(There will also probably be some needlessly personal revelations but eh, no one cares)
Since I was a teenager I've been fascinated by social reaction to sexual/romantic interests expressed by people outside of the picturesque standard middle-class, straight, blandly-attractive people. I liked the idea of making people think about the desires of unwanted and ostracized people. It was the topic of some pretty terrible teenage poetry of mine (as if there are other kinds of teenage poetry.) And of course as a lifelong Ugly-American it's a subject with some personal investment. It's fine to think that I'm unappealing, but don't delegitamize my right to have an impure thought now and then.
So having established my personal interest as a gross neckbeard virgin nerd, I'm going to weigh in on some recent internet controversy, almost certainly against my better judgement.
Well, one of those things isn't true, I do not, and God willing never will have, a neckbeard or any kind of beard at all for that matter. (Including the one you're currently thinking of, though I don't know why I would need one of those.)
A few weeks ago an MIT mathematics professor/blogger named Scott Aaronson opened up in a comment about his formative years as a shy nerdy male trying to navigate his sexual attraction in a world where he feared expressing his desires would leave him scorned and branded as a creep.
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....
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. 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.I thought Aaronson was being a bit melodramatic here, and in fairness he does seem to realize that his fears were illogical. I also don't think it's exactly correct to blame feminist discourse for this sort of shaming and guilt, when old Victorian social mores would do just as well.
But contemporary feminism has taken a weird turn in recent years. We've met these folks before; they are typically among the group of people paradoxically shaming male virgins (A smarter person could write a long post about how this neo-identitarian feminist movement is reinforcing very conservative ideas of sex and gender roles. Maybe we'll do a little of that here). Indeed, the caricature of the hapless fedora-wearing Internet Nice Guy(TM) has become a popular laughingstock among contemporary feminist writers. And of course Aaronson's post found itself added to the pile; look at this dweeb who thinks he is entitled to sex! As Scott Alexander writes in a lengthy rebuttal to the backlash about Aaronson's comment
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.(To further burnish my own credentials I should point out that I am not in any way a nice guy, even by the reductionist definition. Indeed, I am a boring lazy asshole, and have never blamed anyone for not wanting to be romantically involved with me. Ahem. Moving on)
Here is the thing about being someone who's well aware he's unattractive but still gets the sort of feelings about someone you like as a normal person does. You not only have to worry about the fear of that person rejecting you, you have to worry that the act of expressing your feelings is going to be deeply offensive on a personal level, and invite ridicule if word ever got out that you were trying to rise above your station.
When I was a junior in high school I was asked for a dance at the prom (I was attending by myself as the public address announcer) by a girl I had been nursing a secret (or not so secret; you never know how these things worked) as you do. I wrote a poem (don't worry it happens again) anonymously describing the experience for the school's end-of-year English department publication. After the summer passed I became convinced that she had deciphered my paean (in reality I doubt she had ever read it at all) and decided I had to write an apology letter and slip it to her privately (in poetry form, because why not).
As a freshman in college I met a girl I was convinced was the most beautiful person I'd ever met in my life. Besides being gorgeous, she was in the same major program and the same evangelical social group as I had joined, and I decided that was good enough for me to break out into my new life as a thoroughgoing collegiate. After several months where I, frankly, barely got to know her, I decided one day in late March that I had to confess my attraction plainly in a long email (I had upgraded both in form and technology!) She declined, of course, politely, but I felt immediately guilty over putting her in awkward position that I had to catch her a couple of days later after a class to stammer out an apology for my uncomfortable forthrightness.
I tell these stories not to portray myself as some kind of hapless, unlucky sap. Indeed, while not actually offensive it was quite inappropriate for me to do either of these things. And, unlike Aaronson, I did have a romantic experience of sorts when I was 19, and it went about as awkward and uncomfotably as you'd expect from someone who had thought about those kinds of experiences a great deal but had no real social preparation for them.
Critically, unlike how Aarsonson describes his experiences, my own guilt over these expressions of attraction had nothing to do with feminist shaming of bitter virgin neckbeard nerds, of which I had absolutely no awareness at the time. It was old-fashioned guilt from not having the social intellect and discipline to know my place as an unattractive guy and leave that domain to those folks who belonged there.
An important reason for my eventual dissatisfaction with evangelicalism and my drift toward progressive politics was the restrictive gender box that evangelicals believe you should fit into; rugged, stoic, assertive; traditional and proper manhood. What attracted me to feminist-leaning politics was the promise of liberation; that there were all types of people who could find each other attractive. Which is why this, described by Alexander, has me dismayed.
I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. Whether we’re “mouth-breathers”, “pimpled”, “scrawny”, “blubbery”, “sperglord”, “neckbeard”, “virgins”, “living in our parents’ basements”, “man-children” or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like “bronies” or “atheists” or “fedoras” while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too.If you were to invert all of these properties endemic to Bitter Virgin Neckbeard Nerds, I'd imagine you'd have something of a picture of the ideal Feminist Man; muscular, virile, successful; it looks an awful lot like the ideal Traditional Man of the evangelicals, the man I was eager to escape. How peculiar that we find ourselves back here.