This is the most controversial post I have ever written in ten years of blogging. I wrote it because I was very angry at a specific incident. Not meant as a criticism of feminism, so much as of a certain way of operationalizing feminism.
A few days ago, in response to a discussion of sexual harassment at MIT, Aaronson reluctantly opened up about his experience as a young man: 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.
You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year. 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. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: 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.
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. Guy opens up for the first time about how he was so terrified of accidentally hurting women that he became suicidal and tried to get himself castrated. The feminist blogosphere, as always, responded completely proportionally. Amanda Marcotte, want to give us a representative sample? 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.
This would usually be the point where I state for the record that I believe very strongly that all women are human beings. Anyway, Marcotte was bad enough, given that she runs one of the most-read feminist blogs on the Internet. But there was one small ray of hope. On further reflection, Other Friend has a point. But I did feel like it treated him like a human being, which is rare and wonderful. Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be.
It takes a long time to heal. I can only offer Ms. Penny and the entire staff of the New Statesman the recognition appropriate for their achievement: But by bringing nerd-dom into the picture, Penny has made that basic picture exponentially more complicated.
Luckily, this is a post about Scott Aaronson, so things that become exponentially more complicated fit the theme perfectly. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Andrea Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool.
Weaponised shame — male, female or other — has no place in any feminism I subscribe to. I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. There continue to be a constant stream of feminist cartoons going around Tumblr featuring blubberous neckbearded fedora-wearing monsters threatening the virtue of innocent ladies.
Oops, I accidentally included three neo-Nazi caricatures of Jews in there. You did notice, right? There is a growing trend in Internet feminism that works exactly by conflating the ideas of nerd, misogynist, virgin, person who disagrees with feminist tactics or politics, and unlovable freak. Ideals are always pretty awesome.
Penny goes on to deny that this is a gendered issue at all: Like Aaronson, I was terrified of making my desires known- to anyone. Or how about a triple whammy: Or how women asking random people for sex on the street get accepted more than two-thirds of the time, but men trying the same get zero percent.
Or how the same study shows that the women who get declined get declined politely, while the men are treated with disgust and contempt. Grant that everyone involved in this conversation has admitted they consider themselves below average attractiveness except maybe Marcotte, whose daily tune-ups keep her skin-suit in excellent condition.
It would be pretty easy to mock teenage-me for not asking for dates when ten percent of people would have said yes. Asking ten people something takes what, five minutes? And would have saved how many years of misery? This is a pretty impressive market failure — in sheer utility cost, probably bigger than any of the market failures actual economists talk about. I take this very seriously and try not to slut-shame or tolerate those who do. If anything, many actively make it worse. This is exactly those cartoons above and the feminists spreading them.
Nerds are told that if they want to date girls, that makes them disgusting toxic blubberous monsters who are a walking offense to womankind.
Geeks, Creeps, and Sex. Or more like me, who got asked out by a very pretty girl in middle school and ran away terrified because he knew nobody could actually like him and it was obviously some kind of nasty trick. There was that one time when I looked at a woman and almost thought about asking her out!
That means I must be feeling entitled to sex! I had temporarily forgotten that as a toxic monster I must never show any sexuality to anybody!
Self-loathing is easy to inculcate and encourage, even unintentionally. When feminists say that the market failure for young women is caused by slut-shaming, I stop slut-shaming, and so do most other decent people.
When Penny bares her suffering to the world for all to hear about, she gets sympathy, she gets praised as compassionate, she gets published in important magazines whose readers feel sorry for her and acknowledge that her experience sucks. When Aaronson talks about his suffering on his own blog, he gets Amanda Marcotte.
He gets half the internet telling him he is now the worst person in the world. This was my experience as well. When I complained that I felt miserable and alone, it was like throwing blood in the water. A feeding frenzy of feminists showed up to tell me I was a terrible person and deserved to die, sometimes in terms that made Marcotte look like grandmotherly kindness.
And when that happens, again and again and again, of course we learn to shut up about it. I bottled my feelings inside and never let them out and spent years feeling like I was a monster for even having them. As a mental health professional, I can assure you this is the best coping strategy. Patriarchy is to blame for that. Patriarchy is yet another motte and bailey trick.
The motte is that patriarchy is the existence of different gender roles in our society and the ways in which they are treated differently. The bailey is that patriarchy is men having power over women. If you allow people to switch between these and their connotations willy-nilly, then you enable all sorts of mischief.
Well, that sounds like a gender role. So what we need is more feminism. So, for example, we are told that the patriarchy causes male rape. We are told that if we want to fight male rape, the best way to do so is to work hard to promote feminist principles.
But once feminism has been promoted, the particular feminists benefitting from that extra social capital may well be the ones to successfully lobbying national governments to keep male rape legal on the ground that if raping men was illegal, they might make false accusations which could hurt women.
I mean, we live in a world where the Chinese Communist Party is the group that enforces Chinese capitalism and oppresses any workers who complain about it.
We live in a world where the guy who spoke out against ritualized purity-obsessed organized religion ended up as the founder of the largest ritualized purity-obsessed organized religion of all time. We live in a world where the police force, which is there to prevent theft and violence, is confiscating property and shooting people right and left. Feminists led the effort to stigmatize them and often still do. Discrimination against sex workers?
People who have too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex? Male victims of domestic violence? Yes, many feminists have been on both sides of these issues, and there have been good feminists tirelessly working against the bad feminists. Indeed, right now there are feminists who are telling the other feminists to lay off the nerd-shaming. My girlfriend is one of them. There are feminists on both sides of a lot of issues, including the important ones.
Come back in and we can have a really interesting discussion about whether the feminists of screwed up as massively as the feminists of and did. The preferred method of figuring this out is asking the people involved. Every time I say this, I get a stream of grateful emails thanking me for saying something so true to their experience. Scott Aaronson has now said that getting exposed to feminist shaming was part of what made his adolescence miserable.
There are a hell of a lot of people attracted to women who seem to have internalized the message that their attraction makes them sick and wrong and evil and creepy, that basically any interaction they have with a woman is coercive or harmful on their part, and that initiating a romantic interaction makes them a sexual predator. I spent years of my life convinced that it was coercive to make it clear to girls that I wanted to date them, lest they feel pressured.
So I could only ask them out with a clear conscience if I was in fact totally indifferent to their answer. I internalized these messages from exposure to feminist memes, norms, and communities. It was feminist messages, not homophobic ones, that made it hardest for me to come to terms with my sexuality.
Lots and lots of people are misinterpreting the way I did. The infuriating thing is that I think there might be. We could write articles acknowledging that certain conversations can exacerbate crippling guilt and self-loathing, particularly for people with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses that make them fixate on their own perceived worthlessness.