ISLA VISTA, Calif. — When a gunman obsessed with grievances toward women turned a postcard-perfect college town into a scene of mass murder last week, he did more than leave many women here thinking back to catcalls, leers and the fears of sexual violence that have them traveling in packs and carrying pepper spray in their purses.
Both on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in an explosion of anger and frustration on social media, the attack has set off a raw, anguished conversation about the ways women are perceived sexually and the violence against them that has reverberated around the country.
“If we don’t talk misogyny now, when are we going to talk about it?” Nancy Yang, a second-year global studies major, said as she stood a few feet from a memorial created in the wake of the rampage Friday night that left six dead plus the gunman and 13 injured.
“Yes, we have to have compassion, and we don’t know what this perpetrator was going through,” she said, “but there are underlying issues here. We can’t do that without thinking about the way we talk about and speak to women. This act does not represent our campus at all, but at the same time there’s a palpable sense that there needs to be more dialogue about the factors that led to it.”
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Even as students here are still dealing with the shock of hearing gunshots in front of a local convenience store and seeing the dead and injured bodies in the street, many here are urging others to think about the implications of the attack.
Of course, they say, a lewd look is not the same as a sexual assault. An unwanted comment is not the same as a gunshot. But many women interviewed on this campus and commenting online said that some of the attitudes the gunman, Elliot Rodger, expressed against women in his perverse manifesto of rage and frustration are widely accepted and part of mainstream culture.
Rodger died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after a shootout with deputies, ending a night of terror in this tight-knit seaside campus community as the semester drew to a close.
Before Rodger stabbed three male UCSB students in his apartment and cruised around in his black BMW firing at sorority girls and strangers, he left a trail of YouTube videos and a 140-page manifesto ranting against women and couples and lamenting his lack of a sex life.
Rodger, a 22-year-old community- college student and son of a Hollywood director, said he was a lonely and frustrated virgin.
“I’m sexually attracted to girls. But girls are not sexually attracted to me. And there’s a major problem with that — a major problem. That’s a problem that I intend to rectify. I in all my magnificence and power, I will not let this fly. It’s an injustice that needs to be dealt with,” Rodger said in one of the videos.
For many women on this campus, the attacks were like a nightmare caricature of the safety concerns they deal with regularly on a campus where a high-profile gang rape this spring prompted widespread concerns about safety, and where an outsize reputation for alcohol-fueled parties led some to wonder if the beachside campus culture in any way played into the violence.
“I do live in fear — this is a difficult part of our reality,” said Maddie Clerides, 19, a sophomore majoring in global studies. “We don’t walk in groups because we like being in cliques; we have real concerns. We’re doing everything we can to be safe, but there’s no doubt that this is scary. We don’t invite this on ourselves by the way we look.”
The conversations have also exploded in social media online, with hundreds of thousands of people using the hashtag #yesallwomen to discuss violence against women and reveal deep-seated feelings of anger and horror at sexual expectations and violence directed at women.
On Twitter and Facebook, women voiced their own experiences with verbal and physical harassment and abuse. There were postings from some who said they wore fake wedding rings to avoid advances from men and others who said that saying no to a man “was only the start of negotiation.”
Several others wrote about boyfriends and husbands telling them they deserved being abused. They spoke of law enforcement and school administrators ignoring pleas for help.
One woman began using the hashtag Saturday as a response to the hashtag #notallmen, which had been used to argue that men should not be universally portrayed as sexist aggressors. So yes, women on social media said over and over again, not all men are harassers, but all women have experienced such harassment.
Even as the hashtag continued to be one of the top trends on Twitter on Monday, used with more than 1 million postings, there was considerable backlash, with some saying it portrayed men unfairly and urging a more universal message. The user credited with beginning the hashtag apparently shut down her account after saying that she had been repeatedly harassed online during the weekend.
Jill Dunlap, a director of the Women’s Center at UC Santa Barbara, said that she hoped the online discussions would help fuel a wider dialogue on campus.
“It has just been accepted as fact that women cannot walk alone at night,” Dunlap said. “Now people are saying, Well that’s not really fair; that’s not what we call equality. We’re seeing more people say you don’t have to accept it or be polite. It opens up a conversation of how to really change cultural expectations.”
Many women spoke of compulsively reading the killer’s manifesto, seeing extreme echoes of sentiments they had all heard before.
A few urged caution, saying this gunman, like the cavalcade of gunmen marauding across American life, should be seen more as a deranged madman than a metaphor for something larger.
“This was the act of one man,” said Casey Lockwood, who recently graduated with a degree in sociology and still lives in Isla Vista. “I think it’s connected to the imperfect nature of every human being, not just men. I don’t know if we can use it as a sociological window into anything.”
But, on this largely liberal campus, few seemed to see it that way.
Hannah Goodwin, a graduate student in film studies, said she was so alarmed by Friday’s attack that she felt compelled to send a lengthy email to her students Saturday, urging them to think about their own actions and the prevalence of sexual violence around them.
“It fosters an environment of fear rather than of community and shared learning,” Goodwin wrote, “and you should never have to experience this anywhere, regardless of what clothing you wear, what color hair you have, your gender, etc. I know you all know this, but it bears repeating: No one ever has the right to demand access to others’ bodies, and you never owe anyone access to your body.”