Last week, news of another mass shooting at an American high school broke, this time at Santa Fe High School in Texas. 10 people died in the attack, and the gunman was taken into custody. According to the mother of one of the victims, her daughter had recently rejected the shooter after he had stalked her and refused to accept no for an answer for 4 months. A week later, he killed her, 7 of her classmates, and two teachers. 13 others were wounded in the attack.
Many news organizations ran with this story, writing articles about how the shooter was motivated by rejection. This has become a relatively common theme in our media: blaming victims of violence for being killed because they angered, upset or rejected their murderer. This is not the first school shooting in 2018 that was blamed on “heartbreak.” In Maryland, the media dubbed a school shooter a “lovesick teen” for shooting two fellow students, including his ex-girlfriend.
What these stories miss is the root cause of these killings: a sense of entitlement to women and a belief in a right to use violence. Rather than simply accepting that a particular girl or woman is not interested in them, young men in these circumstances may decide that the best course of action is to react with violence. This is a direct result of toxic masculinity, which is what happens when a culture adheres to strict gender roles for men, and limits them to primarily expressing their emotions through anger and violence. A sense of entitlement towards women often combines with toxic masculinity to lead to a sentiment of “if I can’t have her, nobody else will.” This may end in tragedies such as the Santa Fe school shooting. When boys and young men are taught that they “deserve” women, and that it’s acceptable to react violently if they feel hurt, rejected, or sad, it isn’t surprising that mass shootings and domestic violence homicides continue to occur.
It also stems from a culture where stalking is glorified as romantic. Many so-called romance movies or romantic comedies highlight behavior that is incredibly creepy — and might even be criminal. We glorify “persistence” as a way to win over a romantic interest — and ignore the fact that the person being pursued might feel differently.
We need to teach boys — and men — that no means no, and how to accept rejection gracefully, without anger. While it sounds like a basic skill, it has become apparent that (1) it is not being taught and (2) our failure to convey this message is having deadly consequences. “No means no” is an important conversation that we need to have, along with teaching boys that they can express emotions like sadness and fear. By allowing our boys the space to have these emotions, and teaching them that pursuing someone that has said no isn’t romantic — it’s creepy — we can help to make our community a better and safer place.
Many of us feel helpless when school shootings and other types of violence happen. Yet there are things that each of us can do, right in our own homes, or with our own friends and families. Helping boys and men to understand that persistence isn’t romantic, and giving them the space to feel emotions other than anger, may not have the same immediate impact as attending a protest or working to have a bill passed. But it will have a broader, more long-lasting effect in helping to eradicate gender-based violence in our communities.