Elliot Rodger and the Lies We Believe About Sex

Let’s talk about Elliot Rodger for a moment, shall we?

On May 23, “the Day of Retribution,” the 22-year-old man acted in vengeance against those who, he believed, had willfully ignored him, keeping him a virgin and denying him the physical affection he craved. Enacting a plan that originally called for the dismemberment of random strangers, the destruction of an entire sorority, and the premeditated murder of his own half-brother and stepmother, Rodger murdered six people before turning a gun on himself.

It’s easy to write him off as a lone lunatic. Certainly Rodger had mental health issues. His own 140-page autobiographical manifesto reveals that he had been in counseling off and on for most of his life, and that he had faced at least some bullying during his schooling. Whether he could or should be described as clinically insane is a question best left to the experts, but there’s no doubt that these issues contributed to his rampage.

The more frightening undercurrent to his manifesto, though, is his attitude toward women in general and sexual relations in particular. Roger was consumed by bitterness that the hot women of the world ignored him—that they didn’t seem to give him a second glance, despite his expensive clothes and BMW; that women prefer idiot jocks over him with his obvious intellectual superiority. Women were objects, and sex was a right that had been denied to him.

This attitude is terrifying because it shows up everywhere. Call it male privilege or call it rape culture, it appears in porn and in Sleeping Beauty, in sexual chat rooms and on Facebook. It’s sleeping with and then murdering prostitutes in the Grand Theft Auto games, and it’s Mario winning Princess Peach as a prize after hard work. It’s “pick-up artists” and rapists, and it’s the “nice young man” in your church who thinks he can earn the right to a date by being nice to a woman, regardless of her feelings.

And herein lies the problem: pop culture is engraining in us a number of tragic lies about sexuality and relationships. And without meaning to, we all start to internalize them and believe them.

Lie #1: Sex is an irresistible biological urge.

One of the common tropes in TV and movies is that of the boorish male. This tends to show up in one of two ways. First is the womanizing “Bros-before-hos” frat boy, such as Jon from Don JonSecond is the lovably inept father (usually married to a smart career woman), such as Tim Taylor from Home Improvement; he may not act on his sexual impulses, but his wandering eye is played for laughs. In either case, the message is simple: men get a pass for their sexual attitudes and actions on the basis of their biology.

But it’s more than just comedy. This attitude is taught in school and church. You’ve probably heard or even repeated some of the mantras yourself: “Men are visually stimulated; they have a greater sex drive than women; they crave physical touch more than women; they think of sex on average once every seven seconds. Women don’t care nearly as much about looks; they want emotional intimacy.”

Many of these teachings may be true, and can even be helpful as baseline gender differentiators. It reminds young Christian women to dress modestly, for example. But it can also lead men in particular to abdicate the responsibility for their own lustful thoughts, and to blame-shift sin to either biology or women.

Perhaps you’ve heard some of the arguments:

  • “I can’t help that I was staring at her. She was wearing revealing clothing.”
  • “I’m not married, I have a high libido, and I need to relieve myself somehow, so of course I look at porn.”
  • “You, my wife, aren’t meeting my sexual needs, and that’s why I look at porn.”
  • “You were just too much for me.” (A youth pastor told this to a former student after raping her.)
  • “It wasn’t until I went through puberty and started desiring girls that my whole life turned into a living hell. I desired girls, but girls never desired me back. There is something very wrong with that. It is an injustice that cannot go unpunished” (p. 135 of Rodger’s manifesto).

In each of these cases, the man is giving himself a pass for his sin on the basis of his anatomy, on the basis of being created male and finding females attractive. And a God who gives men sexual urges and condemns them for acting on them must be an unjust God indeed.

(By the way, there are women who blame their ovaries for their sexual temptations as well, so ladies, you’re not off the hook on this. This does seem to be a primarily male excuse, though.)

Lie #2: Women (and therefore sex) are prizes to be won or a payment to be earned.

Princess Leia, from the Star Wars trilogy, is perhaps one of the strongest female characters to grace the screen. She’s clever, she’s a strong leader, and she’s a good shot to boot.

She is also beautiful, and it is the combination of her beauty and her obvious need that sends Luke off on his epic quest. And Han and Luke’s competition for her attention forge some significant interactions between the trio. Leia kisses Luke on-screen twice; once is “for luck”—to motivate him to safety—and the other is to show her satisfaction with him, and incite jealousy in Han. In these two little kisses, she trains Luke and Han, and all the audience, that good behavior merits sexual rewards.

This is one of pop culture’s favorite lies, especially among the geek/nerd subculture (warning: some language at that link). “Romance” is embedded in many video games, for example; but their success or failure is dependent—literally—on whether or not the player hits the right button at the right time. In TV and the movies, the nerdy guy almost always gets the hot girl. (But, of course, the nerdy girl must always become the hot girl to get the hot guy, mind.) Even in the hilarious, trope-thwarting LEGO Movie, the everyman hero Emmet convinces the smart, beautiful Wyldstyle to dump Batman—Batman!—for him. He has saved the world, and therefore he has earned the girl.

Is this fiction? Sure. Are the stories amusing? Sure. But Elliot Rodger internalized and believed them. As he entered adulthood, he expected that the typical status signifiers of nice clothes and a nice car would be enough to earn him the respect and admiration of women. He went to college and attended parties expecting that women would see him and fawn over him (never mind that he never thought to strike up a conversation himself). And when he never got the attention he believed he deserved, six people lost their lives.

Rodger, you see, took this attitude to its logical extreme. He stripped women of their choice and of their personhood. His manifesto says to women: “Your thoughts and desires don’t matter. I am smart and wear nice clothes, and therefore I deserve you. And because you have denied me your love, you must pay.”

Most people don’t take such extreme views, but a frightening number of people still objectify each other. Even Christian singles aren’t so different. Sure, most people know enough to realize that a conversation is the first step in a relationship. But it’s common for both men and women to see interactions with each other as transactional:

  • “If I help her with her broken-down car, she’ll have to go out with me!”
  • “If I bake the best cookies ever, he’s sure to fall in love with me!”
  • “Sure, I’ll listen to her cry about her boy troubles. Then she’ll fall in love with me instead, right?”
  • “He seems to like blondes. That means all I need to do is to dye my hair to get out of the friendzone.”
  • Or, to quote Rick Springfield: “I’ve been funny/I’ve been cool with the lines/Isn’t that how love’s supposed to be?/Why can’t I find a woman like that?/I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.”

This kind of patient hanging-on rarely works, and will often lead to bitterness. Or, worse, the admirer may try to take the prize by force.

Lie #3: Sex will solve everything.

“You just need to get laid.”

This was a common refrain at my college, especially among my non-Christian friends. Anger or aggression issues? Just go have sex. Bitter or lonely? It’s probably because you’re a virgin. In retrospect, it’s amazing how many personal problems were blamed on sexual abstinence.

But then, we were the generation of American Pie and other “teen” comedies focused on characters breaking free from the shackles of virginity before graduation. We were—and now are—the generation in which cohabiting is becoming more common than marriage; in which “saving yourself for marriage” just isn’t done. And if you made it through college without being deflowered, then something certainly must be wrong with you.

Again, this was a belief Rodger deeply internalized. He couldn’t shrug off the shame of being a 22-year-old virgin; he raged when those younger, uglier, less intelligent, or less white than him managed to attract the tall blondes he so eagerly desired. And in the end, he wished to destroy what he could not have: “All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy. All of those popular people who live hedonistic lives of pleasure, I will destroy, because they never accepted me as one of them. I will kill them all and make them suffer, just as they have made me suffer. It is only fair” (p. 137).

Water from the living well

All of these lies, and all of our lusts (sexual or otherwise), are manifestations of our deeper desires—for love, for acceptance, for belonging. Rodger, for example, was a sensitive child from a broken home growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, where wealth and sex were signifiers of personal value. While he acknowledged that his self-worth came from more than material possessions, his mind twisted into believing that because he had worth, he deserved those signifiers, and those who denied him of them must pay. Mercifully few rampage like Rodger, but a rather large number of people enter into a relationship looking for some sort of personal validation, and when the relationship fails to fill the need, they are filled with bitterness and resentment.

This is precisely the brokenness that Jesus addresses in John 4. “I’ll give you water that will keep you from thirsting,” he says to a Samaritan woman, an outcast from good Jewish society.

“Great,” says the woman. “Give it to me, so I never need to come fetch water again.”

Jesus sees that she doesn’t quite get what he’s talking about. “Go fetch your husband,” he says.

“I’m not married,” she replies.

“That’s right,” Jesus says. “Your first five marriages didn’t work out, so now you’re dating a sixth guy.”

The woman, you see, had kept thirsting, had kept trying to find fulfillment in relationships. But her thirst was never quenched, no matter how many times she returned to the same well. But Jesus came to her, a sexually broken “lower class” woman living in a patriarchal world, just as he still ministers to all of us, the objectified and abused and the objectifiers and abusers alike. His answer? “Come to me, Elliot Rodgers of the world. Fill your mind on my word, not culture’s lies. Drink from the living water. I want to give you the water that will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

This seems very abstract and ethereal, but it’s actually intensely practical. Let’s look at those lies again:

Truth #1: We are meant to (and therefore are able to) glorify God with our bodies.

The first lie, remember, is that our sex drive is an uncontrollable biological function, meaning we should give ourselves free passes for staring after each other. And yet Jesus calls these behaviors lust, and says that anyone who even looks at someone else with lust in his (or her) heart is guilty of committing adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). So obviously these lustful urges, which do have a basis in biology, do not need to be our masters.

Men, stop blaming women for your lust. Stop blaming your hormones for your sin. If you don’t, you’ll always find excuses for your sexual sin. Even if every woman in every church in America wore a burqa, there will always be billboards on the road, or silhouettes on the mudflaps of the pickup trucks in front of you, or bikini-clad women on the beach. Women fixing themselves will not solve your sin issues.

Instead, meditate on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:13-14: “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.” If you believe in a God strong enough to raise Jesus (and eventually us) up from the dead, then remember: you believe in a God who can help you get your lusts under control.

Truth #2: We are brothers and sisters in Christ.

The second lie was that women are objects and relationships are rewards. This dehumanizing behavior again flies right in the face of Scripture.

  • Objectifying each other, treating each other as prizes instead of people, counters Genesis 1:27, where God creates both men and women in His image.
  • The singles’ complaints about the friendzone, and any transactional relationships, goes against 1 Timothy 5:1-2, where Paul commands us to treat each other as brothers and sisters.
  • Well-intentioned husbands who describe their wives as “smokin’ hotmay be saying more about their own sexual prowess than their sacrificial love of their wives (Ephesians 5:25).
  • Wives who are embarrassed by their husband’s inattention to physical appearance should remind themselves that the goal of marriage is to reflect the church’s submission to Christ, not their own perfect family (Ephesians 5:24).

Truth #3: Sex is a gift, but it complicates things.

The third lie is that getting laid solves a host of problems. It is true that the lack of sex—or rather, the lack of relationships—can cause its own set of problems. It’s easy to feel lonely or left out. In reality, though, sex and relationships solve nothing; rather, they complicate matters. Even in the happiest, God-centered marriage, sex is not always a smooth process. Even if both partners are virgins, there’s the first-time awkwardness. Sex can be uncomfortable, if not outright painful. In some cases, intercourse may even be medically impossible without surgery. And that’s assuming neither partner brings in baggage from porn or sexual abuse.

Rather than longing for sex or relationships, Solomon begs us not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 2:7). Solomon himself ought to know; he had 1,000 sexual partners (1 Kings 11:3), and yet he called it all “vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). His wives and concubines no doubt provided him pleasure, but they turned him away from serving the Lord, and as a result God raised up enemies for him (1 Kings 11). If the wisest, richest man who lived could not avoid trouble, it’s little wonder that Paul would eventually write, “Those who marry will have worldly troubles” (1 Corinthians 7:28). Far from sex solving your personal issues, it is actually the single person who is free from anxieties (1 Corinthians 7:32).

Two ridiculously practical tips

So now that we’ve identified these cultural lies, what do we do? Do we respond like Rodger, who destroyed what he could not have? Or do we recognize our own sexual brokenness, both in action and in attitudes?

The first thing to do, of course, is to turn to God. Cultural solutions to this cultural problem—like fixing misogynistic attitudes—may help for a while, but “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:62). Only by diving deep into the Word and by casting all our cares upon God through prayer (1 Peter 5:7) can we truly transform our attitudes and actions about sexual brokenness and other sins.

The second thing to do is to find a good accountability partner, probably of the same gender and similar relationship status as you. This is especially true for those who are single and/or are dealing specifically with sexual brokenness (like pornography). This person needs to empathize with your pain…but make sure you listen when they offer reproofs.

It’s important to note that both of these are only as good as their foundation. Are you seeking “a higher power” or the one living God? Is your accountability relationship focused on Christ or on complaining? Even Rodger attempted to pursue both of these aspects. He tried to manipulate cosmic karma after reading The Secret. He had a best friend, James, who was also single, but Rodger’s own venomous bitterness caused James to eventually disassociate himself from the vitriolic young man. Of course he lost all hope; he never found the source of hope to begin with.

Instead, then, let us dwell on what it says in Hebrews 12 about Christ (a man who never lusted and died a virgin, mind you):

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (v.1-2).

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears (v.12-17).