AD Main Menu

Ross Douthat: Culture sends contradictory messages about sex and self-respect

In an ideal world, perhaps, the testimony left by the young man who killed six people in Santa Barbara would have perished with its author: the video files somehow wiped off the Internet, his manifesto deleted and any printed copy pulped.

Spree killers seek the immortality of infamy, and their imitators are inspired by how easily they win it. As Ari Schulman argued last year in The Wall Street Journal, there would probably be fewer copycat rampages if the typical killer's face and name didn't lead the news coverage, if fewer details of biography and motive circulated, if a mass murderer's "ability to make his internal psychodrama a shared public reality" were more strictly circumscribed.

But this is not an ideal world, and so instead of media restraint we've had a splendid little culture war over the significance of the Santa Barbara killer's distinctive stew of lust, misogyny and rage. Twitter movements have been created, think pieces written, and all kinds of cultural phenomena - from Judd Apatow movies to "pickup artists" and Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" - have been invoked, analyzed and blamed.

And in fairness to the think pieces - I have to be fair, because I'm writing one - in this particular tragedy, the killer's motives really do seem to have a larger cultural significance.

Often you step into the mental landscape of a mass murderer and find nothing but paranoia, nightmare logic, snakes eating their own tails. But compared with the mysteries of Tucson, Newtown and Aurora, this case has an internal psychodrama that is much more recognizable, a murderous logic that's a little more familiar. The Santa Barbara killer's pulsing antipathy toward women, his shame and fury over sexual inexperience -- these were amplified horribly by mental illness, yes, but visit the angrier corners of the Internet, wander in comment threads and chat rooms, and you'll recognize them as extreme versions of an all-too-commonplace misogyny.

I've written before, in the context of the abuse that female writers take online, about this poisoned stream's potential origins. The Santa Barbara case hints at one such source -- the tension between our culture's official attitude toward sex on the one hand and our actual patterns of sexual and romantic life on the other.

The culture's attitude is Hefnerism, basically, if less baldly chauvinistic than the original Playboy philosophy. Sexual fulfillment is treated as the source and summit of a life well lived, the thing without which nobody (from a carefree college student to a Cialis-taking senior) can be truly happy, enviable or free.

Meanwhile, social alternatives to sexual partnerships are disfavored or in decline: Virginity is for weirdos and losers, celibate life is either a form of unhealthy repression or a smoke screen for deviancy, the kind of intense friendships celebrated by past civilizations are associated with closeted homosexuality, and the steady shrinking of extended families has reduced many people's access to the familial forms of platonic intimacy.

Yet as sex looms ever larger as an aspirational good, we also live in a society where more people are single and likely to remain so than in any previous era. And since single people have, on average, a lot less sex than the partnered and wedded, a growing number of Americans are statistically guaranteed to feel that they're not living up to the culture's standard of fulfillment, happiness and worth.

This tension between sexual expectations and social reality is a potential problem for both sexes, but for a variety of reasons -- social, cultural and biological -- it's more likely to produce toxic reactions in the male of the species. Such toxicity need not lead to murder (as it usually, mercifully, does not) to be a source of widespread misery, both for the men who wallow in it and the women unfortunate enough to be targets for their bile.

Contemporary feminism is very good -- better than my fellow conservatives often acknowledge -- at critiquing these pathologies. But feminism, too, is often a prisoner of Hefnerism, in the sense that it tends to prescribe more and more "sex positivity," insisting that the only problem with contemporary sexual culture is that it's imperfectly egalitarian, insufficiently celebratory of female agency and desire.

This means that the feminist prescription doesn't supply what men slipping down into the darkness of misogyny most immediately need: not lectures on how they need to respect women as sexual beings, but reasons, despite their lack of sexual experience, to first respect themselves as men.

Such reasons, and the models of intimacy and community that vindicate them, might have done little to prevent the Santa Barbara killer's deadly spree.

But they might drain some of the swamps that are forming, slowly, because our society has lost sight of a basic human truth: A culture that too tightly binds sex and self-respect is likely, in the long run, to end up with less and less of both.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.



By ROSS DOUTHAT