MIT professor explains: The real oppression is having to learn to talk to women
Oof. Laurie Penny has an excellent column up right now refuting one of the more irritating aspects of “Nice Guy®”anti-feminism, which is the whole “how can men be oppressed when I don’t get to have sex with all the hot women that I want without having to work for it?” whine, one that, amongst other things, starts on the assumption that women do not suffer things like social anxiety or rejection. 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. Penny is incredibly gracious to Aaronson in her response, so much so that I thought that his lengthy diatribe must be nuanced and humane on some level. Much to my surprise, however, it was just a yalp of entitlement combined with an aggressive unwillingness to accept that women are human beings just like men. So, unlike Penny, I feel no need to be gracious about it. On the contrary, I think it’s time for a good, old-fashioned blog fisking.
You write about tech conferences in which the men engage in “old-fashioned ass-grabbery.” You add: “some of the gropiest, most misogynistic guys I’ve met have been of the shy and nerdy persuasion … In fact I think a shy/nerdy-normed world would be a significantly worse world for women.”
If that’s been your experience, then I understand how it could reasonably have led you to your views. Of course, other women may have had different experiences.
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.
You also say that men in STEM fields—unlike those in the humanities and social sciences—don’t even have the “requisite vocabulary” to discuss sex discrimination, since they haven’t read enough feminist literature. Here I can only speak for myself: I’ve read at least a dozen feminist books, of which my favorite was Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (I like howls of anguish much more than bureaucratic boilerplate, so in some sense, the more radical the feminist, the better I can relate). I check Feministing, and even radfem blogs like “I Blame the Patriarchy.” And yes, I’ve read many studies and task force reports about gender bias, and about the “privilege” and “entitlement” of the nerdy males that’s keeping women away from science.
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.
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.
Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.
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.
You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.
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.
My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.
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.
Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any.
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.
On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.
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 fuck me. Because bitches, yo.
Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”
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.
At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him.
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.
As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me.
This is a common theme: He isn’t failing himself. Women are failing him by not showing up naked in his bed, unbidden.
In a different social context—for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine.
Translation: It’s unfair that I can’t just go to the wife store and buy the latest model.
All this time, I faced constant reminders that the males who didn’t spend months reading and reflecting about feminism and their own shortcomings—even the ones who went to the opposite extreme, who engaged in what you called “good old-fashioned ass-grabbery”—actually had success that way.
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.
The same girls who I was terrified would pepper-spray me and call the police if I looked in their direction, often responded to the crudest advances of the most Neanderthal of men by accepting those advances.
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.
Yet it was I, the nerd, and not the Neanderthals, who needed to check his privilege and examine his hidden entitlement!
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.
So what happened to break me out of this death-spiral? Did I have an epiphany, where I realized that despite all appearances, it was I, the terrified nerd, who was wallowing in unearned male privilege, while those Neaderthal ass-grabbers were actually, on some deeper level, the compassionate feminists—and therefore, that both of us deserved everything we got?
No, there was no such revelation. All that happened was that I got older, and after years of hard work, I achieved some success in science, and that success boosted my self-confidence (at least now I had something worth living for), and the newfound confidence, besides making me more attractive, also made me able to (for example) ask a woman out, despite not being totally certain that my doing so would pass muster with a committee of radfems chaired by Andrea Dworkin—a prospect that was previously unthinkable to me.
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.
This, to my mind, “defiance” of feminism is the main reason why I was able to enjoy a few years of a normal, active dating life, which then led to meeting the woman who I married.
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.
Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them.
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.
I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds.
While continuing to build your social and sexual identity around this specific conspiracy theory.
There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect.
I say that women aren’t to blame, but look at them! They fuck men who aren’t me. Clearly they are screwing up.
That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience.
Translation: I reluctantly claim to believe women are equal, but clearly I believe they are a bunch of bitches who have denied me. Denied me.
But I hope you now understand why I might feel “only” 97% on board with the program of feminism.
You can have the vote, I guess. But you are failures for not fucking me.
From my perspective, it serves only to shift blame from the Neanderthals and ass-grabbers onto some of society’s leastprivileged males, the ones who were themselves victims of bullying and derision, and who acquired enough toxic shame that way for appealing to their shame to be an effective way to manipulate their behavior.
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 fuck him not because of anything he did, but because women are fundamentally broken, as a gender. No evidence otherwise will penetrate.
As I see it, whenever these nerdy males pull themselves out of the ditch the world has tossed them into, while still maintaining enlightened liberal beliefs, including in the inviolable rights of every woman and man, they don’t deserve blame for whatever feminist shortcomings they might still have. They deserve medals at the White House.
Translation: We deserve all the pussy cookies and you women, being broken, keep failing to provide the pity fucks we have earned by pretending, badly, not to hate you.
And no, I’m not even suggesting to equate the ~15 years of crippling, life-destroying anxiety I went through with the trauma of a sexual assault victim. The two are incomparable; they’re horrible in different ways. But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.
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 fuck you, which is clearly all he ever wanted.
You could respond to this, I guess, by treating me as just another agent of the Patriarchy trying at length to “mansplain away” his privilege.
He really has a problem with women reacting normally to objective facts about the world, doesn’t he?
If you do that, then I’ll consider this discussion closed, as neither of us will have anything more to learn from the other.
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.
But you seem like an interesting, reasonable person, so I hold out some hope for a human response.
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.