Friday, 16 January 2015

Nerds, feminism, and privilege

Content note: rape, sexual entitlement, homophobia, suicidal thoughts

You know that thing the internet does, where comments inspire blog posts inspire articles inspire whole pop-cultural trends? It reminds me most of a drama-class exercise I once did (in preparation for my only stage performance ever, at Allen Hall Theatre), where everyone stands in a circle and you stare at the person opposite you, and any movement they might make, no matter how tiny or unintentional, you copy but make slightly larger. Gradually something that started as an involuntary twitch of a finger turns into a whole-body thrash. Anyway, it’s starting to do it again, and I find I have something to say on the issue.

It started with a guy called Scott Aaronson, who nearly a month ago wrote a short blog post on a physics teacher at MIT who’d been caught sexually harassing his students via e-mail. His comment section blossomed the way mine don’t, and about a week later the conversation had come around to the question of whether nerdy men are more creepy towards women than other men, or less, or about the same. And something someone said hit a nerve, and Aaronson gave a very personal response. (You’ll see at that link that Aaronson has clarified a few things since the comment went viral. I have preserved all his emphases.)

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.
(sigh) 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.
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.
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.”
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.

Now I can sympathize strongly with much of this. But Aaronson has made a conceptual error in his discussion of privilege and entitlement, and I’d like to clear that up first. “Entitled” is much like “oblivious”, “reckless”, “negligent”, “asleep”, “unconscious” or “anosognosic”: it’s by definition a state you don’t recognise when you’re in it. To examine your entitled assumptions is to cease to be entitled. If someone presents an explicit argument justifying their right to some particular good or service, we might disagree with the argument but we no longer call them “entitled”, unless some critical premise of the argument is still unexamined. Therefore, it is no defence at all to say that you don’t feel entitled to something. That’s exactly what it feels like to feel entitled. “What do you mean, ‘trespassing’, officer? The gate was open.”

I don’t believe Aaronson thought he was entitled to sex. Seeking castration is a pretty clear sign you don’t think you’re entitled to sex. But the fact that his request stumped the psychiatrist shows that his case is rare. We can’t conclude that sexual entitlement, such as is typical of the male population, is characteristically absent in the nerd subpopulation. Aaronson did not benefit from feminist warnings against entitlement, but that doesn’t mean other nerds won’t.

“Privilege” is a similar concept. So far the best summation I’ve found of it is by Douglas Adams:

It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Privilege differs from entitlement in that you can become aware of it and still have it. The fact that I know my white skin protects me from police harassment doesn’t stop it protecting me from police harassment. But you can’t help noticing privileges that you lack, whereas you might go through your whole life blithely unaware of privileges that you have. I had no idea how seriously the police harassed people with brown skin until well into my twenties. I’ve only found out in the past year that, to African Americans, giving one’s kids “The Talk” means the one about how to survive encounters with the police. To me it meant the one about where babies come from. (In my defence, I know America basically through movies and the internet.)

The other thing about privilege is that it’s multi-dimensional. You can be privileged on one axis and simultaneously lack privilege on another. A black man doesn’t need to fear strangers’ sexual entitlement to his body as he goes about his daily business. A white woman doesn’t need to fear being shot by a police officer if she makes a wrong move. Either might additionally have abled privilege, straight privilege, cisgender privilege, or any number of others. Privilege is what’s called intersectional, in social justice terminology. I think that’s a slightly confusing term; to me it makes it sound like the axes of privilege are all independent, like roads passing through each other without deviating, which they’re not. Race correlates with class due to historical and present racism. Gender and sexuality interact in complicated ways. But “intersectional” is the word we’ve got and it’s better than not understanding the concept.

What this all means for Aaronson is that nerds might well be on the wrong end of an axis of privilege, but that doesn’t scrub out the privileges they have if they happen to be white, male, straight, and/or rich. Calling them “one of society’s least privileged classes” is at best irresponsible hyperbole, and displays (let’s be charitable) a basic ignorance of how much less privileged it is possible to be in this society. Nerds are genuinely oppressed in some settings, such as high schools – I experienced that and would never minimize it – but in others, such as academia and many high-tech industries, they can rise to positions of great power. “Least privileged” they are not.

Aaronson’s comment got noticed. People wrote articles on it. All but one of the ones I’ve seen have been at least sympathetic to Aaronson; some have appropriated his pain as a weapon against feminism. I’m currently Googling scott aaronson #171 (the comment happens to be #171 on that blog post’s comment thread), and, four pages in, there’s no-one condemning it. Criticizing, sure; condemning, no. The one unsympathetic article I have seen, Amanda Marcotte’s contemptuous “translation”, has yet to show up on Google. Marcotte’s post is only worth reading if you want to see how completely a hostile reader can screw up the meaning of a text. I found it via Scott Alexander’s post defending Aaronson from it.

Alexander, who is not the same person as Aaronson (people have apparently been confusing the two), calls Marcotte’s article a “representative sample” of the feminist response. If that was accurate at the time, then Google either hasn’t noticed or has forgotten about it. Admittedly, Alexander refers to Twitter, which I don’t use at all, and Tumblr, of which I only follow about half a dozen social justice blogs, so I won’t necessarily have seen what he’s seen. I first caught wind of the controversy via Miri at Brute Reason and Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism. Miri notes that spiels broadly resembling Aaronson’s are not rare, and the moral is almost always some kind of demand on women, if not for their bodies then at least for their attention. A little compassion fatigue is to be expected. Libby Anne gently points out that women in situations like Aaronson’s suffer similar pain and it’s not feminists’ fault.

One of the responses has gotten even more attention than Aaronson’s original comment: Laurie Penny’s article for New Statesman, which Alexander, Marcotte, Miri, and Libby Anne all reference. Alexander finds it dissatisfactory because it responds to Aaronson’s suffering by accusing him of entitlement. Well, actually it doesn’t. The headline (“On Nerd Entitlement”) does, but magazine headlines are controlled by editors, not writers. Take the headline away and suddenly Penny becomes a lot more compassionate. As I was told every few days when I worked at a student magazine, the headline isn’t there to summarize the article, it’s there to pull people in; provocativeness trumps nuance. But of course the headline sets the topic in the reader’s mind. A clumsily chosen one can throw in all manner of meanings the writer never intended, potentially derailing the entire article. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on here.

Apart from the headline, all Penny says about entitlement is that it exists among nerds and that we need to let it go. Her main point is that the pain of rejection, which she herself knows too well to dismiss, does not negate structural oppression such as racism and sexism – and pertinently, the cultural construct of women as commodities whose worth is measured by the happiness they bring to men. That construct is what makes it still unsafe to dispense with the sexual assault prevention workshops that made Aaronson feel so bad about himself. Not all nerdy men driven to despair by rejection are Scott Aaronson. Some of them are Elliot Rodger.

Alexander doesn’t quite get this. He doesn’t see the relevance of sexism to the discussion, and I’m afraid he is one of those who’s apt to demand citations for women’s personal life experiences. When Penny says

Unlike Aaronson, I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way. I am still punished every day by men who believe that I do not deserve my work as a writer and scholar.

Alexander’s response is

“Unfairly excluded from the life of the mind” might suggest she didn’t have the same opportunities as men to participate in higher education, but in fact women are now 33% more likely than men to earn college degrees and women get higher grades in college than men do...

I am unclear where Alexander got the idea that “I am still punished every day by men who believe that I do not deserve my work” means something impersonal, abstract, or society-wide, such as could be countered with statistics about university admissions. Penny is vague about the nature of the punishment, but her language clearly denotes something individual (singular I, repeated) and concrete (every day suggests regular discrete events, whereas an ongoing condition would be all the time). Not being a woman I can’t confidently say what she means, but I’m reminded of my mother, having been granted a science fellowship in the 1990s, recounting how many different men apparently thought it was funny to remark “But you’re not a fellow!”

Analysing Marcotte, Alexander leads himself up something of a garden path, which he then feels compelled to stay on when he turns to Penny.

[In social justice discourse, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding] ...privilege is a one-dimensional axis such that for any two people, one has privilege over the other, and that first person has it better in every single way, and that second person has it worse in every single way...
[Marcotte’s] obvious worldview is – since privilege and oppression are a completely one-dimensional axis, for Aaronson to claim that there is anything whatsoever that has ever been bad for men must be interpreted as a claim that they are the ones who are really oppressed and therefore women are not the ones who are really oppressed and therefore nothing whatsoever has ever been bad for women. By Insane Moon Logic, it sort of makes sense.
As a result, Marcotte is incapable of acknowledging that Aaronson feels pain or has feelings more complicated than “all women exist solely to be my slaves”. She has to be a jerk to him, otherwise it would be a tacit admission that he has problems, which means only he has problems, which means no woman has ever had problems, which means all women are oppressors. Or whatever.

This novel definition of “privilege” is coming out of Alexander’s head, not Marcotte’s. Marcotte’s reprehensible hostility is better accounted for by Alexander’s own analysis of in-group and out-group: nerdy men are Marcotte’s out-group, so she lumps them all together as one. The logic is not “If Aaronson has problems, women must be oppressors,” but “Aaronson’s problems sound like Elliot Rodger’s problems, therefore Aaronson’s attitude to women is like Rodger’s attitude to women.” Clearly I’m not attempting to defend Marcotte’s logic. But Alexander has misdiagnosed her error, and he carries the misdiagnosis over to Penny.

[Feminists resolve the problem by saying] “Yes, your pain technically exists, but it’s not structural oppression”, where structural oppression is the type of pain that fits neatly onto the one-dimensional line.
Laurie Penny is an extremely decent person, but like a shaman warding off misfortune with a ritual, she must dub Aaronson’s pain “not structural oppression” or else risk her own pain not counting, being somehow diminished.
I mean, I don’t think she thinks that’s what she’s doing. But I’m not sure why else it’s necessary to get so competitive about it.

OK. Here we go. “Oppression” is when someone consistently faces obstacles to some good that is the right of all human beings, such as life or the vote or bodily autonomy, due to the actions of someone else. “Structural oppression” is when the obstacle arises from institutions, beliefs, or attitudes that are accepted as integral to the functioning of society. It doesn’t mean that the oppressed people are excluded from every possible good; Alexander himself notes that Jewish people are often wealthy, yet they face chronic hatred and violence due partly to the innumerable Christian cultural institutions (such as Christmas) that mark them out as different.

Women face structural oppression in multiple forms. Their human right to bodily autonomy is beleaguered on two fronts. First, women’s bodies can be commandeered to support a pregnancy against their will, with no remedy in some jurisdictions and limited remedy in many. I have just one thing to add to what I’ve already said about this: in no other context is anyone legally required to surrender their body to another living thing, person or not – they can’t make you donate blood or organs without your consent, even to save someone’s life, even after you’re dead.

Secondly, women’s bodies can be commandeered for the sexual pleasure of men. That is technically illegal, but too many of the people tasked with penalizing it sympathize with the perpetrators for women to be able to trust the system. (Trigger warning: all those links describe rapes, some graphically.) When the pleasure men take from them is “merely” visual, women have no recourse. No-one’s been charged with anything over the theft and publication of Jennifer Lawrence’s private nude photos. Yet if a woman displayed her own body in public the way advertisers routinely do, she’d be arrested, or run a gauntlet of jeering groping men, or both. Those of us who can’t get pregnant and don’t look female don’t get to tell people who can get pregnant or do look female to shut up about their problems.

Alexander is avowedly bewildered by the word “patriarchy”:

Patriarchy is yet another motte and bailey trick.
The motte [logically defensible position with narrow implications] is that patriarchy is the existence of different gender roles in our society and the ways in which they are treated differently.
The bailey [logically indefensible position with sweeping implications] 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.
Whenever men complain about anything, you say “Oh, things are bad for men? Well, that sounds like a gender role. Patriarchy’s fault!”
And then the next day you say “Well, since we already agreed yesterday your problem is patriarchy, the solution is take away power from men and give it to women. It’s right there in the word, patri-archy. So what we need is more feminism.”

I’ve had quite a bit to say about patriarchy on this blog, but most of it has been written for readers coming from a feminist perspective. Let me come at it from the other direction. Alexander is sympathetic to evolutionary psychology; so am I. Here’s a set of statements that evolutionary psychologists generally agree on – I apologize in advance for the cisnormative and heteronormative language. At the end, I’ll put them together and show you what they imply.

  • Since females (especially mammals) invest a great deal in each offspring, the female sex drive is shaped by the need to mate with the highest-quality male available.
  • Therefore, females will instinctively try to evade the attentions of males they perceive as undesirable.
  • Since males invest very little in each offspring, the male sex drive is shaped by the need to mate with as many females as possible.
  • Therefore, males will tend to compete with each other over mating opportunities with females.
  • Men invest far more in their offspring than most male mammals do, though still far less than women do. Therefore, unlike other male mammals, they will be conscious of mate quality. Meanwhile, for women, ability and willingness to invest are major components in male attractiveness.
  • However, since humans use internal fertilization, no man can be entirely certain that he is not wasting his time and resources on another man’s genes. Therefore, men will seek to monopolize sexual access to women.
  • Competition for resources often leads to violence. Mating opportunities are no exception.
  • When two individuals of the same species face off, both have an interest in avoiding violence if possible. They will evolve methods of settling their disputes without it.
  • Common ways to settle disputes without violence include territoriality (the individual who got there first is deemed to win) and dominance (the larger or scarier individual is deemed to win).
  • Human kinship groups revolve around marriage, a system in which a man’s sexual access to a woman is publicly understood to be exclusive (and in some societies vice versa, but seldom consistently).
  • Humans form coalitions to advance their interests. They aggressively resist incursions by outsiders – a dynamic which underlies both racism and war. States are megacoalitions built on systems of territory, dominance, and kinship.
  • Wars in non-state societies often begin with the men of one group abducting and raping the women of another group. Rape has never ceased being an endemic feature of war.

Now let’s put that together and see what comes out.

  • Men tend to try to claim women for themselves as sexual possessions. Except in times of starvation, most violence between men is ultimately an attempt to secure women for themselves, either directly or by seizing resources or status that can be used to acquire women. That includes violence between groups of men, i.e. war. Men make peace accords over their property rights in women and resources; these account for most of society’s institutions. But women may make sexual choices that breach male institutions, so they must be kept under control, like livestock. As each man tries simultaneously to get women to put out for himself and to prevent them from putting out for other men, contradictory cultural norms emerge around women’s sexuality. Men judge women’s worth according to their rank on a scale of attractiveness (but prefer sex with low-ranking women to no sex at all). All of this violates women’s fundamental evolutionary need to control their reproductive future, and so life for a woman in this system is endless pain.

The system we’ve just predicted is identical, in the face it presents to women, to the one feminists postulate under the name “patriarchy”. Where the two models diverge is in the motivation they ascribe to men. Many feminists picture patriarchy as a conspiracy to advance the interests of all men against those of all women, which is dubious. I’m with Anita Sarkeesian: “In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball.”

Where the two models do not diverge is in the responsibility they place on men. Anti-feminists who mine evolutionary psychology for “gotcha!” points argue that patriarchy is inevitable, but this depends upon the false assumption that all “hard-wired” biological urges are irresistible. Some are – you can’t hold your breath forever, for instance – but others aren’t. Here are some more evo-psych commonplaces.

  • Human emotions are not blind impulses driving us willy-nilly, but strategic responses to the specific circumstances we find ourselves in. They’re created by our genes but deployed by our beliefs and values.
  • Our violent emotions can be – and progressively have been – reined in by norms which render particular behaviours unacceptable.
  • Except for sociopaths, most of us instinctively feel respect and concern for our kin and allies. Extending this to all of humanity is not the species default, but it is a live option given the right beliefs and values.
Connecting these with the earlier points,
  • Patriarchy is not set in concrete. Men are not “hard-wired” to try and possess women regardless of circumstance. They can (and should, and must be held responsible if they don’t) commit themselves to treating women as fellow people, whose sexual choices are just as legitimate as their own, and whose value as persons is independent of their sexual attractiveness. When society’s male-dominated institutions pose obstacles to the spread of this attitude they must be adjusted or dismantled. The best tool for that job is the ongoing culture-driven movement towards social justice. As well as liberating women this will have the happy side-effect of reducing aggression between men, including violent forms of groupishness such as racism. And nerd-hate.

I suppose I should make the connection between racism and women-as-property more explicit, but Alexander has helpfully done that for me:

In a typical example [of Nazi propaganda], a girl cowers under the huge claw-like hand of a Jew, his evil silhouette in the background. The caption at the bottom of the page: “German girls! Keep away from Jews!” These images were particularly striking and consistent with the larger theme. Although Jews were too cowardly to engage in manly combat and too disgusting to be physically attractive to German women, they were eager to overpower and rape German women, thereby corrupting the Aryan racial stock.

My evo-feminist synthesis hasn’t predicted homophobia. Should I be worried? Maybe not. Not all patriarchies abhor gay sex; Graeco-Roman patriarchy famously didn’t. There is, after all, nothing rationally wrong with it. However, patriarchal hegemonies have a habit of being uprooted from below and replaced by new patriarchal hegemonies with different but equally irrational sexual norms, in this case the Christian prohibition against sodomy. And perhaps with the evolutionary model we can see why. Men at the bottom of the patriarchal pecking-order earnestly seek social change; they may quite sincerely say to women “We stand against the men who victimize you.” But they stand against them not so that women can be free, but so that women can be theirs.

Want an example? How about the 1984 film everybody references when they talk about social media technology or superhero movie revenue – Revenge of the Nerds? “At a big campus,” IMDb says, “a group of bullied outcasts and misfits resolve to fight back for their peace and self-respect.” Peace and self-respect! They fight the jock fraternity for possession of the cheerleader sorority Pi Delta Pi, including the alpha jock’s girlfriend; they win by installing spy-cams in the sorority house and selling topless photos of the girlfriend, after which the lead nerd uses a mask to pretend he’s the alpha jock and rape her. If I recall correctly – it’s been a while – she remarks upon what a good lover her boyfriend suddenly is, and is delighted to discover the truth. Guys, that is not how it works. You have been lied to.

Maybe GamerGate isn’t actually about ethics in video game journalism after all. Maybe gamers are angry because the Pi Delta Pis are going off script.

And now I’m starting to sound like one of the people piling on Scott Aaronson as a representative entitled nerd. That would be wrong. Just as Laurie Penny’s personal suffering can’t be negated with statistics on university admissions, so Scott Aaronson’s can’t be negated with analyses of men in general or nerds in general. I told you I sympathized strongly with Aaronson, and I do. I know his pain, because I experienced the same thing. But in my case the shaming messages didn’t come from feminists. I beg your indulgence while I open up a little.

First of all, you should probably know that I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 27. Most of what I’m about to tell you about happened before that. I have since learned a lot of things about interacting with people that I didn’t know when I was younger. I am in a long-term, exclusive relationship, and when I say “long-term” it’s been over half my adult life. What follows is not a plea for help. Should this be read by someone in a similar situation, I want you to know you’re not alone. I also want you to know that not hurting other people is still an ethical standard that applies to you.

I was raised in a church somewhere in the fuzzy boundary between Evangelical and Pentecostal. In New Zealand that’s not quite as strongly bound with conservative politics as it is in America, and there was no expectation (or at least it didn’t reach me) that women needed to stay at home and raise children. Birth control was absolutely fine as long as it acted before fertilization and the couple were married. But with or without birth control, people were not to have sex with anyone they weren’t married to; that was a sin. On the borderline were things like masturbation and sexual fantasies. Some authorities said masturbation was an expression of the sin of lust, others that there was nothing wrong with it. I wanted to believe the second camp, but the first were better at finding Bible passages to support their claims. Also, preteens quoted in the American educational material we got at Sunday School testified that God had helped them stop having “rude thoughts in bed”, and if God had helped them with that then he had to disapprove of “rude thoughts in bed” himself, didn’t he?

All around us, all the time, was the darkness of The World. The World was like Mordor or the Galactic Empire, and since The World bullied me for being a nerd I had no trouble believing that. The World hated God because they were attached to their selfish sexual pleasures. The World killed innocent unborn babies rather than stop fornicating! The World delighted in corrupting young Christians away from the faith, tempting them with pornography and nightclubs and prostitutes. If you went out with someone from The World they would inevitably demand that you fornicate with them, which was presumably why the Bible strictly forbade it (II Corinthians 6:14). In hindsight that particular warning was addressed mainly to the girls, but I didn’t notice that at the time.

There were, in fact, two or three girls during my high school years who expressed interest in getting to know me better. But they were from The World and so I could not return their affections. I’m not honestly sure whether it would have changed much if I had; I had no idea what to say to the Christian girls whom I did allow myself to fall in love with. By that time I was already a mass of social anxieties, and I could not frame a sentence like “Would you like to go out with me?” The words physically would not come out of my mouth.

On top of that, highly unwelcome things were happening inside my head. I knew from my Bible that whosoever looked on a woman to lust after her had committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28), and that a young man was supposed to keep his way pure by living according to the word of the Lord (Psalm 119:9). Meanwhile I was obsessively re-reading J. R. R. Tolkien to the exclusion of pretty much all other fiction, and from him I got my understanding of how romance was supposed to go: devoted lifelong love, a Platonic appreciation of beauty, and nary a whiff of primal animal passion. It’s only lately that I’ve realized how unusual Tolkien was in that regard.

Needless to say, I failed miserably to reach the standard I set myself. My parents did very nearly successfully shield me from sexual content in movies and magazines, we didn’t have a television, and nobody had the internet. But there were still temptations everywhere. There were books with Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite nude paintings. There was junk-mail in the letterbox with photos of young women in their underwear, or sometimes not even underwear if it was advertising shower units. There was a song they played fairly often on National Radio which invited you to imagine the summer as a young woman dancing alone out in nature; I couldn’t make out all of the lyrics, but the phrase “and unashamed she sheds her clothes” is etched deeply into my brain. And of course there were actual girls and young women all over the place.

I struggled constantly to restrain my base sexual desire – not, of course, that there was ever any question of my acting on it, but it was Lust, it was vile, it was Satan trying to ensnare me and sabotage my Christian witness, and I tried to quash it, I really tried. I tried not to look, I tried not to imagine. Once, after I’d been will-powering away my fantasies for a while, I had a night-terror that a demonic entity was trying to violate my mind sexually. I believed in demons at the time; not only were they in the Bible, but being sort-of-kind-of Pentecostal our church sometimes did what we called “spiritual warfare”, which is walking around in rooms shouting at evil spirits. What conclusion could I draw but that I really had been attacked by one? Which naturally served as further confirmation that sexual thoughts were Satanic.

Some thoughts were worse than others. We Christian teenagers were given to understand there was a movement out there in The World that was so utterly abandoned as to consider gay sex a legitimate lifestyle choice. But the guys at my schools certainly weren’t adherents. Several of them decided that I was gay, partly because I was so doggedly not looking at girls, and that accounted for quite a bit of the bullying. On this the church and The World worked in tandem: the church provided the internal guilt, the bullies the external discipline. The truth was that just as Satan wanted me to burn with lust for girls, he would occasionally tempt me with guys as well. I looked at Michelangelo nudes as well as Waterhouse ones. I had feelings about one or two of my male friends which, in hindsight, I recognise as crushes, but I couldn’t allow myself to think that way then. Another thought to stamp down, another part of myself to hate. I buried my bisexuality in denial so deep that this paragraph, written as I approach my 37th birthday, constitutes my coming out.

By the time I was 20, when my friends and university classmates were having sex and getting married – the Christian ones in the opposite order – I had yet to go on a date, dance with someone, hold their hand, or kiss. The only possible explanation was that I was a deeply unattractive person. This was not a happy thought, and I tried to stop thinking it, but the fact that my romantic experience was nil could not be wished away. I searched for the hidden sin in my life that was causing the pain. I comforted myself with the reflection that God allowed suffering so as to make you a better person, but from that I drew the logical conclusion that I must not be a good enough person yet. I tried to improve by berating myself whenever I made a mistake or had an unworthy thought, “unworthy” in this context including my unhappy feelings. Those of you who live with depression will recognise the cycle. I started to plan out how I might kill myself. Things finally started to improve, to my own great surprise, when I abandoned my faith.

And despite all of that, it is still shamefully easy to think of times when I have thoughtlessly done things from which a reasonable woman would conclude that I could not be trusted to respect her choices. I stared at girls a lot at high school, which will strike you as not quite consonant with what I’ve told you about forcing myself not to look; but in my head, you see, though animal lust was evil, there was nothing wrong with appreciating beauty in an pure aesthetic sort of way. It never crossed my mind that the person being stared at couldn’t tell the difference. I was operating on a purity ethic, not a consent ethic. I was, in a word, entitled.

Since belatedly entering the world of the sexually active I have hit on women uncomfortably, I have gotten tetchy when women said no, I have expressed sexual thoughts in inappropriate contexts. The worst thing I have done, and I am not going into detail on this, has been to assume that because people were OK with talking about nudism they were OK with it in practice. I swear that my intentions were innocent, and that I regret all of it afresh every day, but neither my intentions nor my regrets erase the harm I have done. I am sorry. I hope that the people I have hurt have been able to find healing. I would like to think they could forgive me, but that is their prerogative.

What I’m trying to say is, I have been in pretty much the same plight as Scott Aaronson, and yet I really ought to have been dragged to one or two of those consent workshops that hurt him so much. There’s a problem here, but taking feminism away is not the answer. I know I’m not neurotypical, and I suspect Aaronson isn’t either. Perhaps what’s called for is some information on how basic human sexual interaction works, targeted at people like me who don’t pick it up instinctively. Such material would have to be written by trained mental health professionals with a full consciousness of how patriarchy operates for all genders. That strikes me as a worthier use of one’s time than complaining about feminist bloggers.


  1. Er...out of curiosity, do you actually have children? Because that evo psych noodling tends to fall apart pretty hard once it hits reality.

    1. I think you may have won some kind of prize for the number of non sequiturs packed into two short sentences.
      I haven't claimed to have children.
      I'm not sure that child-rearing is relevant to anything I've said here, and in particular all the evolutionary psychology I invoke pertains solely to adults.
      Child-rearing might well be too complex to apply the principles of a particular scientific model to it in real time. By way of analogy, place a glass jar half-full of sand on the edge of a table. Can you apply the laws of physics to predict precisely where each shard of glass and each grain of sand will go when you knock it off? I can't, but does that invalidate the laws of physics?

  2. Amazing how people like you can never talk about ANYONE you disagree with without claiming they're borderline rapists, making "demand(s) on women... for their bodies".
    Your response is typical of the patronizing lectures written in bad faith that disgusted everyone outside your clique.

    1. I'm not even sure where to start. Maybe "people like you"? Because "people like me" are all the same, I suppose. Way to reveal that you only read until you've identified which "clique" a writer belongs to and then assume they are saying the same as everyone else you personally assign to that "clique". You do realize that takes all the punch out of words like "never" and "anyone you disagree with" and "typical" and "everyone outside your clique", don't you? If you never listen long enough to hear something that breaks your preconceptions, the fact that your preconceptions have never been broken doesn't prove anything.
      That impression is confirmed by your quote from the article. It was Miri, not me, who said that men often make demands on women. She says that sometimes it's for their bodies, but even when it's not, it's for their time and attention. Your ellipsis erasing that point crosses the line from hostile misreading to malicious dishonesty.
      Your accusation is, accordingly, false. Within this post alone, I disagree with Scott Aaronson about his readings of "entitlement" and "privilege", but I state repeatedly that I sympathize with him and that I don't think he's entitled; I disagree with Scott Alexander about his readings of Laurie Penny and specifically of the terms "privilege", "structural oppression", and "patriarchy"; I disagree most strongly with Amanda Marcotte, on the grounds that she really does claim Aaronson is a borderline rapist. And I guess you could say that I disagree with the Christian people and organizations I got my ideas about sexuality from as a teenager, since their policies caused me so much needless pain.

      Altogether, therefore, your incomprehension of the post is so complete and so vast that this comment is not really addressed to you at all; you will certainly not read it. You will see that I have replied; you will compose in your own head the response you believe to be "typical" of "people like me"; and you will assume that that is what you are seeing, regardless of what actually appears on your screen. I may or may not leave your replies to that imaginary comment up, depending on whether I find them amusing.

  3. Fascinating theory. I have to say that it shed light on something for me. I have always thought I was asexual- aromatic. But recently have begun to realize that I can actually get it up for people I've known for a long time ( like decades long time.) Who I love very very very much. But only then.

    I still feel like an Atheist in church when people talk about romance. I used to think I couldn't idealise people enough to fall in love with them. But maybe I actually idealise them too much? Interesting thought.

    I will say though that in my experience, my own circle of friends and family all the most obvious " Shallows" are female. Particularly my best friend. She's not unusual in that regard either. Maybe its cultural influences. I have yet to meet a " Deep." Or, if thats what I am, someone as Deep as me. I imagine I'm on the extreme end of the spectrum if I at all.