Scott Aaronson is clearly afflicted with the plight of the male nerd. He’s written a heartfelt comment about his misery as a young man.
Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my “male privilege”—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.
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.
Not to take away from his pain at all — it’s real, and I feel for him — but man, we all suffered like that. I had a miserable, lonely adolescence, and I suspect that most people have…it’s simply that period in our lives when the social and the sexual have increasing importance, and we all wrestle with the problem of finding happiness with other human beings.
I was also the quiet nerdy guy, homely and poor, with nothing particularly exciting to distinguish myself from the crowd. I liked science, which turns out to be poor fodder for party conversation, and my refuge was the library, which didn’t exercise my weak social skills much at all. I was miserable and terrified of rejection, too, and couldn’t work up the courage to ask anyone out on a date until I was 17 (she said yes; I might well have found myself even deeper in the slough of despond if she hadn’t).
But really, it was the same for almost everyone. Imagine being the overweight girl in class; there are people who would regard her as barely human. Imagine being a girl who wanted romance and affection as much as any guy, but who knew that so much as a kiss to the wrong boy would lead to the label of “tramp” and “slut” and endless abuse. Imagine being a girl who didn’t have a date on a Saturday night, and rather than being able to kick herself for her timidity, instead wondered over and over again what was wrong with her — was she ugly, were her breasts too small, was that small pimple on her forehead so disgusting that it was all anybody could see when they looked at her?
Having miserable teen years does not mean you couldn’t be privileged — it really is a hellish time of life for most of us, so you have to compare situations.
But don’t ask me, ask a woman. Laurie Penny gives her perspective, and explains that young women have all the angst and pain that the young men feel, but also face the reality that it will never get better — that nerd boys will eventually find themselves in a more comfortable seat in the social power structure where their talents are appreciated, while the nerd girls will have to spend the whole of their lives confronting sexual discrimination.
These are curious times. Gender and privilege and power and technology are changing and changing each other. We’ve also had a major and specific reversal of social fortunes in the past 30 years. Two generations of boys who grew up at the lower end of the violent hierarchy of toxic masculinity – the losers, the nerds, the ones who were afraid of being creeps – have reached adulthood and found the polarity reversed. Suddenly they’re the ones with the power and the social status. Science is a way that shy, nerdy men pull themselves out of the horror of their teenage years. That is true. That is so. But shy, nerdy women have to try to pull themselves out of that same horror into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women, and to a certain otherwise very intelligent sub-set of nerdy men, the category "woman" is defined primarily as "person who might or might not deny me sex, love and affection".
(And you ask me, where were those girls when you were growing up? And I answer: we were terrified, just like you, and ashamed, just like you, and waiting for someone to take pity on our lonely abject pubescence, hungry to be touched. But you did not see us there. We were told repeatedly, we ugly, shy nerdy girls, that we were not even worthy of the category "woman". It wasn’t just that we were too shy to approach anyone, although we were; it was that we knew if we did we’d be called crazy. And if we actually got the sex we craved? (because some boys who were too proud to be seen with us in public were happy to fuck us in private and brag about it later) . . . then we would be sluts, even more pitiable and abject. Aaronson was taught to fear being a creep and an objectifier if he asked; I was taught to fear being a whore or a loser if I answered, never mind asked myself. Sex isn’t an achievement for a young girl. It’s something we’re supposed to embody so other people can consume us, and if we fail at that, what are we even for?)
The human condition is a sad, sorry mess. We stumble through it, and if we’re lucky, we find someone with whom we can share the burden, looking for affirmation of self with another. And the solution isn’t easy.
We bring our broken hearts and blue balls to the table when we talk gender politics, especially if we are straight folks. Consent and the boundaries of consent – desire and what we’re allowed to speak of desire – we’re going to have to get better, braver and more honest, we’re going to have to undo decades of toxic socialisation and learn to speak to each other as human beings in double quick time.
Bravery and honesty are precisely the two hardest things for terrified young people to bring to a relationship, especially when the culture is constantly telling you how men and women are supposed to be, and it’s so rarely how we really are.