Fear of Vulnerability and Geek Misogyny

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, November 29, 2012 9:51 EDT
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Ta-Nehisi Coates has been reading Raymond Chandler, and finding the aggressive and frankly silly misogyny of it a bit hard to take at times. But we all benefit, since it gives him an opportunity to write about the relationship between misogyny and heterosexual male desire:

I think to understand misogyny one has to grapple with the conflict between male mythology and male biology…..

Masculinity’s central tenet is control—and perhaps most importantly, control of the body. Nothing contradicts that edict like erections. It unmans you, it compels you through sensations you scarcely understand. And it threatens to expose you, to humiliates you, in front of everyone. Laugh now at the boy at the middle school dance, who gets an erection on the slow number (God help him if he has orgasm.) But he does not forget that laughter, nor does he forget what prompted it. That boy is going to be a rapper. Or a painter. Or an author of fictions where men are men and somehow are invulnerable to the humiliating effects of the female form.

In a lot of ways, it’s not that hard to understand. From the cradle, young men are swimming in a world that teaches that men are better, stronger, and more in control than women. That their mastery entitles them to even dictate how strange women behave and dress. But, as Ta-Nehisi points out, they discover with alarm that desire is seen as weak and vulnerable in our culture and, worse, women—who are supposed to be beneath you and subject to your control!—can make you feel desire. And that you are not actually entitled to what you want from them. Ta-Nehisi describes the lived realities:

You do not get the girl. More directly, you have no actual right to get the girl. Most times, she just don’t want you. And when she does, your reply is, very often, to pine after some other “her.”

The way men deal with this disconnect is varied and fascinating. Many grow up and realize that the problem isn’t vulnerability, and that it’s okay to want things and not get them all the time. Some even get smarter than that, and learn to empathize with women, learning that not only do women grapple with the same fear of rejection, but women also fear things like rape and abuse. Some want the pleasures of being partners and friends to women, and realize that the whole “war between the sexes” thing is a load of horseshit that leads to sorrow instead of joy.

Some, however, spin off into misogyny. Some become anti-choicers, eager to use the law to control and punish the female sexuality they see as the source of their vulnerability. Some are attracted to “pick-up artists”, who promise them techniques to regain their rightful control of women, often by humiliating said women.  At least one of them writes a WaPo column that assumes that middle-aged men are owed sex with 20-something women as a reward for being able to read a dinner menu. Some run internet forums that specialize in “creep shots” or stolen naked pictures of women, asserting their power by forcing women into pornography against their will. It’s why so many conservative dudes lose their shit at the name “Sandra Fluke”. It’s sadly one reason why there’s so much rape and abuse in the world. It’s why, as Ta-Nehisi points out, so much pop art sells men a fantasy of male invulnerability and absolute control over women. It’s why the facial has become ubiquitous in porn. And, of course, it’s why cat-calling and sexual harassment are such epic problems.

Misogyny is obviously more complex than this, but this is such an important part of it. Specifically, this dynamic—where vulnerability is considered emasculating and misogyny is presented as a way for men to fend off said vulnerability—underpins all the sexism wars going on in geek culture right now. While this is changing, geekiness is still assumed to be an emasculated state to begin with, and a ton of jokes are specifically made casting nerdy dudes in the role of the guy who wants women but has no mastery over them. Plenty of them, as noted earlier, grow up and realize that it’s a myth that there are men who exert mastery over women and get them to do whatever they want, and learn to approach women as equals and friends.

But sadly, a lot of them buy into this notion that they are emasculated, and they turn to misogyny to “fix” this problem. That’s why you have so many geeky dudes ranting on internet forums about how they’re “betas” and women are “hypergamous” bitches who only sleep with “alphas”. They’re angry at women and angry at other men for supposedly taking their manhood away. That’s why so many of them seem to believe to the very bottom of their shoes that they are entitled to create spaces that are utterly male-dominated and where the few women in them are expected to be submissive objects that men can treat however they like. Thus, the explosion of anger at anyone who tries to fight back against sexual harassment at conferences or online videos games. Or the bizarre paranoia about “fake geek girls” that supposedly show up at conferences to taunt geeks with their sexy bodies and then shoot them down, just so they can feel the power they have to emasculate men BWAH HA HA.

I think a lot of these men really do think they’re oppressed. In a way, they are. They are oppressed by bullshit masculinity standards that assert that a man’s dignity is tied to never feeling vulnerable, especially around women. The problem is that these guys buy into that standard, and thus believe that they are oppressed by women. Women are to blame! Women are the ones who make you feel vulnerable! They must be doing it on purpose! They are out to get you. They want to trick you into desiring them so they can steal your manhood!

I’m not exaggerating, by the way, when I say that sexist geek dudes resort to saying women are out to get them. Recent and infamous example from comic creator Tony Harris:

“Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC. But we are onto you. Some of us are aware that you are ever so average on an everyday basis. But you have a couple of things going your way. You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny( Well, some or most of you, THINK you are ) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? You are what I refer to as “CON-HOT”. Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU. You have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty, or Hot, and the thought of guys pleasuring themselves to the memory of you hanging on them with your glossy open lips, promising them the Moon and the Stars of pleasure, just makes your head vibrate.

Thus, sexual harassment is seen, I think, by a lot of these guys as simply leveling the playing field. That’s why those who attack anti-sexual harassment policies act like they’re such victims and claim that feminists are out to ruin sex and fun, i.e. to emasculate them. Harassing women feels like a reassertion of the proper order of things, using sex to scare and upset women before they can make you feel vulnerable. To take it away is to take away their armor and leave them exposed.

It’s all very sad, because feminists truly and honestly aren’t out to get men. (Not that misogynists, who can’t conceive of a masculinity not built around misogyny, will ever get this.) Feminists abhor how these bullshit masculinity standards make men unhappy. Feminists believe that men should have the ability to feel desire and vulnerability without losing their dignity. Feminists especially hate the way that this construction of masculinity turns sex and dating into a power struggle, when it should be about people working together as equals to have fun. Men who reject misogyny in favor of an egalitarian approach to dating and women aren’t, contrary to misogynist fears, pussy-whipped losers who are giving up their dignity. They usually, in my experience, are more relaxed and—oh irony—do better with women because they aren’t burning with insecurities and resentments. But there’s an entire culture for men to overcome to get to that point.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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