A strange man approached me at Walgreens in the dental care aisle earlier this week. I saw him beeline towards me in my peripheral vision, and as he got closer, I realised what was about to happen. I felt a familiar nervousness rise in my chest and a preemptive scowl forming. I would not be able to give him the kind of attention he was looking for. I have a boyfriend, I told him, which I probably would have said even if I didn’t.
I hate these interactions because of the rollercoaster of emotions they inevitably make me feel. First, uneasiness about what’s about to play out. Then, frustration at the unnatural, stilted conversation that ensues and having to answer dumb questions like, ‘Toothpaste…crazy night planned?” After comes the lingering self-evaluating and shame for either being too kind or not kind enough to this person.
In most instances, I come away with the conclusion that I have not been kind enough. Whenever I rebuff an advance like this, a part of me always feels that I have been unfair. I’d venture to say that this is a universal experience for young women moving through the world today.
Constantly navigating the “right” way to tell a man you’re not interested is something we’ve learned to do since adolescence. We have learned that as women, we are the gatekeepers of sex – the burden is on us to decide whether to let it happen or not. We’re told that our sexuality is our power, and that we should wield it as such.
The problem with this narrative is it is resonating with a very small but engaged enclave of the Internet who are using it to justify gender-based violence in response.
Alek Minassian, the man behind the April 24th attacks in Toronto was engaged in a community of men online who call themselves "incel" — or involuntary celibates. They bond over their shared hatred of women who deprive them of sexual attention – whom they refer to as “Stacys” — and resent the men who receive women’s sexual attention, whom they call “Chads.” Incel groups were reportedly born out of pick-up artist online communities that instructed men how to use dehumanising seduction techniques on women to have sex.
“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” Minassian wrote in a Facebook post minutes before the rampage. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
Minassian was referring to the the murderer behind the 2014 Isla Vista shootings, who, before killing himself along with six other people, left behind a manifesto and a YouTube video describing his sexual frustration and resulting hatred of women. Rodger has become an icon of the incel community and seems to have inspired Minassian to mimic his entitled violence.
Because women are the gatekeepers of sex means that they are ultimately to blame for lonely, sexless men like Minassian and Rodger. And these ideas didn’t occur in a vacuum – they are reflected back to us in a culture that punishes women for saying no.
When I think about all the times I’ve had to reject men, I have to say, not one of them made me feel powerful. Dodging advances from men is not only tiring; often it's frightening. Because for every earnest guy who follows you into a Walgreens with the purest of romantic comedy intentions, you get a stranger yelling obscene things about your body on your walk home alone in the dark.
And, as these fringe communities are beginning to make known, that is not even the worst of it.
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