A deadly attack by a gunman obsessed by grievances toward women near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has touched off an anguished conversation here and on social media about the ways women are perceived sexually and the violence against them.
“If we don’t talk misogyny now, when are we going to talk about it?” asked Nancy Yang, a second-year global studies major, as she stood a few feet from a memorial created in the wake of the rampage on May 23 that left six people and the gunman dead and 13 wounded. “Yes, we have to have compassion, and we don’t know what this perpetrator was going through, but there are underlying issues here,” she said. “We can’t do that without thinking about the way we talk about and speak to women.”
Even as students are still dealing with the shock of hearing gunshots in front of a local convenience store and seeing the dead and wounded bodies in the street, many here are urging others to consider the implications of the attack. And they are also thinking about the catcalls, leers and the fears of sexual violence that have them traveling in packs and carrying pepper spray in their purses.
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, on the university campus and online, said they believed that some of the attitudes toward women expressed by the gunman, Elliot O. Rodger, in his perverse manifesto reflect some views that are echoed in the mainstream culture.
For many women, the attacks were like a nightmare caricature of the safety concerns they deal with regularly on a campus where a high-profile gangrape in February (a 19-year-old was allegedly raped and beaten by at least three men) prompted widespread concerns about safety.
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In dozens of interviews, women voiced concerns about incessantly hearing jokes about rape or what physical features make a woman desirable. At some parties, several women said, their buttocks have been grabbed at the entry door.
“I do live in fear — this is a difficult part of our reality,” said Maddie Clerides, 19, a sophomore majoring in global studies. Clerides said she was not alone in her worries. After the shootings, many women left the campus in fear or at the urging of their parents. “We don’t walk in groups because we like being in cliques; we have real concerns. We don’t invite this on ourselves by the way we look,” she said.
The conversations have also exploded on social media, 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 the sexual expectations and violence directed at women.
Several others wrote about being told by boyfriends and husbands that they deserved being abused. They spoke of law enforcement and school administrators ignoring pleas for help.
One woman began using the hashtag on 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 one 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 over the weekend.
Jill Dunlap, a director of the Women’s Center at the University of California, 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. Now people are saying, ‘Well that’s not really fair, that’s not what we call equality.’”
A few urged caution, saying this gunman, like others who have marauded 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 the attack that she felt compelled to send a lengthy email to her students on 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 colour 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.”