On Friday, May 18, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, allegedly shot and killed ten classmates at Santa Fe high school outside Houston, Texas. This week, news outlets around the world reported one of the victims was a woman who’d rejected his advances in front of a class. Although police haven’t yet determined a motive for the killings, this link fits a pattern of recent terrorist attacks motivated by young men’s sexual resentment of women. At the root of these terrorist acts are cultural norms of masculinity that are breaking under the strain of unprecedented transformation.
In April, 25-year-old self-described involuntary celibate (“incel”) Alek Minassian drove a rented van down a sidewalk in Toronto, killing eight women and two men. In a Facebook post before his rampage, Minassian announced, “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!”
On February 14, Nikolas Cruz shot and killed seventeen people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Both Minassian and Cruz idolized Elliot Rodger, a young incel who killed six people in California as revenge for being unable to find a girlfriend.
In America, terrorism isn’t called terrorism when it’s committed by white men. And that’s the point. Few men would be so enraged by the perception of sexual rejection that they’d kill others. But behind computers across the nation, thousands of men nurse seething feelings of anger, shame, and resentment against women of which the MeToo movement has only skimmed the surface. The incubator for many of these men’s dark fantasies is the so-called manosphere, a male-centric digital ecosystem of blogs, podcasts, and online forums. These groups toe a line between acting as quasi-therapeutic outlets for men’s fears and echo chambers that exploit their insecurities.
Of course, not all guys in the manosphere are bloody-minded killers. As a cultural anthropologist, I observed men’s seduction training communities in New York for twelve months. What I found were nerdy guys who feel like their dating life sucks. Something is standing in their way: North American values of masculinity. Men today are asked to be both stoic and vulnerable, strong and sensitive, competitive yet emotionally attuned to others. At the same time, they feel their once-unquestioned status and privileges are under threat. They feel lost, even humiliated. Anger against women disguises these men’s feelings of male inadequacy.
Flirting can be hard enough when you’re shy. Many young men and women today face peer pressure to project a sexualized self. At the root of these men’s anger is a sexual shame at war with an almost antiquated sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Across the board, the guys I interviewed feel stuck. They idealize traditional models of masculinity that emphasize aggression, sexual power, and emotional self-control. They also feel these archetypes leave them ill-equipped to deal with the fluidity of modern sex and relationships. How do they solve these challenges?
August 2015. I’m at a seduction training bootcamp in a beige hotel suite in Virginia. I watch as seduction coach Adam leads his six male trainees in a confidence-building exercise. As the men pair up and stand at arm’s length staring into each other’s eyes, Adam instructs them:
“[Man one], deliver a compliment to your partner. [Man two], if you don’t believe the compliment is genuine, hit him. [Man one], if you don’t believe [man two] has let your compliment in, hit him. You have to remain fully present. You’ve gotta become vulnerable. In the midst of all this pain we want to practice opening. If your guy is completely walling off, hit him.”
This guy-on-guy violence is reminiscent of David Fincher’s film Fight Club. On a visceral level, the pain does something brutally simple. It cuts through their numbness. It makes them feel alive.
At the end of Fight Club, the schizophrenic protagonist played by Edward Norton blows up a bank, more Timothy McVeigh than Dimitrios Pagourtzis. The seduction bootcamp isn’t really about women at all. It’s a social-phobic support group that teaches guys to process their shame while stripping away the toxic resentment imposed by repressing their own feelings of inadequacy.
Misogynistic online subcultures are fueling a fire that’s already raging in the minds of thousands of American men. Until we change our definitions and values of masculinity, we’ll continue seeing tragedies at the hands of guys like Dimitrios Pagourtzis and Alek Minassian.
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