Monday, January 30, 2012

Rejection Bacteria: Why it's difficult for lonely guys to understand when they are making women feel uncomfortable

There's been something I've wanted to say in the wake of Elevatorgate and all of the reverberations it continues to send through the skeptic blogosphere. I haven't said it for two reasons: One is because I'm not sure exactly how to get the idea across without making it sound like I am defending people whom I really don't wish to defend; and the other reason is because I'm not so sure the point I want to make matters all that much in practice (even though I think it is true and accurate). What people like Watson et al are asking for -- a little bit of thought about how our words and actions can make women feel welcome or unwelcome in the skeptic community, and just a tiny bit of effort trying to skew it towards the "welcoming" side -- is a bona fide good thing and I don't want to hinder that.

I've wanted to say something about the mindset of at least some of the people who are resisting this obviously good change, and why I think, even though their actions have obvious misogynistic consequences, they can be trying their best to be good people and still find it difficult to see this. And thanks to a recent SMBC comic, I think I just figured out how to say it.

This is exactly how a lot of lonely guys feel a lot of the time. (Take it from me; I was one for a loooong time) Unfortunately for everyone involved, young men are even more likely to feel this way if they find themselves in communities where women are significantly underrepresented, since this means they statistically will have fewer opportunities for successes that might help them overcome this crippling fear of Rejection Bacteria -- and of course these are exactly the same communities in which women are already going to tend to feel unwelcome due to being in a distinct minority.

What does all this have to do with Elevatorgate? Here's the thing: When that creepy guy asked you out, he very possibly overcame a crippling fear of Rejection Bacteria in order to do it. He seriously thought a flesh-eating microbe was going to eat his limbs right off his writhing body, but he faced down that fear and approached you anyway. In comparison to Rejection Bacteria, your passing discomfort or brief fear of being raped in an elevator seems incredibly trivial. "How dare you complain about being made to feel unwelcome when I just faced the risk of certain death to ask you on a date?"

Of course, sexual harassment and assault are real, while Rejection Bacteria are not. And so this is not a defense of Elevator Guy or anybody else who is being creepy.

But when you wonder why some of these guys, particularly the single ones, are just Not Getting It, this is at least part of your answer. I don't know if this has any value; perhaps the best way of winning this fight is to just keep speaking out against the behavior we don't want and eventually it will become socially unacceptable and/or people will start to "get it". Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to acknowledge that it can feel very difficult to be a lonely guy in a male-dominated community, to reassure people like this that we understand their challenges -- but that, whatever they might imagine, it's worse to be a woman in a male-dominated community.

I don't know, I don't know if that's helpful or not. The SMBC comic just struck me because, yeah, that's pretty much dead on what it feels like. For whatever that's worth...