy enough to find if you want. But to sum it up, the guy spends seven minutes whining about how he’s a 22 year old virgin. He complains that girls have ignored him– the perfect gentlemen– while throwing themselves at undeserving brutes instead, and therefore girls (and the guys luckier than him) deserve to die.
It’s the sort of rant that would sound self-absored, cliche and trite (indeed, it is all three of those things) except that was he armed, psychopathic, and actually killed people. But perhaps what’s most shocking about it is how well I can relate to the emotions he expressed. And I suspect a lot of men are in the same boat.
The vast majority of us don’t kill people, thankfully– but it’s worth taking a look at some of the common aspects of our culture that clearly had an influence on this guy. Like the killer, I was also a virgin when I was 22. A lot of people are– probably more than you realize, because society and culture have taught us that a man who is a virgin at age 22 is not much of a man.
Throughout our formative years, men are taught by popular media and culture to link their self-worth to how many times they’ve slept with someone. In almost any book or movie with a strong male protagonist, winning the girl is almost as important as accomplishing the objective. In this situation, girls cease to be people and become objects to be won… not just in stories, but in real life.
And if you’re a guy who can’t “win” a girl, well, then you’re emasculated. It’s particularly bad for geeks, because comic books, video games, and even reading and academic pursuits are often insultingly referred to as being “for people who can’t get laid.” Even people within the comic book industry regularly insult their audience with remarks like “How many people in the audience have heard of Martian Manhunter? Now, how many people that raised their hands have ever been laid?” For anyone in the audience who’s heard of Martian Manhunter and hasn’t been laid, it’s a brutally emasculating insult, making them feel bad about both their hobby and their love life. In reality, not only are the two unconnected, they have no reason to feel bad about either one.
Growing up, I received a lot of messages about what it meant to be “manly.” Real men are strong enough to overcome their problems on their own. Real men don’t cry, and they don’t show weakness. Real men don’t let other people disrespect them. Real men are always dominant and confident, and they always know what to do. And as stated before, real men win the girl. For those men who don’t fit the “real man” mold– who have self-esteem issues, or are physically weak, or shy, depressed, or have any range of mental health problems– seeking help from other people makes you feel worse, because now you’re even less of a man. Even admitting the problem exists can be emasculating.
This whole classic male attitude is super-toxic when it comes to dealing with women. If you’re a man who’s been taught that (1)you shouldn’t tolerate being disrespected, and (2)your self-worth should be measured by your sexual conquests, then it stands to reason that if a woman refuses your sexual advances, she’s disrespecting you. She’s making you less of a man. An attitude might develop that if you’re a worthy man, an alpha male, so to speak, that women should be throwing themselves at you. You may begin to feel entitled to sex– whether you’re getting it or not– because to admit that you’re not entitled to sex would be to doubt your manliness, and real men are confident. Real men definitely don’t doubt themselves.
Men’s need to boost their self-esteem by getting laid is so pervasive that an entire industry of “pickup artists” has risen up, teaching men supposedly surefire tricks to sexual conquest. In this game, women are nothing more than prizes, objects to be won, to be manipulated however is necessary in order to score the ultimate prize of sex. And for men who are self-absorbed, or just shy, or for any reason not so lucky in the world of love, it becomes easy to rationalize, to seek out causes other than yourself as to why that’s the case.
That’s where the old “women don’t go for nice guys” fallacy comes in. Or “women only sleep with jerks.” Rather than engage in self-examination (which is not manly), many men blame women– or other men– for having poor judgment, or being stupid. It’s not my fault, they just have poor taste.
I did this myself on occasion in my twenties. My lack of a love life depressed me, so as a shortcut to avoid depression, I would just think, “Eh, well, women don’t go for nice guys.” I was smart enough, generally, to know that it wasn’t true– sometimes I would blame women for not paying attention to the shy, quiet guys who are actually awesome– but that’s just as much of a copout as “women don’t go for nice guys.”
Watching the killer’s video, it’s easy for me to see how all of this played into the killer’s thought processes. After being fed a toxic diet of how men should behave and act, he decided to prove his alpha maleness by asserting his dominance in an incredibly visible, violent way… by taking the lives of other people. If you want to prove your dominance over others, it’s hard to do it any more thoroughly than by killing them.
As far as my own story, I eventually realized that as much as I felt unlucky in love, the fact was, I’d barely ever been rejected. Almost every dating relationship I had, had been broken off by me, usually through neglect. The problem wasn’t other people; the problem was me. It was two-fold: (1)I was scared of relationships, because it meant being emotionally vulnerable to someone else (men shouldn’t be emotionally vulnerable, and I wasn’t confident enough to risk it); and (2)I just wasn’t putting myself in a position to grow and meet new people. I hung out with the same people every weekend, and I rarely tried doing new things.
I solved number 2 by moving to Seattle. And by solving number 2, I solved number 1. It’s hard to get any more emotionally vulnerable than moving to a new city and surrounding yourself with new people; I sought support and friendship as a side effect of moving, and within three months, I was in a sexual relationship.
In retrospect, I suspect I was also just a late bloomer. Almost every sexual and relationship-type milestone you can think of– first kiss, first girlfriend, etc.– I did about ten years after what society would consider “normal.” Except for Senior Prom in high school, I didn’t even ask a girl out on my own initiative until I was 24. But because I’d been conditioned by society to feel bad for not being sexually active, I got deeply depressed as a result of just being myself. It’s a clinical depression I still fight to this day, despite having long since lost my virginity, and currently being in a happy, six month long (so far) relationship with a wonderful woman.
Overall, I’m happy with how things worked out. While I regret some of those missed opportunities in my twenties, I know that it doesn’t make a bad person, or any less of a man, or indeed, any less of a human being. Being a good person is independent of how many people you sleep with. And I know, for 100% beyond any shadow of a doubt, that if I have to choose being a kind and considerate person, or trying to sleep with as many as people as possible… well, I will never for a single moment regret being a kind and considerate person.
The day I felt most like a man was not the day I lost my virginity. The day I felt most like a man was the day I realized that being a man means ignoring bullshit cultural standards about what it means to be a man. That I can seek help for my depression and not feel bad about it. That I can be a good, kind, and emotionally available person without doubting my masculinity. That I should worry less about whether other people “disrespect” me and more about how I treat other people. That empathy is something to be proud of, not shy away from.
As a man, I want to be brave enough to put others’ needs before my own. I want to support my loved ones and my friends, to help those around me succeed, even if there is no immediate obvious benefit to myself. I aim to make the world a better place. I am strong enough to be the change I want to see in the world, and in the end, that is the only definition of manliness I give a shit about.