Being highly aware of sexism can be a tough gig. I sometimes wish I could turn off that nerve-jangle I get whenever someone says “he throws like a girl” or “don’t be such a pussy” or “she looks like a whore”. It’s tiring to go through every day constantly weighing up how we want to react. More specifically, for women who wish to actively resist the patriarchy, making everyday decisions becomes complicated: do I shave my body hair or not? Do I wear makeup to cover my pimple? If I want to wear socially-coded “sexy” clothes, am I actually subconsciously wishing to gain heteromale approval? Once you’re aware of sexism, you can’t easily switch that awareness off.
It can become very tempting, as a result, for feminist women to resent other women who seem oblivious to these concerns. It is dangerously easy to feel that women who happily wax all their body hair off and diet themselves into the smallest size in the shop and pout at us from the cover of Sports Illustrated and flip their hair in L’Oreal advertisements are our enemies. If we aren’t careful, we start to think of them as collaborators. But it is absolutely crucial that we resist this temptation.
Too often, hyperfemme women are unfairly accused of collaborating with the patriarchy. Yes, it’s true that the more people adhere to social gender norms, the harder it is to destroy these norms. There is no denying that some women are doing it explicitly to get heteromale attention, thereby buying into social power structures – and reinforcing them. But a lot of women just genuinely like presenting in a socially-coded feminine way. And if that is so, then presenting in that way is not collaboration at all. It is ridiculous to demand that women curtail their self-expression to further the feminist cause, when the aims of feminism include making it safe and acceptable for women to express themselves however they like.
Worse, a lot of the denigration of hyperfemininity is actually sexist. We associate lipstick and pink with women (this century, anyway) and then associate women with “weak” or “inferior”; when feminism tells us to destroy that second link, we just leap to “lipstick and pink must be inferior”. A lot of social opposition to traits or clothing or activities that are socially-coded-feminine is actually unexamined misogyny.
So hyperfemme women are not “collaborators”. But there are women explicitly propping up sexist social structures. First, women who overtly push androcentrism as their chosen replacement for “traditional” sexism are actually reinforcing sexism. Androcentrism is the glorification of socially-coded male attributes, which is the thing that causes women to say “I can’t be friends with other women, they’re all backstabbing, catty bitches”. Or “Women are so boring, they’re obsessed with shoes and lipstick! I like to play Halo and watch football!” Or “Why do women care about their appearances? They’re so shallow! I get on so much better with men, because they care about real issues.” Or “Why do you have a problem with women being seen as sex objects? You sound like you just need a good fuck.” (Thanks, Olivia Munn). These ideas do prop up sexist social norms. They buy into ideas that socially-coded male things are great and socially-coded female things are pathetic.
Of course, this is not the only way for women to collaborate with the patriarchy. There is good old fashioned sexism being espoused by plenty of women. Sexist views do not magically become feminist when espoused by women. Women who say that we all need to return to traditional gender roles, and get women back to the kitchen, are being sexist. Women who slutshame are being sexist. Women who say that women should never appear in public with pubic hair, or leg hair, or armpit hair, or fat bodies, or masculine features are sexist. Women who insist that women should never go out in public without makeup? Sexist. The minute you start policing other women’s behaviour to enforce sexist social norms, you cross a line – then you really are a collaborator, no matter your gender. Women who endorse genderised tropes as mandatory behaviour are engaging in social control for the patriarchy. They are policing other women’s behaviour to ensure those women toe the line.
They are also policing themselves. So even though we recognise that sexist and androcentrist women can and sometimes do collaborate with patriarchy, we shouldn’t condemn individual women for their actions. To the extent that we can accurately identify genuine cases of collaboration, which is difficult, we should see it for what it really is for those individuals: a survival response in a sexist society. That doesn’t make the behaviour any less problematic. That doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome. But it does mean that the individual is not the core problem. She is stuck in a system that makes certain demands on her, and this is how she’s going to play it.
That sucks, but clearly on some level that’s what she feels she has to do. It’s not anyone’s place to tell individual women how to respond to their situations. Of course we can call out hurtful and policing behaviour when we encounter it. Indeed, if we are able to do so, we must do that. But we must also criticise social norms that demand these behaviours from women, and in so doing, we shouldn’t let individual women become collateral damage. Our sexist opponents hate the idea of allowing women to make their own decisions, free from social norms, free from community pressure, free from judgement. We need to be absolutely sure that we never collaborate with them on that.
Now I don’t play Magic and did not know who Finkel was until this week. But thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that he is also a professional poker player and the managing partner at Landscape Capital Management. Also, he seems like an absolutely stand-up guy from the article! That’s right, the article in which Bereznak attempted to mock and deride him actually makes him sound like a total catch to me. But don’t let those details which make Finkel seem like a well-rounded and interesting person distract you from the point. It’s all about the Magic.
“Maybe I’m shallow for not being able to see past Jon’s world title,” she writes in mock apologia, but that’s not the real problem with this article. Bereznak doesn’t have to like nerds, okay, that is fine. If Magic is a dealbreaker for her or for you, so be it, you are entitled to your feelings and choices. But why assume that your preferences are of any relevance to the rest of us? Why did Bereznak feel the need to write this snarky, stupid article, piling scorn on nerds for being nerdy, referring to nerds who date normal people as “infiltrating” their lives, and demanding that nerds put their terrible nerd-related character flaws on their profiles? Either this woman is an epic, top-of-the-line troll or she is just astoundingly judgmental. Who seriously looks at the world and says “you know, what this place needs is more judgement, scorn and mockery of anyone who deviates slightly from established social norms”?
However, none of this justifies the unexamined sexism that has characterised the response of many in the nerd community. Sadly, the reaction of some of our fellow nerds has been to completely lose their shit and immediately jettison whatever shred of decency they had concerning women in general. Many an angry commenter has called Bereznak a “wench”, a “bitch”, a “cunt” and so on. Then Elly Hart on Kotaku tried to take down Bereznak’s prejudice and ended up exposing her own prejudice.
First, Hart suggests that Bereznak, as a woman, should not get drunk because “Any guy will tell you that there’s nothing more unattractive than a drunk girl falling all over the place and having no idea how stupid she looks”. This is sexist because it suggests that men’s opinions about how women conduct themselves are the relevant metric by which women should decide how to behave. Hart is suggesting that Bereznak’s behaviour is worthy of criticism not because it is harmful to others or anything like that, but because men will disapprove of it. In this framework it is implied that it is very important for women to ensure men approve of them. Obviously this is sexist crap.
Hart then suggests that becauase Bereznak admitted to getting drunk, it makes her less “credible”. I KID YOU NOT. That’s right, kids, getting drunk at any point in your life means you’re not a reliable source of information ever again. Not only is this ridiculous but it veers dangerously close to accusations that women who were drunk at any point in an evening have no credibility and therefore what they say doesn’t matter and therefore nobody has to take them seriously and I think you all know where this argument goes. Nowhere good.
Hart also suggests that Bereznak, in judging and mocking Finkel, is a “predator”. To use this term in this context is to implicitly refer to sexual predation: and if it wasn’t clear, the accusation is preceded by a reference Bereznak made to online dating sites being like “date-rapey” bars (which is itself a pretty disgusting comment from Bereznak). But rather than excoriating Bereznak for making light of date rape, Hart claims that it is ironic that Bereznak would ever say that, because she claims Bereznak is “the predator” in this case. Hart is comparing Bereznak’s mean, judgemental article to sexual predation. The comparison is extremely harmful. Nobody who is not a sexual predator or rapist should ever be compared to a sexual predator or rapist, because rape and sexual assault are uniquely horrific events. Do not trivialise sexual predation by suggesting it is in the same ballpark as writing nasty blog posts.
Finally, Hart claims Bereznak is bringing all women down. “It’s no wonder men always complain about women playing mind games. You managed to reinforce a stereotype that some of us have worked so hard to disassociate ourselves with.” Again, Hart doesn’t seem to realise that her own argument is sexist. First, she is giving men a free pass to invoke this sexist trope by saying it’s totally understandable to hold this stereotype! Second, by using the trope against Bereznak she shows that she is fine with it being applied to any women who aren’t herself: she is invoking and reinforcing the trope by placing Bereznak’s behaviour in that context! She is making one individual woman’s behaviour into a reflection on women as a group. In case it is not clear: making any harmful behaviour perpetrated by a member of a group into a reflection of the worth of that group as a whole is a tool of oppression. It means that members of systematically oppressed groups (like women) are held to an impossibly high standard where their behaviour must be perfect or they risk “compounding the stereotype” or “letting the gender/race/sexual-orientation down”.
Members of socially privileged groups are almost never treated in this way. It is rare that the reaction in society to a man being judgemental and mocking of nerds is “That guy is a bad reflection on all men!” or “He’s bringing all men down”. It is rare that the reaction to seeing a white person committing a crime is to say “‘that white person is a bad reflection on white people!” No, this happens to marginalised groups only, because their presence in social spaces is a constant audition. To make women responsible for eliminating sexist stereotypes is to punish them for being the subjects of sexist stereotypes. Bereznak is surely guilty of being judgemental, but to then claim that her crimes are all the greater because of pre-existing sexist stereotypes is to punish Bereznak for being a woman. Doing that makes you sexist.
My fellow nerds, this behaviour is simply not acceptable. You don’t get a free pass to be sexist, not ever. Not even if a woman is really mean to you and the people you love for really stupid reasons. Not even if you yourself are a woman or are oppressed for who you are. You simply cannot expect to hold the moral high ground if you invoke sexist tropes to attack someone – regardless of your own gender or situation.
The nerd community has responded with a prejudice that goes WAY BEYOND the prejudice displayed in the original article, because systematic oppression of women is much more serious than the social prejudice against nerds. When our community responds to our critics with sexist vitriol, we show everyone exactly what’s underneath the veneer of nerdy counter-culture: the same old shit you get in mainstream culture. We nerds might think our community more enlightened and progressive than mainstream culture, but that makes us as deluded as George Lucas when he thinks it’s a good idea to tinker with Star Wars.
These movements are unfortunately overpopulated with men who are obsessed with androcentrism and a blunt, blinkered perversion of inductive reasoning that they employ without questioning their premises. I have felt emotionally unsafe in comments sections on rationalist/skeptic blogs, usually when the issue of “getting a girl” gets raised: because the answer is usually that if men’s precious right to hit on ladies is ever impeded in any way by anything at all (for example, common courtesy or human decency) it is an outrage and a grave injustice. How else will they ever “get” girls?
Women’s objections to this way of thinking have been largely ignored in the community until very recently. Atheists and skeptics were forced to confront the situation when, in a youtube video, prominent feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson expressed her concerns about some men at atheist events lacking a firm grasp of the boundaries of appropriate flirtation or how to treat women in general.
Her argument was simple: a man who approaches a woman in an elevator at 4 in the morning and asks her back to his hotel room, after she has clearly stated that she is tired and wants to go to bed, is being creepy, pushy and generally demonstrating a suspiciously cavalier attitude towards the stated wishes of the woman.
It should be beyond obvious that such behaviour is likely to make a woman feel unsafe. First, because it reinforces that these men think their desire to hit on us is more important than any of our desires. That’s pretty skeevy, guys. Moreover, for many women it is actually seriously scary, because it’s not that uncommon for men – even men who seem very nice – to go further with that cavalier attitude and actually commit sexual assault. Rebecca clearly said she did not fear being raped, but in her situation, I think I would have been subconsciously worried.
In case it’s hard for men to remember this, let me remind you: in Australia, 1 in 5 women experiences sexual assault at some time. In America, 1 in 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime – most of them completed. Many women are pretty fucking aware that being alone in an elevator with a guy hitting on us at 4 am can go really very badly for us, and colour me unsympathetic to you if you are lucky enough to be oblivious to that.
The community’s response to Rebecca’s video is pretty predictable: the men who don’t get it are whinging about being victims of prejudiced women, while the rest of us are respectfully discussing how the community can make the situation better. My homeboy and hero PZ Myers has our back on this. Awesome atheist women like Jen McCreight at Blaghag are on it too, and Rebecca’s follow-up post is great. But what I did not expect was for Richard Dawkins to throw in with the people claiming that their right to hit on women in elevators after said women have expressed their desire to go to bed alone is absolutely sacrosanct.
I really respect Richard Dawkins. I love his writing about evolution, genetics, and zoology. I love The Blind Watchmaker, The View from Mount Improbable, and The God Delusion. He is a great thinker, a great writer and a person who has done a lot for atheism around the world. I admire his academic career immensely, and I wish to emulate his commitment to educating the public. I am a huge fan. It absolutely guts me to see him casually dismiss Rebecca’s concerns, and by proxy the concerns of all women in these situations. It shows a complete lack of empathy and an unwillingness to step outside of his male social role and imagine what it might be like to be a woman. To have men feel they have a right to hit on him whenever they want to, regardless of how he feels about it. To have a substantial chance of being raped in his lifetime.
Dawkins says that he doesn’t understand how Rebecca could be so hurt by mere words. Do we really need to explain that words mean things, words cause harm, words can be used to threaten, intimidate and abuse people? Do we really have to explain this to an adult human being? Yes, obviously it’s worse to both verbally and physically assault someone, but that doesn’t make it okay to use words to make them uncomfortable.
The other issue Dawkins raised is the fact that western women have it much better than women in the Middle East, so we shouldn’t focus on the plight of western women at all. It is definitely true that women as a class face must greater oppression in those nations, but that doesn’t mean that Western women are not allowed to be concerned about issues in our own lives. In fact, surely the plight of women in the Sudan is much more important than say, I don’t know, the academic field of zoology for example. Therefore nobody should ever spend time doing zoological research because that detracts from our focus on women being raped in the Sudan. So unless you’re quitting your job to go help out in the Sudan, don’t come at me with this. You’re allowed to surf the internet in your spare time, I’m allowed to talk about the ways in which I feel unsafe in public because of how men treat me in my spare time.
Overall, It’s very hard for women to come into atheist and skeptical spaces when we know this attitude prevails. The men inside the movement have to take some responsibility for their own behaviour and start working to change this, or not only will there not be more women in the community anytime soon, but there may very well be fewer of them. That’s bad for everyone. Surely even the most self-involved atheists must be aware that the movement for a more secular society needs all the support it can get. Of course, you should care about how women feel because women are human beings. But if that’s not enough for you, how about this: start paying attention to how women feel, or we are all going to lose.