The internet has been on fire recently with discussions about vulnerable men, ‘nerd’ men who don’t feel privileged.
Scott Aaronson recently posted in a comment on his blog about how he doesn’t feel that he has experienced ‘male privilege’ because he was a ‘male nerd’ and women rejected him sexually. This comment is now prefaced by a lot of bold writing saying that all his friends agree that he is a such a nice person, and he would never have meant any of of the negative things he said about women, and he would never have meant to dismiss sexual harassment, because obviously he is such a nice person.
Nice people can be blinded by their own prejudices, led astray by their own suffering, and blind to the problems others face. I have no doubt in my mind that Scott Aaronson suffered from being a ‘male nerd’. I have every sympathy for him. What I cannot and will not agree with, and what I cannot and will not stand for, is him suggesting that this absolves him of male privilege, and therefore women who think they are sexually harassed by ‘male nerds’ just don’t understand their suffering.
I am sympathetic to Aaronson’s narrative, but I also find it deeply problematic. What underlies it, what runs through it, is a seam of casual misogyny. Not once in Aaronson’s narrative does he ever acknowledge that women could be like him. That women are complex, that women suffer too, that women can be ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’, that women could have their desires rejected. Reading feminist books, as Aaronson constantly emphasises that he does, is not some kind of magical get-out-of-jail-free card protecting you from accusations of misogyny. The only way not to seem like a misogynist is to talk about women as though they are humans as complex and as capable of thought and emotion as men.
Hardly any of his discussion takes into account that women can be nerds. Women can be beautiful, unavailable, feminist, judgmental, blaming, rejecting, but they can never be clever. They can never be nerds, too. Women don’t understand the experience of nerds because we are bodies, not minds. That is the unpleasant, underlying implication.
There were plenty of girls, back in those teenage years, who were smart but not pretty. Who were shy and socially awkward. Who would have given anything to be the object of someone’s desire. They were overlooked, too. You just didn’t see it. Because you were looking at the “attractive” girls, and it never crossed your mind that a woman could be an equal, not just in intelligence, but also in experience.
Scott Aaronson’s experience is not a peculiarly male experience, and it has precious little to do with male privilege. It is not only men who feel ashamed of their desires, or of voicing them lest the object of them becomes disgusted. It is not only men who are afraid of being shamed for fancying someone who is “out of their league”. Women experience that, too.
Then we come to this phrase here: “no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals”. There’s blame inherent in that; go ahead, make the wrong choice, if you want to. For a blog post that is supposed to be dismissing the idea that he is entitled, Aaronson comes off hella entitled. This is almost in Thor Lund territory here. For Aaronson, men are people, and women are prizes. He thinks he’s a nerd guy, but as well as that, he’s the quintessential ‘nice guy’. There are just as many women frustrated that the conventionally attractive women get all the romantic attention as there are men who are frustrated that all the conventionally attractive men get all the attention. This isn’t about male privilege or gender bias. Aaronson still enjoyed male privilege while he was disheartened and disadvantaged by the fact that he did not fit the conventional model of masculinity. Women who don’t fit the conventional model of femininity also suffer as he did, but do not benefit from male privilege. Blaming the women for rejecting you sexually just shows up how you see women as sex objects, rather than as people as complex and autonomous as yourself.
What would I say to Aaronson? OK, people were mean to you because you were nerdy. That was bad. That isn’t nice. But that has nothing to do with your sex. Sure, there’s something in the bias against people who are uncool/bad at sports/nerdy, but that’s something completely unrelated to male privilege. A black man still experiences male privilege, even while he does not enjoy white privilege.
We women, we’re people just like you. We don’t all like the same things. We don’t all fancy the same kind of men, or the ‘Neandertals’ as Aaronson so tellingly calls them. Don’t do us the disservice of imagining us as homogenous sex-bots programmed to want one thing. Accept that while other areas of your life may suck, you do still enjoy male privilege. Accept that we want the same things as you; to be loved, to be understood, to belong. It’s only then – and not by blaming each other – that things can get better.