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America Has A Patriarchy Problem

In this May 24, 2014 file photo, students stand next to a bouquet of flowers during a vigil held to honor the victims a mass killing at University of California, Santa Barbara. The shooter, Elliot Rodger, was said to have had hostility towards women. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
In this May 24, 2014 file photo, students stand next to a bouquet of flowers during a vigil held to honor the victims a mass killing at University of California, Santa Barbara. The shooter, Elliot Rodger, was said to have had hostility towards women. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

There is a relationship between Jeffrey Epstein’s predations and the mass shootings this month in Dayton and El Paso, and I’m not talking about any sort of conspiracy theory.

Scratch the surfaces of these stories and you quickly realize that they both reveal profound and troubling cultural patterns, about an enormous and still under-acknowledged battle royale now being waged about the “place” of women in our society — about how much power and equality women “should” have.

As a nation, we debate these issues at moments when the battle boils over. We saw this during the Kavanaugh hearings, in the charged attention given to “the Squad” of freshman Democratic congresswomen by the president, as well as in the reaction to the draconian anti-abortion bills in states including Alabama, Missouri and Georgia.

But we also simultaneously disavow how key this fight over women’s equality is to all that is roiling our society today.

Epstein and the mass murderers are two sides of the same patriarchal coin.

White nationalist violence and anti-immigrant hysteria rightly insist we analyze contemporary events through the lens of racism. An equally virulent cultural force, and thus an equally crucial lens, is the fear, hatred and contempt that too many men (and some women) feel toward the notion that women have an equal right to outspokenness, political power, and particularly the right to choose not to have sex when they don’t want to.

The country is battling about patriarchy. Can it be dismantled? Or will money, power, guns and laws continue to terrorize many women into silence and sexual submission?

Jeffrey Epstein used his riches to employee people who would help him to recruit, violate and rape scores of young women. He is reported to have wanted his DNA spread widely, a fantasy he apparently felt entitled to enact without consent.

To provide better cover and immunity, Epstein purchased status and lawyers. Alan Dershowitz, who defended Epstein in 2008, and was for years a faculty member at Harvard Law School, is one example. Another is former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who arranged Epstein’s plea deal and wrist-slap sentence. The takeaway? Both men protected one of their own at the price of destroying young women’s lives. Their behavior is hardly exceptional.

But where’s the connection to our latest round of mass shootings? It is succinctly offered in a front-page headline in The New York Times: “A Common Trait Among Mass Killers: Hatred Toward Women.” The opening text makes the point vividly:

The man who shot nine people to death last weekend in Dayton, Ohio, seethed at female classmates and threatened them with violence. The man who massacred 49 people in Orlando nightclub in 2016 beat his wife while she was pregnant …

The article documents the relationship between mass killings to male rage and male violence against women. One commonly expressed source of rage is a man’s sense that his sexual access to women has been thwarted by women’s increased autonomy.

Epstein and the mass murderers are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. One side allows men in power to use their money and influence to brutalize women and cover up their misdeeds; the other side enables access to guns for rageful men who, feeling thwarted, seek to terrorize and kill. The sum of the whole coin? There is too much shelter in our society for men who feel entitled to dominate women, and/or to harm them when they seemingly do not comply.

Furthermore, the relationship of these large patterns of female harm to male prerogative don’t get adequate airing or appropriate legislation by the powerful white men who run Congress. Consider Steve King, the Republican congressman of Iowa currently serving his ninth term. King, who is known for his long public record of racist remarks and ties to white nationalism, recently asked if there would “be any population of the world left” if it were not for rape and incest.

Right-wing lawmakers and commentators try to insist that male prerogative has nothing to do with mass murder, and that each instance is singular — without pattern or larger meaning. They point fingers everywhere else.

In October 2017, just after the massacre in Las Vegas, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas demonstrated perfectly the way powerful men glibly refuse to confront the real issues:

The fact that a psychopathic killer murdered innocents is cause for grief. It’s cause for more vigorous law enforcement — for stopping madmen and killers … But it is not an excuse for Democrats to try and strip away Second Amendment rights from law-abiding citizens.

All such feints and lies leave women living without adequate physical or emotional safety.

The #MeToo movement has made examples of many powerful men (here’s Glamour’s list of 100 men facing sexual harassment allegations), but it’s barely scratching the surface of unaddressed sexual, physical and psychological violence against women. Just look at rape statistics of women on campus and in the military, or domestic the prevalence of domestic violence, or the new laws in 10 states that make abortion a crime; or at Trump’s incitement of hate-chants against Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

We would like to comfort ourselves by believing that these perpetrators of violence against women — whether sexual or gun-toting or verbally violent — are outliers. More accurately, they are the rogue soldiers in an ongoing war.

Patriarchal entitlement is a very old and entrenched problem. But many in America are ready to embrace a new order. We can elect a more enlightened president, and a better Congress — one that is younger, more diverse, not beholden to special interests, and filled with women and their male allies: one that is ready to curtail and redress exploitative powers whose time is past.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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