So, now, let me address Laurie Penny’s take on Scott Aaronson’s comment. The first thing I noted about the post on reflection is that there are a lot of cases where she bases her arguments on what seem to be standard feminist conclusions, but ones that seem to either be dubious or sound more like rhetoric than a real expression of what reality is like. A lot of them seem to be describing internal thoughts, which might work as an expression of, say, an overall patriarchal attitude — maybe — but don’t really seem to hold water as a description of what any particular or what even the average man thinks about women. And Aaronson’s comment should take us down to that level, to the thoughts and beliefs of the average man, and particularly of the average nerdy man. Because some of her conclusions rely on her knowing the conditions and thoughts of particular men, and often particularly nerdy men … but she doesn’t have any greater access to that than average nerdy men do … and in fact, arguably she has less.
This does strike at a problem that many people have with feminism, which is that while feminism insists that we should listen to and take the experiences of women seriously, they often seem to dismiss or argue against the experiences of men, and that does seem to be happening here. Penny, to her credit, is indeed accepting Aaronson’s experiences, but often ignores what he says about them and what were the causes of his issues, and what beliefs he actually had. In my view, what we must do is accept people’s experiences and feelings as if they happened, but not necessarily accept the conclusions that the people draw from them. Aaronson seems to focus far more on what he concluded from his experiences, and doesn’t seem to make many conclusions about, say, feminism as a whole because of it, so I’d be willing to give him more of a pass there. We’ll see how much of a pass Penny can get.
But let’s start with this:
Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for “shy, nerdy men”. Patriarchy is to blame for that.
This is after she talks about how Aaronson’s pain doesn’t impact the idea that he had privilege, just as she had privilege. The problem here, though, is this: it was indeed patriarchy, but more importantly the fact that he was a man in a patriarchy, that caused his pain. Shy and nerdy men suffer under patriarchy because the possess traits that take them away from the patriarchal ideal of what you should be to be a proper man. This is particularly the case when it comes to attracting members of the opposite sex, both explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly, they get rejected because they aren’t the masculine, “jock” type that all of the women are supposed to like and chase after. Implicitly, they are less aggressive, and so are less willing to approach women, and so because women aren’t encouraged to approach won’t get as many dates … if they get any at all. And so, ultimately, overall and in this particular area for shy and nerdy men the same sorts of attitudes that feminists oppose are precisely the attitudes that shy and nerdy men want to get rid of as well, because those are the attitudes that are hurting them. So, for shy and nerdy men, the big source of their suffering is, indeed, the patriarchy, and the attitudes that they want to change. And the cause of their pain is the combination of those attitudes and their gender. That gender that feminists then say makes them privileged. In a way, they may be … but it does no good to bring that up in these discussions where it is an explicit problem for them.
Nonetheless, he makes a sudden leap, and it’s a leap that comes right from the gut, from an honest place of trauma and post-rationalisation, from that teenage misery to a universal story of why nerdy men are in fact among the least privileged men out there, and why holding those men to account for the lack of representation of women in STEM areas – in the most important fields both of human development and social mobility right now, the places where power is being created and cemented right now – is somehow unfair. Nerds are not like the ‘neanderthals’, the REAL abusers of women.
Which is the point: it is unfair to claim that those nerdy men who oppose at least some of the same attitudes that feminists do are just as bad as those that explicitly accept them. This is not to say that they are perfect, or that they don’t also hold to some problematic attitudes, or shouldn’t be held responsible for the issues that they cause or contribute to. It’s just that they shouldn’t be lumped in with those who are explicitly misogynistic simply because they share the same gender as them, nor should it be the case that people claim that their gender makes their life better when it, in fact, makes it worse in at least some critical areas, while those who are less shy and nerdy do get to have their gender benefit them, and women who better fit into what the patriarchy wants them to do can, in fact, use their gender to their benefit.
See, that’s the thing about patriarchy. Feminist theory holds that patriarchy is a system for the oppression of men by women (and Penny uses that oppression narrative in her post), but this isn’t true. Patriarchy is, rather, a system that imposes strict gender roles on people, and its biggest failing is that at least in our modern society those roles not only aren’t required, they’re detrimental to society. But because of this, men who naturally possess the traits and inclinations that patriarchy says they should have do really well in patriarchy … but so do women who possess the traits and inclinations that patriarchy says they should have. This is one reason why shy women like Penny, when it comes to relationships, generally have it easier than shy men do, because they don’t have to approach and will often seem more passive, which is a desirable trait under patriarchy. The downside of this is that they have to wait for someone to approach them, and have to get noticed versus other women … and patriarchy focuses the attention of men on the most desirable woman they can find, because forcing an active role means that you might as well aim at the top since you have to go through all that effort anyway, and so shouldn’t settle. The issue with this is that while people may have certain things that they ideally want, being wanted is something that can indeed change someone’s opinion in a hurry, and make them think better of the person wanting them. Which is what Penny felt she was missing in her teen years (and possibly still is missing today).
So I’d agree with Penny: the way we go about handling relationships is utter crap. What Aaronson points out with some justification is that feminism is not precisely making that better.
But shy, nerdy women have to try to pull themselves out of that same horror into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women, and to a certain otherwise very intelligent sub-set of nerdy men, the category “woman” is defined primarily as “person who might or might not deny me sex, love and affection”.
This is one of the first places where those “conclusions” I mentioned earlier come into play. She talks about women pulling themselves into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women … except I’m wondering how many people, in fact, really think that. I also wonder how many nerdy men really think of women primarily as people who might deny them sex, love and affection … and note that even of those, many of them think of them that way not because of some kind of patriarchal and societal training, but because their interactions with women have been such that women denied them sex, love and affection, often in ways that seem unfair or unreasonable. They date men who treat them badly. They reject them harshly. The advice that they give for finding a relationship doesn’t seem to help, and in fact men that do the opposite seem to have more success. Misogyny of this sort isn’t right, but it also doesn’t come from a vacuum either; it comes from how women act based on the screwed up system that we have for getting relationships in the first place.
It is unfair to blame women for the problems that shy and nerdy men face. But it is also unfair to absolve them of all responsibility as well. Their actions and behaviours do contribute to the suffering of shy and nerdy men. It isn’t all their fault, but the feelings of these men aren’t all their fault either.
And if we actually got the sex we craved? (because some boys who were too proud to be seen with us in public were happy to **** us in private and brag about it later) . . . then we would be sluts, even more pitiable and abject. Aaronson was taught to fear being a creep and an objectifier if he asked; I was taught to fear being a whore or a loser if I answered, never mind asked myself.
This was first pointed out to me somewhere else (Scott Alexander’s post, maybe?) as I didn’t notice it myself the first time, but here even Penny is saying that getting sex is easier for her than it is for shy men. If she wanted sex, as unattractive as she thought herself, she could have gotten it, but it would have hurt her reputation to do so; it wouldn’t have been a benefit for her to get it, no feather in her cap, no proof of her worth. For a shy man, however, it would have been. If a shy man had been able to get sex, it would have made him seem more attractive to others, while her giving in there — and yes, I am aware of the difference in phrasing, and that is part of the problem — would have made her less desirable to future partners. The inconsistency is a problem … but it does mean that if she just wanted sex, she could get it, while the shy men couldn’t. That should be taken as a sign of privilege, shouldn’t it?
Women generally don’t get to think of men as less than human, not because we’re inherently better people, not because our magical feminine energy makes us more empathetic, but because patriarchy doesn’t let us. We’re really not allowed to just not consider men’s feelings, or to suppose for an instant that a man’s main or only relevance to us might be his prospects as a sexual partner. That’s just not the way this culture expects us to think about men. Men get to be whole people at all times. Women get to be objects, or symbols, or alluring aliens whose responses you have to game to “get” what you want.
This is indeed another one of those conclusions, and it’s one that is pretty much totally wrong as far as I can tell. For the most part, women were as free to treat men’s feelings in precisely the same way she says men are free to treat women’s feelings: as a means to an end. In general, women care about men’s feelings and about not bruising their egos because if they don’t care about their feelings and do bruise their egos then they won’t get men to date them, won’t get relationships with men, and won’t get men to give them what they want. On the flip side, men care about the feelings of women because if they don’t women won’t give them sex, won’t date them, won’t get into relationships with them and again, in general, won’t give them what they want. So, to that shallow end, men and women both are free to care about the feelings of the other only in order to get what they want.
Now, of course, once we get down to individual people and even into the patriarchy, things are more complicated. Aside from a relatively small number of people, most people do indeed care about other people, and care about them regardless of their gender. And the patriarchy recognized this. In general, the ideal marriage according to patriarchy was one where both men and women tried to make each other happy. The thing with patriarchy was that they were supposed to do that according to the roles set down for them by the patriarchy, with men doing that by being good providers and so providing women with, in general, the material goods that them happy. On the flip side, women provided for a welcoming and happy home and hearth, and happy and healthy children. But ultimately both were doing this not merely or generally even primarily to make themselves happy, but to make their partner happy. The man just had the more active role, and women the more passive role.
And patriarchy definitely made men care about the feelings of women. Men were indeed supposed to, in general, try to ensure that women weren’t upset or bothered by the things in their sphere of influence. So if finances were tough, men were supposed to deal with it without forcing their spouses to get jobs or to worry about, and often were encouraged to simply not tell their wives about those problems if they could get away with it. And even then, they were supposed to leverage their spouses’ trust in them by saying that it would be all right and that they would take care of everything, even if they had no idea how to actually fix it … and they were often encouraged to do really harsh things (ie multiple jobs) in order to fix the problem, even when it wasn’t their fault. So even the patriarchal system never said that women had to care about the feelings of men while men didn’t have to care about the feelings of women. And, in practice, men and women care about each others’ feelings, and don’t care about the feelings of others based on gender.
Because it’s built and run by some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least. People whose received trauma makes them disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression. People who don’t want to hear that there is anyone more oppressed than them, who definitely don’t want to hear that maybe women and people of colour had to go through the hell of nerd puberty as well, because they haven’t recovered from their own appalling nerdolescence. People who definitely don’t want to hear that, smart as they are, there might be basic things about society that they haven’t understood, because they have been prevented from understanding by the very forces that caused them such pain as children.
There’s nothing in Aaronson’s comment, or in the general grumbling about feminism and its interaction with nerd culture, to indicate that they don’t want to hear this stuff. As already stated, the big objection is that those who are talking about this don’t seem to be willing to allow for any degrees at all. The nerds who suffered under patriarchy in large part because of the interaction between their traits and their gender — ie suffered for being themselves and being men — are being treated as if they were as privileged as those men who didn’t, and nerds who are more willing to respect women and try to act the way women at least say they want are being treated as being as bad as men who have shown absolutely no indication that they are willing to do that. And they’re finding that treating women the way they say they want to be treated isn’t working, while treating them in the old sexist matter seems to. And when they point this out, they are not only treated as being as bad as those men, but as even worse. They are treated as being complete and utter losers for, again, not following the traditional masculine ways, even though they’re being told that that’s not the way to treat people.
They might be willing to listen, if it wasn’t coming from people who are more than willing to ignore them and treat them as an enemy without bothering to see if they really are, and who are willing to lump them in unvarnished with people whose attitudes they hate.
There are a lot of young men out there – I suspect even now – who sometimes wish they’d been born when things were a bit easier, when the balance of male versus female sexual shame was tilted more sharply by the formal rituals of patriarchy, when men could just take or be assigned what they wanted, as long as they were also white and straight.
And, again, the longing for simpler times isn’t about being able to take or being assigned what they wanted, but is instead longing for a time when society had more support systems in place for helping everyone through this. Shy and nerdy women benefited just as much from a society that placed a premium on ensuring that everyone had a long-term relationship to ensure their happiness. Few want to be able to own a woman, but instead want it to be the case that the society will help with the matchmaking, so that they aren’t obligated to shoulder all the burden themselves. And feminism is not helping with this, because while feminism may encourage women to make more approaches, it doesn’t put any of the responsibility for doing so on women. If a woman is comfortable approaching, then she should. If she isn’t, then she shouldn’t. But no one is telling men that, and no one is telling men that if they don’t approach it’s okay and that they ought to be able to find a relationship without doing so. Instead, they get what Marcotte gave them: comments that if they don’t “put themselves out there” then they don’t deserve to have a relationship. We definitely need a new way of doing things, but I don’t think that feminism has the inside track on finding it.
And the backlash to that change is painful as good, smart people try to rationalise their own failure to be better, to be cleverer, to see the other side for the human beings they are. Finding out that you’re not the Rebel Alliance, you’re actually part of the Empire and have been all along, is painful. Believe me, I know.
But why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t we just have normal people who have their own views, hang-ups, problems, and pluses? And is it the case that if you aren’t a perfect ally, if you have some blind spots, then you have to be on the side of the Empire? Are there no degrees? Can it not be the case that Aaronson could have his issues and still be on the side of the Rebellion, more so than the Neanderthals who clearly aren’t?
Because a big part of Aaronson’s comment is that he’s on board with feminism but he feels under the gun when the concept of privilege is shoved at him. Even if wrong, that would just him being wrong, not misogynistic, not evil, not part of the Empire.
And on that note I shall return to what I was doing before I read this post, which was drinking sweet tea and weeping about how boys don’t seem to want to kiss short-haired lady nerds, and trying not to blame the whole world for my broken heart, which is becoming more complex and interesting in the healing but still stings like a boiling ball of papercuts. I’ll let you know how that goes.
This is going to sound like my taking the exact wrong take on this, but I have a point for this, so bear with me. Since she presents this as if she’s still having problems getting dates, I did an image search to get a better view of what she looks like. Looking at the images I found, I don’t think that attractiveness is her major issue, whether she has short hair or not. Granted, there may be some cultural issues adding to it, but she does seem to be attractive enough to get at least some male attention.
Now, you may be saying that what I’m doing here is precisely what you shouldn’t do, saying that she is attractive and so likely really could get dates. But I’m not doing that. I’m going to accept that she doesn’t get a lot of dates, and I’ll even tie it into her shyness by positing that the main reason is that she doesn’t really do things, in public, to get noticed, or to encourage approaches, or to go to places where people might approach her. And unlike Amanda Marcotte, I’m not going to say that this is bad or a problem with her; her hobbies and her personality might make that difficult, and I’m not going to say that that’s a bad thing.
But what I will say is that the push for harassment policies at conferences that she might be attending is not going to help her. One of the benefits that shy women had over shy men was that men were encouraged to approach women pretty much anywhere. They didn’t have to wait for specific events where “hitting on” was deemed appropriate. There were some cases and situations where it wasn’t deemed appropriate, and certainly a number of men took advantage of this to be annoying jerks, but in general any even remotely social situation afforded the opportunity for a man and a woman to get together.
A lot of the harassment policies proposed were proposed to stop not only things like sexual assault or overly aggressive approaches, but approaches in general. One of the complaints was that women at conferences where men were in the majority had to spend significant amounts of time fending off even the less aggressive approaches of men, which happened extremely commonly (at least to them). So these women who just wanted to enjoy the conference were being annoyed by too many approaches when they just wanted to listen to the conference speakers. So the harassment policies were aimed at stopping even that, by asserting that these conferences were not places to meet a potential partner, and so that these sorts of things ought to be curtailed, at least somewhat. And that then takes away one of the places that Penny goes where some man who finds her interesting and who she might find interesting might get up the guts to talk to her with that sort of relationship in mind. Additionally, if Penny is also interested in shy guys, one of the ways for shy guys to get up the nerve to approach is to have someone tell them that instead of trying to read out signals that they don’t understand and that might be vague, for them to just go up and ask because the worst that can happen is that she’ll say “No”. When, as Aaronson commented, the worst that can happen is that you get banned from the conference, publicly shamed, lose your job, or whatever, well, that line just doesn’t work anymore. So shy men become even less likely to approach except under ideal conditions … which often don’t come. And so it becomes even less likely that she’ll get an approach from a guy, or a guy who has her on the top of his scale while others don’t. And so by ignoring the perspective of men in making these policies, they end up hurting women at the same time.
As Penny says, our way of forming relationships is crap. It’s terrible. But feminism’s focus on the perspective of one gender isn’t going to solve that problem, and in fact it often makes it worse. That was indeed one of Aaronson’s main points: that the way feminists explained things didn’t do anything to help men understand how to go about approaching women in a way that wouldn’t potentially be offensive. It focused on telling men the wrong things to do, but not the right things to do. And the vague advice on what the right things were often didn’t seem to work, for various reasons. If we are going to solve this problem, we need to work together to define how this should work, not just working on honest expression, but how honest expression can be done to ensure that things are clear and that one side isn’t bearing the burden of that honesty or expectations. Rants about men not seeing women as completely human or not caring about their feelings or being privileged doesn’t do that. It sets up the “us vs them” dynamic and turns it into a fight instead of a conversation.
And more conversations is what we need, both in feminism and in forming relationships.