Feminism, Privilege, Nerds, and Relationships …

So, Scott Aaronson wrote a comment about his personal interactions with feminism. It’s been getting a lot of attention, and I’m going to comment on some of the replies. I’ll start here with Amanda Marcotte’s, and then I’ll address the one that might actually have content that needs actual addressing Laurie Penny’s. But first, Marcotte’s.

As typical of her, this is pretty much a snarky, sarcastic “fisking” of the comment, that wouldn’t be notable except for one really, really big problem that it exhibits, which I’ll get to later. But it gets in trouble right off the start:

It’s a response to self-pitying comment from MIT professor Scott Aaronson’s blog comment section, a response he wrote to a woman who dared suggest that nerd men can sometimes be, you know, sexist.

The problem is one that I have seen constantly in these sorts of situations, including pretty much anything Rebecca Watson says that people disagree with: the minimizing of what the person actually said into something so harmless and trivial that, hey, how could anyone take any offense to that, let alone the amount of offense they took? Here’s what Amy actually said about nerd men:

As for the “shy and nerdy” bit…you know, some of the gropiest, most misogynistic guys I’ve met have been of the shy and nerdy persuasion. I can only speculate on why that’s so, but no, I would certainly not equate shy/nerdy with harmless. In fact I think a shy/nerdy-normed world would be a significantly worse world for women. (Not least because so many nerdy guys are certain that they’re extremely fairminded and rational, when instead what they are is naive about both social structures and how many things play out in reality, and unwilling or unable to fathom that other people’s reactions to events might be both different from and as valid as their own.)

So she didn’t just claim that shy and nerdy men could sometimes be sexist. She essentially argued that they were more sexist than other men, that a world where people acted like shy and nerdy men would be worse for women than a world populated by the sort of extrovert jerks that invented things like, say, Speed Seduction (I don’t think that most PUAs who sell their product are actually introverts). This is a far stronger claim than Marcotte’s summary suggests … and is endemic of why feminists are facing such resistance in my opinion. They tend to either explicitly or implicitly claim that the group they are targeting is particularly bad, when in reality it isn’t any worse and may even be slightly better than society in general. Sure, some nerds are gropy and misogynistic. Are all of them? Are most of them? Overall, is that subgroup really worse than other groups? And is that the result of something specific to them as a group? These are all interesting questions whose answers are important for determining how to go about solving the problems. It does no one any favours to ignore what they’re actually saying, rational or not, right or not.

Much of Marcotte’s post consists of her translating what Aaronson is saying into, well, something else. How it relates to what he’s actually saying is never really proven, but is just assumed. Which means that, like most of her posts, if you agree with her you’ll laugh and if you don’t you’ll at best be confused. I will address at least some of these translations.

Translation: I think you’re lying, because my desire to believe that nerds are balls of pure goodness oppressed by 80s-style cartoonish jock villains cannot countenance the idea that nerd men could ever do anything wrong, ever. Never mind that the movie epitomizing the nerd/jock dichotomy I lean heavily on features a nerd raping a woman in an act of revenge, which is treated like a triumph instead of an act of violence.

The link she gives describing the movie is here, and she’s talking about Revenge of the Nerds. The author of the article describes the scene thusly:

The date rape in Revenge of the Nerds comes as Lewis Skolnick, played by Robert Carradine, sneaks up on beautiful cheerleader Betty Childs in the ‘Moon Room’ of a haunted house while wearing a disguise. See, they’re at a costume event and Lewis has stolen the Darth Vader mask of Betty’s dipshit boyfriend Stan (played by TV superstar Ted McGinley) and is wearing it to conceal his true identity. Betty thinks Lewis is Stan and, as one is wont to do, ****s him with the mask on. When Lewis removes the mask Betty decides that he’s such a great lay she’s going to leave her jock boyfriend for this nerd. Victory for nerds everywhere… who can only get laid through misrepresentation and subterfuge, I guess.

So let’s talk a bit about how this does fit into the nerd culture as talked about by Aaronson. The main idea here, I think, is that if the nerds were given a chance by women, then the women would find out that the nerds are in fact good people deep down and worth dating. In the context, that pretty much means sexually, although it is possible that the reason he’s better is because he actually cares more about her and her pleasure than her boyfriend does, which would definitely be less sexist. But the nerds don’t get that chance because of the preconceptions about them. So once they trick her into giving him a chance, then she realizes what they can offer and he, at least, manages to “win”. From the nerd angle, they shouldn’t have to trick women into giving them a chance to prove themselves, but they do … and that they have to is no fault of their own.

Now, this is indeed rape, where rape is defined as sex without consent. She wouldn’t have consented if she’d known who it was. What the movie, I think, tries to imply is that while she wouldn’t have consented if she’d known who it was at the start, she would have consented if she’d known what she knows after they actually do have sex, which muddies things a little bit (can you have give consent willingly after the fact, retroactively applying it?). This, however, has the rather unfortunate implication that a rape victim might actually enjoy the rape, and not be traumatized or angry over it, implying that if you trick someone into sex they might like it and so not have it be rape. But, at any rate, the triumph is, to me, the proving of their quality that the movie rather awkwardly promotes, not the rape of a woman, as Marcotte implies.

He also doesn’t say that she’s lying. He merely says that her experience may not be universal, which is a perfectly reasonable response to make to someone insisting that a world nerd-normed would be worse than the one we have.

Despite saying he’s steeped in feminist discourse, you will find that the only feminist whose name he appears to remember is Andrea Dworkin’s, i.e. a woman modern day feminists reference rarely (if ever) but misogynists tend to obsess over because they want her to be the spokeswoman for feminism.

And he claimed that he liked her work, and that of radical feminists, and relates better to them … something that misogynists never, ever say. And she ignores the general sites that he lists and that he’s really trying to establish there that, yeah, he does read feminist work and so has the vocabulary. So this doesn’t seem to be any kind of strike against him unless she wants to claim that Dworkin actually isn’t really a feminist, which feminists, well, never, ever do.

Translation: Having to explain my suffering to women when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs, is so tiresome.

Let’s look at what Aaronson said to lead to this comment:

But I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things. To have any hope of bridging the gargantuan chasm between us, I’m going to have to reveal something about my life, and it’s going to be embarrassing.


So, Marcotte interprets this as him expressing frustration, which doesn’t follow from the preceding paragraph. What does follow from the preceding paragraph is a sigh like a deep breath, preparing himself for saying what he admits is embarrassing. Which, since all he’s talking about is his lack of success with women, shouldn’t be embarrassing, but as we’ll see with people like Marcotte out there, it becomes that.

This is a critical passage, because it really lays out his thesis: That fear of rejection is a male-only experience, and one that is so awful that any suffering women have endured through history is a mere pittance compared to it. The possibility that women want love and attention and worry about being humiliated and denied simply has never occurred to him. I have some theories as to why.

I’m not sure how she gets to that thesis from a paragraph that simply talks about his own personal experiences and says nothing about how women have it. And I’ll give you a spoiler for later: this isn’t his thesis. His thesis is that he had these issues, and that feminism instead of making it better or a world where this was better, actually made it worse. And, on top of that, the men who rejected the feminist ideas actually had success. And, on top of that, he was seen as having to check his privilege more than those “Neaderthals”, as he puts it. This is not likely to lead to a positive view of feminism.

Also, spoiler, Marcotte will not, in any way, make this better. Instead, she’ll make it worse.

Translation: I was too busy JAQ-ing off, throwing tantrums, and making sure the chip on my shoulder was felt by everyone in the room to be bothered to do something like listen.

Um, it seems that he did listen. The lessons, at the very least, as provided, weren’t presented in a way that worked to teach him what he did need to know. I’m suspecting that he was one of those overly analytic people — you know, like people on the Autistic Spectrum — and needed more than a list of behaviours not to do, but instead either also a list of behaviours to do or a way to generalize what the underlying link between all the behaviours so that he could make a rule on that. Many people don’t pick up social cues naturally, and so rely on rules to navigate social situations. What was done here sounds a lot like the problem with a lot of sexual harassment policies: they state rules that don’t actually work in real social situations, and so people ignore them … but the people who try to actually follow them are seen as weird and creepy, and the people who want to follow the rules don’t have the ability to determine on their own when the exceptions come into play. That’s why they wanted the rules in the first place. So if you list a set of things not to do, don’t blame people for thinking that doing those things is always wrong and so they should never do them.

Translation: I believe that women and gay men do not experience either sexual desire or fear of rejection, mostly because I haven’t considered the possibility that people not exactly like me have internal lives and desires of their own.

I find that fantasy itself rather odd, and would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it. I concede that he might have had a distorted view of what the life of others is like and might not be properly empathetic towards their issues, but that doesn’t justify not being empathetic to his own experiences. He might have been wrong, but he did feel that way. And it is useful to note that if he had been a woman, his shyness would not have been as big an issue — shyness is a positive trait in women and a negative trait in men — and if he had been gay he would have had a reason for being lonely that wasn’t an indication of a personal problem in him. Yes, there would have been many other issues, though …

Translation: I skimmed through feminist literature and got angry when I realized that they were going to spend all their time yapping about women’s problems, instead of getting onto the real problem that they, as women, are obligated to solve. Which is how to get someone to touch my cock without making me work at it.

Or, rather, he went to get more detail to find out the underlying theory and how it could explain what actions were allowed or not, and how to tell the difference, and found that there was nothing else to it. In fact, as he said next, it went even further into the things that thou shalt not do without saying what the determining factor was.

Translation: Unwilling to actually do the work required to address my social anxiety—much less actually improve my game—I decided that it would be easier to indulge a conspiracy theory where all the women in the world, led by evil feminists, are teaching each other not to **** me. Because bitches, yo.

Um, considering that what he lists are actual statements made in feminist literature, it’s hard to claim that it’s a conspiracy theory to take what feminists say literally. And he didn’t say anything about women not having sex with him, but that it gave him more reasons to not approach. In short, it made his social anxiety worse. Surely feminism should not be proud or even content with making an actual mental problem worse, right?

Also, the “much less actually improve my game” should be a massive red flag here, because you know who talks about improving your game? PUAs. Who often frequent shyness newsgroups promising to do just that for shy men. Excellent work making shy men who read your column more vulnerable to PUA literature and promises.

There are many women out there who are also crippled by social anxieties who would prefer to hide in their hobbies and interests. The difference is a) they can’t blame the entire opposite sex instead of themselves for their mental health issues and b) when they actually try to turn those interests and hobbies into professions, they are told by various social forces, both explicitly and implicitly, that their femaleness means they will always be second-rate at best. Being able to hide in mathematics is, in fact, a privilege, because it is one that has long been and continues in many ways, denied to women.

On a), my answer is “And yet, they do”. Blaming the shallowness of men for a woman who is not model beautiful not being able to get dates despite being a “great person’ is pretty common. Additionally, shy women have an easier time getting dates and relationships than men do, because under patriarchy men are supposed to be the initiators and the aggressors and women are supposed to be the gatekeepers. On the shyness newsgroup I used to frequent, you rarely got women posters … in general, but also few who came to complain that it stopped them getting dates. If they ever left the house, chances are they got hit on (which we know to be true because the whole push against sexual harassment is to stop that). That was probably the number one complaint from men.

On b), that depended on their hobby. If it was traditionally female, they could hide in it without penalty. Academics was not, unfortunately, one of them, but a woman interested in that was not, in fact, necessarily worse off than a man whose hobby was traditionally female. About the only real difference here is that traditionally female hobbies and occupations tended to be more social, while men had more solo options.

I’m not a doctor, but I can imagine that it’s nearly impossible to help someone who is more interested in blaming his testicles, feminism, women generally, or the world for his mental health problems than to actually settle down and get to work at getting better. Perhaps actual therapists might want to weigh in on how you handle cases like this.

The issue here is that for him it seemed that it was his sexual desires that were his biggest problem. Not the cause of it, of course, but the thing that caused him the most grief. So, no, it wouldn’t have been a solution to his problem, but it would have made him happier, at least in his mind.

The main issue here is that there is a lot of social pressure to get dates, get sex, and get relationships. Speaking personally, I found that my quality of life improved greatly when I decided that being in a relationship just wasn’t that important to me and to embrace my introversion. I was never really lonely, but did feel the pressure to get a relationship, but coming to understand myself better and noting that many people in relationships were or ended up worse off than they were outside of them led me to that conclusion. Which is what I might have recommended to him. Which, you’ll note, for men makes getting a relationship a lot harder; men don’t generally fall into relationships as easily as women do, as they generally have to make the first move. Which would have meant that he wouldn’t have found his wife. So, Amanda, was that a good solution to his problem?

This is a common theme: He isn’t failing himself. Women are failing him by not showing up naked in his bed, unbidden.

Or, that being an introvert and analytic isn’t actually something that someone should see as a problem with them, and so there really was nothing wrong with him. The world just wasn’t really set up to deal with his reasonable and valid personality traits.

Translation: It’s unfair that I can’t just go to the wife store and buy the latest model.

Or, that a society where there is more social support for people who want to get into a relationship would have been better for him than the crap one we have now, where relationships are seen as incredibly important but no one wants to help anyone actually get them other than by giving trite and useless advice. For example, a lot of shy men, particularly, would prefer getting set up with people. Guess why no one usually wants to do that anymore? Right, non-shy people don’t like it and find it insulting. Our world is not a world that is kind to introverts, of any gender.

I have no doubt that men who spend their dates flirting with women instead of demanding that the answer for something Andrea Dworkin wrote 35 years ago do, in fact, get laid more. What’s interesting is Aaronson doesn’t seem to grasp that some of that ass-grabbery might be, you know, consensual. Because that would be admitting that women have sexual desires like he does, as opposed to being sex-dispensing machines who have been broken by feminism and their own inherent female wrongness.

Here is where we really start to see the glimmerings of a serious problem, as here she admits that that ass-grabbery behaviour might be consensual. In short, women might like that. Considering that a lot of this behaviour would be happening among people who wouldn’t be in enough of a relationship for this to be explict, and that the big push of PUAs is that their behaviour isn’t wrong because the women really like it, and that one of the main issues with sexual harassment is that women don’t actually like it but for various reasons won’t protest, I really can’t see how this isn’t just tossing feminist theory out in order to make a cheap shot at Aaronson, hinting that he just really wasn’t a man worthy of getting dates despite his taking feminist theory seriously, unlike those other men.

Also … flirting is crap and sucks. Flirting is the approach of choice for women because it allows for plausible deniability if the person rejects you; you don’t have to admit that you were actually interested, and can be doing it just for fun. Of course, that also leads to the possibility that the target might completely miss the signs, but even that can be used to save face, and claim that they were just clueless and that would prove that they weren’t worth dating in the first place. We really should advocate for a much more honest and open approach to relationships. Oh, and BTW, flirting actions can be considered sexual harassment in some cases.

Translation: I’ve completely absorbed the idea that dating nerds hurts your social status, so I only pay attention to women I have nothing in common with while turning my nose up to women who share my interests. When those women inevitably reject me, I refuse to accept that it might be because they don’t share my interests, but instead choose to believe that it’s because they are fundamentally broken and therefore must be attracted to men who are bad for them. I categorically refuse to accept that any of my romantic rivals might actually be okay guys. I also categorically refuse to accept that women have a right to have sex with who they want instead of dole pussy out like it’s gold stars for getting good grades.

Um, except … Marcotte’s advice was for Aaronson to get out there and approach women and fix his social skills, so presumably she wanted him to approach the women who shared his interests. With the methods that the “Neanderthals” used, because presumably that’s what she meant by consensual flirting, since she seems to consider those people as having valid success. And Aaronson is clear that he didn’t approach anyone, so it’s not likely to be the case that he was simply chasing women that were either out of his league or that didn’t share his interests, and ignoring those that did. He was likely ignoring all of them. And his comment was essentially that these women were, in fact, dating people who did all the things that you weren’t supposed to do and held the attitudes that you weren’t supposed to hold. And somehow, these were then “okay guys”. Think about that: these people were better than someone who read and liked radical feminists and feminism in general.

Again, Marcotte parrots one of the main PUA talking points: the men who do these things are the men women want, and do what women want. Men, then, who try to give women what they say they want are just losers, and need to wake up. Somehow Marcotte, without any idea of what men these women were dating, can conclude that they were “okay guys” just because they had success, as if women’s ideas of dating and what is desirable weren’t as completely messed up as those of men.

I wouldn’t call it hidden. And it’s entirely possible that said “Neanderthals” are not acting entitled but are flirting and trying to impress women they’re interested in, which suggests that they understand that they aren’t owed but that women should have to want it, too.

PUAs talk about impressing women to, with flirting as well. “Social proof” is the ur-example of this. The whole PUA philosophy is based around demonstrating value. I doubt that Marcotte will thus conclude that they understand that they aren’t owed. Again, Marcotte draws this conclusion without knowing what does men were doing, despite the fact that from Aaronson’s description it really would seem to be the things that feminists and sexual assault/sexual harassment seminars said you shouldn’t do. It’s just cycling back to the old canard that if a men can’t get women to date him then there must be something wrong with him. He’s a Nice Guy(tm) or an AFC. The similarities between her attitude and that of PUAs is striking.

In other words, his problem was not feminism or women, but his crippling unwillingness to put himself out there. When he got over that a little and actually started to interact with women, he discovered that they were not actually the man-hating hell beasts he believed.

That crippling unwillingness that was worsened by feminist theory talking about all the ways in which doing so might be terribly sexist and offensive, remember. Also note that he didn’t think that they were man-hating hell beasts, but that what he might do might be terrible and offensive, and so cause the problems he wanted to avoid.

However, he continues to be unwilling to believe that he was the one with a problem, and prefers to believe that it’s women and feminists in particular that are out to get him. He is utterly unwilling to accept that what happened was he overcame a personal problem and instead imagines that he defeated a cabal of man-hating feminists that exist only in his mind.

Except that his personal problem was caused in large part by the inadequacies and often downright stupidities of certain feminist theories. He felt that he had to ignore a lot of what he thought feminism said in order to make these approaches and overcome his anxiety. This means that either the feminist theory is wrong or that it isn’t expressing itself clearly enough, or providing a way to appeal to all people in a clear way. Both are things that feminists should pause and consider, not dismiss with empty rhetoric.

The eternal struggle of the sexist: Objective reality suggests that women are people, but the heart wants to believe they are a robot army put here for sexual service and housework.

Which has no relation to what he actually said. There is no evidence that he thought that way. It’s those that she says are “okay guys” that think that women are the robot army by running flirting techniques and developing game. In general, those that are afraid of offending women tend to think that they are people, and that they don’t want to risk hurting of offending them. In Marcotte’s mind, the opposite seems to usually be true, for no other reason that I can see than that she’s annoyed at Scott Aaronson.

While continuing to build your social and sexual identity around this specific conspiracy theory.

In the time period when he was putting himself out there like she suggests? Please.

I say that women aren’t to blame, but look at them! They **** men who aren’t me. Clearly they are screwing up.

They have sex with the men that feminism says that they shouldn’t like. Whether or not that’s true, it’s not something that she can dismiss … at least, not something that she can dismiss and be consistent with feminism and its view of society and relationships, which both have to concede that women and the attitudes that the patriarchy gives them contributes to sexism in society.

The notion that women respond with enthusiasm to having someone sexually assault them will not be moved by any number of Hollaback videos. He needs to believe that women did not **** him not because of anything he did, but because women are fundamentally broken, as a gender. No evidence otherwise will penetrate.

Except that his argument is that they did, in fact, respond with enthusiasm to some things that were considered sexual assault by feminist theory. Thus, either they are broken or feminism is. And feminism already argues that due to our society a lot of women are.

Look, the big issue here is that one of the main concerns about sexual harassment policies is the fear of those who are not cool or popular that whether or not something is harassment or not will depend on, in fact, on how cool, popular or attractive the person is. The precise same behaviour in the exact same context will be considered harassment if she doesn’t find the guy attractive and just normal flirting if she does. What is hidden in all of Marcotte’s comments about consent and “okay guys” is the statement that, yes, this is how it all works. Even though men might not be able to tell if she’s interested without, saying, pushing the boundaries a little, trying it when she’s not interested is bad and trying it when she is is good. How do you tell? Well, you just know. A lot of people don’t just know, and fortunately most sane positions give leeway for the actions you’d want to take to express and discover interest. That’s what Aaronson was missing, and doesn’t seem to be something Marcotte is interested in providing. She’d rather engage in snark and sarcasm and attack him as a loser than understand that yeah, people have problems with this. So much for empathy.

He’s not equating them. He’s definitely suggesting that having to learn to speak to women instead of having naked women show up in your bed by magic is worse than being raped. You know, because people pity you if you’ve been raped. They may even pity **** you, which is clearly all he ever wanted.

Most of the problems shy guys have is caused by the patriarchal attitude that they have to be the one to initiate and drive these things, which is precisely what they have problems doing. You’d think that feminists who are trying to oppose and eliminate patriarchy would have theories that would help them overcome this. Instead, they make it worse by defining behaviours as sexist and ignoring intent, and then by fostering the attitude that men who can’t overcome these things are simply losers who didn’t deserve dates in the first place, often justifying women choosing the precise men that abuse them by insisting that the alternatives were not only as bad, but were in fact worse, based on nothing more than the fact that the women chose them despite those men acting in the precise way that should indicate sexist attitudes and the shy men having the audacity to point out the inconsistency and potential hypocrisy.

So, while being raped is worse, at least feminists are telling rape victims that it’s not their fault, even as patriarchal attitudes often make them feel like it is. For these shy men, everyone is telling them that it’s their fault, even though it isn’t. While let’s not let this stop us from working to stop rape, can we show some empathy for those who both the patriarchy and feminism are screwing with in the relationship game?

He really has a problem with women reacting normally to objective facts about the world, doesn’t he?

Is it an objective fact about the world that he’s an agent of the patriarchy trying to “mansplain” away his privilege? Has anyone demonstrated that? Marcotte certainly hasn’t.

I am not buying the argument that his mind was ever actually open to hearing from women about their experiences, lest that disturb his belief that we never suffer rejection, anxiety, or fear.

She concludes this because he says that a stock answer that doesn’t address his experiences won’t be one that furthers the discussion. So … who’d be ignoring experiences, then?

Translation: Despite my claim to be afraid of women, I feel powerful enough around women to decree whether or not a woman’s response is acceptable or not, based strictly on how much it flatters me.

Well, first, he did already claim to have at least mostly overcome that, so this reflects her not really understanding what he said in her haste to “fisk” it, and second he didn’t in any way demand flattery. It’s always nice to end with a comment that pretty much only proves that you were ignoring what was said.

Essentially, in her haste to declare Aaronson a sexist, misogynist loser, Marcotte ignores what he said, proves objections to feminism reasonable, throws feminism under the bus, and sounds a lot like an advocate for PUA techniques. This … can’t be what she wanted to do.


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3 Responses to “Feminism, Privilege, Nerds, and Relationships …”

  1. Matt Says:

    Conversations like this start to look like a game of one downsmanship (alas, I wish I could take credit for that line). It seems to me the whole idea of systemic nerd oppression could be employed in a reductio against intersectionalist theories in general. That might be a little hyperbole on my part, but it does seem like this sort of “theory” can be employed to uncover the systemic oppression of nerds, but if we think the idea of nerd oppression sounds like a bad punchline, so much the worse for the theory.

    The parity between Marcotte’s commentary and the “game” stuff is disturbing. I think what is bothersome about it is not game (I don’t know much about that other than that it reminds me of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia) so much as her apparent indifference to being coherent. I come across this a lot in this sort of discourse, though – truthfulness can’t get in the way of a good zinger.

  2. malcolmthecynic Says:

    That was an extraordinary flouncing. Good job.

  3. ted Says:

    The fact is that a lot of things PUAs say *is* correct. A lot of it is also rubbish. Back when I was clueless about dating, I read some PUA material, discarded the stuff that seemed sexist (negging, focusing on one night stands etc.) and kept the stuff that was helpful (women like physical affection, if you’re on a date you *do* need to interact physically to become more than friends).

    Combine that with a lot of slow but steady learning, via actually dating people, and I now have an actual girlfriend. So I can certainly say that PUA material is helpful if you filter it correctly.

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