Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller once wrote a book called Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred. For him, perversion was an unconscious revenge-taking for traumas going way back into childhood, in which the Oedipal conflict was a focal concern. Few these days would see this Freudian theme as the single key to unlocking the psyche’s secrets, profoundly important as a child’s early relationships with its parents surely are; but Stoller’s attention to sexual hatred was well placed and should engage us too.
Discussion here recently has rightly taken misogyny very seriously. Several commentators have pointed out that women constantly face sexual provocations of a clearly hostile nature: this is true harassment, intended to humiliate and degrade. Well-intentioned minor-attracted people can easily become heartily sick of hearing the truth of this harassment because it feels as though harping on about it plays into the hands of those who wish to play up the dangers of sex to the exclusion of its connection to more positive feelings: affection, rapture, adoration.
While sharing our common longing for a more positive discourse, I believe there is a nettle that must be grasped. So, here goes. First of all, I think we should make a distinction between real misogyny – the hatred that can lead to girls being gang-raped and hanged from a mango tree, as happened in India recently – and merely giving way to a temptation to take sexual favours that have not been offered. Lord Rennard may have been guilty of the latter, but it would be grotesquely unjust to impute to him any secret wish to commit real atrocities.
Secondly, having made this distinction, there is an urgent need to understand where all the misogyny is coming from: How does it take root? In what circumstances does it flourish? Feminists have tended to think in terms of power structures, contrasting patriarchy with mythically imagined matriarchal golden ages somewhere near the dawn of time. They may be right, but we know too little about our prehistoric background to be sure, and modern remnants of hunter-gatherer societies are not a reliable guide.
The recent terrible case of mass murderer Elliot Rodger reminds us, also, that the individual psyche is as important as social structures: Rodger was violently misogynistic and also a classic troubled loner. Gang rapes and lynchings, to be sure, are the work of mobs, not individuals; but arguably it still takes psychos of one stripe or another to set the tone and lead the action in the more concerted forms of hostility: violently minded types should not be seen as ordinary guys (or not the majority of them) but as birds of a feather who gravitate towards each other, pooling their hatred and conspiring to act upon it.
This brings us back to Stoller: perversion as the erotic form of hatred. Elliot Rodger, so angered over still being a virgin at 22 that that he went on a murderous rampage, looks a classic case. We have his own very extensive account of what lay behind the killing spree that left seven people dead, including Roger himself, and thirteen injured. The 137-page document this son of a Hollywood film director wrote in the weeks before the killings discloses that his early childhood (including the Oedipal phase) was not at all troubled in terms of his family upbringing. It was at school, especially on the sports field, where he did not perform well, that he began to feel like an outsider and began to have “the first inkling of my shortcomings”. Only later would he develop a hatred of women when he believed they had slighted and ignored him. His parents’ divorce, when he was seven, is remembered as a deep wound in his own life. By 13, he was the “weird kid” at his school. He saw all girls as “mean, cruel, and heartless creatures” who took pleasure in his suffering. From that point on his misogyny became more entrenched and his personality emerges as self-centred and grandiose. He appears to have been an extreme example of narcissism. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in the psychiatric terminology, is a condition characterised by finding it difficult to care about other people, who are valued only for what benefits they can give to the narcissist, which tends to mean indulging a wish to be uncritically admired.
Rodger fitted the bill. He could easily have afforded to pay prostitutes but that would have offended his vanity. So sex was not the problem in his case, or not the biggest one. He was good-looking and had a glamorous life. Getting laid should have been easy, but it seems he was regarded as a shallow jerk. He expected to be admired for his expensive Armani sunglasses and BMW car, but instead was despised as a self-important nonentity.
Rodger was newsworthy because his actions were so extreme. There is evidence that at a lesser level, though, his misogyny is widely shared by others who in some degree have a similar personality profile. The Rodger case opened my eyes, for instance, to misogyny expressed through “the incel community” online, “incels” being “involuntary celibates”. There was a whole lot about them in this recent Salon article by Tracy Clark-Flory. My inspection of these websites has so far been very limited but I should say at once that Clark-Flory’s piece is not the place to find a deeper understanding. To my mind her woefully superficial, one-sided effort is a hatchet job almost as nasty as the people she attacks. It’s the sort of journalism that gives feminism a bad name among reasonable people who try to put truth and humanity above crushing their enemies. For a corrective, see this alternative view, more balanced, view of incels.
For the moment, though, we need to stick with the sensational side, as per Clark-Flory. What are we to make of this, for example, from That Incel Blogger:
My mother, the murderous whore, is refusing to have sex with me when that could alleviate my sexual frustration.
Irony? Doesn’t look that way. And it would be perverse in this case to rule out the Oedipus Complex! There’s a whole lot more floridly desperate stuff on the same site, such as this:
It is over. I will stop looking for women. There is no longer any chance for me to escape loneliness and I must embrace hatred, destruction and punishment now. The girl from my previous post has rejected me. My last chance came later today when another girl answered my ad but she was just another airhead moron who wanted to talk to me on a cellphone and said I’m too quiet because I couldn’t giggle at everything like an idiot the way she did.
At another site, I see this:
Why don’t girls talk to me? Why did I not do this, because I was too NICE (big mistake), and yes, there was actually a time when I did not hate women. Women made me hate them… I would like to see which woman would not hate men if she approached 15,000 men and got rejected each time.
Wow! What this reminds me of (apart from the uncomfortable suspicion that this last guy has a point in his final sentence) is that we minor-attracted folks are not the only ones with problems. And neither, for that matter, are women who receive unwanted and sometimes hostile attention.
All these troubles and tensions are important. Sticking with harassment, which is where we began, the perspective gained by looking at the mental abnormality of individual perpetrators (relevant conditions probably include autism, schizophrenia and much else, as well as narcissism) simply has to be significant bearing in mind the potentially murderous consequences of ignoring it. But psychiatry isn’t going to fix everything, especially as some of the heartless “psychos” who commit acts of sexual aggression are in a sense normal. Yes, they may be psychopathic to the extent that they show a callous lack of empathy, but unlike the rejected narcissist they are not themselves necessarily suffering. On the contrary, the classic building site wolf-whistler may be a very confident and contented sort of bully, not in the slightest need of medical help.
Which brings us full circle back to power structures and societal solutions – with, I hope, a bit more useful stuff in our heads than when we started. This little detour into mental health has raised empathy issues beyond our own concerns as MAPs. We can deplore the selfishness of a narcissist like Rodger, who thought his problems justified slaying random strangers; but we can also notice, can we not, that a lot of the misogyny out there is more than merely gratuitous? It appears to be fed by a real sense of pain and injustice among those who are left out, especially in a culture such as ours where sexual gratification seems to be “in yer face” everywhere, from popular music videos to films, TV, etc.
Life, unfortunately, is always going to be unfair: we cannot turn every unpopular person into a socially successful one. But I do think we can soften the blow in some ways. To start with, while acknowledging the realities of sexual harassment and misogyny and the need to address them, we need a more sympathetic feminist narrative, not just endless ball-crushing. Also, while some mental conditions, such as autism, may be inborn, others are probably not. I doubt Elliot Rodger was born a narcissist, for instance: circumstances contributed – especially perhaps his parents’ divorce. Emotional security is hugely important in childhood: children’s interests are handled very badly in our culture when it comes to adult partners splitting up. Shouldn’t we be doing something about this?
I intended in this piece to go further, to look at particular social values and structures in our society with reference to children’s sexual socialisation, and how these might be improved in ways that could take the sting out of the gender wars. As so often, though, I have reached the point where I will have to leave off, and hope I will be able to pick up the threads another time.