But women are an advanced social skill…

This post is following on from Melissa’s post, and particularly inspired by a comment in moderation, which I am not sure whether she will approve or not, which defends “hardcore geeks” (presumed to never be women themselves, I gather) behaviour towards women on the basis of “INCREDIBLY limited socialization”.

This is all quite genuinely mystifying to me. Admittedly I’m relying on extensive anecdata rather than surveys, but self-identified geeks mostly go through a stage as teenagers and sometimes beyond, and often quite a hurtful stage, of at best social difficulties and at worst cruel bullying and social isolation. Many only find their people at university or cons or other places with a high geek density.

But this doesn’t translate to a life so obviously deprived of chances to interact with women that we are required to assume that all geek men are at least eighteen years behind their chronological age in exposure to women. I learned alot from dating sites for big beautiful women, as I spoke to many geek men. It’s true that groups of women and mixed-gender groups have their own social norms. In fact women geeks can find these difficult to navigate too and some prefer for a while, or always, the social norms of male geek groups to those of women non-geeks (at the same time often encountering problems being a woman in said group as well). Admittedly my sample is biased because by definition I’m not friends with any geek who doesn’t have women friends, but after high school geeks seem to me to have roughly the same social success that others have, where “social success” is approximated by “has a social circle of the desired number of people, who you enjoy spending time with”. Possibly with different types of people, but similar numbers of them.

(Speaking of social success, a geeky tangent: Scott L. Feld’s Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do, see Satoshi Kanazawa’s write-up in Psychology Today if you don’t have access, although beware the horrible subtitle.)

But even though I see lots of men geeks who are enough of a social success to make them happy, I find this notion of interacting with women being a graduate-level social skill to be quite seriously brought up by some of these same geeks. Even middle-aged men geeks who are in long-term heterosexual relationships or who have long-time women colleagues and collaborators. They maintain that the entry-level of dealing with women in general should not be close to their own skills, but a very very low bar in which outright sexual harassment ought to be treated as a forgivable faux pas and an opportunity for a gentle teaching moment, rather than a very justified cause of anger.

There are several related things going on. One is that geek culture is not as uninfluenced by other cultures as some geeks would like to argue. Much of geek sexism is a geeky spin on plain old sexism, not a parallel form of sexism that’s accidentally developed as a result of innocent geek men’s social isolation. The second is that, as a consequence of many geekdoms being male dominated, they attract men who prefer not to interact with women, or at least not to interact with us in their leisure time. (To be clear here: I am not saying that all men geeks in a male dominated geekdom are there to get away from women. I’m saying that a subset of them are, and that they have a reason to push against including women.) I also notice an unfortunate tendency to believe that men are solely socialised by women: if a man, through no fault of his own, has ended up in a men-only social pocket, then it’s basically Lord of the Flies until a kind woman makes up for the failings of women past and helps him out.

There do seem to be a number of men who genuinely and sincerely believe that the single most acceptable way to interact with any woman is to be sure to inform her that they approve of her appearance, or, less often, her general civilising influence, and who get a horrible shock when someone is angry with them for it. But much of the rest of the “don’t expect too much of geeks when it comes to social decencies!” rhetoric seems self-serving and disingenuous.

Note: discussions of geeks and social skills can attract blanket statements about the skills of geeks with autism spectrum disorders. I haven’t addressed that in this post because I am neurotypical and have no especial expertise about autism spectrum disorders. I welcome informed comment on it here, but uninformed blanket statements won’t be approved; if you don’t know anything much about ASDs don’t make it up.

45 thoughts on “But women are an advanced social skill…

  1. Restructure!

    Much of geek sexism is a geeky spin on plain old sexism, not a parallel form of sexism that’s accidentally developed as a result of innocent geek men’s social isolation.


    1. jadelennox

      I see it as plain old sexism which has been recast and re-justified to make it look like it fits geek stated social values, such as they are. Geek concern trolls are more likely to throw around “free speech”, “merit economy”, and “Jubal Harshaw” to justify their pplain old sexism and make it seem like it is something better.

    2. Restructure!

      Autistic Children Recognize Stereotypes Based On Race And Sex, Study Suggests:

      “Even with their limited capacities for social interaction and their apparent inability to orient to social stimuli, these autistic kids pick up and endorse social stereotypes as readily as normally developing kids,” said Lawrence Hirschfeld of the New School for Social Research in New York. “One take-away point is that stereotypes are very easy to learn and very robust. They don’t require higher order attention, or apparently even attention to social stimuli, to develop. Stereotypes can be learned even in the face of damage to the ‘social brain’ and under extraordinarily constrained conditions.”


      [T]he researchers found that autistic children who have a verbal age between 6 and 7 years–and who fail ToM tasks–know and use gender and race stereotypes just like normal children. Hirschfeld said he suspects the stereotypes originate within subtle and seemingly incidental messages that saturate the culture–for example, through advertising or biased attention by the media.

  2. Skud

    As a young geek I had more excuse than most for gender-related social awkwardness: I attended a private, girls-only school, as a boarder. And yet, oddly enough, when I went out into the world nobody seemed to make excuses about how I couldn’t be expected to have social skills.

    1. aveleh

      I think there is often (or at least sometimes) a perception that girls who only have experience in girls-only environments might be lacking.behind in socialization skills, but it’s usually along the lines of “are too shy to talk to boys” as opposed to “keep on offending them”.

      As far as excuses, I feel like making a Pride and Prejudice joke about how if you won’t take the trouble of practicing, then it’s your own fault when you don’t succeed.

  3. Nico

    [Moderator note: This comment is substantially edited down. ~Mary]

    Yes. I have noticed the “Our life would be easier in the geek world without women” tendency.
    But I think it’s a loud minority rather than a majority.

    I have to say though.

    There’s an incredible small amount of women in the computer world at large.
    I want to treat them as women rather than like men.

    Have you seen how men treat each other? It’s not really nice. It’s rather manly for starters, it involves friendly swear words. I don’t think it’s nice to a woman.

    It is not an easy task for men trying to interact with feminists women, to know where to draw the line! No generations before us had to deal with this kind of situation.
    Don’t get me wrong here. That is good.

    All I’m saying is that the social skills mentioned in the title of this post is young. Help it mature don’t bash the embryos out of inexistence.

    1. Mary Post author

      No generations before us had to deal with this kind of situation.

      This is simply false. Feminism and geekdom change, but women have been in geekdom for a very long time and feminism wasn’t invented in 1985 either. This is a discussion that previous generations have had in various forms. Assuming you’re in my generation (I’m in my late twenties) several previous generations have dealt with women in the professional work force in noticeable numbers.

      Have you seen how men treat each other? It’s not really nice. It’s rather manly for starters, it involves friendly swear words. I don’t think it’s nice to a woman.

      Although most generic swearing (as opposed to slurs) is not an issue for me, and the social norms you’re talking about are far from universal among men anyway, it’s really important to appreciate the difference between treating women like people and treating women like men. This argument recurs in various forms: something like “you want equality, but you also don’t want me to talk to women about boobs and sex all the time like I do to men!” If your social norms are built around a shared assumption of either a certain type of masculinity, or of constantly affirming your sexual attraction to women, then it’s true that you can’t include many women (or men, or others) in your circle without changing its norms.

    2. Eivind

      This is nonsense. Females aren’t magically made of porcelain and incapable of dealing with different cultural norms. There’s nothing, for example, that inherently makes swearing more difficult for a woman to deal with than for a man.

      The problem only arise if you’re talking -sexist- slurs, PARTICULARILY if this happens on an area where the females present are a small minority.

      As for the “new” thing, there’s -some- truth to it. I do think, for example, that one of the reasons I see significantly *less* of that stuff here in Scandinavia, compared to say conservative parts of Germany, is that we’ve got a longer history of more females being fully part of the work-force. But that’s a sucky excuse for anything. I’m acting like a sexist pig, but that’s okay ‘cos I only had like a few decades to learn, isn’t much of a justification, you know ?

    3. TroubleEntendre

      I kind of wish I’d seen the original, un-modded version of this.

      I’ve hung out with a lot of guys, and yes, sometimes they treat each other terribly. We call those people “assholes” and we stay away from them.

      1. Mary Post author

        The comment was edited almost entirely for (lengthy) repetition of the “be gentle with the learners” point. If Nico gives permission I can email you the full version of the comment.

  4. AnneC

    As a female geek who is *also* on the autistic spectrum, I frequently get the sense (in discussions primarily participated in by male geeks, or at least a certain subset of them) that I don’t actually exist. And I also find this whole notion (not being perpetuated here, more often being said in discussions by the sorts of folks likely to also make sexist remarks) that being ASD means you “can’t help” being sexist or flat-out misogynistic to be insulting. Autistic people are not incapable of ethics! And being socially inept (something I certainly have plenty of experience with first-hand) does not mean being incapable of listening when people tell you that the ideas you are perpetuating are in fact damaging and untrue — not to mention illogical!

    1. tigtog

      I also find this whole notion (not being perpetuated here, more often being said in discussions by the sorts of folks likely to also make sexist remarks) that being ASD means you “can’t help” being sexist or flat-out misogynistic to be insulting. Autistic people are not incapable of ethics!

      This. I was not diagnosed as ASD until I’d borne two children with ASD and learnt heaps about high functioning autism thereby, but you know, up until the time I was diagnosed, I’d managed moderately well on social skills. When people simply expect you not to make an arse of yourself socially too often(and have taken the trouble to emphasise rudimentary etiquette as a way of life) then you tend to make an effort to live up to those expectations, even if you are never going to be the most effortlessly charming person in the room.

      My parents also went through some marriage counselling when I was a teen that introduced me to Transactional Analysis, a psychological system for analysing and de-escalating social interactions which does in retrospect have many oversimplifications and limitations, but at the time it allowed me to systematise my own socialisation quite successfully on a purely intellectual basis, making my previous history of serial gaffes much less of a problem, because I knew how not to fall into those transactional errors.

      Socialisation is very amenable to systemic analysis, and learning basic etiquette a la Miss Manners is a terrific first step to knowing what NOT to say so that you don’t cause offence. Lacking intuition wrt socialisation is a reason to apply more intellect to the problem, not less.

    2. jadelennox

      This. I’m struck how incredibly, horribly insulting it is of ASD people to assume that people with ASD can’t treat people decently and fairly. From what I see, a lot of geeks sexism comes from people who take the geek social fallacies as marks of pride and utterly refuse to learn any social skills because that would mean they aren’t real geeks. Meanwhile, everyone I know who is ASD works incredibly hard to adapt to the social skills required by the NT world.

      (ObDisclaimer: I’m NT.)

    3. TroubleEntendre


      I have a touch of Asperger’s, and yeah, it gives me a penalty to my social rolls, but that’s true regardless of if the person I’m talking to is male, female, transitioning, genderqueer, or whatever. The difficulties come from having trouble reading people, from anticipating how they will interpret my tone of voice and expression, and so on. The do not come in the form of a spasmodic compulsion to shout “Look at those TITS!” by way of greeting someone I’ve just been introduced to.

      Using ASDs as an excuse to be a pig is bullshit, first because it’s really insulting to those of us who are wired differently, and second because if you’re neuro-atypical when dealing with dudes, then you’re neuro-atypical when dealing with ladies, too.

    4. nakedthoughts

      I’m dating someone with Asperger’s. He has never shown tendency toward sexual harrasment or misogynistic slurs.

  5. Zack

    I’m a male geek, who had an absolutely miserable social life from grade nine through grade eleven (USA system); it took me until about age 25 to be confident that I could handle any social situation, and I do blame my miserable teenage experience for that. (I know other people – mostly but not entirely men – who have taken even longer to get there.)

    However, I can put a name to the skill I didn’t learn as a teenager, and it’s not “how to treat women like people”; it’s “how to assert oneself in a large group.”

    1. Katherine

      Exactly. Thank you for saying so. I spent my formative years (age 14-19) in a sort of safe haven for awkward gifted kids (an explicit requirement was being socially and intellectually out-of-place in “regular” high schools), which had a higher-than-average geek population (also a higher-than-average ASD population, though I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to authoritatively discuss it.) While there were some guys who had caveman-ish attitudes towards girls, there wasn’t any real correlation between such attitudes and social ineptness.
      In fact, many of the socially awkward boys erred on the side of being cautious and reserved in their interactions with women–if anything, their earlier, painful experiences made them more inclined to be sensitive to the concerns of others and careful to think out their words. I’d submit that geekiness makes a rather poor excuse for not (a) being able to accept points of view contrary to your perception (i.e., not immediately ridiculing the idea of privilege or systematic sexism) and (b) being insensitive to the marginalization of others.

    2. Sam

      THIS. Most of my friends are geeks and many of them are male. None of them are deliberately disprespectful of me, or they wouldn’t be my friends because I don’t put up with that kind of thing.

      For example, I had a friend at school (computer science grad student if you want to know his “geek” credentials) who was pretty obviously ASD, I think he was diagnosed with Aspergers, but I never felt bad being around him, because it was obvious he was a genuinely nice person, even if he said something that came out wrong and seemed “rude” on the surface sometimes. He might have been a bit awkward at times but he certainly wasn’t a misogynist in any sense of the word and didn’t use his diagnosis as a “jerk pass” or excuse to engage in nasty behavior.

      Honestly I know more male geeks who are respectful toward women than are raging assholes, so I don’t think being a sexist jerk is part of the “requirements” for being a geek, I think some raging assholes just happen to be geeks and think it’s fine to use “geek” as an excuse for acting like troglodytes.

  6. Dee

    Male geeks really aren’t much different from male anyones, really, but In My Anecdotal Experience as a Female Geek there are roughly two camps in mangeek land; “adorkable” geeks and “jock” geeks.

    Adorkable geeks can be just as awkward and shy and socially lacking or whatever — or not, as the case may be — as their jockish brethren, but the distinction is they don’t treat (or at least, don’t project as treating) “being a woman” as some additional difficulty modifier to add to their Social rolls with other geeks. They’ll accept a female geek’s self-proclaimed geekishness at face-value.

    For me, interactions with “jock” geeks are always coloured by a sense of being othered; I’m always a woman first (or rather, “lawlz a girl! a/s/l? lololol j/k!”) and a geek second, if at all. Jock geeks will always make women “prove” their geekish “cred”, against terms always set by the jock geek.

    It’s really more of a spectrum than a binary (and only a rough, limited one at that), and has very little to do with being a geek per se — the same attitudes exist pretty much everywhere — it’s just that “jock geekery” seems to be excused a lot more than the same attitude in other areas, and often by people who should really know better.

    1. Skud

      The term “jock geeks” seems kind of internally self-contradictory to me… I feel like the term dudebro is closer than “jock”, because it has that sort of homosocial/misogynist bonhomie without the implication of athletic prowess.

        1. Melissa

          I’d consider “Alpha Geek” to be a subset of “dudebro”, to be honest. Dudebro doesn’t necessarily need to apply to someone who thinks they’re king shit or acts like a silverback gorilla.

          “Alpha Geek” makes me think less childish misogyny and more like that dudebro who came waltzing in to the UW channel a few weeks back and announced he was “Alpha Male” as though this would result in us lining up to copulate with his self-flattered ego or something.

  7. Ciera

    One thing I have noticed:

    The few men who I’ve had a problem with had one thing in common: they were all trying to date me. Every strange comment was, in some way, an attempt at either flirting with me or impressing me. After reading Dee’s comment, I also notice that they all fall in the “jock geek” category. Even the proof of “cred” was usually an attempt to show how awesome (and date-worthy) the guy is.

    As I’ve had similar (and more) problems with non-geeks, I chalk this up to general sexism rather than geekiness.

    1. Cessen

      I fear this may be dreadfully 101 territory for me to say, but I feel a bit like I’m being told that wanting to date a woman with similar interests as myself makes me sexist. I know I’m being way too sensitive, and I know that’s not what you mean. But I guess I’d like a little clarification (only if you’re willing to provide it, of course).

      I do often find myself attracted to geeky women, because they tend to be the women I relate to the most. We have things of mutual interest and passion to talk about and do together and excited about. And I think it’s quite natural to be attracted to people that you can relate to and interact with on that level.

      And I’m sure a lot of geeky guys are like me in that respect.

      “they were all trying to date me.”

      I think perhaps I need to take this statement a bit more literally. Which in retrospect is, I’m sure, how you meant it. So I should probably shut up and not post this. But I’ll risk showing my ignorance anyway.
      The issue is that they were “trying to date you” rather than just wanting to date you? They weren’t respecting the fact that you weren’t interested?

      Is it perhaps also an issue that when men outnumber women to such a degree, it’s really best just not to express interest at all? I can imagine that’s a pain to deal with. Made even worse by those who do it in a disrespectful, creepy, persistent way.

      1. Mary Post author

        Some of the discussion around xkcd’s Creepy comic might be worth a read, this is the most relevant although it’s mostly about expressing interest in strangers (since that was what the comic was about): Guest Blogger Starling: Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced.

        I really don’t want to spend a lot of time handing out men’s-guide-to-women advice in this thread, I might suggest it to Finally Feminism 101.

        1. Cessen

          I will re-read that, then.

          At the time “Shrodinger’s Rapist” was first posted, I interpreted it mostly as an explanation of why so many women are afraid of interactions with men they don’t already know, especially in situations where social interaction with strangers is not the norm.

          I guess I assumed that the geek guys Ciera was talking about were ones she was in acquaintance with already, at least to a degree where she could reasonably identify them as geeks (though perhaps that doesn’t take as much as I might expect).

          But even then… of course, yes, Shrodinger’s Rapist still applies. But, then, I guess I just feel affirmed in my tentative assertions at the end of my comment above.

          And I think I can check this off as another fail for me, since really this all ought to have been obvious. I need to work on my sensitivity…

        1. Cessen

          Gah… I shouldn’t be posting when tired (yay time zone differences). I missed that you already addressed that Shrodinger’s Rapist was mostly relevant to stranger interactions.

  8. christian

    There are no excuses for lack of skills with an other, regardless of the level of socialization one has had with that other. The are two core, inescapable responsibilities of being a human in a society: 1) to realize that we don’t fully understand the other, and 2) to fix the situation ASAP. It doesn’t matter whether that other is an other because of gender, socio-economic status, religion, or any other sort of other. When i first entered grad school, i had had very little previous socialization with people from China. As a result, i engaged my Chinese classmates often, but with some caution (realizing that i can’t fully understand Chinese norms of friendship, communication etc.), searching for any and every cue of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of my actions.

    GeekFemale is no different than BlackWhite, Chinese American in this regard. (The power relationships in these examples are different, of course, but the core human responsibilities of the parties involved are not different)

  9. FreeDeb

    “Poor social skills” is a pretty flimsy way to try to excuse sexist behavior. There is a whole world of difference between June Cleaver-esque recall of fork placement and remembering that staring at a person’s chest is inappropriate.

    1. Luai

      I wasn’t going to comment at all but when I saw your last sentence, I had to, because the latter is something I have a lot of trouble with (as a female with autistic traits)! It’s not that boobs draw my attention and I just keep staring; it’s that I don’t make eye contact and I don’t think about where I’m looking, so my gaze drifts off and fixes somewhere random, and actually fairly often that turns out to be someone’s chest. I’ve seen advice for autistics say that we should fix our gazes just over the person’s shoulder, but unless there’s something interesting on the wall I usually can’t keep that up for long. You can advise me all you like on where my gaze should be, but since I can’t pay attention to whoever is talking to me AND pay attention to where my gaze is at the same time, it’s hopeless. I can only imagine how much more difficult that would be to deal with if I were a man, but even as a woman I know it sometimes weirds people out.

      So yes, just wanted to say that poor social skills- at least of the autistic variety- CAN excuse staring at a woman’s chest. And generally it’s that kind of behavior that can get autie guys in trouble for sexism when they’re not sexist, as opposed to you know, saying something blatantly sexist (which isn’t something that “just happens” if you are not actually sexist). It tends to be behaviors that NTs usually only do if they are sexist but which are not inherently sexist in and of themselves (there could be any number of reasons to stare at a person’s chest, it’s just that NTs usually know they shouldn’t do so and therefore they ignore/resist those reasons).
      Lastly, those autistics with REALLY bad social skills (unlike me, my social skills are mostly good, it’s my senses/cognition that are mostly effected by autism) have to learn SO MANY different little rules like “staring at people’s chests is rude” that remembering all of them in the course of a conversation can be very difficult, and even with the best intentions they may screw up a lot. The best thing to do then is point out the error and be forgiving.

      Now, figuring out when a guy has honestly just made a gaffe, and when he’s using the above as an excuse…. that’s pretty hard. :/ There’s no real answer, but getting to be close friends with a few autie guys can teach you the basics of how to “read” an autistic.

      (also, the idea that “social skills” consist of ridiculous things like knowing fork placement is both completely wrong, and one of the kinds of misconceptions that can lead to discrimination against autistics, since that view leads to the view that autistic social mistakes are intentional rather than caused by not understanding socialization… after all, in that view, not understanding socialization could only lead to trivial mistakes like using the wrong fork, right?)

      1. tigtog

        I’m not sure where the false syllology of “social skills = fork placement*” came in, but I really hope that it wasn’t where I mentioned etiquette above, because I was referring to a system of manners in conversation that is designed to avoid giving offence, not all those other silly class-marker games.

        “Small talk” is a learnable skill, as is graciously disengaging from a conversation you’re not enjoying (for whatever reason). There are formulaic phrases that cover basic pleasantries, and while one won’t get brownie points for originality at least no offence will be caused. “Small talk” includes phrases to use in situations to get one out of conversations where one feels uncomfortable, and people are generally perfectly fine with one disengaging if one uses these familiar formulas. This is all that “manners” and “etiquette” is – little nuggets of social lubricant.

        * ObGeek: Besides, it’s the job of the person who sets the table to get the order of forks right in the setting, the person dining merely should start at the outside of the cutlery settings and work in course by course.

      2. Mackenzie

        I don’t make eye contact either, but I usually stare at people’s mouths instead. I don’t think they really notice the difference, and their lips are moving so “oh! motion!” can factor in AND sound is coming from there so for someone with ADHD like mine I don’t know how I could look at any body part *other* than the moving noise-making mouth (also good for lip reading). Would that be something easier to try than “blank wall over shoulder”?

        1. Luai

          I find mouths almost universally disgusting to look at (notable exception: my boyfriend), so no, it wouldn’t work for me, but thanks for the suggestion. It’s really only a problem in situations involving people I haven’t met before or don’t know very well, where I’m the most nervous, and I tend to avoid those situations by being a shut-in, so it doesn’t come up often.

      3. Zack

        Nobody stares at my chest, and I’m neurotypical relative to the Asperger spectrum as far as I know, so take what I’m about to say with a certain amount of salt, but: If someone is staring at someone else’s chest, I can pretty reliably tell from a few minutes of observation why they’re doing it. Someone like yourself, who is not doing eye gaze the way NT people do, behaves differently than someone who is objectifying everyone in the room with boobs, and both of them are different than the teenager who has not yet learned not to be hypnotized by sexual display anatomy.

  10. Helen Baxter

    As a girl geek with Aspergers / ASD who runs her own company, I have experienced more sexism in boardrooms than I ever have in a server room. I’ve never used my ASD as an excuse to be badly behaved, but I’m sure at some times I have come across as rude due to misreading a social situation.

  11. FormerAlienJohn

    This is an area I can comment on from first-hand experience (followed by enough time to be able to look back from a different viewpoint), as I was one of those geeks for whom interacting comfortably with women was for a long time well outside my reach. Although I was never diagnosed with Aspergers (or if I was, I wasn’t told), looking back (now in the second half of my 40s) it’s fairly clear that I was some way along that spectrum (even now, I test as nearer Aspergers than NT, on Baron-Cohen’s online test).

    The “cruel bullying and social isolation” do, in effect, translate to “a life so obviously deprived of chances to interact with women” when never experiencing anything other than rebuffs and rejection has made you terrified to try to interact, although you have an inner drive to do so. I wrote “experiencing”, rather than “receiving”, quite deliberately; when a majority of responses are hostile or at least defensive, you stop noticing, or stop believing, the ones that aren’t. Every female stranger is a potential source of hurt, to someone in that state.

    But the real hurt, and the sustainer of still looking for potential girlfriends, was that, as someone who couldn’t read social signals, I couldn’t tell the difference between myself and the men who women did like; that I could interact in my best imitation of the same behaviour, and get so different a response. I can now see that a lot of the problem was persistently trying — and yet the persistent trying was because I didn’t understand the problem.

    And likewise, although I never would have knowingly been a jerk (or at least, not without provocation; I was occasionally rude to those who were rude to me), I didn’t have a clue of what constituted being a jerk in my own behaviour — especially as I could see some men who were obvious jerks having devoted female partners.

    Somehow I changed (I wished I could distil the change and share it!) and started successfully forming relationships when I was 40. Ironically, I can now see that one of the women I met in my first undergraduate term, who I did have a couple of dates with, actually liked me enough to go further — I never would have believed it at the time, because I was under so much pressure to see myself as a failure in interacting with women.

    I think that part of how I changed was finding group hobbies that I was interested in for their own sake, rather than for being social, meeting women, etc. And some of it was just getting older (perhaps I may presume to call that “maturing”) and having the rough corners knocked off me. And a *lot* of it is self-confidence, probably largely gained from realizing that I have pretty good, if somewhat geeky, skillset.

    Even now that I have started to have normal relationships and can see that I’m not totally undesirable, I know that I still “scan” a lot of female new acquaintances to evaluate whether they’re a hurtfulness threat (female obvious geeks are assumed safe to say “hi” to, though!) But it’s a very quick scan; I’ve actually become very sensitive at reading people, and spot creeps to avoid more readily than some women do. (A woman priest at the church I go to thinks I’m paranoid about being cornered by insensitive needy bores; I can’t see how she fails to read them.)

    And I find “jocks” really yucky / threatening; scary isn’t quite the right word, but something about being near them makes me pull back inside myself like a tortoise retracting into its shell. Ironically, as I gather I can look quite scary myself when I want someone to back off.

    Covering a couple of more specific points people have raised: I don’t always feel comfortable looking people in the eye, and sometimes, after a conversation with a woman, I think “Oh no, where was I looking?” In fact, I suspect I’m mostly scanning around when not looking at eyes, looking for more people to avoid… I wouldn’t try the “looking over shoulder” one, after all my class at school conspired to do that to one of the teachers, and got him really worried as to whether there was something behind him! And a non-trivial amount of small talk is *really* difficult for me; I even once told someone who was persistent in chatting at me “I’ve got nothing to say to you, but if you really want to chat, you can tell me something to say, and I’ll say it and you can reply.” (That proved to be a very quick way to get out of a conversation, but also hurt someone who I wouldn’t actually choose to hurt.)

    I hope this doesn’t get linked with my actual name; I don’t usually open up this much in public. I think by now I can cope with negative responses, so don’t tiptoe around answering this!

    I’m not advocating low standards, and I’m not excusing sexism. But I hope I’ve demystified some of what was mystifying Mary.

    1. Mary Post author

      I think we’re talking at a slight tangent: you’re mostly, I think (let me know if I’m wrong), talking about how some kinds of social isolation can lead to not achieving romantic or sexual satisfaction, and to long-lasting difficulties with related social cues. It’s not that I’m mystified by, it’s the assumption that geek women should assume that this experience is nearly universal among geek men (but at the same time basically absent among us for some reason) and that continual unwanted sexual attention is the inevitable result.

      Obviously I can’t know for sure, but it doesn’t sound like during your long period of really struggling that you were constantly subjecting any and all women who crossed your path to blatant sexual approaches or compliments on her appearance. That’s the kind of thing that we’re being asked to accept from socially isolated geeks.

      1. FormerAlienJohn

        Yes, re-reading it I can see I had wandered off-track a bit; I think I had equated what I can now see I was doing, with the problem behaviour mentioned. In fact, it overlapped with it, in that I tended to be persistent even when rebuffed, and in that it got rebuffed pretty much the same. But it wasn’t sex, as such, that I was trying to get; I wanted to be wanted, even to be loved, to be “accepted” (a word which I now cringe away from, as I now often read it as “wanting to get a foot in the door and then escalate to being best buddies”). I can remember using compliments on appearance, but that was rarely enough that I can remember the specific occasions; I reckon I did it 4 times, in about 20 years (rebuffed 3 times; the 4th was to a well-establised warm safe friend much later in that phase of my life; she was delighted).

        The men who make crudely sexual remarks about women are another matter, and they mystify (and repel) me too. I don’t know whether their persistence works the same way as mine did; I think I persisted because I thought I was taking the right approach to courtship, and just bungling the actual implementation of it, and if I got just a bit slicker at it, if I improved my technique a bit more, I might get through on the next attempt. The persistence of the cruder men might work like that too; I think there is a bit of a myth among men who don’t get dates that lovability, or success at dating, is all a matter of technique; the idea of the problem being that you’re inward-looking and looking to get what you want is way over your head when you’re in that situation. (The existence of books and websites about seduction techniques perpetuates such myths, too.)

        I think it was partly fear of rebuff that kept me from using compliments about appearance more often, so I think I did have some of that way of thinking, and can offer a bit of first-hand comment. When you never, or very rarely, get compliments, whether about appearance or anything else, you can really long for them; and when you combine this with failing to understand that other people are different from you, you can start to assume that, because you would welcome compliments, that everyone else would like to be complimented too. Subtler points about the nature of the compliment may well get missed.

        I hope that’s a bit more useful!

  12. Lucy

    RE: Geeky tangent: I took a course with Scott L. Feld (Statistics in Social Research) and he NEVER ONCE mentioned that paper. I feel slighted.


  13. Iona

    Part of what bothers me here is that women never get this way out. I’m a female geek who only felt comfortable being around other people, geeks and not-geeks alike, when she was heading towards her twenties. I am sure that not being comfortable in social situations was, occasionally, a direct result of my being geeky – being shy, introverted, liking fanfic and the internet much more than I liked socialising with the people I went to school with, that sort of thing.

    And so probably I didn’t have the best social skills, back then; probably I misread situations, probably I caused unintentional offence, possibly my own lack of willingness to assert myself in group is a reason why I didn’t and don’t handle romantic situations well. (I’m queer, but occasionally date men.)

    But – can you imagine my using that as an escape route when I didn’t treat other people well? “Oh, I’m a geek, I don’t have social skills.” No. The fact that male geeks can say things like that is part and parcel of male privilege – a female geek who can’t handle other people, finds herself learning to deal with other people, rather than hiding behind the false meme that geeks just can’t behave themselves in social situations.

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