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The Third Meditation on Privilege [Sep. 13th, 2012|01:50 am]

[trigger warnings: sex and spiders]

In the First and Second Meditation on Privilege, I discussed "privilege" with an extended metaphor to Indian beggars. At the end of the last dialogue, myself and the Indian fortune-teller Ganaj had kind of agreed we needed to set some standards to prevent street merchants from become a nuisance while also allowing mutually beneficial transactions. Today I want to talk about one little-appreciated concern that any such standards will have to take into account.

It is really really really hard for guys to ask girls out.

Okay, I agree there are some guys who have no problem with it. I hate them. For the rest of us, and especially for geek guys, it's right up there as one of the most terrifying things we will ever have to do.

I can't justify this. Inspirational articles in magazines and so on always say things like "What's the worst that can happen? She says no?" On a rational level, this makes sense. On a rational level, it also makes sense not to be afraid of tarantulas crawling all over your face. "What's the worst that can happen? They're kinda itchy and you have to spend a few seconds brushing them off?"

And yet arachnophobia exists, and the same is true of the fear of asking women out. I don't know if some women have this same fear about men, although most of the women I've talked to say they don't. If you don't, all I can ask is that you take it on faith that this fear exists as a deep driving existential terror.

Actually, wait. Don't take it on faith. You know how much the average college student obsesses over sex? And you know how 70% of college science majors (our stand-in for geeks here) are virgins? How exactly do you think that happens? You think they ask people out all the time and by an amazing coincidence every single person in the world rejects them? Or do you think that the fear of asking other people out is so strong that in 70% of people it outcompetes college-student-horniness, generally believed to be the strongest force in the universe?

Actually, wait. People never listen to probabilistic arguments anyway. Time for a personal anecdote. The first time I ever asked a girl out (online, mind you) was age 22, despite having (counts) no fewer than seven massive life-consuming burning-fire-of-a-hundred-suns crushes before that age.

The first time I asked a girl out in person was three years later, when I was 25 and in medical school. It was around the same time I first intubated a desperately ill patient in the emergency room. Guess which one was more stressful?

I am sort of over that now. I grew up, became more confident, got buoyed by a few times I asked people out and they said yes. I will never get over it completely, but like the arachnophobe who gingerly leaves the safety of his house into the potentially spider-infested outside world, I thought I was doing pretty okay.

Then I started reading blogs that discussed gender.

And in one sense, I am grateful. You remember that old, loaded question: "If you ask her out, what's the worst thing that can happen?"

Well, now I can respond quickly and confidently: "She might be a blogger who rejects me and then writes online how she thought I was a creep. The story gets picked up by feminist bloggers, and then by anti-feminist bloggers who use it as an example of what is wrong with the feminists, until eventually three or four large subcultures are debating it simultaneously. It snowballs until it gets its own its own Wikipedia entry and then a competing Conservapedia entry explaining exactly what was wrong with the Wikipedia entry and which incidentally is longer than Conservapedia's article on God meaning that my failed attempt to ask this one woman out is literally a bigger deal than the all-powerful creator of the Universe. It is welcomed into the realm of Official Scandals by being granted its own -gate suffix, and a Google search for it turns up 13900 results, including the biography of the girl I asked, the twitter hashtag relating to my rejection, and the one year retrospective. Hundreds of rape threats ensue. Richard Dawkins takes a break from being one of the world's leading public intellectuals to get involved. And if Conservapedia is to be believed (sic), it apparently leads directly to the decline of atheism and the explosive growth of global Christianity."

It would be like finding that hypothetical arachnophobe as he takes those first few cautious steps out of his house, covering yourself in tarantulas, and running by waving your arms shouting "SPIDERS!!! SPIDERS EVERYWHERE!!!"

No, imagine a young child who is afraid of ghosts. Every day for several years, her parents try to convince her that her fear is irrational, that there's no such thing. Finally, she starts to believe it herself. And then...you remember when you saw that scene from Ghostbusters where the hundred-foot-high Gozer starts rampaging around the streets of New York? It would be like that. Not like seeing the movie. Like actually having a hundred-foot tall ghost destroy your city.

And now you're going to say - but the problem wasn't that he asked her out. The problem was that he did it in an elevator.

Okay. I've already made myself look pretty ridiculous in this post, so let me go the whole way.

It wasn't until I the third or fourth time I read about that scandal that I realized it had anything to do with the elevator. I think I had to read some blog's interpretation where they actually came out and said "...and because they were in an elevator and trapped with one another, that made it really uncomfortable." Before that, I just figured it was called "Elevatorgate" for the same reason that the Clinton scandal was called "Whitewatergate" - because the proper procedure for scandal name formation involves appending -gate to the end of the location where the scandal took place.

The fact is, I'm oblivious. There are probably hundreds of perfectly reasonable rules about asking women out, and I could be missing any of them. "What's the problem? I just asked her out while it was raining." "You asked her out while it was raining? You monster!" And I'm sure that after it was explained to me why rain would seem threatening I would understand it, but the whole point of privilege (now officially renamed "blind spots", sorry everyone else but you just have to catch up) is that it's something you don't understand and probably would never think about unless someone tells you. Even if I study appropriate asking-out procedure from now until doomsday, there's always the chance I missed the one relevant feature ("You asked her out during an election year? You monster!") and the whole point of being phobic is that as long as there's the chance it will activate your phobia you never do it.

I am not blaming that one blogger. It wasn't her fault it became Literally Bigger Than God. I am just relating my experience, which is possibly a more general Male Experience. I am just saying that the culture of super extreme public vilification of unintentional creepiness has consequences. The 70% of men who are already terrified to death of asking women out get even more neurotic. The guy you've had a crush on for the past year considers asking you out, then has a panic attack and decides against it.

This is why I insisted on such a laborious metaphor explaining that creepiness comes not from male power but from male weakness. We are frickin' terrified here. I hesitate to write this because the modern zeitgeist insists that claims of weakness are inevitably associated with claims that the other side is oppressing you and is an evil tyrant and therefore they are bad and you are good and you should get to dictate terms to them. And so any claim of weakness is treated just as harshly as any other power ploy would be.

I'm not claiming weakness in the sense of claiming a moral right over you or demanding you satisfy obligations to me. I'm claiming weakness in the sense of oh god oh god please don't hurt me PLEASE NOT THE SPIDERS.

EDIT: celandine13 immediately hits the heart of the idea I was flailing around trying and failing to express. From her comment:
Here's an interesting thing. The standard recommendation for getting over social anxiety, the only thing that I believe really WORKS, is "Do it wrong." Go from being afraid of saying the wrong thing, to getting out there and *saying the wrong thing* (because you're not nearly at the skill level to avoid being awkward), to finally becoming graceful enough to say the right thing. That's what I did in college. There was a lot of screwing up the courage to poke people on Facebook. My first attempt at a relationship involved me waiting THREE YEARS for that one guy, asking him out at yearly intervals until he finally figured he wasn't going to do better than me. It was not smooth. But doing the wrong thing was better than not doing it at all. Now I can, you know, introduce myself to strangers and make friends and have a happy relationship.

But here's the thing. If you're a guy asking women out, the philosophy of "do it wrong" means "Ask women out, and don't worry if you're being awkward or annoying: just practice having the courage to do it at all." But -- almost by definition -- asking women out in a way they don't like means being a "creep." And I don't like the idea that there's no space for someone who's awkward or annoying but morally innocent.

Long ago, my boyfriend used to be socially awkward, and especially had a hard time getting dates. Nobody perceived him as a person with a romantic or sexual side; it doesn't even occur to people that that geeky guy in the corner would even *want* a girlfriend. So (he told me) he started to make a lot of annoying jokes with sexual innuendo. He was obnoxious. But it was a form of "doing it wrong" while he practiced learning to do it right. Putting himself out there, however awkwardly, as somebody who *is* interested in girls. (FWIW, when Pervocracy talks about how *she* used to be "creepy" it sounds like the same phase in development. From cripplingly shy to obnoxiously obsessed with sex to healthy and balanced.)

If we don't have a way of talking about people who are unappealing or annoying or obnoxious but *not* akin to sexual predators, then any time somebody does the necessary work of "doing it wrong" we make him out to be a villain.

Yeah. It takes time to learn these kinds of things. Some people learn them in middle school and are suave and attractive by high school. Other people take until college. And some people like me don't even start getting better until we're in our mid-twenties and goodness only knows how far I have left to go.

[User Picture]From: wildeabandon
2012-09-13 08:25 pm (UTC)
There's a lot of good stuff in this post that I'm not going to address, but I do want to add that my understanding of the Watson incident is that during her talk she had stated quite clearly that she was pretty sick of being constantly sexualised at events like this. So a bit part of the problem was being stuck in the elevator with someone who had just demonstrated that he was prepare to ignore her stated boundaries.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-13 08:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, someone who reads this blog actually just added that to the Wikipedia entry this morning because she noticed it was missing.
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[User Picture]From: wildeabandon
2012-09-13 09:24 pm (UTC)
I do think that it's quite important though, in that I don't think someone who is actually making an effort to be not creepy and boundary cross is at all likely to trigger a reaction like that.
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-09-20 08:10 pm (UTC)
That's easy to mansplain away by questioning whether he'd actuall heard that bit, but I agree it does at a little more context to the whole tempest in a teacup.
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