Why can’t we all learn to be cooler about sex?
Last week, Scott Beierle stormed into a yoga studio in Florida and shot dead two women in revenge for all the women who had turned him down in life. It’s the latest in a string of incel attacks, including the infamous Toronto one in April, when Alek Minassian drove a van into a group of pedestrians. That was when the world started googling ‘‘incel’’ and discovered the online community that incites involuntarily celibate men to take violent revenge on the women who reject them.
But still, when you hear these cases on the news it’s still easy to assume that this wouldn’t happen in New Zealand. Mass shootings and acts of terror occur overseas, right? Well, yes probably. But . . .
Incel attackers are misfit men often with personality and anger problems, who get radicalised by a violent, misogynistic online community. Yes, there are uniquely north American issues such as gun control at play here. However, factors like mental health, online radicalisation and sexist societal norms aren’t contained to America. And after the Toronto attack I wrote of how we see men react violently when they’re rejected all the time in New Zealand.
What you want to say is that we have a strong counter-narrative of general societal empathy, progressiveness and sexual equality here. That can serve to protect young men from this online narrative of bitter misogynistic rage.
Well yes, New Zealand is a fairly tolerant, relaxed and progressive country. But honestly we don’t have a strong enough narrative about healthy attitudes to sex, genders and relationships. Take it from a millennial, and our assault statistics, that young men are still growing up with deeply worrying ideas around women.
And the best way of reducing the potential risk of something as horrific as an incel attack is to be really, really clear about calling out these dangerous societal norms.
Take the Friend Zone. I got introduced to it in high school, but it’s still widely held among young men in their 20s and 30s. It’s the idea that all women a man meets are sexual ‘‘targets’’ that need to be ‘‘conquered’’ within a certain timeframe (normally about six weeks) or they’ll be forever stuck in the ‘‘friend zone’’. And yes, they often use the pseudo-militaristic language that shows they think they’re living in the Roman Empire or a bigbudget action movie.
It’s a pretty depressing way of looking at women. But what’s more scary is that the Friend Zone mindset sets young men up to obsess over winning and rejection in any and every interaction they ever have with a woman.
What we need to be emphasising is that it is 100 per cent possible/awesome/just a basic human act to approach women as normal people you could be friends with. (Which seems like stating the obvious, but it’s rarer than we’d all like to think.)
Another dangerous idea is our rigidly held and enforced definition of masculinity. I’ve written before about guys I know who were so ashamed of being a virgin, and so sick of being bullied for it, that they went to brothels to lose their virginity. Ultimately it all comes back to ‘‘being a man’’, where your manliness is measured by how many women you have sex with.
And until we can start opening up our ideas of ‘‘a real man’’ to include things other than just sex, of course there will be young men who are deeply ashamed and angry about not getting enough. Add in mental health issues, and you can see where radicalisation could take root.
And lastly there’s the fact that, even as a society, we really struggle to be cool about sex. We’re still embarrassed, conservative and a bit irrational about it. We live in a society where we’ll slutshame someone for wearing ripped jeans, for God’s sake. We can’t even bring ourselves to teach sexuality education properly in schools. It’s not even compulsory – that catch-all blanket ‘‘Health’’ is, but sex ed isn’t.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could raise kids to see sex not as scary or sacred but just, well, normal? But we don’t. Instead we treat it with a mixture of guilt, shame, idolisation and frustration.
And when that’s how you look at sex, it’s much easier to be convinced that it really is the be-all and end-all of your existence. And potentially worth killing and dying for.
Now I know we don’t want to talk about this. Many of us don’t even like admitting to ourselves that we have issues with the way we see relationships and sex. But without a strong counter-narrative of tolerant, progressive attitudes to sex and gender, we’re leaving ourselves open to the risks of online misogyny.
And when you look at where that landed America, it’s not good enough to keep quiet just because we’re embarrassed.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could raise kids to see sex not as scary or sacred but just, well, normal? But we don’t.
We should be emphasising that it is possible to approach women as normal people you could be friends with.