The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy

Everybody’s talking about Laurie Penny’s awesome essay responding to Scott Aaronson’s courageously candid blog comment, all touched off by the canceling of Walter Lewin’s online course after he sexually harrassed one of the students.

Scott is frustrated that shy, nerdy men are seen as “privileged.”  He thinks they’re the opposite of privileged.  I don’t see things the way Scott does, but I’m glad he wrote what he wrote.  It must have been pretty hard to do.

Scott feels a certain distance from feminism because of stuff like this:

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.

But here’s the thing.  Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman?  Here’s one clue:  most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men.  Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends.  Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.

So where, if not from feminists, was he getting the idea that a romantic approach was inherently a kind of assault?  That’s patriarchy talking.  It’s patriarchy that gets between your ear and your mind and turns “Be sensitive to the cues of the person you’re approaching and wait for consent” to “You’d better not even try,” because it’s patriarchy that presents conquest and seizure as the only allowable model for a man’s sexuality.

Now here my imaginary Scott Aaronson protests, “but I didn’t think all expression of het interest was assault, only that my own wasn’t guaranteed not to be, and nobody would tell me how to get that guarantee.”  To which I can only say:  yep.  When you take driver’s ed they don’t tell you any formula that absolutely positively guarantees you won’t crash your car, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, ruin your life.  If you demand such a guarantee they’ll tell you “All I can say is never drive, it’s the only way to be sure.”  But if this leads you to never drive, because the risk is too great to be borne?  That’s a problem with your risk assessment, not a problem with driver’s ed.

It’s sad and kind of crushing to read what happened to Scott.  He says he wanted to be a woman, or a sexless being.  He thinks that’s because feminism made it seem intolerable to be a man.  But it wasn’t.  Partly it was because he attached vastly more anxiety to the difficulty of dating than most people, even than most shy, nerdy, romantically inexperienced people (hi, teenaged me!) do.  And partly it was because patriarchy gave him a false and vicious idea of what a man was.

That first line again:

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.

He was both!  You can be — in fact, it’s hard for a man not to be — both beneficiary and victim of sexism.  Those two things don’t cancel each other out like positive and negative terms in an equation.  They are both there, and they both count.

Turd and bean soup is a terrible soup.  But:  when your friend, who has only turds, says, “I’m hungry, I wish my soup had some beans in it,” it is no reply at all to say “but my soup is filled with turds and the beans kind of taste like turd.”  They are still beans.  Even as your mouth fills with the rich flavor of turd and you feel like puking, the beans nourish and enrich you.

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10 thoughts on “The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy

  1. smhll says:

    Interesting stuff, although I hope the phrase “turd and bean soup” does not become so popular that it spawns a hash tag.

    I thought of the same analogy between harassment prevention training and Driver’s Ed. I’m a sensitive, over-smart female person and I found the scare tactics in Driver’s Ed terrifying. I was put off of getting my license for a year. This wasn’t a conspiracy of Masculism to prevent me from driving, this was a kind of predictable side effect of aiming the driving training to “scare straight” the thick-skinned and overconfident driver that is likely to drive recklessly. The message was way too strong for people like me, but just barely strong enough for people not like me.

    Maybe I see some of his exaggerated dread as typical of a gifted child reading material that is not beyond their vocabulary but is beyond their maturity level.

    I do think the question of “how does one know if sexual attention is unwanted without asking” is worthy of more discussion.

    I’m glad the dialog got kicked off, but am not sure if most of the words are going to be about the issue, or if there’s going to be a lot a venting about his character. (I’m kind of stunned that he thinks he deserves a medal for refraining from harassing.)

  2. Lit says:

    “Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends. Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.”

    Yes. And did they date nerdy feminist Scott Aaronson or men embodying a “false and vicious idea of what a man was”?

    Your friend Cathy is an amusing example : on paper she keeps attacking traditional masculinity and relationships between professor/student, but in her own life she married a postdoc who was powerful/admired in her social circle.

    The problem is that feminists refuse to admit that they are sexually attracted by powerful men, so they have to convince themselves that less powerful men are somehow morally flawed.
    In that respect men are much less hypocritical : I’m attracted by beautiful women but I don’t pretend that small-boobed women are evil or Nice Girls.

  3. valuevar says:

    Jordan, this is pleasantly down the middle road, and it is also polite. However, it is also a little facile. It is unlikely that “patriarchy” told Scott A. to feel terrified. Wouldn’t it be convenient if it did. I cannot get into somebody else’s head (especially if I haven’t been invited into it), but the reality is probably more or less what he said it was: a mixture of inexperience and exposure to an extreme but very common discourse that he uncritically internalized (as inexperience, mixed with an initial positive attitude to such a discourse, almost guaranteed it would); a not really irrational kind of fear is also likely to have played into the matter, in a secondary role.

    If patriarchy plays a role here, it is in the effects of feelings of historical, collective guilt that tend to be fostered in the environment we move in, rather than be channeled towards something more constructive. I also thought the post was courageous and worthwhile, though I wish self-pity and self-exposure did not seem to be necessary conditions to be heard.

    (Let me also say that, (a) I agree that privilege and lack of privilege aren’t one-dimensional, but (b) the recent trend to cast all possible inequities as “privilege” strikes me as misguided. Should we feel privileged every time our rights are respected, simply because not everyone else’s are? This confuses rights and privileges; I can be actively concerned with defending somebody else’s rights, without thinking that mine are a privilege. Implying that people necessarily benefit from other people’s misfortune is neither truthful nor necessarily conducive to the goal of making them realize that it is their business. Would my life become more difficult if everybody were treated as a human being? Frankly, I do not think so.)

    There is also plenty of truth in what the two previous posters say, even if I wouldn’t put it in the same way. (I refrain from making general statements about “feminists”, and I also do not want to comment on somebody else’s maturity level, even by implication.)

  4. valuevar says:

    Let me also say that two things are becoming mixed here (as they indeed are in reality). One is the internalization of a toxic discourse – or of a discourse that becomes toxic if taken literally. (As Smhil said, what is barely enough for some is too much for others – and isn’t it cruel to imply that a young person’s misery is his own fault because he took what he was told on right and wrong – or, rather, on wrong and wrong, with no clear “right” – at face value? Compound this by making it his own (patriarchal,) socially inept fault. And yes, this is something people have already told themselves – this sounds like a very familiar scenario.)

    Another is simply the fact that sexual economics work against some groups of people, defined by age, gender and other characteristics. To paraphrase Sunset Boulevard, this is no tragedy – but it can, again, be cruel; and if, in the mixture, you drop the misery that society, rather than biology, creates – culpabilising those who find themselves at a disadvantage – it is needlessly cruel.

  5. E. says:

    As Houellebecq wrote in _Whatever_:
    “It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. ”

    Someone can be privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. While I appreciate Scott’s comment and empathize, as a professor at MIT, he is now supremely privileged. It’s possible to have a discussion about how he didn’t feel so privileged as a nerd, but a discussion of sexual harassment is not the place.

    Patriarchy is a cop-out. It’s an unfalsifiable, magical thinking term that expects empathy and acknowledgment but doesn’t provide solutions or even actionable suggestions. But it also lets everyone off the hook when they might be doing things that make the situation a little worse. I think from reading the discussion around Scott’s comment that he really just wants well-defined rules for avoiding sexual harassment (which is a legal matter contra the driver’s ed analogy) and in dating (where the driver’s ed analogy is more apt).

    Reading the discussion on Aaronson’s blog, one thing that struck me is the atomization of human relationships. Teenage Scott Aaronson didn’t have any friends to talk to about his anxiety and instead read Andrea Dworkin. Not sure about Laurie Penny’s story as I really couldn’t make it through her essay. I just can’t read that gawkery prose because, you know, incoherence. Wow. Just wow.

  6. […] on Aaronson (see previous post for […]

  7. Curious says:

    I think you are too quick to conclude that Scott did not get his “romantic approach [is] inherently a kind of assault” from feminist culture. At least one gay, feminist woman also agrees that feminist culture could be to blame:

    The sheer number of “me too” comments on Aaronson’s blog posts and also on other blogs is concerning and suggests that this might be a bigger problem than many would admit, especially for those who are quick to call Scott’s struggles internal, rather than structural. Consider the following image:

    This is from an exhibit for kids at a science museum in Paris. No one (at least not me) questions the intent here, but these are little kids (not even teens) and it is not hard to imagine that some boys might walk away from this feeling more insecure and more anxious about how to properly act with girls. There’s also an implicit negative message in there that paints boys as the ones who assault others. This isn’t the best example, but I promise it’s far from uncommon.

    I also want to emphasize that it is not just a “numbers” thing. When you say:

    “But here’s the thing. Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman? Here’s one clue: most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men. Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends. Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.”

    That can all be true, and it could still be true that Scott’s situation was an unintended consequence of *how* feminists teachings/policies played out in society. It is also true that there exist vocal minorities that can do more harm than the collective goods of the majority. So even if we assume that the sexual harassment policies did not have unintended consequences for a small, but sizeable subpopulation of humans that are attracted to women, and even if we say that 99.999% of feminists believe relationships with men are ok, it may still be the case that some feminists could be having a disproportionate amount of influence. It is hasty to conclude “this is isn’t a feminist problem”. It’s unclear to me, and it needs further study.

    I ran across another long, wandering blog post on this. Worth a read:

  8. JSE says:

    A note to Lit: what you say about Cathy is not really right. You can see her answer here

    to a question about professor/student relationships; she says she gets why a culture of frequent professor/student dating creates problems for women, but also says she thinks it can’t really be stopped and there shouldn’t be a blanket prohibition and that it’s basically OK if the prof. involved isn’t actually predatory. If that’s an “attack” it is a very mild one!

  9. Lit says:


    Thanks for the link. I see I have been unfair to Cathy, however the larger point stands: there is a double standard where male sexuality is deemed “predatory” whereas women are actually much more likely to be married to someone in the same field.

  10. […] Here’s one clue:  most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men.  Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends.  Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men. (a parade of heterosexuality) […]

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