## Walter Lewin

Yesterday I heard the sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online.  I don’t know anything about what happened beyond the terse public announcements, but those who do know tell me that the charges were extremely serious, and that “this wasn’t a borderline case.”

I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else.  But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are.  I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice was done overrides MIT’s internal administrative needs, and even Prof. Lewin’s privacy (the names of any victims could, of course, be kept secret).

More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent.  (Imagine that: physics lectures as prized contraband!)  By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but—as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere—don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work.  (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.)  Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.

Update: For those who are interested, while the comment section starts out with a discussion of whether Walter Lewin’s physics lectures should’ve been removed from OCW, it’s now broadened to include essentially all aspects of the human condition.

### 626 Responses to “Walter Lewin”

1. jd Says:

I disagree about the lectures. Given the recent cases of reported rape as well as the recent survey which showed that a large percentage of undergrads were sexually harassed, I feel that a public statement needs to be made.
While the removal of lectures has side effects, it is very public and sends a strong signal to the community. Of course, I agree that the details of the investigation should have been released as well. However, leaving the lectures up on the MIT site would have sent a different message about the level of punishment. Barring someone from the campus does not have the same publicity as removing the lectures.
As for the lecture being available, they are still up till the end of the month for people taking the courses. I’d be shocked if they did not end up on YouTube.

2. Rahul Says:

I don’t know the details but sure sounds like a very harsh response.

Yeah, I’d love to know what he did that merited such an all-out response. Sexual harassment ought to be treated as a spectrum of offenses & I just hope the punishment was commensurate with the severity of the offense.

Since they are stopping at the point of an internal investigation I assume the conduct wasn’t potentially criminal?

I suppose since MIT is a private university, an FOIA request will not work?

3. Shmi Nux Says:

> I don’t anything about what happened

(You accidentally a word.)

> I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare

Personally, I agree with you, but there is an argument that, since the videos are under a very permissive license, they are not officially removed from the web, just no longer hosted by MIT, among other legally hosting sites, such as http://videolectures.net/walter_h_g_lewin/.

I still think that this is more of a case of ass-covering than “preventing any further inappropriate behavior,” as they insist in the announcement.

4. domotorp Says:

Of course very-very different in the gravity and nature of the crime committed, but a similar debate is also going on with research data obtained the wrong way.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_human_experimentation#Controversy_regarding_use_of_findings

The huge difference is that the Nazis obtained research data by committing a crime. Even if Prof Lewin used his courses to get in contact with possible victims, the classes were not obtained by illegal means, so I think they should be kept available. Should we also stop using Turing machines as the person inventing them committed what was considered a sexual crime then?

5. Scott Says:

jd #1:

Given the recent cases of reported rape as well as the recent survey which showed that a large percentage of undergrads were sexually harassed, I feel that a public statement needs to be made.

See, that’s precisely the kind of thinking that I most fear here: doing something not because it’s right or reasonable in the case at hand, but because it makes the most dramatic possible statement about a broader social issue.

As for the lecture being available, they are still up till the end of the month for people taking the courses. I’d be shocked if they did not end up on YouTube.

If MIT no longer wants the videos hosted “in its name,” they could upload them to YouTube right now. They could even add a disclaimer at the beginning like, “These lectures by Walter Lewin are being provided for educational purposes. Lewin is speaking as an individual, and is no longer endorsed by MIT.” That would be preferable to what they’re doing—unless, of course, creating “intellectual collateral damage” is part of the point of this response, the thinking being: “making one of the world’s great physics resources inaccessible to students, at least temporarily, is the only thing we can do that will sufficiently demonstrate our seriousness.”

6. Isaac Says:

If MIT wants to make as strong as possible a statement about sexual harassment, damn the consequences, I feel that the most powerful response would be the disclaimer solution at the beginning of each video Prof. Lewin, not removing the videos. Removing the videos has more impact now, when people feel the discomfort, but in a few years everyone will forget. The disclaimer system serves as a continual reminder, using the videos as free publicity for the social awareness cause.

7. Scott Says:

domotorp #4: Yes, barring Prof. Lewin from using OCW to get in touch with more students seems 300% correct. It’s taking down the OCW videos themselves that doesn’t make sense to me. While I’ve watched only snippets of them, I believe the closest the videos get to sexually harassing anyone is when Prof. Lewin tells the students that they’re about to lose their “Maxwell’s equations virginity.”

Incidentally, speaking of the Nazis, according to Wikipedia they murdered most of Prof. Lewin’s extended family when he was a child in the Netherlands. Of course, that does nothing whatsoever to excuse Lewin’s alleged behavior as an old man, but it reminds us of the difficulty of cleanly dividing the world into “the privileged” and “the victims.”

8. Scott Says:

Shmi Nux #3: Thanks very much for that link—it’s the best one I’ve seen so far. (The news about Prof. Lewin might have an ironic effect, of driving many more people to watch his physics lectures just out of increased awareness of them.)

9. Rahul Says:

The thing I worry about in a case like this is investigators erring on the side of caution and being excessively harsh just to insulate themselves from any subsequent accusations that they were soft on Lewin just because he had influence etc. Just to preclude any semblance of favoritism might cause people to act in ways excessively harsh.

The other point of worry is choosing him as an example. To demonstrate that MIT takes sexual harassment seriously let’s make an example out of someone that’s important. That again would be sad.

10. Michael P Says:

I agree completely: one shouldn’t confuse the professional content of the lectures with the personal conduct of the lecturer.

Or be consistent: remove all music by Michael Jackson, ban Computer Science (recall that Alan Turing was convicted of sodomy, which was at the time a felony that general public saw as offensive as it sees sexual harassment today), outlaw Catholic Church and burn all books by Catholic clergy (for quietly protecting pedophile priests), etc., etc., etc.

11. Foster Boondoggle Says:

I look forward to hearing that MIT has also removed the poetry of T.S.Eliot and the music of Richard Wagner, both noted anti-semites, from its library. Maybe The Merchant of Venice and other works of Shakespeare need to go too. I’m feeling a bit triggered just writing this.

12. Devos Kerry Says:

I second Scott. Taking down Lewin’s lectures is indeed a ridiculous decision. It doesn’t send any moral message. On the contrary, it sends a message of a dishonest and hysterical administration who tries to cover itself in advance against any potential public criticism.

13. Gordon Haff Says:

I’m going to disagree on the videos. The fact that they’re widely available elsewhere (including, apparently, archive.org) means that it’s largely a symbolic statement whether MIT offers them from its own platforms or not. While a logically similar argument could be applied to other authors and other works in the MIT Libraries, I don’t think anybody REALLY thinks the situations are comparable.

Turn it around. The videos are left as they are. In that case, it would be very understandable for someone to go: “Yeah, MIT says they take what happened very seriously but apparently not enough to even bother removing his lectures from their online course catalog.”

If this were about deleting the videos wherever they live, that would be one thing. But it’s not. And the approach their taking allows MIT to simultaneously make a strong statement while not actually depriving anyone of the ability to watch the videos if they wish to.

14. jd Says:

You say:
> “See, that’s precisely the kind of thinking that I most fear
> here: doing something not because it’s right or reasonable in
> the case at hand, but because it makes the most dramatic

Classically, theories of justice fall into several different explanations. Broadly, these are vengeance, rehabilitation and deterrence (http://www.class.uh.edu/faculty/tsommers/retribution%20and%20punishment/revenge%20justice%20wayne.pdf). Deterrence seems to be an appropriate explanation.

15. Joe Says:

Cut them some slack. For now, MIT doesn’t want to be associated with this guy. It’s bad branding.

Isaac #6: We don’t know the story. Maybe MIT will decide to upload his lectures with a disclaimer, but that’s not a decision that they will make overnight. I doubt very much that the professor will be satisfied with the university uploading his lectures with a disclaimer. Even if it is in the university’s legal rights to do so, I think that as a courtesy the lecturer’s opinions about distributing his lectures should be given reasonable deference.

16. rrtucci Says:

I think MIT should ban itself.

17. Douglas Knight Says:

Why would it make a difference it had been spree killing rather than sexual harassment?

In fact, a serial killer, perhaps the most famous of the last century, made recordings, though they were not distributed until after the killings and arrests. … which brings us to Roman Polanski. Indeed, many people do boycott his work. But googling “roman polanski boycott” I find a mix of discussion of boycotting Orson Scott Card and a secondary boycott of Polanski.

18. Amir Michail Says:

Won’t MIT’s actions and the resulting publicity make his lectures even more famous?

19. Aaron Says:

What about getting someone else to make replacement videos? Lewin is good, but I’m sure MIT has other professors who are just as good at teaching Phyiscs. Or am I missing something obvious?

20. Joe Brown Says:

I agree with @Devos Kerry – there is a lack of transparency in this hysterical act by MIT bureaucracy. Without doubt sexual harassment is a serious crime against an individual, but as @Douglas Knight points out there are far worse crimes, like murder.
There is an unfortunate presumption of guilt on the part of the accused and truthfulness on the part of the accuser. I can’t see how MIT can be allowed to be prosecutor, judge and jury in this matter. Give Prof. Lewin a fair trial.
MIT appears to be re-enacting the Salem witch trials. Hardly an endorsement for MIT’s clarity of vision and search for the truth. I wonder what political and financial machinations might be lurking in the background.

21. Raoul Ohio Says:

Agree with Scott.

I have no clue if Lewin’s lectures are good or bad. I also have no clue if Lewin is good or bad. If Lewin’s lectures can be considered a positive contribution to learning and/or scholarship, they should stay.

While I have no knowledge of Lewin, in reading the story I saw a picture of him, appearing pleased with himself for smoking a bunch of cigarettes at once, perhaps flouting a “no smoking inside university building” rule, which did not leave a good first impression.

22. Devos Kerry Says:

Let’s make things clear: MIT made a radical moral decision here, which in my opinion is astonishing and dangerous: they state in a very explicit manner that purely scientific and educational material, where “purely” here means an abstract scientific or pedagogical content, should be boycotted due to totally unrelated social considerations.

It’s MIT’s right to make this extreme moral decision, as long as they take responsibility for this decision and its consequences, as well as keeping it consistent with past and future such decisions.

23. Devos Kerry Says:

Ahhaaa…now I see the fuller picture….and I partially retract my last comment about a “moral decision”. It seems that MIT’s administration thinks that the alleged harassment was actually conducted in the on-line learning setting, and that’s the reason why they took the lectures down. Hence, they took off the lectures because they are afraid the alleged offense is repeated, not as any kind of message to the public. (I only “partially” retract my previous claims, because MIT did not state when the ban is to be terminated, if at all.)

See here:

“MIT’s action comes in response to a complaint it received in October from a woman, who is an online MITx learner, claiming online sexual harassment by Lewin. She provided information about Lewin’s interactions with her, which began when she was a learner in one of his MITx courses, as well as information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners.

MIT immediately began an investigation, and as a precaution instructed Lewin not to contact any MIT students or online learners, either current or former. “

24. Scott Says:

25. Callum Says:

One might want to argue the principle that creative and educational materials should not be removed or censored when revelations like this occur, but it seems somewhat hysterical in this particular instance to be enraged at the loss of Lewin’s material as though it is an affront to the integrity of educational opportunity; as though Lewin is the only or the best source of information on the subjects he taught. Without Lewin, there remain many other avenues for students to teach themselves physics. The real question here isn’t about poor students being left stranded in ignorance, it’s about what kind of public and community statements we make in reaction to finding out things like this and the answer to that isn’t so easy.

26. Scott Says:

Aaron #19:

What about getting someone else to make replacement videos? Lewin is good, but I’m sure MIT has other professors who are just as good at teaching Phyiscs. Or am I missing something obvious?

Yes, I think you’re missing something obvious. Lewin’s lectures are full of dramatic demonstrations of physical principles, where Lewin himself would get killed had the principles been false. They even have dramatic blackboard stunts. People call me an unusually good lecturer, but I’m a total amateur by comparison.

Lewin’s 8.0x courses have been praised by Bill Gates (and thousands of less-famous students) as some of the finest physics lectures ever given, perhaps comparable only to Richard Feynman’s. (And alas, if Lewin’s sexual behavior caused someone not to want to learn physics from him, then he or she might also have problems with Feynman…)

So in short, if Lewin’s lectures were removed from the Internet, then that really would be a permanent loss to the world. The best thing one can say is that it looks likely that most (though perhaps not all) of the videos will remain accessible elsewhere.

27. Douglas Knight Says:

It doesn’t matter that much in the end, but one should distinguish between OCW and MITx. The former are recorded lectures that people can use however they want. The latter are whole classes, run by humans. It seems reasonable to say that without the teacher the class is broken and should be removed. But MIT also removed the raw lectures from OCW, which is much like removing books from the library.

Somehow I’m the first commenter to mention Cosby. In his case I think it is weird for channels to stop airing old episodes of The Cosby Show. Like physics lectures, the product has value independent of the ethics of the producer.

Although I guess at least with Cosby there would be the argument that leaving episodes on the air leaves open the royalties tap of consumer money into Cosby’s pockets.

But I assume prof Lewin is not compensated for ongoing consumption of pre-recorded lectures. So I don’t see the point.

29. Daniel Dekkers Says:

@Raoul Ohio. The cigarettes were part of a physics experiment. He is very much anti smoking.
I agree that the lectures are only rivaled by Feynman. While interesting youtube channels now exist (veritasium, minute physics, etc), they all avoid the math. By the way, Lewins lectures are on youtube since like forever. And still are. But just to be sure, I downloaded all of them this afternoon. Censorship scares me. More than sexual harrasment. This might be stupid but I can’t help it.

30. Scott Says:

jd #14:

Deterrence seems to be an appropriate explanation.

There are certain measures that are (or would be) extremely effective as deterrence, but that are nevertheless universally condemned by civilized people, because of their effects on innocent parties. A good example: deterring suicide bombers by executing their entire families. Deterring scientists from doing bad things by preventing the world from accessing their intellectual output seems to me like it should fall into the same class.

31. Scott Says:

Amir #18:

Won’t MIT’s actions and the resulting publicity make his lectures even more famous?

Yeah, that’s what I suggested in comment #8.

32. Scott Says:

Douglas Knight #17:

Why would it make a difference it had been spree killing rather than sexual harassment?

As I said in the post, even if Lewin had gone on a killing spree—or even if, let’s say, he’d been an architect of the Holocaust, rather than a survivor of it—I’d still see removing his lectures from OCW as an extremely hard call, if students all over the world continued to find them useful (even indispensable), and if the lectures had nothing at all to do with his bad acts. After all, physicists still study the papers of Heisenberg, and mathematicians those of Bieberbach and Teichmuller.

In those cases, however, I could sympathize with an argument like the following: “yes, it’s important that the videos be available somewhere on the Internet, but we—MIT—are no longer comfortable being the ones to stream them, given Lewin’s crimes against humanity that he committed under our auspices.” Now, when you move down the scale from genocide and murder to lewd or aggressive online interactions, the balance seems to me to tip decisively in favor of leaving the videos up.

33. Amir Michail Says:

Maybe MIT will put the lectures back up when Walter Lewin dies.
That way, he would be punished, students would be unable to contact him by email for questions about the lecture material, and his lectures will benefit students again.

34. g Says:

I’ve taken both MITx courses. Each lecture was interspersed with several test questions, there were homeworks and exams. That automatic feedback gave a different level of understanding, not reachable just by looking at the videos. There were multiple choice questions, questions where you had to type a formula (e.g. “m*v*v/2” and “v^2*m/2” was accepted, but the answers were more complex and needed a long derivation), interactive applets simulating some aspects of E&M.

Even after the courses have finished, many people were joining and doing them for fun. Both courses were voluntary scribed to TeX by a student, in total 700 pages. There was a person continuously monitoring the course long after it has ended, helping people with questions, being unhumanly patient, become a local legend. Some video lectures were edited for edX to mention things like LHC which did not exist back then. There were people who had no computer at all and reported watching them in Internet cafes. The discussion forums were flowing with enthusiasm I haven’t seen anywhere else and included insights I did not find in the lectures. Everything is removed now.

My point is that those videos created a community around them and thinking that they are available in archives misses the point. Data was here removed, and it will never be fully recovered (unless MIT repeals the decision, which looks unlikely). Without an official forum, it will be harder to gather learners around.

35. Temi Remmen Says:

I agree Walter Lewin’s lectures should be made available through a different source so everyone around the world may enjoy them. Having known him for most of my life, I am not in the least surprised that this happened to him. None of us enjoy his downfall. However, he managed to alienate many of his peers, colleagues and people in his personal life to an extreme. It is my gut feeling, that prominent people at MIT had enough of his antics, in spite of his success as a teacher and brilliance as a scientist In the scientific community, he is widely known for being very demeaning and insulting to those he does not feel are as intelligent as he is – and for having had numerous problems with women in the past. His online sexual harassment does not appear to warrant this kind of punishment, not even by MIT. This was a long time coming and they got rid of him this way. Emails destroy careers. Sorry to say. I feel sorry for Walter too for lacking the insight to treat others better and that he did this to himself.

36. Wayne Says:

Walter Lewin’s first lectures and course materials for MIT’s Phyiscs 8.01 were recorded in 1999! Any association of those, or the materials for 8.02 or 8.03, with the current judgments against him, or for MIT to suggest that the institution itself is tainted by these charges, are beyond being ludicrous.

Presumably MIT will also attempt to revoke the availability of Lewin’s academic papers, where references will certainly be found to his employment by MIT.

One wonders about the actual target of this bizarre, overweening punishment. MIT’s reaction here is the worst kind of revisionism, and its effects will be felt primarily not by Lewin, but instead by students of all ages. They are the ones who have consistently written to OCW to commend Lewin’s enthusiasm, presentations, and genial invitations to share his “physics is WONDERFUL” point of view.

Stalin enjoyed altering photographs of those no longer in favor in Russia. Is this sort of comparison really what MIT intends to invite?

37. Tony Says:

Let me mention that you can freely purchase Mein Kampf in America despite, you know, Hitler been who he was.

38. Saul Says:

Scott#32: While I agree with you argument, I don’t feel at ease that you tag Heisenberg along those antisemites. Perhaps he could have chosen a different path, but he wasn’t amoral and the circumstances were different than for the other guys you cite. Fortunately for us, History was not on that side, fortunately for mankind he existed.

39. Scott Says:

Saul #38: Einstein called Heisenberg “a big Nazi,” but I never called him that. Heisenberg merely worked for the Nazis, trying without success to develop nuclear weapons for them. He never got the support he wanted from the Reich—one reason, apparently, being that the higher-ups distrusted Heisenberg’s ties to “Jewish physics.” (And no, I don’t believe for a second the modern revisionist claim that Heisenberg was secretly trying to sabotage Germany’s bomb project. If he could have built a bomb, he would have.)

Now, it’s true that Heisenberg’s motivations were nationalist rather than antisemitic. On the other hand, he clearly wasn’t sufficiently bothered by antisemitism to not work for the Nazi war effort. So in summary, I’d say that if you multiply how important a scientist Heisenberg was by “how Nazi” he was, then he can hold his own against Bieberbach, Teichmuller, or anyone else.

40. anonymous Says:

Wayne, the oldest videos that still circulate may have been recorded in 1999, but long before that he was playing 24/7 on MIT cable. Wikipedia says that he started recording in 1982.

41. Raoul Ohio Says:

Daniel Dekkers #29;

Thanks for the update. I confess to being prejudiced against aggressive smokers, which I define as more than one cigarette at once, or the cigar + smirk combination.

42. Daniel Freeman Says:

I’m tempted to interpret any public declarations of the form, “We’re removing X from the internet” as active, intentional invocations of the Streisand effect.

43. Roger Says:

I get the impression that either (1) Lewin made some enemies in his long career, and they opportunistically used a minor complaint to sabotage him; or (2) MIT is under Title IX pressure from the Obama administration about other matters, and Lewin is just collateral damage. After all, when an 80yo professor makes an inappropriate remark in an online class with 1000s of students, it is hard to see how anyone was harmed.

44. Raoul Ohio Says:

Scott #26.

Good point about Feynman. I certainly have no personal knowledge about either. I have read a lot by Feynman, and recall a couple related things:

One is a discussion of his luck or lack thereof in trying to pick up women in bars by telling them he is a Nobel prize winner. I regarded that story as decent, perhaps slightly risque, self effacing humor. It passes the RO criteria for telling questionable jokes:

if(|funny content| >> |bad taste level|){
tellJoke();
} else {
shutUp();
}

BTW, the complexity of this decision is compounded by knowledge of the audience, audience blood alcohol level, etc., and usually has to be made in t < 0.2 s, so it is easy to see why this often results in Run Time Errors, Exceptions thrown, and even program crashes.

Two is his role as expert and/or celebrity witness in a court case about naked women working in bars (or something like that), back in the 1950's or maybe 1960's, when things were a lot stricter. He was in favor. Judging by his account in a book, he seemed to enjoy the resulting notoriety and no doubt the consternation it caused administrators.

I see these events as painting Feynman as somewhat of an edgy character, certainly on the edge of where professional scientists are, but by no means "over the edge".

The way I see it, the major line is using your class or influence to harass/date/?? students or subordinates. I think it is fair to say that "anyone knows this". I am not aware of Feynman crossing this line.

Here is the deal with Lewin: He is over the line. And, presumably in an easy to document way (likely email?).

It is likely that any online communication today winds up being stored in many places, subject to search, and by data mining tools not even invented yet. This might be true for phone calls. Probably (in 2014) you can still have a discussion while walking in the woods without it winding up in a data base, but don't count on it.

Some scientists have warts; e.g., James Watson is lately reaping the results of an apparent lifetime of being a jerk.

I kind of free associated about the topic at hand here, and have no conclusion to wrap things up. John Sidles: can you summarize for me here?

45. R.P. Phoneyman Says:

“He is widely known for being demeaning and insulting…”
Another parallel with Feynman!

46. Tony Says:

Callum #25

“The real question here isn’t about poor students being left stranded in ignorance, it’s about what kind of public and community statements we make in reaction to finding out things like this and the answer to that isn’t so easy.”

It is easy. Get checked yourself for the mental illness in the nearest hospital.

47. Hanan Cohen Says:

I look at this incident with a wider perspective. It goes hand in hand with the attitude of officials in the US lately to use more force than necessary.

48. Concerned Says:

In what sense does taking down L’s lectures send “the wrong message about MIT’s values”? Especially as it comes at the same time as the UVA rape hoax? And especially as MIT’s harassment guidelines are extremely value — choice quote: “Harassment of any kind is not acceptable behavior at MIT”. Aha, and who has the power to decide what is acceptable behavior? One can guess ..
The message sent is very clear: MIT is not a safe space for males.

49. asdf Says:

Taking the videos off the MIT site if there are still available elsewhere seems ok to me. Keeping the details of the offenses private as a personnel matter also seems wise, though by that logic they already said too much. Presumably there’s not an obligation of secrecy on Lewin’s side, so he could go public if he wanted to. In that case we can’t really say MIT is doing Lewin a disservice, by leaving it up to him whether the details are public or not, instead of imposing their own choice.

For quite a long time it was seriously frowned on to perform Richard Wagner’s music in Israel, because of Wagner’s Naziism. The onus has mostly worn off by now, not because Wagner is rehabilitated but because that era of history is further in the past and no longer as sharp in people’s memories. Similarly the RCC takes heat for recent pedophilia incidents but no one really bothers about the Spanish Inquisition any more. Maybe decades from now, Lewin will be remembered as a dirty guy who did some good lectures that are still worth watching.

50. Rahul Says:

Tony #37:

“Let me mention that you can freely purchase Mein Kampf in America despite, you know, Hitler been who he was.”

That to me, is the beauty of American democracy.

51. Ashwani Says:

He is a very good lecturer in physics and most of my mechanics that I understood was through his lectures only. Hope the investigation was good enough for this kind of punishment, but atleast don’t remove those great resources, his lectures.

52. Kay Says:

“But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are.”

Is there anything we can do to make this happen?

53. Laurent Says:

This story is very sad. Sad for the victim of such behaviour, and sad for what was an acclaimed carrier of a prominent MIT Professor which was sullied by such behaviour. The last decade, I have met Walter Lewin at a few occasions. I appreciated him a lot. I cannot refrain thinking that now he will finish his days on Earth, fully humiliated by his own weaknesses.

That W.Lewin had unmoral behaviour does not change the fact that he was a remarkable teacher in physics. I do not understand why MIT is removing his lectures. It is an enormous loss for all who wants to understand better physics.

I might have a view of a European, I can’t refrain thinking that what is doing MIT is wrong. I wonder if at IMT the music of Gesualdo from Venosa is banned? or that some bible psalms are not read, because attributed to King David.

54. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Concerned #48,

Please don’t be ridiculous. Taking down the videos was an overreaction (for exactly the reasons Scott outlines) but the idea is that this somehow makes MIT not safe for males is just ridiculous. How does it remotely do or indicate anything of the sort?

55. Fred Says:

It’s true that the videos have nothing to do with the case itself, assuming that there isn’t any inappropriate comments/behavior and that none of the victims appear in them.

I usually try to take a “separate the art from the artist” attitude in those situations, and it also depends on the quality and impact of the “art” itself (e.g. Hitler’s paintings were mediocre, with no value in themselves).

I can’t help but think back at another case, where the actor playing the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has been arrested (years later) for child pornography. The movie studios didn’t go back and edit out his contributions. I’m not aware of any case where this has happened.

In the MIT situation the “art” and the “crime” are directly related in a disturbing way though:
being a great lecturer is certainly a requirement for being a great professor, but so is behaving in an ethical/lawful way with the students outside of the lectures. The two have to go hand in hand.
So it’s also understandable that MIT would want to send a strong “zero-tolerance” message (to the faculty and the families) by punishing offenders in a way that would hurt them the most: by removing all their past and future contributions.

It’s more akin to the reasoning used in the Lance Armstrong case where you can’t simultaneously be recognized for being an amazing sportsman and be officially charged for doping/lying about it. So Armstrong was stripped of all his 7 Tour victories and his name has been expunged from the official historical records (that case is also about politics and money, and doping is widespread, but that’s the “official” stance). Lance Armstrong was also a very inspirational figure for lots of cancer patients, so a lot more was lost than just medals.

56. Scott Says:

Fred #55: Sorry, I’m not seeing the Lance Armstrong analogy. In Armstrong’s case, it was (partly) because of doping that he was able to achieve such superhuman performances. Hence, if you care about how fast a human being can bicycle having only taken approved drugs, no unapproved ones (not an issue I personally care about…), then knowing about the doping fundamentally taints the performance. By contrast, it wasn’t because of sexual harassment that Lewin was able to become a great lecturer.

As an equally-important point, the lectures have a value to humanity independent of who created them or how. By contrast, there was no independent need for Armstrong to get quickly around France on a bicycle—demonstrating that he could do it was the entire point.

57. MIT Alum & Staff Says:

I don’t normally respond to comments on blogs, but as a member of this community I love so much, I feel the need to respond to this. I’m not going to rehash old points, but rather point out 2 things:

First, please consider reading, in an MIT student’s own words, exactly what is wrong with the Lewin situation, and why MIT’s response was justified: http://bit.ly/1vUs9d5

Second, the harassment occurred _in the context_ of an EdX class. If the harassment had ocurred in 26-100, MIT would have been fully justified in banning Lewin from teaching, cancelling future classes, and engaging a different lecturer for the rest of the semester. But the harassment occurred online. MIT is doing the online equivalent of removing the class, and formally severing ties with Lewin. As Lewin now no longer has any affiliation with MIT, does MIT have the obligation to continue to host his content? If yes, can random students from around the world show up to 6.045J this Spring and demand you grade their psets and finals?

It sounds like the real problem here is that when an online course is withdrawn, so is its content. Maybe that’s a problem that nobody considered when we all got so excited about how MOOCs and EdX were going to revolutionize the world. Maybe it’s a conversation you can have with your colleagues, and engage with others in EdX or ODL.

58. QQ Says:

Re: Roger:

Trying to “rationalize” another reason for why the individual is punished so harshly for a case of sexual harassment is devaluing the seriousness of the matter. Any form of sexual harassment that goes unpunished is setting a bad precedence that sexual harassment is a norm and should be tolerated. Quoting: “After all, when an 80yo professor makes an inappropriate remark in an online class with 1000s of students, it is hard to see how anyone was harmed.” The student may not have been harmed physically but the harm done emotionally and the precedence that any form of such harassment sets is not to be understated.

I agree with Scott that the lectures should remain on OCW. Punishing the man should not also have the side effect of punishing any innocent bystanders.

59. Fred Says:

#56
My analogy was at another level, from the respective institutions point of view (I could be wrong).

Not cheating/doping is a prerequisite to being a sportsman. Because it’s not just about medal count and finishing first, it’s also about representing the “spirit” of the sport, and acting as a role model for young minds, etc (in the Olympic sense… sports nowadays is mostly a joke, it’s really all a business now).

Behaving in an ethical/lawful manner with students is a prerequisite to being a professor.
Because it’s not just about how entertaining your lectures on a particular subject are, it’s also about interacting with the students and forming their minds outside of lectures, setting an example, meeting the trust of the parents, etc.

In both cases it seems that the “institutions” feel that if you betray the prerequisite your contributions to the “art” are to be voided.

60. Scott Says:

MIT Alum & Staff #57: Thanks for your comment. Three responses:

First, I read the article by Preeya Phadnis—I found it interesting, but also strangely oblivious to the irony at its center. In her article, Phadnis mounts a detailed argument that what really drives women away from physics is not (or not only) sexism, but rather bad teaching: specifically, teaching that makes students feel like dunces if they can’t easily work everything out for themselves. She then laments that Walter Lewin was one of the only really great physics teachers, the ones who didn’t do that, so that taking down his lectures could (in her words) “end up completely eliminating one of the sole excellent resources for aspiring physicists.” But if both of these things are true, then we end up with the irony that taking down Lewin’s course content could have a net negative effect, rather than a positive effect, on women’s participation in physics. At any rate, this certainly doesn’t give us an argument in favor of MIT’s scorched-earth response.

Second, you raise an interesting point about the distinction between a course and its content. As it happens, I was toying with teaching an edX (or before that, Coursera) MOOC, but I decided against it, and one reason was that I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of going to great effort to produce teaching videos, but then having those videos tied down temporally to a particular course—so that they’d only be viewable to the students who signed up, and even to those students only at certain arranged times (i.e., during the “semester”). Why shouldn’t students be able to dip in wherever they want, or jump to a topic of interest? Isn’t one of the main advantages of MOOCs that they make such things possible? Then why artificially take those abilities away?

Third, I confess I don’t understand the point of your hypothetical about 6.045. Yes, I thought that OCW would continue to host my course content (which right now, is just some PDF documents), even if I was no longer affiliated with MIT. But no, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to invest time grading the psets and finals of anyone in the world! Just that I don’t see why anyone shouldn’t be able to access the content I already produced: that costs nothing to me, and nothing more to MIT than the cost of its web server.

Also, I don’t think anyone on this thread disputes that, if the charges against Prof. Lewin are true, then he should be banned from continuing involvement with MITx. But the videos are a different matter: again, I thought part of the whole appeal of online courses was that they could be run semi-autonomously, without the continuing involvement of the professor who created them.

61. Fred Says:

#56

“As an equally-important point, the lectures have a value to humanity independent of who created them or how. By contrast, there was no independent need for Armstrong to get quickly around France on a bicycle—demonstrating that he could do it was the entire point.”

Okay, but when someone (anyone) beats a malignant cancer and then proceeds to win the Tour de France seven times (one of the toughest sporting event), it serves as a powerful example of hope, endurance, and human spirit for lots of people around the world. And this has tremendous value too. Of course Armstrong personal ego and lots of money got in the way.
This is why I said that way more than just medals were lost in this affair.
(bw when asking if Armstrong’s achievements were the result of doping, one has to realize that everyone else was also doping in the sports at that moment, but of course that’s also at the crux of the dilemma in that particular case).
Anyway, I agree the analogy only goes so far…
(for those interested the recent documentary “The Armstrong Lie” is really interesting).

62. Concerned Says:

#57, I’ve read the text at the link you provided. There is literally nothing illuminating the Lewin situation. It simply claims, without giving any credible evidence, sexual harassment to have occurred. Given the poisoned atmosphere and culture war raging at US universities at the moment (pace the UVA rape hoax), Lewin might have simply said “Nice shoes” or something like that.

The rest of the text at the link is pedestrian waffle about teaching and learning.

63. PJay Says:

Why are these males/rapists even allowed on the internet teaching courses?

Shouldn’t they be in the boiler rooms and basements, securing facilities for the more noble gender?

What is wrong with MIT that it allows these beasts to teach in the first place?

64. Douglas Knight Says:

asdf, no you have that backwards. In 50 years, people will see that Lewin was banned and assume that he was a Nazi, just like you assume Wagner was a Nazi, even though he died before Hitler was born.

Raoul, it sounds like your knowledge of Feynman comes from his memoirs, perhaps indirectly. They are selective.

65. lewikee Says:

Is it possible that MIT has a side-agreement with Lewin where he could potentially benefit (monetarily? in some other way outlined in a contract?) from the viewings of the videos? In that case, I could see why MIT would want to take the videos down from a legal perspective.

From any other perspective, I echo the comments of Scott and others: leave the videos up if they help people (despite the fact that I don’t think he’s as good a teacher as people say he is – he’s way too quick on the blackboard and doesn’t give proper time for thought).

66. Fred Says:

The irony is that I wouldn’t even know about Mr Lewin’s great lecture videos if not for this bit of news… I guess I’d better check them out while they’re available.

67. Serge Says:

For the second time in less that two years, MIT hasn’t enforced a strong policy of information sharing. The first occurence was the Aaron Swartz case. Although the situations were very different in nature, they both led to a crackdown on free scientific information.

68. Wayne Says:

MIT Alum — if anything, the comments in that article argue that the videos and course materials should have been left in place rather than otherwise. Otherwise the column is nothing but an essay of some interest which concludes with a non-sequitur.

“.. removing those courses was very much the morally correct decision to make,” she writes. So to punish Lewin MIT is going to remove the videos which the column’s author had previously used successfully and recommended to other female students.

I’m sorry, but this seems to be p.c. reasoning run amuck.

Wayne

69. Arogant Young Physicist Says:

#57
You and Preeya Phadnis simply dont get what studying in universtity means so i’ll tell you a secret – it’s not supposed to be a factory where you memorize known solutoins but place where you actually learn to think for yyorself. And yes, it hurts and it is suposed to hurt.
And dont say bullshit about white male being favored by the “system” you describe. It’s just that if you dont understand a logical argument based on material you are supposed to know before, than you are just stupid, period.
And finally, the person responsible for humiliation of prof. Walter Lewin is unethical, stalinist scum so dont write nonsense.

70. luca turin Says:

Completely agree with Scott: publish the findings and keep the lectures on. What a bunch of cowards MIT admin are.

71. Nyme Says:

Thanks for this post Scott.

I would like to remind everyone that we have absolutely no proof of Lewin’s guilt.

Universities are under tremendous pressure from the Office of the Civil Rights to be “tough on rape culture”, and more or less willing to do anything not to lose their federal funding. I hope Lewin (and his lawyer) will come forward to clarify the situation.

72. Concerned Says:

Wayne #68: You sound like a white cis-het guy, who’s defending another white cis-het guy (Lewin). Whining about “p.c. reasoning run amuck” means you are not taking women’s experience of sexual violence seriously. Women, having been oppressed by the patriarchy, by white cis-het guys like you for millenia, are victims. Listen to their stories. By denying their narratives, you are defending rape-culture at MIT.

73. Concerned Says:

Nyme #71, in today’s poisoned climate, the fact that Lewin was accused is ‘proof’ of his guilt. After all, women cannot be wrong about such things.

It’s not enough for Lewin (and his lawyer) to come forward. A substantial political change is required. Which, in turn, requires political will and power. Neither is available in sufficient quantities at the moment. As long as that’s the case, universities are not safe places for men, because their careers and reputations can be destroyed at will with such accusations, regardless of merit.

74. Douglas Knight Says:

Scott, if you think Preeya Phadnis is oblivious, reach her last paragraph. The whole essay is about how this will worsen the gender gap; she just thinks that this is a necessary consequence of “the morally correct decision.” You’re probably confused because you believed Staff’s claim that buried somewhere in that essay is an explanation of why it is the correct decision, a topic about which there is not a single word.

Indeed, a good reason to point to that essay is that it is not oblivious. It is a rebuttal to the ad hominem argument that people who support the ban do not value teaching.

75. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Concerned, you really aren’t contributing to this conversation. Your sarcastic remarks don’t reflect what’s actually going on on campuses much at all.

76. Rehbock Says:

Unless the geeks rape-culture has perfected any form of sexual contact over the Internet, it is impossible to accomplish sexual violence or rape anyone.
Unless this is more than old prof -maybe senile – is trying to get some action from adult students, it is a matter of manners or geriatric medicine.
Manners, yes. I have tried my best concerned to have sex on the Internet and I know it heavily studied by young males there. No breakthroughs. Those tubes just won’t let me touch anything r anyone.

77. Douglas Knight Says:

I found better examples than Charles Manson, although neither serial nor premeditated murders: William Burroughs and Phil Spector. The only people I’ve ever heard say that Burroughs (or Sid Vicious’s) murder casts a shadow on his work are those that hated it anyway. And it’s pretty hard to find anyone calling for a boycott of Spector’s huge recording catalog. (though a boycott of his biopic is common)

The lesson is that teaching is not art.

78. Scott Says:

Douglas #74: Yes, you’re right, I shouldn’t have described Phadnis’s article as “oblivious to the irony.” Phadnis simply chose not to discuss why MIT’s response was the right one, regarding that point as established or obvious, even as she offered arguments and personal testimony that seemed to militate against its being the right response. That’s not the choice I would have made, but she certainly has the right to it.

You’re right, I was simply “triggered” by MIT Staff #57’s mistaken claim that people should read the article because it helps show why MIT’s response was justified.

79. Concerned Says:

Joshua Zelinsky #75, could you explain what realistic and substantial tools a male student or academic has hat his disposal to defend against a fake or frivolous claim of sexual misconduct by a woman? Maybe taking the Duke lacrosse case as an example, not forgetting the behaviour of the prosecutor, the press and popular politicians?

80. asdf Says:

Douglas Knight #64, whoops, yes you are right. I got Wagner confused with someone else who was still around in the post-ww2 era. Sorry about that.

We’re well into Godwin territory but another analogy might be if Nazi medical experiments had turned out to produce useful data (they didn’t) and a research institution was set up someplace to archive and study the info. It would probably be best if the institution was somewhere other than Germany.

81. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Concerned,

They have the same procedures that anyone else has for allegations. It varies from university to university, but many of them have formal disciplinary committees, in some cases the same ones that handle academic issues. The fact is that many accusations of sexual harassment don’t result in any punishment by the universities in question. And the methods of response they have are not that different from what they’d have for any other allegation of misconduct, such as testifying, presenting evidence, and looking at witness statements.

There’s no question that serious overreactions do occur- such as the Duke lacross case, but even that wasn’t a sex harassment accusation that was a rape accusation. And in fact, in that situation, the end result was that they were completely exonnerated.

And there’s nothing particularly gender specific about this either- the process works just the same for accusations by males against alledged female harasses, or males against males, or females against females. The entire approach of taking this as a male v. female thing is totally missing the point of trying to actually handle a serious problem.

82. Wayne Says:

Concerned #72: I’ll note only that I find your post incomprehensible, which no doubt represents another black mark concerning the level of my historical misunderstandings.

Beyond that, the lecture videos and course material are in every way irrelevant to whatever it is you, and the column’s author, may be trying to say.

83. Douglas Knight Says:

asdf, I’m not playing “gotcha”; I meant exactly what I said: your error is extremely common and it informs predictions of the future. Here is a 30 year old article about an official decision that Strauss was not “a committed Nazi follower” unlike Richard Wagner.

84. Scott Says:

Douglas Knight #77:

The lesson is that teaching is not art.

Most teaching isn’t art, but the best teaching certainly aspires to be. Check out this interview with Lewin, where he explicitly states: “I very arrogantly call my lectures works of art” (and shows examples where it seems hard to disagree).

In general, that video is well worth watching all the way through. In a mixture of Dutch and English (both subtitled), it shows you exactly what made Lewin such a popular and successful lecturer, while also (at least to this viewer) giving off a strong impression of narcissism.

Another thing worth reading is this 2011 MIT Tech article about Lewin’s final lecture at MIT (and associated interview with him): compare and contrast with the Tech‘s most recent coverage of Lewin.

85. Scott Says:

Wayne #82: I believe Concerned #72 was being sarcastic, judging from his other comments here.

Personally, I’d advise Concerned that, when going for sarcasm, he needs to be way more over-the-top (ideally, with the level of absurdity rising to a crescendo as the comment progresses). I learned this the hard way; in the first few years of Shtetl-Optimized, even what I considered obvious sarcasm often went over readers’ heads, attracting earnest and outraged responses.

86. Concerned Says:

Joshua Zelinsky #81: the process may appear to be formally symmetric but extremely anti-male in pracise. For a start almost all discourse about human sexuality that his acceptable by the mainstream is anti cis-het-male. This can easily be seen in that males are typically only exonerated where there is hard evidence, e.g. Hofstra rape hoax, the currently unfolding UVa rape hoax. The widely used Duluth model of domestic violence assumes from the start that the perpetrator is male. Examples of this problem are truly legion.

87. Concerned Says:

Scott #85, you are right. I think it’s called “Poe’s law”.

88. Scott Says:

asdf #80:

We’re well into Godwin territory but another analogy might be if Nazi medical experiments had turned out to produce useful data (they didn’t) and a research institution was set up someplace to archive and study the info. It would probably be best if the institution was somewhere other than Germany.

I object to that analogy, not because it compares what were arguably the most horrifying crimes in the history of the world to online sexual harassment (the difference in severity has zero effect on the logic), but simply because, like the Lance Armstrong analogy, it seems to me to get the causation wrong. By using the results of Nazi medical research, we might signal to other medical researchers that, if they don’t similarly commit atrocities, then they can’t compete against the Nazis in terms of results. But presumably, no one thinks they can’t give great physics lectures unless they also sexually harass their students.

(Having said that, the Nazis’ freezing experiments at Dachau have been used, for example by the British military, to understand how people can avoid dying of hypothermia—though always with extreme controversy and reluctance.)

89. Wayne Says:

Ah, the missing HTML /sarcasm-e/sarcasm tags ..

90. Michael Dixon Says:

I’m surprised some MIT professor hasn’t already tried to reupload the lectures (using MIT’s resources) in protest.

@Scott:

In that hypothetical situation, what do you suspect would be MIT admin’s response/handling of that? Would they let it slide or would they pick a fight with their own?

91. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Concerned,

I don’t know what it means for “acceptable dialogue” to be “anti cis-het-male” – what evidence do you have of this? And what does this dialogue have to do with the central issue of sexual harrassment? Frankly, as a cis-het-male, I haven’t noticed this claimed acceptable dialogue restriction at all.

I also don’t see where you are getting any conclusion that “males are typically only exonnerated when there is hard evidence”- First, you are again talking about rape, not sexual harrassment. Second, your evidence is apparently a handful of specific, highly public incidents that aren’t a representative sampe. In fact, many incidents of both alledged sexual harassment and alledged rape don’t get very far precisely because of a lack of evidence, and if we’re playing the anecdote game, there are many examples of universities simply ignoring serious allegations of rape or sexual harrassment. See for example http://studentactivism.net/2008/05/08/tulane-ignored-rape-allegation-against-disgraced-frat/

I’m not sure why you are bringing up the Duluth model here. The Duluth model is about domestic violence and is only marginally connected to what we are talking about. It seems you are trying to portray some sort of overarching narrative, but the pieces are extemely loosely connected. Of course the Duluth model assumes male perpetrators because it is a program that was itself designed to reduce male-on-female violence. It is an active type of program, not a general claim that all (or even most) domestic violence meets that form. I don’t particularly like the Duluth model- the evidence that it intervention based on it works is extremely weak, but that’s an empirical observation.

More generally, you seem to be missing the point that there’s a real problem here and that underreactions occur. Yes, some overcorrection in the other direction has occurred. So now we’re in a situation where universities sometimes underreacti and sometimes overreact. That’s not too surprising: if one was in a near perfect situation (which we’re not) one would expect some error in both directions. The correct response then should be to push both towards the center- identify the overreactions and push against them, and at the same time be aware that underreactions also frequently occur and push against that also.

92. Scott Says:

Michael Dixon #90:

In that hypothetical situation, what do you suspect would be MIT admin’s response/handling of that? Would they let it slide or would they pick a fight with their own?

Today, I talked to various additional people at MIT, which gave me a deeper understanding of how this decision was reached and why, even if it didn’t fundamentally change my views. I can’t reveal most of what I heard (well, most of it isn’t material to the arguments anyway), but I can say the following:

I believe MIT would basically be fine if someone else wanted to host the videos, and even create a new learning community around the videos that was unaffiliated with MIT. MIT’s main concern is that it no longer wants any of this to happen under its auspices, given Lewin’s past use of the learning communities that form around his lectures to find targets. (Well, and also, it wanted everyone to be warned about Lewin’s sexual behavior, but I think we can consider that to have happened.)

So maybe finding a separate entity to host the lectures and discussion boards really is the best solution, and I hope that happens soon.

Personally, I think it would’ve been fine for OCW to continue to host the lectures, after the world had been duly warned about Lewin’s behavior. That, together with my wish for more information to have been released (so that everyone could see that punishing Lewin was, in fact, justified), are my two central points of disagreement with the administration. I’m in agreement with them about both punishing Lewin, and warning people about his behavior.

93. Douglas Knight Says:

Scott, what is a “learning community”? Does OCW have any discussion boards?

94. James Gallagher Says:

How the hell is is possible for a 78-year old to sexually harass someone on-line? Wouldn’t any reasonable person conclude dementia or senility if a 78 year-old started posting sexually suggestive messages?

What the hell is wrong with people in administration at MIT?

The charge of “sexual harassment” is in danger of being considered a joke (privately) by many reasonable people if cases like this continue to arise.

MIT could clarify – I mean, if he sent explicit images or similar maybe we could all agree it was indeed quite serious. But even then, 78 years old – isn’t that a psychiatric/medical issue?

95. Scott Says:

Douglas #93: My understanding is that OCW doesn’t have discussion boards, but that EdX does, and that those (along with other online discussion groups) were the problem. I don’t fully understand myself, but see comment #34 for more details from someone who participated in the EdX course.

96. Douglas Knight Says:

Scott, maybe you don’t understand because there is nothing to understand?

97. Penner Says:

The lectures are licensed under Creative Commons and so it’s fine to copy them. There are also copies on archive.org available just a Google query away since some time.

98. Roger Says:

[MIT] wanted everyone to be warned about Lewin’s sexual behavior

No. This is like saying the President firing the Secretary of Defense shows what a bad guy the Secretary was. Or UVa suspending the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity warns everyone about their gang rape parties.

Several colleges are currently being sued for expelling students after a single complaint and no significant investigation. Colleges will sell out their principles very easily to avoid adverse publicity.

MIT stabbed Lewin in the back. That is all I conclude. Yes, this devalues the seriousness of the allegations, because I doubt that they were serious. Serious allegations probably would have been handled differently.

MIT wants to avoid getting a letter like Princeton got. If they have to sacrifice some old retired professor that a lot of people disliked anyway, then that may seem better than the alternatives. The Title IX compliance officers will probably be very impressed that MIT took such drastic action on such a trivial complaint.

99. Wayne Says:

Scott (post #92) — as I pointed out in a letter to MIT, had they prefaced the display of Lewin’s lecture videos with a disclaimer about him (and please, let’s not forget the textbook assignments and solutions and other references which have also vanished for 8.01 et al), that would have served only to demonstrate more clearly the lack of correlation between this instructional material, Lewin’s much more recent actions, and MIT’s official response to it.

It’s difficult to imagine that MIT believes its reputation will be enhanced by such actions. Perhaps I would feel somewhat less strongly had the institution found an archival home elsewhere for -all- course material, and replaced its OCW home pages with some kind of “warning” about their disassociation with Lewin along with a pointer to the current course home.

As the situation stands now, though, I find MIT’s behavior shameful. Dare we tell them that Lewin’s virtual ghost still haunts video.mit.edu? (One wonders why the risk there to MIT is — so far — apparently minimal, while OCW has felt the full brunt of their inquisition.)

100. Randy Says:

MIT’s argument seems to be the OCW videos form part of the machinery Dr. Lewin would use to engage in “further inappropriate behavior.” How could just the recorded lectures themselves be considered a medium for future communications? Is MIT arguing that hosting the videos would provide too much legitimacy over the same lectures on YouTube?

What disturbs me more is another aspect, that being the removal of a person’s valuable contributions from public display (even within the institution) as a way to enhance his or her punishment. Yes, MIT had to do something if it concluded the accusations had merit. I am just not sure about the course of action here.

This is not the same as taking down a statue. This is taking down an academic resource, and I truly feel I learned a lot from Dr. Lewin’s lectures which is why I felt compelled to write.

101. Raoul Ohio Says:

MIT Staff and Alum #57:

Thanks for the lead. Sorry to say that I couldn’t read it all.

This post starts off by griping that physics profs do not tell students exactly how to do a problem, but instead provide hints and ask them to think for themselves.

I am sorry that the writer did not realize that figuring out how to to the problems is how you get smart.

102. aviti Says:

Thats crazzy, even lectures are being punished? This reminds me of nineteeneightyfour…..

103. Nick Says:

Scott, no. 92: the world can’t be “warned about Lewin’s sexual behavior” if we don’t know what it was. At least the scarlet letter referred to something specific.

104. Peter Says:

During my time as a physics undergraduate in the 1970s Moscow ‘the Soviet Union’ (at least my university) was nothing like the MIT. Sexual predators known to everybody were free not just to teach but prey on their victims undisturbed.

105. Scott Says:

Given MIT’s stance being what it is, I now feel that the easiest solution going forward would be for a separate entity to host all of Lewin’s lectures and OCW materials, as well as a community with physics discussion forums, just like MITx used to have. The new website could be entitled: “The Legendary Physics Lectures of Walter Lewin—Someone Who We Don’t Recommend Female Students Get In Touch With, Because He’s A Perv.” Since Bill Gates has been a huge fan of Lewin’s lectures, maybe he would be willing to bankroll such a project.

106. Fred Says:

Maybe lectures can be edited, like when they interview someone who wants to stay anonymous on TV – blur the Lecturer’s face, and put his voice through a scrambler.

107. Daniel Dekkers Says:

Maybe MIT should add a disclaimer. “You are now entering a possibly interesting, surely exciting, yet possibly dangerous zone that could seriously damage your mental health. Not only could you be permanently affected by the full realization of the scientific ideas presented, but also by the complexity of the social relationships involved. Do you want to continue? [yes] [no]”

Add depending on the teacher involved. Richard Feynman, Walter Lewin, Keith Richards, Axl Rose.

108. Scott Says:

Fred #106: Why? There’s nothing the slightest bit offensive in the lectures themselves, and it’s neither necessary nor possible to “anonymize” them.

109. James Gallagher Says:

Scott #107

If neither you nor MIT are able to be open and specific about the charge against Lewin then it’s unfair for you to publicly label him a “perv”. If you are keeping the details of the accusation(s) to yourself then please keep your detailed opinion to yourself. It’s enough that you posted that you agreed with MIT’s action – ok we don’t know how much pressure you are under or whether you are allowed to speak truthfully – but unless we can all make up our minds on the seriousness of the case it is unfair for you to influence us to think of Lewin as a “perv”

In addition to my post above #94, I would further argue that if this was a minor sexual innuendo, maybe intended as a joke, by a 78-year, then I would consider MIT’s subsequent actions to be closer to immoral behaviour than Lewin.

But I don’t know, so I can’t make any specific accusations against MIT either.

I do wonder if the psychological damage caused to a 78 year old man by this treatment is any any way compared to the possible upset a female student(s) might have felt from being the target of a joke of a sexual nature.

But I don’t know if it was a joke. I don’t know how many incidents were involved. I don’t know how long the behaviour has been recorded. I don’t know how many people were upset.

So I can’t make a rational judgement – except to guess, and keep it to myself, as it does no good anymore to speak up in certain situations. We must just shut up and accept that this is how things are – apparently it makes things better than they used to be.

110. Fred Says:

#107 Scott
Hah! it was a joke…
if they edited the videos this way they could just label them as

“The Legendary Physics Lectures of some dude”

as opposed to

“The Legendary Physics Lectures of Walter Lewin—Someone Who We Don’t Recommend Female Students Get In Touch With, Because He’s A Perv.”

111. Fred Says:

#108

“I would further argue that if this was a minor sexual innuendo, maybe intended as a joke, by a 78-year,[…]”

Interesting idea, so being old gets you a free pass?
Like, if a dude is 23 and uptight, then sexual innuendos are a big no-no?
What am I allowed to do once I’m 112?

112. James Gallagher Says:

Fred #113

Yes Fred, if you spend 77 years with no record of bad behaviour and suddenly start coming out with bizarre sexual innuendo when you’re 78 then it gets dealt with differently to the 23-year old

Jesus, I can’t believe you don’t agree with that.

113. Alum Says:

#109 — it’s hardly unfair for him to post his opinion on his own blog.

I’m glad to hear that somebody who wasn’t connected with the initial investigation agrees with the outcome. I believe the videos were Creative Commons licensed to allow copying/distribution, so I have no doubt they will eventually be hosted elsewhere.

114. Fred Says:

I once worked at a lab at a university in Europe, the lab was run by a very brilliant and venerable professor, married with kids, very self-righteous, constantly passing morale lessons on everything/everyone.
I traveled to NYC and came back with a “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” t-shit (from a famous tourist attraction).
One day I wear it at the lab, and the main grad students in charge start laughing their ass off, but in a strange hush-hush way.
They eventually told me that they’ve been secretly calling their adviser/professor “Dr Jekyll” for a couple of years… turns out that one day he cornered the department secretary and groped her like a total maniac. She reported this and tried to file charges but the university made sure it never got out…

115. James Gallagher Says:

Fred #116

What’s you’re point? Lewin is just like that Dr Jekll?

I’m gonna depart this conversation. I made my position clear, maybe I’m in the minority, but I think that I’ve made a fair point.

Should evidence arise that some poor females were psychologically traumatised by their interaction with Walter Lewin I would concede that MIT are not so dumb after all

116. Wayne Says:

Scott (#105) and James Gallagher (#109): first, while I — and others, one hopes — have officially recommended to MIT an archival transfer of all of Lewin’s course materials to another, publicized site, I see little likelihood of that occurring unless someone with far more power and influence than I have acts directly to persuade them to do so.

Second, I took Scott’s characterization of the (former) professor as a “perv” to be irony. MIT isn’t likely to open themselves up to charges of libel, regardless of whatever facts may lie behind their actions.

117. Jack Kennedy Says:

Scott,

After watching the video you linked to, where he’s practically in tears explaining how these lectures were his life’s work—his whole life really—the tragedy of this hit me an order of magnitude harder than it already had.

Has anyone in your circles been in contact with Professor Lewin since this whole thing went down? Do you have any way of contacting him just to see if he’s ok? I think a lot of your readers would be interested to know about his state of mind.

118. Scott Says:

James Gallagher #109: Your position seems reasonable to me: even if I’m now satisfied that Prof. Lewin almost certainly did something very wrong, there’s no particular reason why you should believe me—and if this were a court of law, then I ought not believe my sources either. I, too, am a bit uncomfortable with the view of many of my colleagues: that when it comes to a private institution investigating sexual harassment (rather than the police or courts investigating crime), none of the ordinary protections for the accused are relevant, and it’s fine to presume guilt based on secret evidence.

Having said that, there are several reasons why MIT might not be releasing the details of what Lewin did, but one possibility to consider is this: they might be terrified that, even if they anonymized the details, in the age of Google it would still be possible for people to use the details to figure out who the original complainant was, and then subject her to additional harassment. I don’t want to comment on whether or not that’s a good reason, or whether it should outweigh the world’s interest in seeing that justice was done; I’m just trying to tell you what might be going through their heads.

119. Scott Says:

Jack #117: No, I don’t know anyone who’s been in direct contact with Lewin since this started, and unfortunately, I don’t have his contact information either. (I’ve never met him myself.)

120. Amy Says:

Do you have any regular readers who are women? I scrolled through over 50 comments before seeing a woman’s name.

Why do you figure that is?

As others here have said the lectures will be findable elsewhere. MIT is declining to support his online career and refusing to help him maintain his rep as a teacher. And given that most of his awards are for teaching, and that an excellent way of dissuading women students from going on in STEM ed and careers is to harass and assault them sexually, that does seem…well, not unreasonable of MIT.

Lewin’s entirely free to teach elsewhere, run his own website, etc.

121. Fred Says:

#118 Scott

“that when it comes to a private institution investigating sexual harassment (rather than the police or courts investigating crime), none of the ordinary protections for the accused are relevant, and it’s fine for people to presume guilt based on secret evidence.”

Right, but if someone working for a private institution feels that he’s been subjected to a wrongful termination, he can sue and bring it all up in courts.

122. Dr. Don R. Mueller Says:

Well, then students of all ages should watch my physical science videos:

123. John Sidles Says:

No Shetl Optimized reader [so far] has pointed out that Physics World hosts a video interview titled Walter Lewin — a truly inspirational teacher (10 July, 2014) that contains some notably unsettling passages (as I read them):

“The class has to […] smell that you love physics. […]
I can make them cry […] I have them so in my hands […] I can make them wet their pants […] It becomes a performance. […] Everything in life is physics, you know that! […] You can have sex because of physics. […] Everything is physics. […] I make everyone love physics. […] I will make them love physics whether they like it or not! […] I I give you a lecture on why the sky is blue, you will never forget it. Every time you see the sky, you will be thinking of me.”

Are these passages in themselves ample to justify a complaint of sexual harassment? This is a tough question.

In a sufficiently large class, it is a statistical certainty that some students will think so (and certain too that others won’t).

Under MIT’s faculty code, would the quoted passages suffice to justify expunging Lewin’s on-line lectures, on grounds of sexual harassment? If not, what is the standard? This too is a tough question, regarding which the MIT faculty might reasonably issue a statement.

Do these Lewin passages reflect an unfortunate disinhibition, plausibly originating in Lewin’s exceptional age and the mind-altering infirmities (to say nothing of mind-altering medications) that are commonly attendant thereto?

No one would be surprised … but the public does not know … and it can (sadly) happen that even Lewin himself might not know.

Everyone who has done elder-care appreciates this difficult reality of aging. I honor James Gallagher #109 for making this point explicitly.

Perhaps a better question is: have the processes associated to the expunging of Lewin’s lectures been sufficiently intransparent, as to poorly serve the interests of students, faculty, academia, and the public? Here the plain answer is “yes” (as it seems to me), and this is another point regarding which the MIT faculty might reasonably issue a statement.

And perhaps an even better question is, are these Lewin passages prima facie evidence of a sustained, willful pattern of pedagogic demagoguery? By the criteria of UTexas Prof. Trisha Roberts-Miller’s well-regarded (by me anyway) on-line resource “Characteristics of Demagoguery”, again the plain answer is “yes” (as it seems to me).

Prediction Prof. Lewin’s predilection for demagoguery will, in the long-run, suffice to ensure that his lectures fade into obscurity. Because at the end of the day, demagoguery is neither what students need nor what they want.

In the meantime, MIT might be well-advised to focus more upon the student, faculty, and public interest in transparent process, and less upon too-swiftly expunging lectures that had no evident harmful content.

Conclusion  There are worse things than leaving lectures on-line.

——————–
(commended to students especially)

 @unpublished{Roberts-Miller:2014aa, Title = {Characteristics of Demagoguery}, Author = {Trish Roberts-Miller}, Note = {on-line notes, \url{http://www.drw.utexas.edu/roberts-miller/ handouts/demagoguery}}, Year = {2014}}

 @book{Unger:1996aa, Title = {What Should Legal Analysis Become?}, Author = {Roberto Mangabeira Unger }, Keywords = {oulipo}, Note = {available on-line at the author's website, \url{http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/unger/ legal.php#4}}, Annote = {Extended analysis of legal process broadly conceived}, Publisher = {Verso}, Year = {1996}, } 

@book{harris2014officer, Title = {An Officer and a Spy}, Author = {Harris, R.}, Publisher = {Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group}, Annote = {Thoroughly-researched novelization of process and demagoguery in regard to the Dreyfus Affair, told in the first-person voice of Georges Picquart (the intelligence officer whose uncompromising efforts freed Dreyfus)}, Year = {2014}} 

124. Scott Says:

John Sidles #123: No, I’d say that the passage you quoted is not ample to justify a complaint of sexual harassment. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the notion trivializes sexual harassment, and insults the people who’ve suffered it for real.

125. aviti Says:

von Missile Brown was a NAZI, but he was allowed to send a man to the moon and back. What I say is this intellectual work is not supposed to be bannished just because of the authors sins. Otherwise this earth would be without so much achievements. According to the teachings of catholics, even god being omnipresent, omnipotent etc allows satan to work on humans without hindrance. MIT is immitating modern North Korea, but it sorely sucks at that. I learned Physics for fun from Lewin lectures. I could understand more from then than when I was a student. It gives me comfort that they are available elsewhere. I agree with rrtuci that MIT should ban itself.
Heisenberg lack of support story reminds how americans were beaten into space by russians, reason is they distrusted the NAZI missile Brown because of his being who he was at first. When they trusted him he brought them glory. Most of the time politiking misses the greater picture, this case is not an exception. I feel sorry for all students who would have benefitted from those lectures.

126. Tom Swiss Says:

John Sidles #123: “Are these passages in themselves ample to justify a complaint of sexual harassment?” No. They’re the common eogism of an artist, with no hint that the speaker is going to treat people differently based on their gender or sexuality or willingness to have sex with him. Your question is so bizarre I have to assume it’s sarcasm or a troll.

Yes, in a sufficiently large class, there may be someone who misunderstands the concept of sexual harassment so badly that they think this qualifies. But in a sufficiently large class you will find someone who believes that Lewin is actually a disguised reptiloid from the planet Fringus.

127. Zilch Says:

The initial impression one gets from this story is that Lewin has done something unspeakable. But it’s worse. It now appears that Lewin is guilty of something ….. unspecified?!

128. Raoul Ohio Says:

Scott #124:

I agree with you, BUT, the statements John quotes are borderline weird, particularly for a classroom, particularly when you know you are being recorded. Reportedly, that kind of crap was/is not unusual in departments in the Arts and the Social Sciences. In STEM departments, usually a concept of, and pride in, professionalism is observed.

So far, it does not appear that a long history of Lewin being a weirdo has emerged, as opposed to what has happened with Bill Cosby, where now that the dam has been broken, all kind of incidents are coming out of the woodwork. My guess is that, as John and James have suggested, getting old is a big part of the situation.

Some older people speak and act out because they just do not give a crap what anyone thinks anymore. Other ones are like my 14 year old dog Molly, who stands around looking confused a lot, but also forgets that she used to be to dignified to run around and play with the younger dogs.

129. Scott Says:

Amy #120: Yes, I do have regular readers who are women (not counting my mom, my theoretical computer scientist wife, and my 2-year-old daughter, who doesn’t understand much but sometimes sits on my lap while I answer comments). Some of them are also my real-life friends. I’d be delighted to have more, and also to have my existing female readers participate more in the comments section. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of readers, of both sexes, just lurk here without ever commenting—something that still forces a mental recalibration whenever I meet such lurkers in person.)

Of course, the topics that I write about (math, CS, physics) do tend to be ones that attract a very male-heavy demographic, which is why, alas, you’ll find a broadly-similar sex ratio on most other math/CS/physics blogs, not just on this one.

Naturally, this leads to the broader question: why is there such a lopsided sex ratio in math, CS, and physics? One possible answer, the one your comment touched on, is the fear of sexual harassment and assault. To whatever extent that’s true, one can only express the hope that these crimes will be fought as hard as possible wherever they occur. Please note that, unlike many others who’ve criticized the MIT administration’s response in whole or in part, I never once in this discussion tried to deny, excuse, or minimize Lewin’s actions, nor did I question the need to punish him severely for them. Indeed, Lewin’s personal well-being weighs more heavily on the administration than it does on me! And I’ve taken flak above from the other side for this. Do I get any credit from your side? 🙂

At the same time, it seems impossible to believe that male physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists (many of whom are extremely shy and nerdy…) are committing sexual harassment and assault at an order-of-magnitude higher rate than doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and other professionals. And yet the latter fields have already reached or surpassed gender parity. From these facts, we conclude that fear of harassment and assault can’t possibly be the main explanations for the paucity of women in STEM fields.

So one needs to consider other explanations. On that note, what do you think of the argument of Preeya Phadnis, much discussed over the last few days? She says that women are driven away from STEM, not so much by harassment, assault, or other overt gender discrimination, as simply by bad teaching, which disproportionately makes women feel like they’ll never “get it.” If that’s true, then we reach the ironic conclusion that access to superb lectures like Walter Lewin’s is hugely important for getting women involved in physics, and that taking down such lectures is the last thing we’d want to do from a gender-parity standpoint.

(You might also enjoy my old blog post Nerdify the World and the Women Will Follow, where I question the pervasive assumption that, if women are underrepresented in STEM fields, it must mean that nerds need to change their culture, and even the basic ways they think, reason, and argue, to eliminate subtle traces of discrimination. What if, instead, it’s the entire rest of the world that needs to bring its social norms in line with the nerds’ norms—and once that happens, the gender disparities will disappear as well?)

Finally, on the practical question of hosting Lewin’s lectures: as commenter g #34 explains, with MITx it wasn’t just a matter of the videos themselves, but of a whole community that formed around them, solving physics problems together in the discussion forums. That’s gone now. In principle, it could be reconstituted somewhere else, but it hasn’t been, nor is there any plan or offer to do so. Until that happens, it looks like there will indeed be a void for thousands of physics learners, many of them in third-world countries.

130. Fred Says:

Well, maybe age does play a role, but more as a generation gap? Many older and/or less tech savvy people don’t seem to grasp very well the dynamics, etiquette, and risks of today’s online interactions.
There are many examples of very smart people with strong libido turning into total fools on social networks.

131. Fred Says:

Scott #129

An interesting podcast regarding the lopsided sex ratio in CS:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding

132. Tony Says:

#120 Amy

// sarc tag on except for Amy

“Do you have any regular readers who are women? I scrolled through over 50 comments before seeing a woman’s name.

Why do you figure that is?”

Amy, you are spot on. I approve of you to create a task force, inspecting all the natural sciences blogs, count the number of female participants, and come up with the appropriate recommendations to the authorities.

We have an obvious conspiracy against the women here, and it must be stopped.

I recommend that all of the offenders-related material, recorded by any means, not only be moved elsewhere, but that their families, all clearly potential offenders, be given a clear signal from our task force, headed by you, along with the public which needs to be properly educated via signals as the ones that we are promoting, and moved to another country as well.

Heil Hitlery!

133. Tony Says:

Had Prof Lewin killed his mother, wife, daughter and granddaughter, chopped them to little pieces and exclaimed online that all the women should be treated like that, in fact had he done something similar regarding any minority, ethnic group, race, etc. there is no justification to take his physics-related lectures down.

134. Nebel Says:

Scott #129: “Do I get any credit from your side? :-)”

Speaking as a CIS white western male person, I’d be inclined to answer “no”. Not trying to “deny, excuse, or minimize Lewin’s actions” is sort of the baseline here. Giving someone credit for that is not something I would consider a compliment. Though in the context of most of the comments so far, it might very well be (and this is sad). (Note: going by your assertion here that Levin’s are indeed actions or words that easily qualify as sexual harassment).

135. Michael Dixon Says:

@ Tony #133

It’s possible that continuing to have the lectures on OCW would put curious students at risk, especially if they decided to contact him. Removing the videos is one way of reducing that risk. This kind of concern doesn’t exist in your scenario, so that reasoning might not match up with the present situation.

136. Scott Says:

Michael #135: There is, of course, an inherent tension in arguing that taking down the videos is justified because

(a) their continued availability puts curious students at risk, and

(b) it’s no big deal, since the videos are available elsewhere anyway.

My preferred solution, again, is for the videos to remain as fully accessible as they were before (either on MITx or on some other site with the same discussion forums and other functionalities), after everyone has been duly warned (as they now have been) that they get in touch with the professor at their own risk.

137. JackD Says:

“Given the recent cases of reported rape”….

You mean the fake “Jackie” rape? You’re kidding, right? Is Lewin supposed to be sacrificed as another victim of Jackie’s false accusations?

Whatever Lewin did (and it would be nice if they would tell us and not just say “trust us – it’s really bad”) was done online and he never laid a finger (or any other part) on anyone.

138. Raoul Ohio Says:

Scott says #129:

“At the same time, it seems impossible to believe that male physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists (many of whom are extremely shy and nerdy…) are committing sexual harassment and assault at an order-of-magnitude higher rate than doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and other professionals. And yet the latter fields have already reached or surpassed gender parity. From these facts, we conclude that fear of harassment and assault can’t possibly be the main explanations for the paucity of women in STEM fields.”

My guess is that sexual harassment is mildly less in STEM than in “doctors, lawyers, etc.”. But, how about areas where harassment is orders of magnitude more? Such as the performing arts? While obviously I don’t have any numbers, I know plenty of people involved in college theater productions and/or attempting to make it in Hollywood or the NYC theater scene. A plausible estimate for the rate of young newbies being pressured for sex by “those with clout” in college theater is 0.5. In Hollywood or NYC, it happens all the time. There are 1000’s of people vying for each opportunity, and anyone with any glimmer of fame or major connections can insinuate that they can make things happen. Sometimes they can. Don’t believe me? Ask someone you know from those worlds.

Has this resulted in females avoiding the performing arts? I think not.

139. Wayne Says:

Conflating the course materials and video lectures with whatever actions are now charged against Walter Lewin is a fundamental error in logic.

At least up until a few years ago he continued to have an mit.edu email address.

Entering the speculative world at this point: conceivably MIT would now want to terminate that particular association, and any such a response would seem to me a matter completely within its normal administrative realm.

If (say) MIT is concerned about a potential viewer of the lectures then contacting Lewin after seeing the videos and being subject to any sort of irresponsible response from him, their sense of extended in loco parentis has gone badly astray.

In the extreme case, MIT could ensure that its sites contain no contact information for him at all, and even include a pointer to their original news announcement about the severance of any formal association with him: -on the OCW course sites themselves-.

Instead, what has resulted is a new kind of virtual book-burning, and I wonder whether such “protection” is really meant for some hypothetical future student — or is instead a misguided and unnecessary defense of MIT itself.

140. Tony Says:

@Michael #135

Following that activist attitude, shouldn’t we, the concerned citizens, send somebody to check on his house and his movements, because some young people, who may come in contact with him, may also be at risk?

I mean, if you want to prevent any crime from reoccurring, the logical approach then is to vaporize every criminal on the spot and erase any trace of person’s existence because there are so many paths by which an unsuspecting victim may get in contact with the criminal.

141. Tony Says:

The idea that private or public activist entities can supplement the law by extending the punishment mandated by the law, in the name of declaring their support for the law, or sending the exemplary educational message to the wider population, can only result in the modern version of witch-hunt.

142. Michael Dixon Says:

@Scott #136

Oh, I definitely agree. I was just bringing up an example of why some of the other comparisons and hypotheticals don’t necessarily encapsulate the situation.

@Tony #140

MIT is limited in how it can respond to a situation like this. The things you bring up are certainly out of the question for a private university.

143. aviti Says:

Fred #131 is the article incomplete? I think it has a good opening I expected more and got disapointed. OTOH, I have issue with people who take it that sexual harassments is rife in the hard sciences other than humanities etc. Can such a claim be verified scientifically? Educate me please!!

144. Amy Says:

Scott, I’d beg to differ. Look at norms in tech, and norms in medicine. Medical conferences are far friendlier to women than tech conferences are, and there are reasons for that, not least of which have been lawsuits. In other words, those who run medical institutions have learned, slowly and painfully, that it’s wisest to avoid even the appearance of old-fashioned grab-assery. You will find, though, that sexism and misogyny still abound in the more macho and better-compensated areas of medicine, like orthopedic surgery, and the M:F numbers reflect that.

If an institution’s going to support the career of a guy who contributes to what the feds call a hostile environment, they’re essentially saying it’s not that big a deal. Hosting the videos supports Lewin’s career. Should they do that — should a marquee like MIT do that — no, I don’t think so. He’s of course free to make and promote his own videos like anyone else in business.

As for the “shy and nerdy” bit…you know, some of the gropiest, most misogynistic guys I’ve met have been of the shy and nerdy persuasion. I can only speculate on why that’s so, but no, I would certainly not equate shy/nerdy with harmless. In fact I think a shy/nerdy-normed world would be a significantly worse world for women. (Not least because so many nerdy guys are certain that they’re extremely fairminded and rational, when instead what they are is naive about both social structures and how many things play out in reality, and unwilling or unable to fathom that other people’s reactions to events might be both different from and as valid as their own.)

Also, you want credit for not being a supporter of keeping sexual harassers on payroll? Okay, but only if you’re going to give me credit for not being a supporter of brain tumors. I think I agree with the “baseline” comment above. Seriously, this is the kind of thinking that leads to divorces, where a guy wants applause for doing some (though not nearly half) of the house/kid-related work. I mean think about what you’re asking.

aviti: Google awaits you. Please do not ask others to do your homework for you. You might start with the tenure-track gender ratios, humanities:hard-sci, and also consider the relative sophistication of humanities and hard-sci professionals when it comes to issues like sexual harassment and gender equity. I find actually that this is a significant barrier to gender equity in STEM: the women tend to be far, far ahead of the men when it comes to reading in, discussion of, understanding of these issues. It’s tough to have a conversation when half the people in the conversation don’t have the requisite vocabulary.

145. Raoul Ohio Says:

Amy,

In my experience, at STEM (set subtract) {social sciences} events, the amount of OFGA (“old-fashioned grab-assery”) is approximately zero. I think you will find that OFGA is actually a lot higher in the medical world. This opinion comes from spending some time waiting in big hospitals, and observing the scene. And, make no mistake, it is a “scene”, and some players got clout. One can guess what goes on at conventions, where agents of pharm companies have tons of money and favors to pass out.

I wasn’t going to post anything, mainly because I found the comments on this thread so depressing (including some of Scott’s comments, much to my sadness).

But I first just had to say a thank you to Amy. I hope whoever she is, she knows that there really are people out here who agree with her.

I’ll add the unsurprising observation that there’s been precious little empathy here for the actual victims of Lewin’s behavior, and the behavior of so many people in positions of power like him. Once again, the loudest, most pained voices are coming not from actual victims, but from those who have been slightly inconvenienced by the consequences — say, by having to go to a different website for some lecture videos. (Truly you know suffering.)

Scott dismissed deterrence pretty much out of hand, bringing up a “a good example” involving killing the families of suicide bombers. (Could that example be given honorary inclusion into Godwin’s law?) All that happened in this case is that MIT won’t endorse or host the lecture videos. No government agency or secret police is going around and erasing them from existence. Lewin is free to do whatever he wants with them, but no one will think for a moment that MIT is backing him anymore.

But the truth is that this will have a deterrent effect on tenured (and emeritus) faculty who think of themselves as beyond the reach of punishment. (And yes, there are those who do.) The laws of gravity have now been extended slightly farther than before. Despite all the belly-aching around here about MIT’s decision, it will likely have a real effect on the behavior of top faculty, who will think twice now that they know such a prominent individual has been disciplined so rigorously (and fittingly) and had his legacy permanently and publicly damaged. Had MIT not gone this far, there would have been little publicity and little discussion of the Lewin incident, and lessons would not have been taken to heart by the people in positions of power who needed to take them to heart.

Given how angry so many people here seem to be, just imagine how angry you’d all be if you were actually the victims of something really terrible or something that truly damaged your careers — like, you know, the sorts of things that many (though not all) women and other under-represented populations go through regularly in in many science and tech fields.

In my ideal world, people, especially very smart people, would be able to exercise that level of imagination. If you all really internalized what’s been going on for so many under-represented populations in science and tech for so many decades (centuries?), you’d really be outraged. Maybe things would even finally change.

147. Zilch Says:

By removing the videos, MIT is making a statement. That statement, in its entirety, is “we are removing the videos”.

148. Scott Says:

Zilch #147: No, at the least, they’re also making the statements they made in their statement about the videos’ removal.

149. JackD Says:

…..the actual victims of Lewin’s behavior

No, call them “survivors”. A slightly senile old man said something off color in an email to a precious little flower and now she is damaged forever and his name must be ruined and his life’s work must be destroyed as punishment (and even that is not enough). I swear to you that we are going back to Victorian times.

150. Anonymous Says:

This reminded me of Nazi Germany, when undesirable scientists and philosophers were expelled out of country with their property confiscated and their books were burnt by nazi activists as a ritual. This reminded me of North Korea, where, after the second person in the country was executed, he was removed from all the photographs, videos and news articles.

Yay! Viva freedom of speech and democracy the American way!

151. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

JackD,

We don’t know exactly what he did here, but I suspect that it was a lot more than something “slightly off color” and your immediate rush to assume that it must be just that says more about you than anything about the situation in question.

152. Fred Says:

Aviti #143

The podcast itself is more interesting than the accompanying article/synopsis.
The main thing was that in the 80s the first home computers were marketed as a toy for boys. Pop culture then reinforced the computer wiz boy myth.
These days “nerd” culture is more gender balanced it seems.

153. Jordan T Says:

I agree it would be better if the lectures were left on the OCW site. The other disciplinary actions taken by MIT seem sufficient to manage the school’s reputation and protect future potential victims. I disagree with the commenters who said it is inconsequential if the material is taken down from the site because OTHER sites will host the material anyway. Students from around the world watch lectures on OCW and some who might benefit from these lectures might never become aware of their existence if they are only available off-site.

I also understand the concern that even if Dr. Lewin were banned from the site, students who watched his lectures online might find other ways of contacting him to ask questions (at which point he might repeat his previous unacceptable behaviors.) Someone suggested that the lectures should be left on the site together with a warning. This seems like a very reasonable compromise and would actually do MORE to protect students than pulling the lectures and having bootlegs proliferate off-site without this warning.

As another compromise (one which I believe would protect students, act as a deterrent, spare victims the pain of having their victimizer remain in public view, and also serve the interest of students who might benefit from these lectures), I PROPOSE THE MOST SALIENT CONTENT OF THE LECTURES SHOULD BE PRESERVED WHILE THE NAME AND LIKENESS OF THE OFFENDING PROFESSOR IS CAST OUT FROM THE SITE (i.e. an avatar and voice actor should be used to recreate the lectures.) I admit this is somewhat silly, but would argue it’s LESS silly than punishing thousands of students for the actions of a professor.

Even though I agree it is important to protect potential future victims from harm, I propose this pragmatic compromise only grudgingly, because whatever the specifics of this case, there is an important principle that is worth not losing sight of. If we were to censor the work of everyone who was personally a jerk or even a criminal, imagine how much poorer the world would be! Who decides where to draw the line? Do we ban the work of Kant because he was a racist? How about Twain because he used the “n” word in Huck Finn? (Some argue that context doesn’t matter and we should censor ANYTHING that might offend, even unintentionally.) Do we remove Caravaggio’s artwork from galleries because he stabbed someone? Do we burn copies of Einstein’s papers because he was an adulterer who married his cousin? Do we burn every copy Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic screed, or leave it in the historical record as a testament to his ignorance and intolerance?

The activity of censorship is not only distasteful and illiberal, but inimical to the *very purpose* of a university. Undermining that purpose for all by the most extreme cases of physical self-defense should be judged completely unacceptable (though passionate debate exists around this issue, I do believe it is justifiable and prudent to censored certain information like detailed blueprints for nuclear weapons or the genomes of deadly pathogens.)

I realize I have contradicted myself by saying censorship is unacceptable but the lectures should be taken down and replaced with a sanitized version.

My high-mindedness dictates that censorship beyond that which is absolutely necessary for our continued survival and we find ourselves standing on the shoulders of midgets like Savonarola or 13th century Mongol hordes who destroyed the House of Wisdom.

My pragmatism says sometimes its okay to compromise. Creativity can make certain dilemmas obsolete and we can create win-win outcomes.

154. Tyle Says:

I’d say that comments #144 and #146 win the thread. I was thinking about what to post (usually just being a lurker) but now I don’t have to.

155. Raoul Ohio Says:

A key point in this discussion is that it appears that no one actually has any idea what the triggering event was. It is increasingly common for zero details to be released in legal situations. While this might have some good aspects, it eliminates the public’s opportunity to form an informed opinion about if “justice was served”, “someone got away with it”, “the judicial system has gone bonkers”, or other possibilities that are reasonable concerns of everyone.

Reader297 suggests the Lewin event is a major crime, JackD suggests it is basically nothing. My guess is that it is somewhere in the middle. The only relevant information I observed above is some other quotes of Lewin, rounded up by John Sidles, that I characterized as “borderline weird”.

156. Amy Says:

Raoul, if you’re XY and over 45, it’s likely you’re not detecting OFGA because no one’s wanting to play it with you. I mean come on. You’re not the target. If you’d bother to do some homework, you’d notice that women in tech who’ve so much as publicized the stripper-party atmosphere of some of the conferences have been hounded out of jobs, been the target of rape and death threats online, and been set upon by online mobs generally. I know of exactly one STEM guy who’s been subject to anything resembling similar treatment, did not lose his job, and has found the whole experience so traumatizing he’s busy trashing professional and personal relationships over it and generally behaving like a PTSD victim, which he more or less is. The women meanwhile are treated as though they brought the problem on themselves by “attention-seeking” and expected to make heavy-duty amends if they want to go on working in the field.

Fred, nerd culture is anything but gender-balanced except, it seems to me, in comm. I’m in the midst of a collaboration on a sci-game project in which we are actively seeking women developers, because in funded project after funded project, the developers are guys, nearly everyone on the project is a guy until you get to outreach, where — voila — women. And that shows in the nature of the game designs. Whoop-de-do, yet another sci game that’s all about being King Points.

There’s heavy overlap between nerd culture and PUA/MRA culture, unfortunately.

I think Scott’s correct about the statement. And, Anon #150, you’re reminding me of booksellers and publishers who also railed about freedom of speech back in the 90s, when M&As were killing off small/midsized presses and independent bookstores left and right. They got the First just as wrong as you do here. The First does not guarantee you an audience or a market, and it does not guarantee you MIT hosting. It guarantees that your speech will not result in police thugs breaking down your door and hauling you off to a gulag. And I don’t see anyone even whispering such things about Dr. Lewin. Do you? Without crazy hyperbole?

157. Amy Says:

Sorry, Raoul, that should be XY *or* over 45.

158. Amy Says:

Oh, and thank you, Reader297. Yeah, a lot of people see dozens of comments like these and figure there’s no point, that these problems will never be solved. And not too many people really want to spend their time fighting, reasonably enough.

STEM has been particularly shocking to me because I hadn’t been prepared for the degree of backwardness in the view of women and gender equity. Things are changing, slowly, but the conversations I hear sound like such throwbacks, and the things women say and believe about themselves and what’s acceptable are heartbreaking. I mean it sounds like 1985 a lot of the time. Or earlier, in some environments. And I really think it’s partly because so few people in STEM fields pay any serious attention to what’s gone on outside their fields.

159. Gil Kalai Says:

I share the opinion that Amy’s #144 is a valuable comment. One of the all-time highlights of Shtetl-Optimized (which had many highlights over the years that I followed it), and it is also a highlight post on the science blog-sphere as a whole, in giving a valuable perspective on women in the STEM and blog environment.

160. “The needs of the many,” privilege, and power | An Ergodic Walk Says:

[…] instances of this have appeared on the blogosphere recently. Scott Aaronson blogged recently about MIT’s decision to take down Walter Lewin’s online videos after […]

161. Tony Says:

MIT instructed Lewin ‘not to contact any MIT students or online learners, either current or former’. Clearly, they think he may not comply so ‘MIT is indefinitely removing Lewin’s online courses, in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior’.

I have little doubt that MIT is only concerned about a potential lawsuit. There is a lot of cash that may change hands, given a good lawyer and they did all the necessary political posturing to prevent that.

What about Lewin’s ISP? Shouldn’t they also be concerned about being sued as the enabler in crime and cut off his Internet connection?

It is amazing how a simple idea that men’s (still unknown) crime should not result in banishing of his valuable work eventually degrades to daytime-TV-like cries about considering (still unknown) damage to his victim and statements how STEM is full of male pigs.

Clearly, something must be done, because there is no bigger crime than widely publicized one that can be used for politically correct witch-hunts. And there is a lot of cash that may be flowing to self-appointed committees too.

162. Zilch Says:

It is unfortunate that some people feel that to fight against injustices in the world, it is necessary to create fictional injustices to go along with the real ones.

163. Anand Sarwate Says:

Amy: thanks for your comment. I actually did give up on this thread because of the commentary here and wrote a response elsewhere because I think there’s a massive amount of “not getting it” over here.

164. Tony Says:

Raoul, you are just not sexy enough

165. Raoul Ohio Says:

Amy #156: I am XY, but I must report that women haven’t been grabbing my butt much since I was 35, so thanks for the 10 year bonus!

Actually though, I was referring to observer status, not active participant. I still see pretty good.

Our different experiences might be due to differing contexts: The vast majority of my adult live has been in the Academic world, and you might be referring to the workplace, which probably has a different atmosphere. When I worked as an engineer for a couple of years, there was only one woman in the (rather small) company, and she was treated with respect. She was a former girlfriend of mine, so we might have engaged in some slight flirting. She is an executive now, and making vastly more money than I do. Good for her.

166. Tony Says:

“The good of the many — everyone speaking English, the dominant language — outweighs the good of the few. This attitude again speaks from a place of privilege and power, and it reinforces a kind cultural superiority”

is perfect for this case.

Pity you are not as concerned with the culture in India, where rape is as normal as flatulence. That would have been a bit more related, don’t you think?

167. aviti Says:

I have a feeling Reader297 and some others missed this, I quote “because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online.” It was not that WL made his videos with sexually harassing contents.

Amy thanks for the Google pointer and sorry for not having the “requisite vocabulary” in this discussion. I will join after further research on this.

Fred#152, thanks, I listened to it. Sure, the pop culture is responsible for the resulted gender imbalance.

It is surprising that people do “actually did give up on this thread because of the commentary here…” I’d rather think it wise to educate those who don’t get it here rather than leaving them with their devices.

My standing is one and only one. The lectures should have stayed, unless they contain such undesirable contents. Otherwise, conflating the lectures and the person’s actions outside of those lectures is laughable. Future generations will surely wonder what happened to valuing intellectual work, and not tolerating inappropriate behavior. Removing the lectures in all likely hood reeks of North Korea.

168. Amy Says:

Yeah…Raoul…the women aren’t so much flattered by the “attention”. That isn’t what it’s about, particularly in professional settings. Which it’s extremely unlikely you see well. What *I’ve* seen, over and over, the last few years: men’s shock, and queasiness, when they do get an eyeful of the harassment and abuse women actually live with on a regular basis. (Followed by a sense of powerlessness, and then anger misdirected at the women for setting them up to feel powerless, and confusion because they know perfectly well that the women didn’t do anything wrong, and yet their impulse, which they didn’t seek, is to blame the women. It’s quite a dynamic.)

Anyway, the har-de-har attitude: not helpful or amusing. And if you did see what was going on, I think you’d be aware of that. But the MIT brass appears to have got beyond it, at least in this case.

169. Fred Says:

MIT’s reaction would have been different if young men had been the victims of sexual harassment?

170. Tony Says:

Fred#169

Actually, since the discussion about the principle has degraded to ‘what I saw, what she saw’, mind reading, etc. I would add that the only sexual harassment that I experienced in 3 decades in IT was the case of a woman middle manager. She craved attention and the ones who complimented her daily on her looks, her new dress, etc. were her favorites for various perks when it came to projects. She promised sexual favors in return for the support in promoting department hearsay about her management capabilities.

Naturally, nobody dared come out with it, for the fear of being laughed at. Most didn’t even consider it a form of sexual harassment.

171. Scott Says:

[For context, please read my statement of “core beliefs”—all things that are 100% consistent with everything below, and that I never thought I would need to say explicitly, until the Twitter-storm]

While I stand by what I wrote here, I’m inserting some additional comments in bold. When I initially wrote this, I left many “obvious” things unsaid, because this was part of a discussion between me and a few blog-readers who all shared the presumption that I’m not a horrible person, and that any horrible interpretation of my words is therefore obviously a wrong interpretation. Needless to say, this is no longer a safe assumption.

Amy #144: Sorry for the delay in answering you; I had to attend to my grandfather’s funeral.

You write about tech conferences in which the men engage in “old-fashioned ass-grabbery.” You add: “some of the gropiest, most misogynistic guys I’ve met have been of the shy and nerdy persuasion … In fact I think a shy/nerdy-normed world would be a significantly worse world for women.”

If that’s been your experience, then I understand how it could reasonably have led you to your views. Of course, other women may have had different experiences. This was not intended in any way to deny Amy’s experience. In an earlier draft, I contrasted Amy’s perspective with that of another woman in CS of my acquaintance, who explained to me that while sexual harassment does occur, in her experience the ones responsible for it are not the “shy nerds.” I then removed that part of the post because of privacy concerns, not thinking to just blur the details.

You also say that men in STEM fields—unlike those in the humanities and social sciences—don’t even have the “requisite vocabulary” to discuss sex discrimination, since they haven’t read enough feminist literature. Here I can only speak for myself: I’ve read at least a dozen feminist books, of which my favorite was Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (I like howls of anguish much more than bureaucratic boilerplate, so in some sense, the more radical the feminist, the better I can relate). I check Feministing, and even radfem blogs like “I Blame the Patriarchy.” And yes, I’ve read many studies and task force reports about gender bias, and about the “privilege” and “entitlement” of the nerdy males that’s keeping women away from science.

Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my “male privilege”—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience. This is not, insanely, to suggest a lack of misogyny in the modern world! To whatever extent there is misogyny, one could say that there’s also “male privilege.” Rather it’s to suggest that, given what nerdy males have themselves had to endure in life, shaming them over their “male privilege” is a bad way to begin a conversation with them.

But I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things. To have any hope of bridging the gargantuan chasm between us, I’m going to have to reveal something about my life, and it’s going to be embarrassing.

(sigh) 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. And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.

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.

Contrary to what many people claimed, I do not mean to suggest here that anti-harassment workshops or reading feminist literature were the sole or even primary cause of my problems. They were certainly factors, but I mentioned them to illustrate a much broader issue, which was the clash between my inborn personality and the social norms of the modern world—norms that require males to make romantic and sexual advances, but then give them no way to do so without running the risk of being ‘bad people.’ Of course these norms will be the more paralyzing, the more one cares about not being a ‘bad person.’

And yes, as many people mentioned, the circumstances of my life—in particular, the fact that I started college at age 15—were surely also a factor. But once again, it’s a choice to view this as a merely personal issue rather than a social one. Why does high school have the massive importance it does in the modern US to people’s psychosexual development? Why don’t tens of thousands more boys and girls start college in their early-to-mid teens, if they’re intellectually ready for it then?

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, (completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did). It’s come to my attention that some people were horrified at me simply because they inserted the parentheses in the wrong place in the preceding sentence—they thought I was saying that women and gay men have no difficulties devoting their lives to math. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me. In a different social context—for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine. (And after a decade of being coy about it, I suppose I’ve finally revealed the meaning of this blog’s title.) This is not, in any way, shape, or form, to suggest that I yearn for an era when women could be purchased as property. There were many times and places where marriages did not occur without both parties’ consent, but there was also a ritualized system of courtship that took much of the terror and mystery out of the process. Even that is not exactly what I “yearn” for; I merely say it’s what I felt “optimized” for.

All this time, I faced constant reminders that the males who didn’t spend months reading and reflecting about feminism and their own shortcomings—even the ones who went to the opposite extreme, who engaged in what you called “good old-fashioned ass-grabbery”—actually had success that way. The same girls who I was terrified would pepper-spray me and call the police if I looked in their direction, often responded to the crudest advances of the most Neanderthal of men by accepting those advances. Yet it was I, the nerd, and not the Neanderthals, who needed to check his privilege and examine his hidden entitlement! Contrary to what countless people have said, this is not intended to blame women for their choices—or even, really, to blame the Neanderthals. Rather, it’s intended to blame a culture that told male nerds since childhood that they’d be horrible people if they asked—even more horrible than if they didn’t ask!—thereby ceding the field by default.

So what happened to break me out of this death-spiral? Did I have an epiphany, where I realized that despite all appearances, it was I, the terrified nerd, who was wallowing in unearned male privilege, while those Neaderthal ass-grabbers were actually, on some deeper level, the compassionate feminists—and therefore, that both of us deserved everything we got?

No, there was no such revelation. All that happened was that I got older, and after years of hard work, I achieved some success in science, and that success boosted my self-confidence (at least now I had something worth living for), and the newfound confidence, besides making me more attractive, also made me able to (for example) ask a woman out, despite not being totally certain that my doing so would pass muster with a committee of radfems chaired by Andrea Dworkin—a prospect that was previously unthinkable to me. This, to my mind, “defiance” of feminism is the main reason why I was able to enjoy a few years of a normal, active dating life, which then led to meeting the woman who I married. To the many people who expressed concern about me or offered advice: thanks! But I hasten to assure you that I’m now quite happy, with a wonderful wife and a beautiful 2-year-old daughter. Indeed, it’s precisely because I’m happy that I’m now able to speak openly about these sensitive subjects—in the hope of helping some younger nerds who read this blog. And indeed, I’ve been gratified by the hundred or so people who emailed me over the past few weeks to say that my speaking up did help them—given the online vilification campaign against me, their emails have become one of the major ways I make it through the day.

Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them. I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds. There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect.

That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience.

But I hope you now understand why I might feel “only” 97% on board with the program of feminism. I hope you understand why, despite my ironclad commitment to women’s reproductive choice and affirmative action and women’s rights in the developing world and getting girls excited about science, and despite my horror at rape and sexual assault and my compassion for the victims of those heinous crimes, I might react icily to the claim—for which I’ve seen not a shred of statistical evidence—that women are being kept out of science by the privileged, entitled culture of shy male nerds, which is worse than the culture of male doctors or male filmmakers or the males of any other profession. I believe you guys call this sort of thing “blaming the victim.” From my perspective, it serves only to shift blame from the ass-grabbers onto some of society’s least privileged males, the ones who were themselves victims of bullying and derision, and who acquired enough toxic shame that way for appealing to their shame to be an effective way to manipulate their behavior. As I see it, whenever these nerdy males pull themselves out of the ditch the world has tossed them into, while still maintaining enlightened liberal beliefs, including in the inviolable rights of every woman and man, they don’t deserve blame for whatever feminist shortcomings they might still have. They deserve medals at the White House. This is obvious hyperbole.

And no, I’m not even suggesting to equate the ~12 years of crippling, life-destroying anxiety I went through with the trauma of a sexual assault victim. The two are incomparable; they’re horrible in different ways. But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

And with that, I guess I’ve laid my life bare to (along with all my other readers) a total stranger on the Internet who hasn’t even given her full name. That’s how much I care about refuting the implied charge of being a misogynistic pig; that’s how deeply it cuts.

You could respond to this, I guess, by treating me as just another agent of the Patriarchy trying at length to “mansplain away” his privilege. If you do that, then I’ll consider this discussion closed, as neither of us will have anything more to learn from the other. But you seem like an interesting, reasonable person, so I hold out some hope for a human response.

172. Tony Says:

Scott #171

The message that every male from 13 to 21 gets from the society, specifically from the females: ‘females have sex only with the most powerful, popular and aggressive ones’ is universal and deep rooted over many centuries, in many societies.

It is one of those things that everybody knows but nobody talks about. Man for the fear of ridicule regarding their manhood. Women for the fear of losing the social status of innocent virgins who need a constant protection in the case a big, bad wolf comes around. Then they run away with the wolf.

In fact, I am convinced that the whole ‘STEM issue’ is nothing else but the reflection of this same attitude.

173. Jair Says:

Thanks to Scott and Amy and everyone else for a lively, interesting discussion.

Although I understand Scott’s point, I can’t say I entirely agree with it. Yes, perhaps some feminists exaggerate the gender bias in the average male. But this bias should not be equated with male privilege. You may or may not agree with all of the feminists you read – but you shouldn’t conflate these more extreme views with the very sane idea of male privilege. Even the most liberal, feminist man is still given the advantages that come with the Y chromosome. It’s not about blame – it’s just reality.

Readers might enjoy the recent interactive blog post from the always-amazing Vi Hart:

http://vihart.com/parable-of-the-polygons/

To quote: “This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world. […] Small individual bias → Large collective bias. When someone says a culture is shapist, they’re not saying the individuals in it are shapist. They’re not attacking you personally.”

174. Amy Says:

Second, thank you for being so open. I could try to respond right away, but I’d like to think about and reread what you’ve written a few times. (I’ve also just gotten news of a friend’s death this evening and will be a little preoccupied for the next day or so.)

I should say a couple of things for now, though. I’m not here as part of anybody’s army. I am here as myself. At some point I’ll have to print that up on a card to give to various people seeking “allies” and those allergic to feminism.

Also, as it happens, I was raped long ago, like a great many other women you’ll meet. And while it wasn’t at all delightful it also didn’t take me to pieces — while I know that many who are raped find it a defining moment and trauma, I just (fortunately) wasn’t one of them. I’ve found the mundane, literally-every-day problems of sexism and misogyny to be much more damaging, more costly. I guess what I’m saying here is that what you went through with this sounds much more serious than what I went through in the aftermath of rape.

The other thing is I have to confess to being totally baffled by how Andrea Dworkin comes up in *every one* of these conversations. I get the impression that she’s much more important to men who struggle with sexism/feminism than she is to most feminists, tbh. I’ve actually read very little of her writing and didn’t have much patience for it — much prefer the sociology, history, and law discussions of people like Susan Brownmiller, Joan Williams, and your own Lotte Bailyn.

I do see what you’re saying about the medal, but something still seems off about it to me. I mean I find it really hard to believe that I’m so tough, so kryptonite, that I’d rate a similar medal for arriving at a middle-aged manifestation of womanhood that’s different in nearly every way from the “behold, a grown-up lady” example set before me in childhood — and for having arrived here without much help or company. Or a map. But I suspect I don’t have my ears open all the way.

And I agree – the kind of problem you’re describing is not one that either psychiatry or psychology does well with. It is however a problem that literary fiction understands and spends a lot of time with. Updike comes first to mind — Rabbit Redux in particular, though it’s kind of didactic — but there are others who deal with that trap, frightening powerlessness of the partly-nominally, partly-real privileged position. Assuming the person in that position is conscious of it and sensitive enough to care.

Political movements don’t deal with that sort of thing, either, it’s too many words for them and too complex, makes lousy propaganda. Anyway. The problem with fiction is that it can’t do anything but help you recognize, understand and articulate a problem. There’s nothing prescriptive about it.

175. Raoul Ohio Says:

I think there is no doubt that most people in the academic STEM world, and this blog, are particularly sensitive to women’s issues. In fact, most go out of their way not to introduce reality therapy where if might do some good.

Consider, for example, Preeya Phadnis (link to at #57 above). Her first paragraph indicates that she wants to learn physics without having to think, and the reason this is not flying is because of some conspiracy, males in general, or who knows what. She recounts the horror of having to do problems and go to a recitation session.

Everyone has been too polite to point out that plenty of women have excelled in physics and the hard sciences, and they think just fine. There is no secret trick to physics that has been withheld from her. Anyone interested in physics, math, CS, etc., has a choice; either do the work, or find something easier.

176. Bill Kaminsky Says:

Scott @ #171:

Wow. I have no words. Well, that’s not true. I in fact do have quite a few words borne of somewhat similar travails in my adolescence and my twenties, but I’ll withhold them out of some admixture of discretion and cowardice, along with a general lack of faith that I’d get any meaningful catharsis from confessing deeply personal matters online to people who, despite seeming on the whole to be intelligent, well-meaning, and basically swell, are fundamentally strangers.

What I’ll say instead is what my father has always said to me:

Don’t deny people the pain they feel, and don’t deny people the little they have to get through the day.

Or, if you prefer, here’s similar sentiments from someone more famous:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities
Book the First – “Recalled to Life”
Opening of Chapter III. “The Night Shadows”

177. Scott Says:

Amy #174: I’m sorry about the loss of your friend. I’m also sorry to learn that you’ve endured the (to me) almost-unimaginable trauma of rape. That fact about you only reinforces my view that talking about feminism, sexual assault, etc. is completely different than talking about math or physics. With the former, we might pretend to be debating on an abstract, philosophical plane, but really a huge part of what each of us is trying to do is to theorize our personal experiences. And I have this tic, where when I see that an intellectual disagreement would eventually need to go somewhere if it were ever to be resolved, I just go there immediately. (I’m the same way with the interpretation of quantum mechanics and consciousness.) In the case of feminism, I’m sure conversations would proceed a lot faster if all the participants simply laid their formative, worldview-shaping experiences on the table at the beginning.

178. Scott Says:

Anand #163:

Amy: thanks for your comment. I actually did give up on this thread because of the commentary here and wrote a response elsewhere because I think there’s a massive amount of “not getting it” over here.

In discussions about feminism, I’d say that the reflex of describing people who disagree on some particular as “not getting it” is one of the central barriers to progress—and to reaching the very people who feminists presumably want to reach. The implication of the phrase is that anyone who disagrees about the point in question is either nefarious, or if we really want to be charitable, maybe just ignorant—but in either case, they certainly can’t be addressed as an equal. The possibility that the other person spent a whole lifetime reflecting on these issues, and reached conclusions a bit different from yours, is never entertained.

To bring this discussion back to Walter Lewin, it seems to me that the solution I outlined in the OP—that of

(a) “outing” and severely punishing Lewin himself, but

(b) keeping his wonderful lectures up on MITx and OCW,

is one that satisfies all the basic requirements here, freeing us of the need to choose among them. It delivers justice to the victims of Lewin’s behavior, by decimating the reputation that the perpetrator built up over 40 years. It sends an extremely clear message to everyone else that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. But it also acknowledges the distinction between the artist and the work, and it refuses to punish the countless students in China, India, etc. who were drawn to Lewin’s MITx courses simply because they might be the world’s best introductory physics courses.

So the question becomes, why might the above solution not satisfy someone? As far as I can tell, the main reason why not, is if you believe the world is currently suffering from an epidemic of privileged, entitled, misogynistic male STEM nerds who need to be put in their place, and for that reason, the only response to Lewin that’s appropriately drastic is to “nuke the problem from orbit,” with the inconveniencing of tens of thousands of students trying to learn physics a trivial bit of collateral damage, or maybe even a plus, since it will make the male STEM nerds understand just how tiny their problems really are compared to women’s problems (cf. Reader297 #146’s “Truly you know suffering”). For the reasons why I disagree with that perspective, see my comment #171.

179. Gil Kalai Says:

I also find Scott’s personal testimony #171 valuable and a moving.

180. Sniffnoy Says:

Scott #171: I just want to applaud this post. This is a problem you hardly see discussed most civilized places because, well, the nature of the problem precludes discussion — bringing it up would only further confirm how evil you are!

So, for everyone else, just to drive home that this is not an isolated case (though it is an extreme one), I wanted to also link two other good descriptions of this particular problem. Hugh Ristik’s “When You Have Feminist Guilt, You Don’t Need Catholic Guilt”, Scott Alexander’s “meditations” series. (Unfortunately the crucial fourth one has been taken down; here’s an archive link.)

(And may I say, comment #178 is going to further encourage people to confuse the two of you. 😛 )

181. Sniffnoy Says:

Let me also add that not everyone makes it out of the trap themselves like you did! I only really began to get out of it — to be able to think openly “something is really wrong here”, rather than covering it up with thoughts of how this just shows what an awful person I must be — when I read Scott Alexander’s “meditations” series linked above and saw that other people, who I was convinced were actually good decent people and not evil horrible misogynists, also thought it was a problem.

182. Scott Says:

Amy #174: One other thing. I’d say that Andrea Dworkin is important to this discussion because of a combination of two factors:

(1) She, more so than any other feminist writer, tells shy, nerdy males that their most paranoid fantasies about how women think are literally true. Yes, she says in essence, all the women who you pass by on the street really do fear and despise you, just because you’re a male with a penis, before you’ve even said or done anything. (In Dworkin’s case, of course, this might not have been fantasy; that might indeed have been how she thought. The problem, of course, lies in extrapolating from n=1 to n=3.5 billion.)

(2) Despite the above, Dworkin was never cast out by other feminists, but was fully accepted into the canon. The mainstream feminists never said: “good god, no! These books might be psychologically interesting, as eloquent expressions of one woman’s anguish, but they don’t represent our movement; they’re not what we think at all.” This, in turn, allowed shy, nerdy males to imagine that all feminists, or almost all of them, secretly agreed with Dworkin, and differed from her only in being less open.

183. Rahul Says:

Some of the points Scott makes are very deep & valid. The excessive broadening of what might be construed harassment, & a incessant repeating of these messages has led people to adopt increasingly defensive measures. In the long run these effects are a drag.

e.g. I know several Professors who will keep the doors to their offices always wide open whenever they are meeting with female students.

By itself it is a small, innocuous measure but when the Office lies in a particularly busy lobby it can be annoying. I had a fellow female grad student who used to complain about how distracting the outside noise / conversations can be during one-on-one meetings, reviews etc.

I’ve also known men who refuse to get into elevators in their apartment blocks whenever a teen / kid is in the elevator alone.

I can almost imagine a situation where Professors are subtly discriminating against female students / hires just because of the attendant hassle or potential risk of a mistaken accusation, either direct or of having failed to act suitably in response to other harassment.

What really upsets me is the default working assumption that some make (e.g. commentator Amy above on this thread): that STEM is a particularly hostile environment for women. It really isn’t. Let’s just look at each case on its merits. There are bad apples in every sector & STEM fields are no worse than the average.

And if Amy is going to claim that just because I’m not a woman, or have not read the right feminist canon so I lack the cognition to understand the issue, well that’s a conversation-killer right there. If you are going to start with the assumption that others are too stupid to understand your point I’m not sure how we get a productive discussion going.

184. Scott Says:

Incidentally, now that the floodgates are open, I think I can put my finger precisely on what it is that makes me uncomfortable about shaming Lewin without giving a more detailed accounting of what he did.

Namely, I know that such a move will pour gasoline onto the paranoid fantasies of shy, nerdy males all over the world. They’ll imagine that Lewin was disgraced, his life’s work ruined, because of the tamest, gentlest unreciprocated expression of romantic interest, and they’ll imagine that the same thing could happen to them. From what little I know about the case, it seems clear that that’s not at all what happened here, but MIT’s statement says nothing to rule it out, and the shy nerds will easily fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

Of course, I doubt this concern ever once crossed any of the administrators’ minds as they weighed what to do. As I said, this kind of problem simply isn’t on the academic world’s radar, even though it probably disfigures millions of lives.

185. Rahul Says:

Amy #174:

To me the interesting question isn’t how often Andrea Dworkin comes up but how many people (even women) are interested in reading any of the feminist writers or identifying with any of those positions.

The point is that the feminist writers might have an opinion & so do you but let us not mistake this to be the median opinion , or even close to, of a woman & not even of a woman in STEM.

186. Scott Says:

Sniffnoy #180: Thanks so much for the kind words and the links! Still working through them, but in the meantime, for people’s convenience, let me quote the conclusion of Hugh Ristik’s interesting essay:

There is an irony here. The males who most need to hear feminist prohibitions of sexism towards women are the ones who are probably least likely to listen, while the males who least need to hear them are the ones who are probably most likely to listen. And when these males listen to feminists, the consequence is that some of them may be impaired in their interactions with women. Yet feminists don’t really seem to care about that. Instead, feminists will risk hurting the romantic prospects of some of the men who are most likely to listen to them. If, like me, these men figure out that they were screwed over by feminism and speak up, a common feminist response is to blame the victim.

What I propose is not for feminism to stop advocating against sexism towards women. I propose for feminists to look for ways to do so that don’t needlessly cause lasting sexual repression or guilt in a subset of men most sympathetic to feminist concerns. However, this would require considering men’s interests, perspectives, and experiences, not just women’s.

187. Amy Says:

About the paranoid fantasies, and its partner all over the place, which is the outrage at the notion that one is a potential rapist.

I don’t mean to dismiss or in any way belittle the deep anxieties you suffered, Scott. I am, though, on reflection seriously baffled by this — not just from you, but by the tremendous force with which so many guys (always guys, in my experience) insist they’ve been harmed by this sort of talk, which they characterise as slander. I say that because I’m well aware of my own capacity for violence of all kinds. I am after all human, not all that much different from other humans; surely I’m capable of murder, suicide, rape, child abuse, forcing employees to do things they oughtn’t, bullying, abuse of my advantages, etc. And I don’t need a sexual-abuse seminar to tell me these things; anyone who pays attention, or even just goes to the theatre, can see them.

Some of those acts of aggression are straightforward: killing, for instance. That one’s easy nearly all the time. Don’t do that unless you’re protecting someone else’s life. And don’t put yourself in situations where killing’s extra-likely to be part of the picture, like, say, enlisting. Some are much less clear: child abuse, for instance. Because in that case you want not only to stay clear of the legal line, you also (assuming you love your kids) absolutely do not want to harm them in any way — and yet you will, as a parent, be in positions where you must force them to do things, direct them to do things, judge their behavior, lay out for them definitions of right and wrong, and so on. So what do you do, you read about child development and childrearing and abuse, and you talk with other people about these things, and you try very hard to stay clear of that line, and you talk with the children as they grow up and listen to their fears and reactions to your discipline, and you remain sensitive — and always open to the idea that you’re capable of doing harm, however accidentally. What you don’t do is either become outraged by the suggestion that you might be capable of shaking that baby, or convinced that you *will* shake that baby. (I’m actually quite forgetful and klutzy, and throughout my daughter’s infancy I was petrified that I’d drop her or forget her in a hot car. And I knew myself well enough to know that these were not entirely unreasonable fears, so I stayed paranoid for a couple of years, and I’m pleased to report that she’s alive and undamaged today.)

Rape — well, I admit I have some problems with the idea of rape as the pinnacle of abuse, partly because of my own experience with it and partly because it seems to me some big gaudy bauble of patriarchal thinking: what’s the most precious, most inviolable thing about a woman? Well, her vagina, natch. But leaving that aside and taking rape as the be-all. No, it’s not an easy idea, what’s rape, what isn’t, and the potential for sexual violence is very real, for both men and women. You start making assumptions or demands, you lay your hands or any other part of you on someone else and apply force, of course you can hurt someone. Hell, the last guy I was involved with (once again, shy and nerdy) actually — no joke — shoved his dick in my mouth, despite my having made it clear that I wasn’t in the mood for that, and said, “Just do it once for me.” (And then was shocked to hear he’d done that and fought the idea that he was capable of doing anything wrong until, in his mind, I was part of a world oppressing him by telling him all the time what an awful person he was. I may say that an apology never emerged, not that I had asked for one, but it occurs to me that it’s a usual thing to do when you’ve done someone else wrong.)

What I’m left wondering is this: maybe the fear, in all these guys, including you, Scott, is not so much that they will commit aggression — it’s that they fear they’ll be seen behaving aggressively, and that there’ll be a price for that. Which really makes me wonder what the hell is going on, because at that point I begin to suspect that it doesn’t really have to do with women, who once again become not-real-people in the scenario, but with how the men will be seen and fare.

I’m well aware that since I’m a mother, everyone and his dog has an opinion on the job I do. And that as a single mother, I’m already a [slut, vector of social decay, pinata, object of fear/pity/schadenfreude, leech, etc.] to a very sizeable chunk of the population, and likely to be damaging my kid just by breathing. And also that if you want ferocious social stigma, be a mom who abused her kids. Do I spend my time terrified that CPS is going to show up at the door and that I’ll be all over the papers as a child abuser, no. Do I worry that other moms believe I’m abusing my kid, no, though I expect some of them think she’s shockingly undersupervised. What I pay attention to is *actually not abusing the kid while attempting to raise her to be a decent human being*, which, when we’re talking about a tween, is not always a straight shot.

But I also have (I think) a fairly realistic take on what comprises the kind of abuse authorities worry about, and if I’m not sure, I call and ask, without being afraid of what they’ll think of me for asking. A few weeks ago, for instance, her dad wanted her to run a 5K alone, without him, and even though she was fine with the idea, I had visions of her getting lost and telling a stranger that her mom was in an airplane and her dad was in the middle of a half-marathon. In some places this constitutes child abandonment. So I called the cops and said hey, how do you guys look at this, and they said don’t worry about it. So I didn’t.

I guess what I’m wandering towards here is two ideas: one, that attempting to determine realistic boundaries — both legal and psychological — is part of my job, and two, this is not about how people *see me*, but about how the kid will fare. And I am not convinced that in the very real and widespread fright about the potential-rapist bit, either of those things is going on.

This is very long so I’ll respond to other comments separately.

188. Amy Says:

Oh, as for Ristik.

Erm, if you look at all the work that women do already, for free, on men’s behalf, it seems to me less than reasonable (and gives me a bit of giggle) to expect us to do *more*. Sensitivity, yes. Handing feminism back and saying, “Redesign this so that I can more easily have romantic relationships!”…uh, gotta pass on that one, Hugh.

I would suggest doing some of the work yourself and bringing it into the conversation, and not flying off the handle when problems with your redesign are pointed out.

189. jonas Says:

Scott re #171, thanks for telling us your story. I can’t add anything more to the discussion about whether the videos should be taken down, and I don’t know enough to say anything about the sexual harrassment or feminism topics. But there’s one detail of the story that has jumped out to me. You seem to say that already during that period, that is, as less than 20 years old, you already had the dream to “devote your life to math”, knowing that math can be important enough to you that that’s a goal you could find enjoyable? That sounds nice. Should I re-read your older blog entries to find out how you figured that out?

190. Anand Sarwate Says:

Tony: Not sure why I (an American) need to write about India before I can talk about other things. I’ll leave it at that, since feeding trolls is a waste of time.

Scott: firstly, my condolences for your loss.

Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’ perspectives, the first reference to my “male privilege”—my privilege!—is where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.

I think this is because privilege as you construe it is a bit too personal — as Jair says above, you just get some benefit for free for having a Y chromosome. Similarly, just imagine what your (very difficult, and moving) experience of growing up would have been like if you had been black. I am not sure you would have the position you have now.

Far be it from me to try and call you out for being a “bad feminist.” I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t want to come off that way. However, I think that if MIT continues to host Lewin’s content it basically means that MIT is saying “hey, this pedagogy is worth breaking a few eggs” where the eggs are the harm done by Lewin to these students.

Since we’re not the ones hurt here, it’s easy for us to try and abide by some bright-line principle in situations like this: “good teaching materials are very important, and should be made available to all.” But the mere choice to have such a rule is exercising a form of privilege, and one which, to my mind, sends a strong negative message to women.

Indeed, I know a few women who have read this comment thread and basically have written off engaging on this.

Having a rule or principle like that may make one feel more comfortable because it makes 2-point actions like yours above seem clear, but my point is that insisting on that has collateral effects, and not caring about those collateral effects is a form of privilege.

Finally, I think the most important point is that there probably isn’t a “perfect” solution here.

191. lewikee Says:

Amy,

Way to dismiss others’ expressions of concern about how to behave in regards to women as them just being afraid of how society will perceive them. And them therefore being selfish.

192. Alum Says:

Scott 178:

So the question becomes, why might the above solution not satisfy someone? As far as I can tell, the main reason why not, is if you believe the world is currently suffering from an epidemic of privileged, entitled, misogynistic male STEM nerds who need to be put in their place

My first thought was that MIT wanted to make it blindingly clear that the institute no longer wishes to be associated with Lewin in his role as a teacher. They can always decide to make the course materials and lectures available in some kind of archival location — maybe something like DSpace would be appropriate — where it is not among other online courses where interaction between teachers/students is expected to occur.

193. Scott Says:

Jonas #189: I’d say I knew I could “devote my life to math” not merely when I was 20 years old (and was in my second year of grad school…), but when I was 5 years old. But it took a while longer to figure out what that meant. 🙂

194. Amy Says:

Scott, about Dworkin – I guess my question is (particularly now that it’s easy to listen with minimal engagement to the talk of gazillions of women online) why take her as the arbiter, unless you’re looking for the sensational? I mean look, if I’d taken Naomi Wolf seriously about hospitals and childbirth, that kid would still be in me. Which isn’t to say her talk is completely fantastic: hospitals can be dangerous, there’s some terrible OB practice, etc. But it’s not all Victor Price. That doesn’t mean she ought to be stoned and barred from publishing, or dismissed outright; it just means, y’know, come on, a grain of salt. At a minimum, talk to other people: does what she’s saying make any sense? Are these real things, and if so, how important are they?

On the other hand, I regularly see a conflation between the idea that “every man *is* a rapist” and “every man *may be* a rapist” in the anxieties regularly to do with women’s wariness of men, particularly men they don’t know. I talk to guy after guy who’s mortally insulted that he’s being sized up as a potential threat when everyone knows he’s a cotton ball. Pointing out that women do in fact regularly get assaulted doesn’t quiet the cry of “but everyone should know I’m innocent as the day is long,” and there’s swift outrage when women attempt to make that sort of good-guy news public by developing apps that do what women do amongst friends: let them know who to look out for, who’s assaultive.

We’ve (or I’ve) wandered far away, but I do want to get back to the privilege thing, which I think is cast more usefully as power, partly because there’s richer language to do with power. I need to get some sleep first, though.

Oh, and someone said something about the “you can’t play if you’re not a woman” thing, and I never said that, so please, again, don’t hyperbolize. As for the language and the concepts, yeah, if one person in the convo has them and the other doesn’t, it’s not much of a conversation. Reading and thought are required, just as for physics.

195. Amy Says:

*Vincent Price, am going senile, sorry.

196. Amy Says:

@lewikee, I am asking the question, not making an assumption. Because the brightest, most urgent fear I hear, time and again, is “What will happen to me? Will my life be ruined?” And, secondarily or not at all, “Am I unwittingly hurting other people?”

I could have the order of those wrong, or not. But it’s striking enough that I ask.

197. Michael Bacon Says:

Scott,

It’s pretty clear that notwithstanding good intentions, the tug of ideology, anger, pain and real grievances, remain too powerful for many to make honest appraisals of the views of others, let alone of their own hard won and heartfelt judgments, to find an appropriate balance between valid by competing issues, or, for that matter, even to admit that balance is an appropriate goal.

The relationships and contradictions between men and women act at the core of what makes us human. We are informed by biology, environment, history and upbringing and in each case it currently seems all too complicated to adequately sort through — although you deserve much credit for throwing the door open like you have for this discussion.

198. Rahul Says:

Amy #187:

Rape being the pinnacle of abuse is a big gaudy bauble of patriarchal thinking? Really? I don’t think patriarchal has anything to do with it.

Again, you can continue to have your bizarre rants but please don’t expect us to believe that your contrarian & extreme opinions are anywhere close to what the median woman holds. (I just asked two ladies )

To convince us of the seriousness of sexual harassment doesn’t need you to trivialize the pain & suffering of other rape victims. Notwithstanding the fact that you were one.

Rape is a very heinous crime & will stay so. Its heinousness wasn’t some imagined wrong concocted by a patriarchal male mind.

199. Amy Says:

Anand: what a smart and temperate comment.

Scott: I see, I didn’t take seriously enough what you were saying about jumping to the endpoint, wrt Dworkin. But it seems to me an unhelpful practice in…well, in the descriptive, rather than the predictive. I mean take the thing about my having been raped: to you, this is still the endpoint, even though I’ve said yeah, it was bad, but (for me) it wasn’t a defining trauma and much worse, much more formative things have happened in my life, some suddenly and some by slow drip. So maybe it would be helpful to tell young men so inclined: Don’t do that, it doesn’t work that way.

200. Amy Says:

Rahul, I said clearly that this was my experience, not every woman’s experience. I will also stand by my suggestion that the everyday experiences and cost of sexism and misogyny are at least as important a problem in women’s lives as the act of rape. And I don’t like segregating rape from the rest, partly because it allows people to focus on rape and forget or diminish the rest.

201. Jay Says:

Scott, thanks for all little scotts who will read that. One extra suggestion for them: get a female pseudo and go play on internet. I did it once. Not willingly but by mistake, a mistake I fast realised because I started to be sexually harassed (on a famous Go Server, if you care). Initially that was with my secret amusement (poor stupid teen, he’d have all of a surprise if we could met), then to my consternation (dude, this is really the world my daugther live in?), and finally I changed my pseudo the day I surprised myself ruminating what could be wrong with *me* to get agressed. Lessons to seek: that what sexual harassement is, this is how much a writing can hurt, and no there is nothing in your own past, present or future behavior that could be confused with it.

Amy, it’s refreshing to read an extrem feminist point of view on a nerd blog, but I’m also ill-at-ease by the weird mix of casual tone for rapes, together with strong denontiation of ordinary familial situations or social pressure.

Your hunsband seek for recognition of his contribution to the familial tasks? How dare he, get divorced! You got divorced? They’ll see you as a slut! (Really? At the age of 6 my younger son asked when we’ll divorced – he asked because he was the last one in his classroom with “undivorced parents”, as he call us). Rape? Not as bad as every-day problems -your words, really!

It’s as if you were so angry you’re losing all discrimination power. It’s longer against rapists and harrassers, it’s against any male for any offense, real or imagined. As many persons, both male and female, I have some problems with the idea of calling myself a feminist. Allow me to tell you that these confusions between what is bad and what is debatable, that doesn’t help. The do-you-homework-until-you-think-as-me-or-go-to-hell doesn’t help either.

202. Amy Says:

Oh, and Rahul, as for patriarchalism in views of rape, of course that exists. What made a woman valuable, forever, and marriageable? Virginity, seal unbroken. The state of the vag. Why do you think “rape” is part of “rape and pillage”? That’s how you claim women when women are property: storm the vagina! For that matter, when furious guys online feel threatened by a woman, why do you think they make rape threats? To show her who’s boss, that’s why. It’s also why, when men are losing arguments online with women, they’ll so often jump immediately to telling the woman unfuckable she is. Because that, to their minds, is the salient thing about a woman, the measure of her worth. So to mess with that, to mess with the vagina, despoil a woman — shocking crime.

None of which takes away from the genuine trauma of invasion and use and force involved in rape. But to say there’s no patriarchalism in how we look at rape as a far more serious crime than, say, stealing women’s labor, or subjecting them to lifetimes of harassment and disrespect based on their sex…I think that’s being either thoughtless or willfully blind.

203. Gil Kalai Says:

Scott: “I think I can put my finger precisely on what it is that makes me uncomfortable about shaming Lewin without giving a more detailed accounting of what he did.”

Scott, the problem is that more details from MIT will make the shaming effect even harsher.

Alum :” … MIT wanted to make it blindingly clear that the institute no longer wishes to be associated with Lewin in his role as a teacher.”

This is a very good point. MIT demonstrates a general policy that a teacher who abuses the videotaped classes platform will be removed from it. Given that MIT does not claim ownership on the videos and they can be presented elsewhere (and are presented elsewhere) this is a very reasonable policy. The alternative ideas brought up here are tailored to the very specific case and are based on the quality of the lectures. But this is precisely what MIT’s policy is avoiding: making a decision on a sexual harassment case based on the quality of the offender, as a teacher or as a researcher, or as a donor, or as a fund-raiser, etc.

Overall, while this is an emotional discussion is seems that there is a large agreement on the major issues – the severity of sexual harassment and the sadness of the situation mainly to the victims and also to Prof. Lewin.

204. Amy Says:

Jay, it’s bemusing but also a bit dismaying, that you view my position as “extreme feminism”, and maybe it shows how far away from feminism the center is.

A few of your points and then I’d better get going –

Seeking recognition for accomplishment, nothing wrong with that. However, seeking recognition for a job well done when you haven’t even done your share — and when you’ve saddled someone else with work that was yours to do, without so much as recognizing that you’ve done that — no, that’s not admirable.

Divorce is fairly well-accepted these days, and divorcees aren’t thought of as loose wicked women (though try being one, and you’ll see how nervous married couples suddenly get around you). Single moms, though, are another story. I’d invite you to explore the comments section of any story in a major newspaper on single mothers.

As for rape and everyday problems: you know, this sort of reminds me of the housecleaning v. lawnmowing housework-wars problem, where studies showed men choosing rather dramatic “hero” work — fix this, mow that. The work makes an obvious difference and stays done. Meanwhile, the women actually put in far more hours doing work that must be done continuously and tends not to be noticed. Yes, rape is extremely brutal and violent, and the trauma is often lasting. But compare an instance of rape with a lifetime of wage suppression, disrespect, being cut out of opportunities and meetings, sexual harassment on the street and at work, and I don’t see a reason to demote the latter.

Some years ago it was fashionable to add up the lifetime income loss from “mommy-tracking”, and the number usually came out in the seven digits. Can you imagine the effect just of that — skip for a moment the sort of treatment you were subject to momentarily online with your pseud — over a lifetime? What it means you can or can’t do for your children, how it affects your life in old age, how it affects your children who must look after you, what causes you cannot support? Women have a much higher rate of poverty in old age than men do — why? Well, lower lifetime earnings does a lot in that direction. Were these women sitting around with their feet up throughout their lives, not hardly. Now stack on top of that the sort of treatment you found online, and, you know, we could go on. Does it really look so outrageous to you now that this is as serious as rape?

In this, btw, we come back around to the question of Lewin’s videos, and why it matters whether they’re up or down.

205. Shmi Nux Says:

It’s sad to see the discussion about Lewin’s misdeeds and MIT’s overreaction derailed by a militant f-Amy-nist.

206. Raoul Ohio Says:

As a data point in the above discussions, a recent NSF announcement about AP CS tests:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=133571&WT.mc_id=USNSF_51&WT.mc_ev=click

contains these stats about interest in HS students:

“Although AP Computer Science A had the fastest growth rate of any AP subject in 2014, participation is still made up of 82 percent white and Asian students. In addition, female students represent only 20 percent of AP Computer Science A exam takers.”

I have no clue what this means, but it is a solid fact relevant to a debate where data is hard to come by.

207. Raoul Ohio Says:

Additional NSF CS diversity info from this week:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=133577&WT.mc_id=USNSF_51&WT.mc_ev=click

208. Shmi Nux Says:

Scott #171:

First, thank you for writing that. Your comment is most eloquent, balanced and courageous in the face of a rather vicious attack. I only wish I could write that well.

You may be interested in the writings of another Scott A, who is just as eloquent and balanced: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/08/31/radicalizing-the-romanceless/

Oh, and almost all his other posts are well worth reading, too.

209. Lessons Learned Says:

Shmi Nux@205,

“It’s sad to see the discussion about Lewin’s misdeeds and MIT’s overreaction derailed . . .”

I disagree. This is a good opportunity to read, and seriously consider and judge the clarity and true meaning of peoples’ explanations and analysis. In this sense, the more a person talks, the better! 😉

210. Scott Says:

Shmi #205 and #208: Thank you for the kind words, but please lay off Amy (or at least come up with better puns…). To borrow the feminist lingo, let’s try to make this comment thread a “safe space” for everyone‘s views.

211. Scott Says:

Gil #203:

Scott, the problem is that more details from MIT will make the shaming effect even harsher.

I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then I say: let him be shamed even more harshly! (One of the many ironies of this debate is that I’m the one urging that Lewin’s punishment possibly be made even worse.)

Ultimately, my concern is not at all for Lewin himself: it’s for (a) the physics students, and (b) all the shy, nerdy males who, in the absence of greater clarity, will mistakenly think that Lewin was one of them and that they might be next. (I hadn’t realized until this morning that (b) was a central concern for me; I thank the commenters for spurring that realization.)

212. Shmi Nux Says:

Scott #210: Understood. As for better puns, that other Scott A is an excellent source of them. Personally, I’ve learned to tune out anyone talking about male privilege, mansplaining and patriarchy: they cannot be reasoned with, usually because they are not interested in reason. Or at least I cannot reason with them, you might be more successful. Good luck! I’ll stick to engaging feminists who acknowledge that there is more than one side of the issue.

213. Amy Says:

Hey, Jay, just coming back around to cover the ‘do your homework’ bit. Yes, it sounds unfriendly when you see one instance. If you saw how often women get demands to explain or defend this or that gender-related idea, though, you’d see that we’re called on to be men’s personal tutors (for free) pretty much everywhere we talk about these things. And the reality is that many of these things have been discussed in great depth and repeatedly on public fora, blogs, you name it.

So if you’re really curious about something that turns up in one of these debates, rather than just looking to defend your presumption, then for goodness’ sake, don’t ask some busy lady to drop what she’s doing and be your personal free tutor just because it’s the first time you’ve encountered the idea. The information is just lying around waiting for you to read and watch. I’m always happy to suggest search terms.

Though I think there is someone out there who’s gotten sick enough of the demands that she’s set up a service where you can pay her by the quarter-hour to research and/or explain these things to you.

214. Amy Says:

#210 Thank you, Scott.

215. Amy Says:

Sorry to post serially. Jay, it occurs to me that a related issue came up in MIT’s own gender-equity self-studies, where women were buried in committee/service work so that they could “represent women”. And of course the number of these obligations they were expected to carry had an effect on their own research.

At some point the responsibility for actually going out and doing some learning about these issues falls to the learners themselves, particularly when, at this point, it’s so easy to go hear a diversity of voices, explanations, experiences.

216. Michael Dixon Says:

@Scott #211

I think scenario (b) is quite a bit of a stretch considering that we know next to nothing about the situation still. You can probably relax a bit.

If you pressed me, I’d pin these insecurities on society’s apprehensiveness to help people mature in regards to their sexuality. Still pretty harmful (and maddening). That’s my initial impression and understanding, anyhow.

217. Scott Says:

Amy #187: There’s a lot to unpack in your comment, but let me pick up on one thing. There are many rules of civilization that even the most socially-inept person can easily internalize, with only a few borderline cases that can be ignored most of the time. For example:

Don’t want to be (seen as) a murderer? Then don’t murder.

Don’t want to be (seen as) a rapist? Then don’t rape.

But then we come to a much more troublesome rule:

Don’t want to be (seen as) a sexual harasser? Then … well … if you want to be 100% safe, don’t express sexual interest in anyone.

No, the point is not that feminists think every request for a date is sexual harassment: clearly they don’t (Dworkin possibly excepted). The point, rather, is that the phrase “sexual harassment” doesn’t pick out a discrete, clearly-defined set of behaviors that everyone agrees on. What it means, basically, is the crude, aggressive end of a continuous spectrum of behaviors—and crucially, that same spectrum also includes the actions that heterosexual males in our culture are expected to take, and must take, if they don’t want to die alone.

Now, suppose you were always terrible at figuring out fuzzy, unstated social rules that vary from one context to another; suppose your mental abilities lay elsewhere. Can you imagine the terror of knowing that you had to master the byzantine not-quite-rules separating acceptable from unacceptable sexual advances—with lifelong misery awaiting you if you erred in one direction, and social ostracism, self-hatred, maybe even expulsion, firing, or criminal penalties if you erred in the other?

Not having to think about that is surely the clearest example of “female privilege,” if you’ll admit such a thing can exist.

Now, you might reasonably ask: if the rules are really that hard to understand, then why not simply err on the side of caution? That is, why not identify a wide buffer between the behaviors that are clearly acceptable and those that clearly aren’t, and only do things if they fall on the right side of the buffer? (Like in the definition of BPP and other probabilistic complexity classes.)

The answer to that is: because empirically, women strongly prefer men who know how to go right up to the line without crossing it. If you won’t even go near the line, then you’re at a severe, crippling disadvantage compared to the men who will. But the closer you go to the line, the greater the risk of accidentally crossing it—with the risk magnified a thousandfold if you’ve spent most of your waking hours thinking about (let’s say) probabilistic complexity classes rather than how to interpret social cues.

Faced with this dilemma, one response would be: fine, so let’s experiment! Maybe I’ll go slightly over the line sometimes, but it’ll just be a normal part of the learning process, like nicking the curb while learning how to drive.

But now, if you tell shy male nerds: “cross the line even once, even slightly, and you’re a sexual harasser, a creep, a misogynist, an upholder of rape culture”—then you’ve effectively told them, “you may not engage in the trial-and-error learning process that’s the only way you could ever improve at this. So, if you want to maintain your self-image as a kind, moral, respectful, upstanding feminist, then stay home and don’t bother.”

218. Scott Says:

Amy #194:

about Dworkin – I guess my question is … why take her as the arbiter, unless you’re looking for the sensational?

That’s a good question, and the answer is that I don’t recommend people do so. 🙂

When I was younger, my thought process (if you can call it that) was something like: if I want to know the truth about how women think—and in particular, about how they’d judge me and my choices—then I need to seek out the most radical feminists I can find, since they’re the ones most likely to give it to me straight without sugarcoating.

What eventually unseated the radfems from their arbiter role in my brain was simply experience. Imagine, for example, that you leaned in to kiss your date, suppressing a terrified inner monologue screaming this is sexual assault; you neither asked for nor received verbal permission to use a fellow human being for your gratification this way; she’s probably going to slap you, back away, and call the police. Imagine that instead she smiled bemusedly, as if to say “what took so long?,” and then seconds later you felt a tongue in your mouth. Each time that happened, you might do a Bayesian update that further lowered the probability that Andrea Dworkin should be your arbiter in these matters.

219. Noon Says:

Amy – Just wanted to say again that there are probably many people on here that support your views but don’t say too much. I’m definitely one of those. I’ve found most of the comments on this post (including Scotts) to not be particularly useful, but yours have helped me learn a new point of view and one that I – as a once very nerdy self-obsessed guy who thought he was fantastic despite being socially awkward – can definitely relate to, and have recently started to agree with (w.r.t. the suggestion from some that “nerd culture” is great to the realisation that there is a better middle ground out there.)

Also, Scott, in #217, I don’t particularly agree with your suggestion that it’s necessary to “almost” sexually harass women to get them to date you. You can’t honestly think that, right?

220. Scott Says:

Noon #219:

I don’t particularly agree with your suggestion that it’s necessary to “almost” sexually harass women to get them to date you.

But I didn’t say that. I suspect that, in the metrics used both by women and by confident, socially-skilled males, the behaviors in question look nothing whatsoever like harassment (even like the opposite of harassment)—much like even “tiny” real numbers can look extremely far from 0 when measured p-adically. The tragedy of the shy, nerdy males is that they’ve only learned how to reckon human interactions in a cruder, less-relevant metric, where the behaviors can look misleadingly close to harassment.

221. Noon Says:

Scott #219 – I was interpreting this quote of yours: “[…] because empirically, women strongly prefer men who know how to go right up to the line without crossing it.” as saying that.

I don’t entirely know how to take it, other than the way I interpreted it.

Maybe, as you say, this is a “tragedy” – but it’s also not a good thing to be proud of – this inability to be socially aware and hence dramatic shyness and outward “respect” towards women for fear of being attacked (I feel that this is a little bit the opinion expressed in the idea that the “nerd worldview” is better.) As Amy has related via anecdotes; in her experience this type of person can also sexually assault women.

It’s pretty cleara that there needs to be an attitude change from basically everyone. Nerds are not special in this regard.

222. Clear as a Bell Says:

Jay:

“The do-you-homework-until-you-think-as-me-or-go-to-hell doesn’t help either.”

Amy:

“. . . don’t ask some busy lady to drop what she’s doing and be your personal free tutor just because it’s the first time you’ve encountered the idea.”

Ships passing in the night . . . everyone is so busy it seems.

223. Scott Says:

Anand #90:

(1) I found it ironic that you criticize me for trying to uphold a “bright-line principle,” when this entire post was about eschewing bright lines (academic freedom at all costs! vs. deterring harassment at all costs!), in favor of responding intelligently to the specifics of the situation, and trying to do right by all innocent parties involved. I also found it ironic that you criticize me for privileging “the many” over “the few”: would that nerds and physics students were “the many”! (Also, should I infer that you vigorously oppose Occupy Wall Street, with its thoughtless privileging of the 99% over the 1%? 🙂 )

(2) Personally, I’d say that MIT sent a massively strong message of “zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” when it publicly shamed Lewin and ended his association with MIT. Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine any worse punishment than being known to the world for such behavior; given the choice, I’d probably pick the death penalty. Still, if MIT wanted to enhance the punishment, the deterrent effect, and the message to the world even further, then I’d suggest that, rather than shutting down a great physics resource, it could simply release the disgusting details of whatever it is Lewin did.

(3) Thanks for explaining the notion of privilege! Let’s do an example to see if I understand. On a Saturday night, a shy male college student is sitting in his dorm room, trying to think of reasons not to hang himself. Meanwhile, three of his female dorm-mates out are out at a party, laughing, dancing, taking selfies, and doing jello shots. Still, the male has enormous structural privilege solely by virtue of being male, while his dormmates are structurally oppressed solely by virtue of being female.

Now, this raises an obvious question: why not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people? If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language. Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil. It’s bad writing. More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse. This isn’t quantum field theory. Ordinary words will do.

224. Alum Says:

Scott #223

I am not the most well-versed person in sociology language, but I don’t think the concept of privilege implies that one type of person has all of it, while other types of people are only oppressed. We all are privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others, due to characteristics beyond our control (race, gender, social “class,” sexuality, etc). Men are privileged in some ways, and women are privileged in others. I find the concept of privilege useful to consider how different people may experience things in life very differently, based on the way our society treats people with those characteristics.

225. fred Says:

When it comes to shy nerds and the opposite sex, Ferris Bueller probably got it right:
“Cameron has never been in love – at least, nobody’s ever been in love with him. If things don’t change for him, he’s gonna marry the first girl he lays, and she’s gonna treat him like shit, because she will have given him what he has built up in his mind as the end-all, be-all of human existence. She won’t respect him, ’cause you can’t respect somebody who kisses your ass. It just doesn’t work.”

226. Darrell Burgan Says:

Scott #217:

“… that same spectrum also includes the actions that heterosexual males in our culture are expected to take, and must take, if they don’t want to die alone”

Well, to fully generalize, let’s acknowledge that sexual harassment also occurs between homosexual people as well, as well as from female directed at male. But certainly the vast majority of the problem is as you describe. Are we talking principles or empiricals?

Deterministically defining ‘sexual harassment’ is a slippery business. To me, the best definition is that the person receiving a verbal exchange asks for it to stop, and it doesn’t. Substitute any given person for either side of the exchange, and the definition remains the same. Not sure why anything more is required.

227. lewikee Says:

@Scott #223

I think emotionally fueling this issue (and both sides of the issue), is frustration.

1) Frustration on the part of women facing a power structure which clearly (but less so today than ever before) makes it easier for men to succeed. They see this male-favored world as not just a product of some men. They are frustrated by the fact that *all* men benefit from it at some point(s) in their lives, and that this thus must make all men complicit in the structure. They then lash out at all men (including men like you) for being part of the problem. That makes it easy for them to ignore specific stories like yours. I am sure Amy rolled her eyes (she will surely deny that so as not to seem heartless) at your story of the shy male considering suicide contrasted with the females dorm-mates enjoying themselves. She is thinking of the greater sum of micro-benefits you get from being male in a male-dominated society. Whatever examples you give, you are ultimately part of the system.

2) Frustration on the part of some men at being told one thing (treat women with complete respect to all potential boundaries) and, as you put it, “empirically” seeing another.

228. lewikee Says:

I would also like to add that I am discussing the more general themes here and draw absolutely no parallel between them and the specific situation of Lewin for which (it seems highly likely) he went well beyond appropriate behavior.

229. Matt Says:

I’m assuming that the following is a fairly standard line in these sorts of discussions, so apologies for not doing my homework, but I don’t think anybody’s raised it here and I’d be interested in Scott and Amy’s views in particular.

Instead of cutting down on sexual harassment seminars, wouldn’t a better outcome for future Scotts be a culture where if a woman likes a “shy, nerdy male”, she can encourage his advances with whatever degree of directness his limited social skills can pick up on? Without falling afoul of various remnants of the medieval idea that unmarried women shouldn’t even know what sex is, much less display an overt interest in it?

230. Tony Says:

#223
Absolutely agree that Lewin should have been explicitly, publicly charged for a specific offense in the court of law.

Anand, I didn’t imply that you are obliged to talk about the rape in India, in order to be able to talk about anything else. I implied that it would have been more relevant than your fuzzy musings about the privileged. Sorry if association with your name bothered you, but really, if you picked Russia, it would have been equally more relevant in my mind.

231. aviti Says:

Scott#171. That is an experience of so many boys, problem is as you said, no one talks about it.

Rahul#183. You hit home with this line, I quote, “e.g. I know several Professors who will keep the doors to their offices always wide open whenever they are meeting with female students.” I got a job to teach at a university in third world, and the first advice I was given is exactly that. Whew!! I keep the advice because so many rumours of sexually harrasing teachers abound in my campus, my country, my society.

232. Rahul Says:

Initially, I was very upset by the extreme, anti-STEM, anti-male comments Amy was making just because I thought they were so prejudiced & fundamentally wrong.

But on deeper thought I think there’s no reason for me to get so worked up. Simply because I’m convinced that Amy is not at all representative of the views of the typical woman, whether in STEM or outside.

Ergo, arguing against here quite-extreme POV’s would be a bit like attacking a straw-man: i.e. these are very niche views.

To me the more practical questions are of this nature: Is “zero-tolerance” ever a good policy against anything? Or does it lead to black-n -white thinking with no latitude for judgement? e.g. suspending a grade school student for using a banana as a gun.

Should punishments be all-out or on graduated scales? How does one balance rights of the victims versus the accused? Should every harassment offence be career ending? Should interests of people outside of the victim & accused matter & deserve to be protected?

How does one decide whether a disparity in a M-to-F ratio is attributable to harassment or to other factors? If we make the rules & guidelines against harassment too strict & rigid do we run the risk of impairing productivity or actually encouraging unconscious discrimination against the protected group?Are there tradeoffs in the strategy to combat harrassment?

233. Jon Says:

Perhaps MIT should forgo teaching the Heisenberg equation, because of Heisenberg’s involvement in the Nazi-era A-bomb project.

234. Zilch Says:

Amy, are you on Rush Limbaugh’s payroll? You are a huge asset to his cause.

235. KIM Says:

I am an MIT alum. Professor Lewin is 78 years old. He retired from teaching online over a year ago and retired from on campus teaching six years ago. MIT’s actions and its lack of transparency have made a lot of people angry. The MIT Provost has said that this, “…has to be publicly explained.” while telling us nothing. He was ‘convicted’ of one count of harassing an online student.

236. Rahul Says:

lewikee #227:

Can you elaborate on what you mean when you write “power structure which clearly makes it easier for men to succeed”?

Can you offer specific examples or processes, systems, structures, tests, exams, qualifying criteria, job descriptions etc. that are gamed so as to favor men?

237. Anon. Says:

Scott, since you seem to know some of the details of the Lewin case, I wonder why you don’t view it as a moral imperative to reveal those to the world (to prevent nerds from imagining that online flirting is sexual harassment).

238. Amy Says:

@lewikee – I absolutely do not roll my eyes at people’s honest statements of anguish. That’s revolting. I think you owe Scott an apology for that, too.

@Rahul, the conversation’s moved on to a less misogynist place. So should you.

@aviti – women (and men, who also get assaulted) are much safer with the doors open. It’s a great deterrent. I find it an excellent change from decades ago, and it’s kept me safer than I was as an undergrad. In fact it’s one of the changes I cite regularly when talking about how things can change for women.

Scott…oh boy. Well, I’ll apologize in advance; this is superlong.

I’ve had similar conversations with many guys who identify as being on the spectrum. And if that’s the case, yeah, a guy’s going to have problems. (As will a gal.) That’s not just about missing social cues, though; it’s about seeking hard rules where none exist, literal interpretations, difficulty seeing beyond own nose (and difficulty seeing that difficulty), difficulty in sorting trivial happenings from important ones, crippling anxiety, all the usual things. And when that’s what’s going on, then it seems to me that the fastest and probably most sensible way of solving the problem is to deal with it therapeutically and early. Precisely so that a young person doesn’t invent sex/dating rules and constructs that serve mainly to torment him. And also so the same young person doesn’t, in the process, wind up developing a walloping case of misogyny that’s going to come back to bite him (and every woman who comes near him) in the ass.

This business about how women just want to be grabbed and have one planted on…I’m sure you’ve noticed the talk about consent and yes-means-yes. This doesn’t come from space (or Dworkin), and it’s not a design to trap men. And, particularly if you have trouble interpreting cues, you should regard it as a godsend. No more mindreading. If you have trouble asking, sexily or otherwise, well, you need to fix that. But as a bona-fide woman, the only one who seems to find it worthwhile to keep on talking to you guys about this here, I can tell you that this notion that “omg if you say words she’ll despise you and never take her pants off” is flat wrong, and wrongheaded, for multiple reasons. But it does go right along with “find the endpoint of the argument and start there” and “girls dig when Neanderthals disrespect them, I should too if I want to win”, and “this is a competition”, and “it’s not fair, I tried to play by the rules (that I constructed in the library), and that horrifying jerk gets all the good stuff, girls are hypocrites” and so on. I can tell you that these are exactly the sorts of beliefs that wind up giving shy-and-nerdies a rep as boilingly angry creeps.

And it isn’t about crossing Dworkin, or whoever, or about leaning in for a kiss. It’s about the instrumentality and the palpable sense that the guy has worked himself into a state where he’s now using you to prove something to himself, win a contest that has nothing, really, to do with you, and so on. Once again, the girl as person is gone. I learned pretty early on to run like hell from guys who, after sex, laughed with relief and said something to the effect that they felt redeemed or whole or so much better about themselves. Because it really was all about themselves. And that was going to be my job in the relationship: make them feel good about themselves, paper over their insecurities by being their prize and general ego-fluffer. It’s a bad gig.

Re Anand: the reason to go on talking about privilege is…well, imagine me at a campus interview, talking like this. How many of your colleagues would it make ill-at-ease? I mean they’d already have geared up to show the proper face of welcome to a woman, which is enough strain for some of them, but — oh my god, is she going to talk about privilege? No, no, danger Will Robinson, bzzt, we certainly don’t need more of those around, let Rutgers have her.

Of course, it’s unlikely I’d make it that far, even if I had the loveliest CS head in the world, because the business is still structured for guys who’re free to commit 90 hours a week to work, who can often put work ahead of all else, and who take prizes, rank, and prestige quite seriously. Those of us who aren’t, can’t, and don’t simply don’t know the meaning of seriousness — by club rules, anyway.

Again, in no way do I mean to belittle the anguish you went through in your teens and 20s. But it does seem strange, as though you see the world as having comprised you (and others like you) and partying babes and other fun-havers who’re getting all the win. And that, I think, is a weirdly dichotomous world, especially for a guy so well-positioned in so many other ways — it’s as though less structurally fortunate people don’t also have intensely painful suicidal unhappinesses. Or as though college fun is a long-lived condition. (You never listened to Bruce?)

It’s as if I believed that the really big crisis is that women over [name an age] are sexually unattractive to men and therefore worthless — literally worthless, like we should probably just go die — and that something really needed to be done about that. Why? Because it was going to make me deeply, agonizingly unhappy in five years, maybe for the rest of my life. I mean sure, that poor black girl down the corner might have it rough some ways, including the cops stop her because they assume she’s a hooker and teachers are quick to assume she’s not too bright and also a bad kid, but she’s the winner because men ask her out — I’m the relatively oppressed one! Because everything MRA sites tell me is that I’m so hideous and frightful that even if I try to ask men out, I’ll just be looking for everlasting shame and ridicule. And meanwhile the dudes just flock to her. Does that not sound a little off to you?

I mean look, I’m a single mom in her 40s with a lot of brains and talent and limited patience for doing men’s own chores, also limited patience for complaining from people who actually…”I’m Jerry Hathaway, with Everything.” Which men tend to find abrasive. So even if I lived in an area where dating were a viable thing, and I don’t, it wouldn’t be too likely, and besides the kid comes first and will do till I’m done raising her, something else men aren’t often keen on. Which means I’ll likely be mid-50s and even beadier-eyed by the time I’m really free to take up with men. Is it likely to happen? No. And I will be knackered and poor when I get there, partly because we don’t really go for supporting working mothers in this country, much less working single mothers. That isn’t who your department is set up for; precious few places are. But they are set up for you. And 40-50 years’ worth of “set up for you” is a pretty stout advantage, no?

I am not too worried about the man situation. If I’m alone, I’ll be alone. But the roof-over-head-in-old-age situation is one I worry about quite a bit, as is the “gee it’d be nice if I stayed healthy till the child’s grown so I can get back to doing my own work” situation, as well as the “how will I send her to college” situation.

The difference between your old circumstance and my current and future one — which, I should say, is still head and shoulders above the circumstance of nearly all single mothers in this country, and that has to do with advantages I walked in with — is that no attitudinal shift, no “you’re looking at this wrong, try this” is going to house me when I’m 80, or employ me at a wage that looks like a white man’s while I’m responsible first of all for raising the child and tethered by a custody arrangement which happens to be good for her. That’s the very meaning of structural. It’d be very nice to have “will I find love again” as a primary worry, but that isn’t one I can afford.

Put it this way: You know the relief a lot of American Jews talk about when they make aliyah? The sense of not struggling daily against a dominant culture? Well, that’s you. You may not have been born in the happiest corner of Eretz Yisroel, but you aint got no mall Santas, neither. Me? Wall to wall, baby. Santa as far as the eye can see.

239. Amy Says:

Sleep, who needs it. Matt #229 – I agree. Yes. Words are terrific. I use lots. Direct communication, I’m a big fan. There are some people very upset about the idea in California, though. (I’m less a fan of the idea that it should be the woman’s job to help the guy along to sex, mindread for him. Surely it’s both their responsibility to communicate.)

It seems to me a lot of guys who seek rules have got themselves convinced that women actually detest this words business and that getting laid, much less getting into a relationship, necessarily entails some kind of mindreading and gamesmanship in which you figure out a good time to do things to/at the lady and turn her on. I think this is a sad misunderstanding (though sure, I believe there are some women who actually like that). We do actually have the whole sexual-agency thing. And the words, deployed well, can indeed be devastatingly sexy.

Which takes time to learn. But so does everything else to do with sex, and you don’t have to be cut out for knee-trembling repartee, either. As for what constitutes assault — well, I do think you have to explain what it is. How else are you supposed to avoid or handle it? I do think the assessments for those workshops can be significantly better, so that they catch the wild misunderstandings and fears and can try to address them.

240. John Stricker Says:

Condolences, Scott. And thanks, and respect.

241. Alex Says:

As a consequence of all the commotion regarding Walter Lewin’s trouble with MIT, I had a look at some of his lectures. Most of this seems like introductory physics.

Now, while it’s not my place to comment on any allegations against Dr. Lewis, I do have a question:

Is all the showmanship and all of the theatrics really a good idea at a time when (what must be?) first year students need to learn fundamentals regarding Newtonian mechanics, classical electrodynamics, and introductory quantum mechanics? Doesn’t this poison students against trusting an building intuition from formal models in physics and other areas of science? Could you imagine something like this for an introductory class in topology?

I do not wish to say my feelings here are “correct”, but I would at least like to pose the question. Certainly Professor Lewin’s lectures are good for encouraging interest in the subject matter, but are they necessarily healthy for encouraging the right sort of thinking style for future members of the physics / etc. community? Do they bring students to a point where they can begin to feel comfortable reading papers in various areas of experimental or theoretical physics?

242. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

Amy @238,

You’ve made some valid points but some of them are definitely not and I think merit response.

> And when that’s what’s going on, then it seems to me that the fastest and probably most sensible way of solving the problem is to deal with it therapeutically and early.

It should be clear from reading Scott’s comments and others here that therapy isn’t an immediate solution. And moreover, if you have a system that is pushing a large number of people into therapy then that should strike you that there’s something gone wrong.

> Of course, it’s unlikely I’d make it that far, even if I had the loveliest CS head in the world, because the business is still structured for guys who’re free to commit 90 hours a week to work, who can often put work ahead of all else, and who take prizes, rank, and prestige quite seriously. Those of us who aren’t, can’t, and don’t simply don’t know the meaning of seriousness — by club rules, anyway.

There’s nothing CS specific there. That’s academia as a whole. And there’s nothing male specific about being willing to put in a lot of time and effort. Yes, people who put in more time into work will get farther in their careers.

> It’s as if I believed that the really big crisis is that women over [name an age] are sexually unattractive to men and therefore worthless — literally worthless, like we should probably just go die — and that something really needed to be done about that.

This and the rest of the paragraph conflates race with sex and gender issues, and focuses on MRAs who are an obnoxious but tiny group and aren’t really relevant for seriously discussing power structure. It also misses a fundamental point: different people can be oppressed or have problems in different ways, and there’s nothing to say we can’t deal with multiple such problems. And nothing says that anything that helps the Amys of the world only works if it gives the Scotts of the world mental pathologies.

243. Gil Kalai Says:

Scot #211: “(b) all the shy, nerdy males who, in the absence of greater clarity, will mistakenly think that Lewin was one of them and that they might be next. (I hadn’t realized until this morning that (b) was a central concern for me; I thank the commenters for spurring that realization.)”

I think that this is an important point and it is relevant for understanding people’s point of view in various similar cases.

There are two things to be said:

1) You do not really need the details of this particular case. You can simply follow the many cases of sexual harassment where the details are becoming public. It takes much much more than an innocent romantic gesture or flirting to be accused, not to say punished in a sexual harassment case.

2) The appropriate ways of conduct in romantic or sexual approaches are important but not so relevant here. The rule in US universities is very simple and very clear: A professor should not approach romantically or sexually a student.

244. Tyle Says:

Scott, your comment #171 had a lot of great stuff in it. There was one aspect of it that I found found problematic, however. Here is a crude paraphrase of that aspect: “Male nerds have it very hard with respect to dating, so they are some of the least privileged, so it must not be the case (?) that nerd culture could also do harm to women.” (Or maybe you think that nerd culture might do harm, but you are mad that Amy thinks that it does, since nerds have suffered enough? I couldn’t tell.) Anyway, here are my comments, which I think at least partly survive even though surely I have details of Scott’s argument slightly wrong:

(1) The argument as I have understood it, and stated it above, is an obvious non-sequitur. Just because nerds have a hard time with social relationships doesn’t mean they can’t also cause harm to women (or that we should refrain from pointing this out if we think it is true). I assume that I’m misunderstanding something – what am I missing?

(2) Independently of the resolution of the above, Scott #171 treats privilege like a one dimensional characteristic. It is not. As Alum #224 points out, privilege is the fact that people with different characteristics experience the world very differently, since they are treated differently as a result of these characteristics. So Amy is privileged with respect to Scott in some ways, making it harder for her to see the troubles he has gone through. Indeed her privilege is exactly what makes Scott’s comment #171 so valuable. I am sure Amy would agree with this. And at the same time Scott is also privileged with respect to Amy in some ways. Amy lays some of these out in #238 (when replying to Anand).

Of course, as Scott points out in #223, as long as we’re talking about individuals, and interested in details, we usually won’t need the language of privilege (at best it’s a lazy shorthand). But it’s a useful abstraction when we’re talking about groups of people, or where the specific, object-level causes might be very complicated and not directly relevant. Sometimes it’s useful to have a concise way to talk about the fact that person A has different characteristics than person B, and therefore is treated differently than B, and therefore experiences the world very differently than B, and therefore might need some help (like, some input from B) in understanding what it’s like to be B. For example, Neanderthals (and non-nerd women) are often very privileged with respect to shy male nerds. And shy male nerds are often privileged with respect to women. Recognizing this is a good basis for a more substantive conversation about the details of the different ways in which these people experience the world, and what to do about harms they might unwittingly cause each other.

(3) Amy says that despite being shy and nerdy, one can also be misogynistic. (She is right, I have observed this repeatedly.) Scott #171 says that arguing that nerd culture could be harming women is “blaming the victim”. But this is like saying that arresting a woman who is raped, but later kills someone, is blaming the victim. Blaming the victim would be if Amy were saying that it serves nerds right that their social interactions are so painful, they were asking for it. That’s not what is happening. This gets back to the same idea as my last paragraph – just because a group of people has it hard in some ways, doesn’t mean they can’t also cause harm in other ways.

245. Scott Says:

Anon #237:

since you seem to know some of the details of the Lewin case, I wonder why you don’t view it as a moral imperative to reveal those to the world (to prevent nerds from imagining that online flirting is sexual harassment).

I don’t know most of the details, and agreed not to share what little I do know. Still, I’ve tried to make it as clear as I could in this thread that at any rate, it seems to have been much, much worse than online flirting.

246. Scott Says:

Tyle #244: I didn’t share those details about my past in order to excuse anything bad that I did, and certainly not to excuse what Walter Lewin did. If I did something bad, then I take responsibility for it; anything I endured as a teenager is completely irrelevant. (I’m not going to feel guilty because of “structural privilege,” or because someone is upset that I respectfully disagree with them in an online argument—but for actual bad acts, sure!)

I shared my story for a few reasons: to remind people that “privilege” is not a one-way street; to point out that, if universities are going to make administrative decisions on the basis of not causing psychological trauma, then they ought to consider everyone’s trauma, not just certain kinds with activists and task forces calling attention to them; and finally, to explain why punishing sexual harassment without revealing the details (to show people how bad it was) could have unintended negative effects on male nerds. If people agree about those points, then I’ve accomplished what I wanted.

(Well, and if the story gave any hope to a single teenage nerd reading this thread, then it was also worth it for that.)

247. MIT Alum & Staff Says:

This thread has gotten really long, but here’s a simple question:

Why is this situation any more complicated than “A professor should not pursue non-professional relationships with his/her students.”?

I feel like “Don’t date the undergrads” is a well-known mantra among TAs here and at other institutions. But if you want to make the argument that someone could be sufficientlly socially inept as to not pick up on that, then fine, let’s go to section 4.1.1 of the MIT Policies and Procedures:

“In all their activities, members of the Faculty are expected to conduct themselves with proper regard for MIT’s standards applicable to such matters as interpersonal relationships […]. Faculty members also have the responsibility to take care that their classroom, laboratory, studio, and other settings as well as their own conduct are conducive to the safe pursuit of work and study by all members of its constituency in a spirit of collegiality, cooperation, and support.”

If our hypothetical shy nerd destined to become the next Einstein has any questions about that policy, s/he can contact HR or the Ombuds office upon receiving their faculty appointment here.

248. Shmi Nux Says:

Scott, regardless of right/wrong or should/did. I suspect that the MIT administration are (ex-)scientists and engineers and was properly consequentialst and evaluated possible outcomes of their actions, decided which ones are least damaging/most beneficial and then picked those. Presumably someone calculated that taking down the videos was, while controversial, would result in less backlash than simply disassociating from Lewin. and so whatever fallout is happening now is well within the predictions of the model they employed to make the decision. Or do you think they got Streisanded a bit here?

249. Scott Says:

MIT Alum #247:

Why is this situation any more complicated than “A professor should not pursue non-professional relationships with his/her students.”?

For one thing, because virtually all of us agree that it looks like Lewin flagrantly violated MIT policy, and deserved to be severely disciplined for it! The disagreements here were about other issues, like taking down the lectures, and not revealing the details of what Lewin did.

Well, and also, this thread has veered into broader issues—not because I intended that, but because the commenters kept pushing on things, and I have this tic where I find it virtually impossible not to answer a question or explain something in more detail if I’m able to, and to share any background that might help the questioner understand. (Maybe that’s why I became a professor.)

250. Tyle Says:

Thanks for the response, Scott. I understand that you aren’t trying to excuse your own bad behaviors or those of Walter Lewin. (Indeed, nobody has accused you of bad behavior, as far as I can see! This isn’t about you, it’s about broader social phenomena.) We also have substantial agreement on these topics, including the three points that you list (privilege is not one-dimensional, there are lots of types of trauma to take into account including that of male nerds, and there are good reasons to release the details). I think those were all very valuable aspects of your comment.

I was trying to call attention to the one thing about which we seem to disagree – it seemed to me that you were saying that male nerds are victims, that they are not privileged, and that (therefore?) you are resistant to claims that male nerd culture could also be misogynistic. This seems like a non-sequitur because as you point out, privilege is not a one-way street. So many male nerds are privileged with respect to women’s experience in tech. And some male nerds might also be misogynistic. And this might keep women out of tech. And this might be hard for male nerds to see since they don’t experience it. And pointing it out is not “blaming the victim.”

But maybe you already agree with all that, and don’t support the argument that I read from your comment #171. And as you say, in any case we agree about the main things you were trying to accomplish. I commend you for engaging so earnestly on this subject, I think it’s very valuable.

251. Scott Says:

Gil #243:

The rule in US universities is very simple and very clear: A professor should not approach romantically or sexually a student.

Actually, that rule seems anything but simple. The professor’s own current student, of course not. But what about a student in another group or department, over whom the professor has no power? A student at a different university? An ex-student of the professor’s? A postdoc (i.e., a “student++”)? A postdoc at a different university? If the rule applied to all those cases, then one ought to dissolve the marriages of a good fraction of all the academic couples I know about, including mine and Dana’s.

252. IR Says:

Scott #171

Thanks for sharing the story: it will definitely help others in a similar situation! As a shy nerd (though, admittedly, with successful (by my standards) personal life), I can’t resist writing a comment.

From what I see, the best cure for situations like that is a community that consists mostly of “intelligent-awkward” people (like the math department of my undergraduate institution); people soon realize that everyone has roughly the same problems, and at least start discussing these problems with friends: without isolation and with support issues like these tend to dissolve fairly quickly.

253. Scott Says:

Alex #241:

Is all the showmanship and all of the theatrics really a good idea at a time when (what must be?) first year students need to learn fundamentals regarding Newtonian mechanics, classical electrodynamics, and introductory quantum mechanics? … Do they bring students to a point where they can begin to feel comfortable reading papers in various areas of experimental or theoretical physics?

Obviously, these are introductory courses, so they’re not supposed to prepare you to read the research literature, just give you some background to build on further.

Given that, my answer would be an unequivocal yes: the showmanship is an excellent idea. Occasionally professors overdo it, trying to goose up their teaching evaluations by throwing in theatrics that have nothing really to do with the course’s intellectual content. In Lewin’s case, though, the point of each demonstration is to impress on the students some physical principle (say, conservation of energy), in such a way that the students won’t forget it as long as they live. (I’ve often been accused of wading into things I don’t understand, but getting a class’s attention is one field I know.)

254. sigma Says:

Now, let me get this straight: He is 78 years old and is accused of sexually WHAT? Send him over to the biology department to be studied as a miracle of nature!

255. Scott Says:

Tyle #250: Yes, we’re all flawed, and it’s possible that male nerd culture could be misogynistic in all sorts of ways. So I strongly support efforts to identify and fix the problems wherever they exist—for which purpose, giving specific examples of male misbehavior (the more concrete the better) is infinitely more useful than talking about abstractions like “privilege.” (Also, we need a different term than “misogyny” for nerdy male behavior that might tend, statistically, to drive women away from STEM and into other fields, but that has no misogyny in its intent.)

Now, if you want me to accept that male nerd culture is more misogynistic than the cultures of male doctors, male lawyers, male construction workers, or the males of any other profession, that’s a claim for which I would need evidence.

And no, the paucity of women in STEM—something that I’d like to see change as much as anyone!—is not, by itself, strong evidence of misogyny, because there are many other possible explanations for it. It could be, for example, that women and men simply have different interests on average: for example, the fact that 80% of veterinary medicine students are now female, is presumably not because of anti-male bias among vets. It could be that tiny, barely-noticeable differences in the means and variances of two overlapping bell curves produce larger differences out at the tails. Or it could be that the problem occurs earlier in the pipeline (say, in high school). But yes, to whatever extent genuinely-misogynistic behaviors among male nerds are a contributing factor, let those behaviors be identified and punished swiftly and in our days.

256. Roger Says:

MIT is now famous for destroying Aaron Swartz and Walter Lewin.

I’d say that MIT sent a massively strong message of “zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” [#223]

Is that what it did with Aaron Swartz, send a massively strong message of zero tolerance for copyright infringement?

No, it sent a massively strong message of cruelty, of administration vindictiveness, of lacking a sense of proportion, and of forgetting MIT’s mission.

Not knowing what Lewin’s supposedly inappropriate email remark was, the only message I get is that MIT is run by people who should not be running a university. They have handled the matter in the worst possible way.

257. Alien from sweden Says:

Thank you Scott and Amy for your big generosity of sharing your experiences, articulated so well. As an “anonymous internet spectator”, it almost makes me feel a little embarrassed to take share of such open-heartedness, by people I might never meet, so I thought it be polite to add a little comment at least (if for nothing else, to regain a little self respect..), as this oasis in the blogosphere has grown to be an almost indispensable part of the complement of my mathematics studies lately.

A point in taking down the videos must have been to discourage a hypothetical future professors with inclinations towards sexual abuse via internet to get involved with mit. Then the correct thing to do is just what they did. That doing so might hypothetically subtly alter the self-picture of some hypothetical group of people (the “shy and nerdy types” (..?..)) is a pretty bizarre argument against it. Since the lectures are clearly still available, I really don’t see the problem. Maybe I “don’t get it”.

258. Shmi Nux Says:

Roger #256:

I am no fan of MIT’s actions, but you are being extremely uncharitable in both cases. Swartz was reported to police by MIT, true, but they did not pursue the complaint beyond that, it was the overzealous persecutor who apparently drove Aaron to suicide. As for Lewin, he apparently did “more than online flirting”, and, by many indications, it was not an isolated incident, so MIT severing ties with him was clearly appropriate. The questionable part is taking down the videos and not releasing the details of Lewin’s actions, leaving people bereft and angry. But maybe they figured out that any other alternative would lead to a worse fallout, so who knows.

259. Tyle Says:

Scott, glad to hear that you don’t support the argument that I attributed to your #171, and that you seem to agree with my second paragraph of #250. I also fully endorse the airing of concrete, specific examples of misbehavior of all kinds of course, and decry those who attack women for airing such experiences (or minimize these experiences when they do). As these complaints get easier to air, I think that we’ll start hearing a lot more of them, which I think we agree is great. This is equally true for concrete, specific examples of ways that male nerds suffer, of course, like you provided (except that these examples are much safer to air – it still takes a great deal of personal courage, but you probably won’t get flooded with rape and death threats, for example, and people won’t take your work any less seriously as a result of it). And testimony like yours will make it easier for others.

I personally have no position on whether tech is worse than other male dominated fields (I was previously just pointing out that whether male nerds had bad social experiences is irrelevant to this question). Clearly the right way to decide this would be to listen to the women who are brave enough to talk about it. (Or if you are correctly positioned, to run a study!) I do however think that tech culture is likely to be worse than the culture of fields that aren’t male dominated. Obviously the paucity of men isn’t *sufficient* evidence that women are treated badly in a field, but it’s also not *no* evidence – fields could lack females for any number of reasons, such as women losing interest earlier in the pipeline or whatever, but the fact is that having more women around helps create a culture which is better for women. More strongly, I’d argue that given the history of our planet with regard to treatment of minorities and the powerless, it wouldn’t be an unreasonable null hypothesis to assume that any social group in which X is a minority is a social group which tends to harm X in some ways. If X also lacks power in society at large, this presumption seems even less unreasonable.

260. Vitruvius Says:

I hope something appropriately terrible happens to the evil Massachusetts Institute of Technology as punishment for their disgusting assassination of the great Professor Lewin.

261. Scott Says:

Amy #238: The next time I hear someone lament that nerdy males won’t listen to criticism by feminists, I’ll have a solution at hand: let them hire you for PR consulting! 🙂 All my life—and not just with feminist issues, but with Israel and many other things—I’ve met people who considered it “sad and depressing that someone as smart as me just doesn’t get it,” by which they meant: thought about a political or social issue, came to a mildly different conclusion than the one shared by all their friends, and then had the temerity to say so. It was so sad, so depressing, that they couldn’t even bring themselves to engage me with arguments, or with concrete facts from their experience: they could only shame me, and then congratulate each other for their courage in doing so. Thank you, in the strongest possible terms, for being a shining exception to this.

Regarding verbal communication: yes, you’re right, maybe the world will be better if we can all move to a social norm of explicit verbal consent for everything (“May I kiss you?” “May I now touch your breast?”) I guess there are just two issues to consider:

First, verbal communication can still be terrifying for shy, nerdy males (“May I kiss you?” “No, you creep!”). In general, the only actions that won’t, in some males, create paralyzing fears of breaking the rules of a feminist society, are those that are ineffective at conveying sexual interest. The problem runs deep; it’s not just a matter of protocol.

Second, I worry that an affirmative-consent regime like California’s will create perverse incentives, in which women reward bold men specifically for defying the regime, damn the consequences. If that happens, then we’re back to where we were before.

Regarding mall Santas: I confess that, when trying to judge whether something would be offensive to group X, the heuristic I often use is, “suppose I replaced X with Jews; then would I find it offensive?” And if the answer is “no” (which it usually is), then I go ahead and say the thing—which might be a serious mistake!

So for example, I’m not the slightest bit perturbed—the slightest—by people wishing me Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to them too! Actually, since I married Dana (who grew up in Israel), an interesting mental switch took place: sure, all the Christmas stuff might be weird to her, but it’s my culture. I grew up in it, I belong to it, I enjoy it, there’s nothing alien about it.

But sure, if people want to view me as some kind of scion of unearned privilege and power, then maybe it’s relevant that, with the exception of one branch that moved to Philadelphia to peddle groceries, most of my extended family was shot and buried in pits within living memory. I think about that fact every day, though I don’t let it define me.

Lastly: it seems to me that your views about rape contain a great deal of feminist wisdom. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve had similar thoughts whenever I’ve read debates about the legality of prostitution. Let’s compare, for example, a high-priced escort, accompanying rich men on exotic vacations, against a woman working shitty minimum-wage jobs at Walmart and McDonalds to support her kids. Is the first woman “demeaned,” “dehumanized,” or “objectified” in any way that the second is not—so much so that a feminist society ought to outlaw the first woman’s career, but not the second woman’s? It seems to me that the only way you can defend a “yes” answer to that question, is by elevating the vagina to the ultimate repository of womanly value—but as you say, isn’t that precisely the patriarchal attitude that feminism was supposed to get us past?

262. Fred Says:

What I’ve observed in tech companies/environments is that it takes a serious effort to reach a certain minimum threshold of female headcount, then the culture shifts (HR, hiring practice, office behavior, recommendations), and things tend to reach an even better balance on their own.
In one of my previous jobs (a financial software company), about half of the engineers (and the majority of managers) were female. I really miss it.

263. Jacob Johnson Says:

If the accuser were an MIT student enrolled in Prof. Lewin’s 8.02 course, or a graduate student working in his lab, or a junior faculty member on whose tenure he was going to vote, then obviously Prof. Lewin would hold a position of power over the woman that must not be abused. But—and please correct me if I’m wrong—a student in an MITx course gets nothing beyond education, apart from some meaningless certificate of completion. That’s probably all that a student should receive, since there’s no practicable way to be sure that the student himself or herself is doing the work.

So, it seems to me, Prof. Lewin had no real power over the accuser and no physical contact with her. Conversely, she had a great deal of power over him, seeing as she was able to end his career and destroy his reputation (while ensconced in anonymity, no less).

Wouldn’t the situation have been satisfactorily resolved if MIT had simply removed Prof. Lewin as the instructor of record for this MOOC, so that the accuser’s meaningless grade was assigned by someone else?

264. Noon Says:

Soctt #261

You say,

> Regarding verbal communication: yes, you’re right, maybe
> the world will be better if we can all move to a social norm
> of explicit verbal consent for everything (“May I kiss you?”
> “May I now touch your breast?”) I guess there are just two
> issues to consider:

You make it sound quite ridiculous, but as Amy suggested, there are also “good” ways to do it. It’s quite possible to have a frank discussion about the boundaries of a certain relationship while still keeping in romantic. As Amy said, this is also a skill that can be learned.

The point of this section of the commenting is to observe that the this view – “I can’t talk to them; being pushy and ‘almost crossing the line’ is the only way to go” – is just completely wrong.

Also, I can’t help but not care in any way when you say “but this is a problem for Nerdy males”. So what? It’s something that can be learned; maybe with therapy as suggested, or just by trial and error and observing the behaviour of other people who interact in this way.

265. Amy Says:

Scott, re listening to each other, I’m not joking when I say a large part of the problem is armies and ally-seeking. I’ve been watching these things play out the last few years — participating, too — and it seems to me that what’s emerged is a situation that’s very dangerous for people with, oh, call it structural power who recognize that it’s a problem and try to cede some of it. It’s not quite a King Lear problem, but it’s one familiar to anyone who’s watched poorly-managed regime changes. John McGahern and JM Coetzee (both fiction writers) are careful modern observers. In these situations someone trying to do the right thing is highly vulnerable to small armies of the people he’s trying to help: as soon as he cedes power, they’re liable, if not policed, to ride in, put his head on a pike, and call it a David-and-Goliath victory. Or retribution, or what you will — it serves to rally troops, reinforce power, help that group make the transition from revolutionary rabble to establishment. That’s a very serious problem and a real obstacle to change, and I think we’re nearing a point where quite a lot of that is possible. And it seems to me that has to be contained by prudence inside a movement, not from outside. Sorry for the lapse into soc sci talk, which is always too crude.

And for someone in that position there will, I think, *always* be gaffes. So then you’re looking for three things: one, an understanding of which gaffes, /realistically/, are likely to cause real harm and get you in serious trouble (and a parallel understanding that this does not mean that everything else is always fine); two, an understanding that genuine goodwill and gentleness go a very long way in forestalling violent reactions to mistakes; and three, someone tolerant. But it’s also important to recognize then, I think, that this is an outlier condition, that degree of social difficulty, and that the self-generated anxiety is itself a significant barrier.

My browser’s acting weird so I’ll post this and…er…more later, I guess, should do some work. I’m enjoying the civility of this, btw, is making me nostalgic for usenet days.

266. Amy Says:

Oh, I just wanted to respond to Alex, about the showmanship in Lewin’s lectures —

I think maybe it’s an excessively narrow way of looking at it. As someone who did learn some physics from those lectures, and who was recently watching a thermo course taught by someone else (excellent teacher, can’t recall his name offhand) — and who adored Sylvia Ceyer’s intro chem lectures, I can say that yes, the theatrics can distract, but they can also provide indelible concrete examples of the concepts under discussion, and that the sheer energy and enthusiasm can be extremely important in retaining student interest. (I bailed from one poor guy’s crystallography lectures — so tedious I was falling asleep, and I just couldn’t take hearing him breathing anymore.)

I think it’s important not to confuse showmanship with lack of seriousness.

267. Daniel Says:

I think this discussion has progressed onto topics that I am not qualified to provide a useful opinion. I have, personally, a very hard time separating mentally the arguments in terms of groups and individuals (which Scott #223 and Tyle #244 helped me to realize).

One thing that I am not sure, though, is in terms of the level of punishment itself. Maybe US culture is just more punishment-oriented than me, with people always needing to see other suffers to see that “justice has been done”, but I personally believe that is a very bad thing when public opinion becomes someone’s jury.

We don’t know what Lewin did. Sure, it seems like it was serious. But also, there is a spectrum of things he may have done, ranging from a few implicit comments, to actual explicit offenses, to sharing some type of image, to (which does not seem to be the case) physically abusing someone. All of these things are horribly wrong, and there is absolutely no excuse for any of them (not even his age – if he’s too old to know that he should be respectful of other people, especially because he is a teacher, maybe he shouldn’t be teaching anymore in the first place). However, the whole penal system is more or less based on dealing punishments which are more or less proportional to the crime, right?

In this sense, I think that releasing the details of what he did is definitely not good. And the reason is that the internet is one of the most terrible places mankind could have invented for dealing punishment. Negative public opinion gets distilled to extreme levels very easily, and all it takes is one or two more hacker-y types to completely destroy someone’s life beyond any recognition.

This has happened several times, both to people who were actually guilty and who weren’t, on any end of the discussion. Take, for instance, Matt Taylor, who was widely criticized for wearing a shirt considered sexist when he was talking about the Rosetta mission live. His life was put on the spotlight way way more than it should for a relatively harmless thing. Sure, maybe it’s not “just a shirt”, its what the shirt represents – that we don’t even notice sexism in our daily lives because we’re immersed in it. However, that’s completely different from saying that the guy’s shirt is responsible for all the sexism in mankind and that he should be on the receiving end of internet flak because of it.

I guess my convoluted point is: if the accusations against Lewin really are true, whatever they are, I have absolutely no sympathy for him. However, the focus should be on questioning and pressuring for “the system” to deal “the adequate punishment” – even arguing what the actual adequate punishment should be in the first place, which was the original point of this post, I believe – rather than focusing on judging him ourselves, with limited knowledge of the circumstances. And I believe we still don’t understand the responsibility of expressing opinions over the internet, and that we should be very mindful of this, because passing judgement on anyone can quickly get disastrously out of hand.

Ps: Scott and Amy, my sincere thanks for the experiences shared. Scott, I can relate quite deeply what I felt during my teenage year and what you described – it’s not exactly the same, not exactly comparable, but it is still comforting to know that someone has a similar experience to what I had.

268. Scott Says:

Incidentally, Sniffnoy #180: thanks so much for the link to Scott Alexander’s meditations (including the fourth one). I just read them, and found them some of the most perceptive writing I’ve ever encountered on these topics. They’re full of illuminating metaphors, but just to whet people’s appetites to read them in full, let me quote Alexander’s parable of the Soviet spies:

Imagine two Soviet spies in the Cold War US who have to get in contact with one another. The KGB forgot to give them a silly code phrase like “the wombat feeds at midnight” so they’ve got to figure it out on their own. The Americans know these two spies are trying to get in contact, so if one were to just ask random people “Are you a Soviet spy?” the Americans could quickly guess that the asker was a spy and arrest him.

You are one of the two spies, and you spot someone who you’re about 50% sure is your colleague. How do you confirm they are also a spy with the lowest possible risk of getting arrested?

I bet there’s some fancy cryptographic solution here, but my intuitive strategy would be as follows:
Me: Excuse me, sir, do you know any good borscht restaurants around here?
Other Spy: Ah, borscht. I love borscht!
Me: I hear Russian borscht is the best. Have you ever had any?
Other Spy: Yes, I was in Moscow once many years ago, before the war.
Me: Really? Have you ever been to [street the KGB headquarters is on?]
Other Spy: All the time! That’s my favorite street! I used to talk to [name of KGB head] a lot.
Me: I am a Soviet spy. Are you one too?
Other Spy: Yes.

You would be immediately under suspicion if you asked patriotic Americans “Are you a Soviet spy?”, since they would then know you were probably the other spy yourself. So instead you lead up with a question that seems innocuous to an American who’s not thinking about spying, but to a Soviet who is specifically looking for another spy is sorta kinda suggestive of Russia. The other spy can’t just say “Ah, I understand your code, I too am a spy” because then he might blow his cover to an American who was just looking for some good borscht. So he says something that slightly escalates the Russianness. You can’t just blow your cover now, because you’re still not sure he’s not just an American who appreciates a good plate of borscht himself, so you escalate the Russianness slightly further. In other words, you start off with a conversation that could happen by coincidence, decrease the chance of coincidence a little bit at each exchange only once you get the signal from the other, and eventually the conversation becomes one that couldn’t possibly happen by coincidence and you know he’s the other spy.

When I was much younger and more terrified of women, this was exactly the route I would take. I didn’t want to know if she was my fellow spy, I wanted to know if she liked me. I can’t just ask, or I might end up as the next Julius Rosenberg. So instead – maybe we’re sitting next to each other, so I move a little closer to her. If she moves a little closer to me, or does anything that could be interpreted in my feverishly optimistic brain as resembling this, then maybe I touch my leg against hers. If she touches her leg against me, maybe I rest my arm against her shoulder. If she rests her arm against my shoulder, I smile at her. If she smiles at me, then I ask for her hand in marriage.

269. Sniffnoy Says:

Thanks! By the way, would you mind either approving or deleting my stuck-in-moderation comment? It’s screwing up my comment numbering. 😛 Also, you seem to have linked back to this post rather than to the 4th meditation.

(I had a much longer comment I wanted to write but it looks like a lot of it is being said by other people so I’ll stay quiet.)

[SA: Below is Sniffnoy’s stuck-in-moderation comment; I’m putting it down here so that it doesn’t screw up the comment numbering.]

Note for clarity: The Scott Alexander that Shmi Nux links to is the same one I linked to; the difference in domains is because the posts I linked to were on his old blog. (Since I know Scott used to hang around Less Wrong a little, he might better know him as Yvain.)
270. Scott Says:

Amy #265: Your first paragraph lets me delineate in precisely what senses I’m “liberal” and “conservative.” I’m liberal in that my first instinct in any situation tends to be to stick up for the downtrodden and oppressed—but conservative in that I’ll reconsider, if I get the suspicion that those being helped will thank me by putting my head on a pike. This combination makes me far-left by the standards of the US, and far-right by the standards of academia.

Regarding social cues: I’m lucky to no longer need advice about these matters, firstly because I eventually figured them out (not brilliantly, but well enough to do fine), and secondly because I’m now married. 🙂 (Now I could use advice about toilet-training our daughter and getting her to try new foods.)

On the other hand, I remain extremely interested in the question of exactly what advice to give young nerds who might be in a similar situation as I was. If I ever figure out a compelling enough answer, maybe I’ll even write a book.

But yes, one obvious comment is that, once I did acquire the rudiments, I could then look back at my decade-plus of misery, and realize with chagrin that the entire time, there had been girls coming on to me, including interesting and attractive ones, sometimes in ways they must have considered obvious (though falling short of “please take me now, because you are brilliant and deserving”). In each case, I’d find ways to convince myself that they weren’t serious, or that at any rate I’d ruined my chances by saying the wrong thing (which in some cases was probably true).

271. Noon Says:

Scott #270,

> Regarding social cues: I’m lucky to no longer need advice
> about these matters, firstly because I eventually figured
> them out (not brilliantly, but well enough to do fine), and
> secondly because I’m now married. 🙂

I guess this is probably a joke, but even still it’s obviously not at all true – again, as Amy explained, it’s possible to sexually assault your partner. Being socially inept is not something to be proud of; same with being bad at maths (something the “other side” of society is often proud of.)

272. Rehbock Says:

I have been looking up as much as I can about the nature of this transgression. what I am able to find is: 1. There was no personal contact. 2. These courses are no cost and open enrollment and no credit. 3. Lewin tweeted and messaged with adult females one of which made a complaint due the content. 4. The content is no longer to be found but copies others have seen say it is not threatening.
So MIT should apologize. The student is free to take legal action I learned from my dad that you can sue the king of England for bastadrdy. She has no cause of action because she suffered no harm and it is not a crime
for a man to try and get a woman to bed. MIT should have told her to grow up. I suspect that they will next hear from Lewin’s lawyers regarding defamation. I might be wrong but I have been a lawyer for forty years so I am pretty sure that MIT should handle this quite differently.

273. Scott Says:

Noon #271: In the history of this blog, that might be the single least charitable reading of something I said, and a perfect example of what can go awry when people set their offense-antennae to hair-trigger alert, and their commonsense and humor to zero. I meant: “I am married, hence in a totally different stage of my life with different issues at the forefront, no longer in the singles game.” Not: “I can sexually assault my wife whenever I feel like it, or am so socially inept that I can’t even communicate with the mother of my daughter.”

I guess another contender in the dark-misreading sweepstakes would be someone on Twitter who accused me of “literally dehumanizing a woman,” because I wrote to Amy: “But you seem like an interesting, reasonable person, so I hold out some hope for a human response.” What I meant by that, of course, was exactly the kind of response Amy gave: one that, while critical, met me on the ground of common humanity, of actual problems faced by actual male and female nerds, rather than waterboarding my words to make them fess up to their hidden patriarchy, privilege, and rape-apology.

274. Noon Says:

Scott #273 – Ironically, I might say the same of your reading of *my* comment; I wasn’t intending to suggest any of those things. However, I agree with the implication that I’ve overstayed my welcome.

275. Raoul Ohio Says:

Dr. Dobb’s Journal, for 38 years the undisputed champion of programmer’s magazines (although recently only in eForm) is being “sunset” by the company that owns it (because there is little money in advertising these days). DDJ’s role for beginning programmers is similar to that of Gamow’s “1 2 3 Infinity” for a generation of kids who went on to become mathematicians, so this is a sad day indeed.

Here is the last gasp:

http://www.drdobbs.com/architecture-and-design/farewell-dr-dobbs/240169421?elq=f4f60009ecca41f4ae2aafb3e8e8414b&elqCampaignId=11613

If anyone has clout at MS, FB, Google, etc., please promote the idea of buying DDJ out of petty cash and continuing it as a public service. Sponsoring DDJ would be an excellent investment for goodwill in the CS and programming community.

276. Wayne Says:

Alex #241: the lectures are world-famous (given the appropriate audience) for exactly the reasons which seem to cause you to have reservations.

They are compelling “theater,” and comprise the most inviting instructional material I have encountered for basic college-level physics teaching.

Surely one of the original points of this thread was to spark discussion concerning what rationale MIT could possibly invoke for the removal of the videos and associated course material?

On that issue at least, I am as puzzled as I was when MIT’s announcement was issued, and remain equally unenlightened.

277. Sniffnoy Says:

So I said above that most of what I wanted to say has been said already either by Scott or in some cases by Amy, but on reflection there are one or two points that have not. I only remember one of them right now but let’s go with that one.

I think Amy is making a common conflation here. I think that, contrary to her claim, clueless guys sexually harrassing people is not actually a major problem; rather, what we have is bullies/predators seeking cover by claiming to be clueless. Like with rape — there’s a common belief that the problem is miscommunication, when really the problem is a small group of predators who use the “miscommunication” myth to both make themselves seem more sympathetic and get others to identify with and defend them. I think the “nerd” grouping is mostly a distractor here. (Well, I wouldn’t say it’s of no relevance, but not of the relevance that Scott and Amy have accorded it.)

For some reason (I will avoid speculation on why, I’m not sure I could do so charitably), feminism-at-large seems to have accepted this lie of “Oh I’m so clueless, how could I ever have known not to do that?” and gone after the clueless branding them as evil. This has exactly the expected effects: The predators get their desired cover, and the actually clueless start to identify with and defend the predators (which encourages further conflation and feeds the phenomenon further). (See also: Scott Alexander’s “Radicalizing the Romanceless” post that was linked above.)

But I think these groups are actually pretty distinct. Telling them apart isn’t trivial — they do say some pretty similar things, especially because the bullies, y’know, lie — but I don’t think it’s usually that hard, at least not given time. There are giveaways. When you see sexual harrassment in real life it’s pretty noticeable. Maybe you give them the benefit of the doubt a few times — I remember my first real encounter with it, where my reaction was “Did that just happen? I must have misinterpreted, civilized people don’t do that” — but it shouldn’t take that many iterations to erode this.

So e.g. for apparent similarities between the two groups, both claim cluelessness, both claim feminist rules are overbroad and that they’re needlessly restricted by them. But the bullies claim that they’re restricted by feminist rules while flagrantly violating them, and then trying to excuse themselves afterwards. And the only restriction they’re working under is the fear that they might actually punished for what they’ve done. The paralyzed — well, the truly paralyzed generally don’t claim to be paralyzed by feminist rules, they wouldn’t dare mention such a thing! But in the rare cases where they talk about it — yes, they too fear punishment, but they also fear actually doing something wrong and hurting someone, and they actually err on the side of caution and inaction and restricting themselves. When you look beyond the claims they make and their abstract descriptions of their behavior, and instead look at their actual behavior (or concrete descriptions thereof), it doesn’t seem too hard.

And I think to a large extent the solution lies in the sort of things Amy was saying — try things, but learn from your mistakes, and don’t be an asshole if you screw up. Learn that the hypervigilant feminist is largely a bogeyman and that in real life people are generally willing to forgive you if you are in fact acting in good faith. But I also think that there’s no reason for this problem has to exist in the first place, and that it would really be a good thing if we could stop conflating the clueless and the bullies, if feminism-at-large could make its demands clearly and make a deliberate effort to ward off misunderstandings (instead of saying that if you misunderstand it is because you are evil), and, most of all, if feminism-at-large could lose the general tone of “Either you agree with us on every detail, or else you will be ostracized by all civilized people, and nobody will talk to you except for Republicans and frat boys and other such barbaric types” that prevents the question of whether something has gone wrong from coming up in the first place (that is, in civilized places).

People tell me that last one is primarily just on the internet. But the internet seems to be the primary place things are discussed these days, so that seems little consolation to me. People also tell me that this is not most feminists, which I can easily believe but also do not care about — fine, there’s a silent disagreeing majority, but what do I care? If they’re silent they’re not affecting anything. There seem to be damned few actively pushing back against this; when it comes to the particular issue we’re talking about here, of overbroad rules and paralysis, to my knowledge it’s basically just Ozy Frantz, maybe one or two more who come close.

Anyway I think I’ve drifted from the point a bit, but I think that baiscally covers my first point. I’ll post the second if I remember it and have time.

278. Scott Says:

Sniffnoy #277: Thanks for that comment, which I think contains a great deal of insight. In all of my comments, I regarded it as too obvious even to state that “shy, nerdy males,” as I was using the term, are not people who can ever form the intention to rape, sexually assault, or harass anyone—i.e., if someone is a sexual predator, then we definitionally expel him from the brotherhood of shy male nerds. The problem of the shy male nerd is: “how do I clearly communicate sexual or romantic interest to a woman, yet still remain an enlightened, decent, civilized feminist, as perceived both by myself and by others?”

But you’re right: in this subject, there’s nothing too obvious to state.

279. Amy Says:

Wow, a lot here, but Sniffnoy, while I agree with a good deal of what you say, let me…yes I’m gonna do it…problematize that picture of yours, as the humanities folks have it.

Take for example Matt Taylor, who seems a clueless nerd who genuinely did not mean any harm by wearing that dumb shirt and was completely blindsided by the reaction to it. Is he out to oppress women? I’d be very much surprised. In fact I doubt he gave it much thought at all: he likes the shirt, a friend made it, there’s some private meaning, he wore it, cool.

Except not cool. Because somehow — despite growing up in and rising to a highly responsible position in nerddom during decades when women-in-STEM has been a continuous thing, and when there’s always been talk of barriers to women’s success, and entire programs funded to help shove women into the pipeline and (less often) keep them there — he never made the connection: girlie shirts are not conducive to an environment demonstrating respect for women. And it’s distinctly unpleasant to work in an environment in which disrespect for something you simply are is demonstrated so overtly.

That’s a long time to be that clueless. I mean a really long time. If you ask me, it’s a cluelessness that’s protected and reinforced by a lot of guys who’d rather not be bothered, and who dismiss it as unimportant, in part because they imagine that they themselves wouldn’t be bothered. (If you wanted to dig there, I bet you could probably find some widespread belief to the effect that sure, women are totally welcome, and yay equality, so long as equality means you live by the norms of the boys’ club just like the boys do.)

So for how many decades are the women in astronomy supposed to shrug and say, well, you know, he doesn’t mean anything by it, surely they’ll figure it out someday? (And meanwhile they’ll just work in an atmosphere in which they’re supposed to accept the random objectification and smutty ha-ha-just-kidding jokes, and in which women genuinely are regarded, sight unseen, as likely to be not as smart as men, not as good at the job, not worth as much.) The sad reality is that that kind of response seems not to change very much behavior. What does seem to change behavior is women’s going absolutely batshit and choking off funding or suing the living daylights out of whoever. Or, more recently, having a mob go nuts on Twitter. I am sure that senior scientists will actually think more carefully about what what messages they’re sending.

So even though I truly do not believe Matt meant any harm, the issue here isn’t cluelessness. The issue is responsibility for the message in its context and — once again — the power of the person sending it. You can do a lot of harm without meaning harm, particularly if your environment is telling you not to worry about it.

I recognize, btw, that this is exactly the sort of fear that Scott brought up way back. Which is why this kind of education — not just wrt to feminism, but to any human relationship that can involve harm, oppression, power — needs to start very early, with children. These are not simple things. If you grow up thinking about them — particularly with the help of sensible adults who can keep you from building your own torture chamber with the help of logic and inexperience — then by the time you’re 40 and in a position of some power, going in front of a camera, it *would not even occur to you* that wearing a shirt like that would be in any way suitable. (You probably wouldn’t even have a shirt like that.)

This is part of what I mean about the problem of STEM isolation. It’s practically impossible to go through a humanities education without learning to think about the semiotics of the girlie shirt and the context and the blah blah blah. You can hardly even hang around humanities types without being bathed in that. It goes on all the time – I remember my dept secretary forwarding me the recent Science cover with the transgender sex workers on the cover, a couple days before my twitter feed went nuts. Her degree’s in linguistics; she saw the problem right away.

I should also say that I do not think the twitter mobs are a good thing. They seem to me quite dangerous — but mostly they represent failures. In the campus-rape and Cosby scandals, as well as the police-brutality outrage, they represent the widespread, longstanding failure of the justice system to handle rape and police racism and brutality reasonably and realistically. In the various women-in-STEM scandals, I think you’re looking at the reaction to longstanding refusal to take various problems seriously. Fix the problems, take them seriously, and the mobs disperse. And rather than getting immediately defensive, ask, “Why are so many people so angry?” Most of the people sending angry tweets really do have other things to do, after all.

As for whether or not clueless nerdiness a problem when it comes to relationships…well, I can speak only for myself, but I speak as someone who’s been harassed by her share of nerdy guys. Every time it’s been some guy who’s learned a macho pose and is totally uncomfortable in it, but is “going for it” anyway. He goes for it at work. He goes for it on the bus. He goes for it in his office and wherever I happen to be. And sometimes I can’t afford to turn him in, because I know I’m likely to get fired if I do. So I just live with the harassment ha-ha. The harassment and the tension and the knowledge that deep down this guy is actually getting very pissed that I’m not responding and dating him even though he’s giving it his all in this horrible stupid game he thinks he’s supposed to play, and that somewhere along the line he’s starting to blame me for his own self-loathing. And that he has more power than I do in that environment, and that I’d better watch my ass if I want to keep that job, and makes sure I smile enough that he doesn’t feel humiliated, decide I’m a bitch, and start telling other people what a stuck-up bitch I am.

tl;dr: clueless v. predator — it’s not that simple.

280. Anand Sarwate Says:

Dropped this today, but Scott #233:

(1) I’m actually trying not to criticize you, but a certain mode of thinking which you displayed. Please don’t take this as a personal affront. I guess we just disagree on what the correct response to the specifics of this situation are. My desire for a cutesy analogy got in the way of the larger point.

(2) I think that in your solution, where MIT makes a professor the public face of their physics program, who has effectively been booted for sexually harassing their students, actually doesn’t send a particularly strong message. Video is not the same as text, regardless of them both being storable in bits (my inner Shannon theorist dies a little as I write this).

I’m hesitant to endorse your “extra-shaming” idea because it seems to be more about hurting Lewin than protecting those he has hurt.

(3) I think you are again misconstruing what I mean by privilege, and obviously it’s a trigger word for you. Perhaps because of your own very difficult experience, you cannot see how you have ever benefited from structural privilege. And since you hate the word so much, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything I can do to convince you that you have actually benefited from being male (or white, or whatever). I’ll say that I have benefited over female colleagues due to some of the issues Amy mentioned, but also a host of other factors.

If you want empirical evidence, I think wage gaps are relatively telling.

Your Saudi analogy I find puzzling and off-topic. I agree, privilege is not a useful way to understand this. Privilege is more about going to a conference banquet and and never having someone assume that you are there as the spouse of an attendee. Every. Single. Time. Or having people assume you were the “diversity hire” in the department. Perhaps these things sound trivial to you, but they add up.

281. Amy Says:

Oh, and the business about the “small group of predators” — you know, I bet that’s going to turn out not to be true. I bet it’s going to turn out to be a pretty darn sizeable minority of men, and that the distro’s going to look like any long-tail distro, where you’ve got a small number of men responsible for lots of rapes, and a large number of men who’ve raped one or two women. And I would guess that eventually this will come to light, because women seem to be much less shy now about speaking right up and saying “that guy, he raped me.” Keep in mind that we’re talking about tens of millions of women reporting having been raped just in the US.

I’d guess that’d be one hell of an awkward moment, because what exactly do you do when it turns out that you’re working with, living next to, even married to a rapist? Guy who just seems like a normal guy, nice guy, your kid goes over to his house to play with his kids, seems he raped a girl or two in college? I think it’d be an extremely difficult moment.

282. Gil Kalai Says:

For me the distinction between “shy, nerdy males” and other kinds of people is largely imaginary. For example much of Scott’s teenage feelings are shared by teenagers of both genders, and such experiences are not any better for kids who are also not interested or are just lousy in the academic part of life. Talking about nerd males as some distinct group, the nerd brotherhood, and the idealization of nerds’ views and motives (#278) is largely a fiction.

I am not sure, Scott, that you are a feminist (or “97% on board of modern feminism”). Your argument (#261) in favour of legal prostitution is a familiar one which goes against the feminist point of view. It is similar to the argument favoring legal owning of guns based on examples that owning a gun can sometimes save your life. (This is a legitimate argument but it does not make one a champion of “gun control.”)

Regarding #261 I think it is universally forbidden in US universities to have romantic/sexual approaches by professors or TA’s toward undergraduate students in their university. Again, a common argument (which i would consider as going against the feminist point of view, and also against my point of view) is to mention beautiful long lasting marriages of professors and their students. In any case, dissolving such marriages is not one of the available sanctions to the university :).

283. Scott Says:

Amy #279: Your position, while clearly expressed, is one that I “wish to problematize,” because, in a situation where you yourself agree that neither party means any harm, it seems to place the entire burden of cultural adjustment on the clueless nerdy males, and none on the nerdy females. In the case of Matt Taylor, why not say: “gosh, in this field there are some zany characters of questionable taste who get colorful tattoos and wear slightly-risqué shirts that their female friends designed for them—but I can clearly see by talking to them that they don’t mean any harm by it, so maybe the entire idea that such a shirt demeans women is a prejudice on my part, something I ought to re-evaluate.”

Again, using my heuristic for these matters, take someone wishing me a Merry Christmas. Should such a person, even though obviously not meaning any harm, be publicly chastised for inadvertently contributing to a hostile environment for American Jews? I say hell no. If I feel that way, then I’m the one who ought to grow and develop to become less prickly about it. Wishing Jews a Merry Christmas is not “in the same category as the Holocaust, except less bad by a factor of 10-50” (even to mention them in the same breath is an insult to survivors); similarly, Matt Taylor’s shirt is not “in the same category as rape, except less bad by a factor of 10-20.” (And yes, I know you didn’t say that, but from the Twitter-storm, one could’ve formed the impression that rape, female genital mutilation, and Matt Taylor’s wardrobe are three injustices of equal importance to modern feminism, which seems to me like a PR disaster.)

284. Frederick Says:

Amy. I have found your long posts absolutely fascinating. Like reading a modern feminist classic being written live in front of us. Thank you.

One issue which I think Scott implicitly made and which I don’t feel you have addressed is the practical, non-intellectual, fact that many many young attractive women are attracted to macho ass-grabbing men, precisely because they are both macho and ass-grabbing. I somehow feel that even the most brilliant feminist thinkers simply want to ignore this fact.

Now I can construct a radical feminist interpretation for this fact myself but I feel that you should at least be willing to talk about the world as it is really is, not just the world as you would like it to be.

285. Scott Says:

Gil #282: In calling myself “97% feminist,” I was taking the long, global view of feminism, considering the entire sweep of history from when women were basically chattel animals (as they still are in parts of the world), all the way to the hyper-sensitized, hair-trigger environment of the modern American college campus. And 97% of the progress it took to get there is progress that I don’t merely “support,” but consider one of the main things worth fighting for in the world.

Now, if you instead take what I’d consider a tiny, narrow, present-centric view of feminism—that it’s about Matt Taylor’s shirt and shaming male STEM nerds for fumbling expressions of romantic interest—well then, of course I’m not a feminist. But from my classical liberal feminist perspective, I’d regard your definition of “feminism” with sorrow.

Also, as I’m sure you realize, the fact that a counterargument to some position is “common” doesn’t mean it’s wrong! And I fail to understand your analogy between prostitution and guns: my feeling about both is similar, that they should be legal and very tightly regulated to minimize harm. (Though certainly I’d say that the case for banning guns, is stronger than the case for banning prostitution.) And yes, that does make me an advocate of gun control.

286. The Baron Says:

What a sad cultural wasteland America is becoming. Here are 3 equations that may help explain the problem:

Rampant victim-mongery = social fabric shredder
Draconian enforcement of egalitarian fantasies = warmed-over Stalinism
Reigning in of male energy = recipe for mediocrity

Imagine if politicized mediocrities of the sort we’re seeing now ran the universities 50 years ago and had to deal with Dr. Feynman. I can just imagine some neo-puritan feminist scolding him about his sexist antics, possibly even censuring him, all but oblivious to his brilliance and the magnitude of his contributions to human knowledge.

The puritanical streak in America runs deep, and it has taken a turn toward the Stalinist. If this goes on, and the most intelligent and creative people continue to allow themselves to be cowed by the shrill and mediocre, America may go the way of the Soviet Union in fairly short order, and for the very same reasons.

287. Rahul Says:

Gil Kalai #282:

“I think it is universally forbidden in US universities to have romantic/sexual approaches by professors or TA’s toward undergraduate students in their university.”

Do you have a citation for this? I had assumed this rule only applied to students you had power over or were responsible for grading or a mentor to etc.

e.g. I thought the rules did not forbid a history TA from dating, say, a philosophy undergrad so long as they didn’t have any reporting relationship.

288. Rahul Says:

Anand Sarwate #280:

Why are wage gaps empirical evidence of anything? A wage is a reward for services rendered. If you want to use a wage gap as evidence of a privilege your implicit assumption is that everyone has put in identical amounts of effort or hours or produced en equal number of papers or impact or patents. Or brought identical amounts of revenue to the firm etc. And yet someone is being systematically & unfairly rewarded for this service.

But that’s evidence you must produce. Barring that I don’t see wage gaps as demonstrating anything.

e.g. In the departments of Psychology & English Literature almost 70% of PhDs get awarded to women. Is this strong empirical evidence of an anti-male bias, male-discrimination, female privilege etc.?

289. Scott Says:

Rahul #287: Yes, if the rule were really as broad as Gil claimed, then since pretty much all grad students also do TAships, essentially all relationships between grad students and undergrads would be outlawed. Indeed, since many undergrads also do TAships, presumably those undergrads would be forbidden from dating other undergrads as well.

The above, I find, is an extremely general problem with campus policies intended to restrict sexual behavior. Namely: the policies, as written, are open to unbelievably draconian readings, particularly because they never, ever explicitly state what is OK or discuss obvious-seeming exceptions; they only state what’s not OK. As a result, shy male nerds, whose difficulty with unwritten social rules makes them especially reliant on written ones, will tend to assume the most draconian readings, whereas the normals will know that “obviously,” the rules only apply except when they don’t.

290. Anand Sarwate Says:

Rahul #288: I think there is, in fact, ample evidence that women are systematically made lower offers for the same jobs and are given fewer raises, and generally make something like 70% than men do for the same job with the same level of productivity. This is not me making something up to bolster my evidence, but a structural/widespread cultural devaluing of women’s work.

The wage gap between departments is because they are doing (somewhat) different jobs, so your analogy doesn’t work.

Frederick #284: Why does Amy have to address that point? Why is it her burden?

Scott #283: It’s a pretty fuzzy distinction you’re trying to make here. So if I, in a well-intentioned way, tell my female colleague that her outfit looks really hot, and you know, I am not the sort of person who means it in a sexualizing way (even though that’s exactly what I’m doing), and I certainly am not trying to hit on them (though how do they know that?), then it’s her responsibility to say “oh, Anand probably didn’t mean anything untoward by it?”

I assume your point is that if I did that I shouldn’t be pilloried for it. Or maybe you want to draw a line somewhere between a shirt and rape — where is that line, exactly? And what is the nature of intent, how should we measure it, and does it shift the line?

Consider this: at this moment Matt Taylor and others are given a pass by most men saying “oh well, boys will be boys,” which is precisely the sort of thing that makes a workplace (or an entire field) not at all a safe space — much like this comment thread.

I think it is *primarily* the responsibility of those who have the power in the situation to correct things. Your characterization of Amy’s position as wanting to kick back and have the men do all the work is pretty specious w.r.t. the larger culture, even though you yourself feel oppressed by societal norms on (heterosexual) relationships between men and women.

291. Frederick Says:

Scott #289 In fact this sort of almost universal and unenforceable rule is a common theme in large corporations too and, to an increasing extent, is the habit of law makers in nations as well. If everything is illegal, then the powers that be get to decide who to punish based on their, no doubt infallible, understanding of who the bad guys really are.

Interestingly, if the rule breaking is extensive and widely known, it’s not clear universities have protected themselves from being sued any better than if they had no rule at all.

292. Mike Says:

“Or maybe you want to draw a line somewhere between a shirt and rape — where is that line, exactly?”

Well, yes, I think there has to be a line somewhere between a shirt and rape. What kind of rational philosophy wouldn’t draw such a line? Everyone draws lines among countless kinds of human behaviors. The alternative type of all or nothing attitude you seem to imply is not only lazy, but clearly misguided and in any event unworkable in real life. It makes someone like me, who is genuinely in agreement with feminist goals to recoil at such infantile reasoning, and question, if not the goals, then those to purport to be sincerely working to achieve them.

293. Anand Sarwate Says:

Mike #292: Of course there has to be a line, but as I understand it, Scott may be suggesting that the line is/should/can be mediated by the intent of the speaker, or perhaps their membership is the shy male nerd (SMN) club (I agree with Gil that this is not a helpful categorization).

I think that to make a workplace feel comfortable, the line is a fair bit further from where he would put it, because the burden of policing your actions/words is disproportionately high for people he identifies as SMN, since they will take “rules” too literally, and it will cripple their interactions. Because people calling out behaviors/actions (e.g. Matt Taylor’s shirt, and the fact that it makes a workplace less comfortable) and making a connection between that and wider societal trends objectifying women, rape culture, etc. is bad because it will lead the SMN to think that shirts = rape, further marginalizing them.

294. Anand Sarwate Says:

Sorry, some bad grammar in the above.

295. Mike Says:

Well, the intent of the speaker should certainly be one of the factors taken into consideration. Especially where there is outspoken public shaming contemplated or where there are calls for meaningful sanctions, all of the facts and circumstances must be taken into consideration. In these types of situations intent is, in fact, an important factor to consider.

Listen, I’m all for a comfortable work place, and I try to never act in a way that will make someone feel uncomfortable, but casually conflating shirts and rape, or implying, as some do, that a sizable minority of the men you work with are rapists, well, that makes me uncomfortable, it really does, and it is simply not going to help educate people to the very real problems women face.

296. Scott Says:

Anand #290 and #293: Ironic, isn’t it, that you started this whole exchange by attacking my alleged desire for “bright-line principles,” and now you’re the one demanding lines! I hold, with Mike, that the “line” is actually a hugely-complicated fractal shape, encoding the judgments of human beings trying to apply all their intelligence and (most of all) common sense to particular cases. FWIW, here’s part of the shape of my own fractal:

– If Taylor had worn a shirt with cartoons of nude women on it (as opposed to just women in sexy outfits), that would be worth a severe reprimand, or immediate firing if he’d worn such a shirt on TV.

– If a man called a coworker “pretty hot in that outfit,” the coworker complained that it made her uncomfortable, and the two had had no earlier exchanges that would reasonably have led him to believe she’d be fine with the comment (or would even appreciate it), then that would again be worth a serious reprimand, firing if it became a consistent pattern of behavior.

Regarding the pay gap: unfortunately, one of the pillars propping up the whole rotten edifice of “privilege,” “patriarchy,” “rape-culture,” etc.—i.e., the stuff that makes many enlightened, liberal feminists no longer want to identify as “feminists”—is the use of bogus studies and statistics, or the willful mischaracterization of legitimate studies. For a brief overview, see Christina Hoff Sommers’ 5 Feminist Myths That Will Not Die.

297. Amy Says:

Frederick #291, thank you. I actually have other things I’m supposed to be writing (and presents I’m supposed to be wrapping), but apparently I find this more interesting right now.

Your question about the gals who go for macho ass-grabbers…well, Anand is right, I think, in the sense that honestly it’s not that hard to figure this out if you’re not looking at this in an antagonistic manner. I see no reason at all not to accommodate women who go for that, though my guess is that most such women themselves find it less exciting as time goes by and they get to know more about what macho means. But there’s also no reason why accommodating that taste, which does so much harm when unwelcome, should mean it’s the default.

So the solution, as it is so often: words. The BDSM community, I understand, is pretty explicit about how this works. You want the guy to just take you in the night, be an ass to you, order you around, behave like you can’t do shit and call you baby? Say so, don’t expect mindreading, work out a safeword. (You may find, surprise, that he kind of isn’t into it, and would rather that your relationship didn’t involve that kind of behavior. He can tap out anytime, too.)

We don’t expect, going into a relationship, that it involves ball gags. This is something that’s negotiated; the default expectation is “no abuse”. If you look through personals, you see that people say right up front that they’re looking for something like that, or they go to sites where that’s explicitly what’s on offer. They’ve learned how to talk about it. If what you want in a relationship is Marlon Brando, well, then by god say so. (And don’t be disappointed when he doesn’t actually look like Brando and can’t shoot pool.)

I would tell my daughter that if she liked a boy and waited and waited and said nothing and he found someone else, then that’s what happens. But I hope she won’t do that, because long ago I told her about a license plate on a BMW outside the gym where I used to work: ASK GET. And I can report that she learned that lesson with alacrity.

Going back to that bit about men asking more often and indiscriminately, and I will preface this with a massive disclaimer that this is my own armchair bullshit theorizing and may be very much off-base, even (inadvertantly) offensively so, & I welcome your calling it out if that’s true:

I think this ties in with the nerd anxiety in a way that has less to do with women than it does with other men, and that’s a thing that didn’t occur to me until I started seeing men friends come out the other side, in divorce. I live in a small enough town that I’m usually acquainted with the women and there isn’t much anonymity; you see how people do. The women are busy putting their lives back together, moving on, starting a new phase of life, scrambling if they’ve got small kids, etc. The guys, though, are casualties, even when they’re the ones who filed, unless there’s another woman (and even then there’s a lot of worry about not being with the kids). And a substantial part of the hit has to do with what they thought they would have at this point in life, and what they have compared to other men, or to what they believe other men have.

No woman? No family in a house? No paterfamilias position? At middle age when it’s probably too late to try again? Failure. They’re worried about how they rank in the world of men, and they imagine that women see them the same way, because it hasn’t occurred to them that there are other ways of seeing things. And that appears still to be true to an extent that shocked me. (Still shocks me, really.) And I used to see this all the time on the dating sites, too — guy’s barely out of the relationship, still trailing blood around, hell, maybe they’re still even living in the same house, but he’s jumping online, looking for another woman, behaving like an idiot. Because having another woman will fix things. Even when honestly, he’s not really all that interested in sex. Just the boost of knowing he can get a woman, that he’s not dealt out of the game — that’s important. To an extent that I just don’t see amongst women, who’ll generally take their time, sort their lives out, before they start looking again. (I don’t often hear women refer to dating as a game, unless they’re disgusted.)

If it’s desperately important not just in terms of horniness but in social position that a fella get a girl (and I use “get” advisedly here), then hell yeah, of course he’ll be shooting out invitations all over the place. What I see amongst both middle-aged women friends and my undergrad women students, though, is that they’re kinda not that anxious about it.

I was talking a while back with someone else about this, and she suggested that it had to do with a stiflingly narrow band of behavior that’s acceptable as masculinity, which is at this point defined as “not like a woman”, sort of the Canada of genders. And that the enforcers are far more often men than women, and that this is why men go so absolutely bananas when women refuse to conform to antique gender norms. We’re on their turf, and how are they supposed to reassure each other in their manliness if we’re manly too?

I’m not a guy; I don’t know how accurate a take that is. But I do know that in comment sections of stories to do with transgender kids, the explosive anger about the wrongness of Billy’s wearing a dress is coming from grown men, whereas the women are more likely to either say “what nice parents” or worry about whether the child will be ostracized by everyone. And I do think it’s absolutely true that the range of “how it’s fine to be a woman” is dramatically expanded from what existed when I was a kid. Women, I find, are enormously accepting of each other’s presentation, lifestyles, sexualities, marital/relationship statuses, etc. We may say “I don’t think she should,” but our friends are just as likely to reply, “Why is it your business? I don’t see the harm,” and in any event we still all remain friends.

So yeah, it may be part of the work that falls to men in changing what “masculine” means, where being on your own for extended periods may indeed be lonely, but doesn’t mean that you’re defective, or dickless, or so on. It just means you haven’t met anyone you’re interested in who’s also interested in you. Maybe it helps that there’s less homophobia around than there used to be. But again, you can see how that expands the range of ways in which it’s acceptable to be a guy.

If there’s less pressure to get a girl so you’re not only less lonely but can feel like an okay human being, then maybe there’s some relaxation of the perception that women are playing some sort of cruel game where they’re making you ask and then shooting you down, and it’s the man’s unjust burden to drag himself through life with thousands of rejection-arrows sticking out of him…you know, maybe that’d be nicer for everyone.

298. dorothy Says:

Scott #296. I think you need to be a little careful when dismissing the gender pay gap. You of course right that the average standard of statistical competence in society is very low. You are also right that people often talk about the gender pay gap by just comparing average salaries of men and women, which is unsatisfactory leaves a lot of questions hanging.

Also and as I am sure you know, even for a competent person the whole issue of comparing pay is non-trivial as you have to decide which work is equivalent. Is someone working in a kitchen doing equivalent work to the person who works on a production line in a factory? How do you judge the value of work in general without introducing a circular argument?

However, I don’t think it is right to say there is no gender pay gap.

Here is one survey which talks about the gender pay gap in the UK in some detail https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/295833/Analysis_of_the_Gender_Pay_Gap.pdf .

299. Sumwan Says:

OK, I have one question. Lewin has received the most severe sanction for an abuse of power at MIT in maybe the last 20 years, judging from a quick google search. This sanction looks pretty unique. Are we to believe that the worst abuse of power that happened at MIT in 20 years concerned a 78-year old trembling retired professor who sexually harassed an online student, and the only power the professor had was, as noted in other comments, the possibility of denying a certificate of completion that can be used nowhere for academic credit ? Of all the graduate students whose career depend on their advisors, of all the tenures granted and denied, all the conflicts among faculty members … This was the worst abuse of power ?

300. Anand Sarwate Says:

I think with the reference to Christina Hoff Sommers (defender of #GamerGate!), I’ll have to get off this boat. As to the “rotten edifice,” and the call-out to the so-called abandoning of “feminist,” this gives me some insight as to where you are coming from. If you pick and choose which voices you listen to or treat as valid, you can come to whatever conclusion you want about “feminism” as you construe it.

Mike #295: I think the number of people equating shirts to rape is actually quite small. The point is that shirts are part of a larger cultural gestalt. You can think that connection is tenuous or strong. The overreaction of “you’re calling all men rapists” is basically all in your (or one’s) head.

301. Amy Says:

Mike, about the “sizeable minority of men you work with are rapists” thing making you uncomfortable — well, that’s the point. I think it’s likely that as women feel less ashamed to admit they were raped, and say “that guy raped me, and yeah, it was 15 years ago and I can’t do anything about it now, but that’s what happened,” or even “it happened two semesters ago but nobody would take me seriously, but it was him”, we’ll see an awful lot more accusations with names attached. And if that happens, yes, it’s going to be extremely uncomfortable, because how in the world do you handle it?

We work very hard to devise narratives in which rape is deviant behavior that belongs to subhuman creatures of the night. Given the number of women who get raped, though, it gets to be a little difficult to believe that those subhuman creatures have that much energy. They’re everywhere at once, those monsters. It’s a strained enough story — and women tell enough stories amongst themselves about this dude or that — that I kind of doubt that the subhuman-monster story holds up.

The story’s now gone from “it’s a subhuman dragging women into alleys late at night” to “it’s a subhuman fraternity marauder” — in any case, anything, anything but a lot of guys who think — just once, I won’t get caught; or — just once, she should do this for me anyway; or even — I want and I can. Guys who, in that moment, decide it’s not a serious thing, and that nothing bad will happen to them. Cookie-jar stuff. (I believe the study, btw, that says that there’s a small number of serial rapists. I just bet that there’s also a long tail that the study doesn’t see, guys who cross the line once or twice, or who have one relationship that’s kinda rapey and they don’t talk about it that way, and after they break up he doesn’t try it again because the next woman’s like, “What are you doing?! Stop that,” and even if he was uneasy with what went on in the previous relationship, he recasts it after a while as “that was just us, she was into it too.” But meanwhile she describes it as “He used to rape me when I was asleep.” (I will here redirect the indignant to the #whyIstayed hashtag. Like I said, there are plenty of descriptions, explanations, discussions already out there waiting for you.))

So what happens then? Well, I imagine there’d be a lot of dismissal (she’s lying, she wants money, she wants attention, she’s crazy — things that seldom turn out to be true in rape accusation, btw); an attempt to recast rape as “well it can’t be serious unless it’s this kind of rape, the other kinds are just, um, a mistake?” so that we don’t have to look at so many guys as having done something serious; a demand for forgiveness, amnesty, so we can just move on. Because actually dealing with such a problem head-on, eyes-open, would be quite painful, and require more thought than I think most people want to give it.

302. Zilch Says:

When you want to support liberal and progressive causes it is vitally important to get your facts right and talk about the world as it actually is. When you make up a fictional imaginary world that is far more terrible than the real one, in order to “strengthen” the need for your cause, you end up doing more harm than good.

303. dorothy Says:

Amy #301. I am not American so maybe some of my problem with what you are saying comes from a translation issue. There is a serious issue with your use of the word rape I think. If you really mean by that forcing someone to have sex against their consent then the reason men have such difficulty with your statements is that it just doesn’t seem plausible.

If on the other hand you include unsatisfactory sex that you wish hadn’t happened or which was with someone who you really knew was an a-hole but which you consented to in any case, then that is a completely different matter. If you don’t even necessarily mean penetrative sex at all but include all sorts of loutish unwanted advances as rape then this is another potential cause of confusion. Being groped is not rape.

Yes I am aware that this is old territory and that in some circles, particularly in the US, there is an agreed definition of rape that I am challenging. I just want to make it clear to you and anyone with a like mind that I don’t believe that a sizeable minority of men have had sex with a women they knew didn’t want to have sex with them. In other words that they forced her into it either through fear or physical violence or some other horrible means. I also don’t believe that a very large number of women have had that experience happen to them.

304. Mike Says:

Anand Sarwate,

“you’re calling all men rapists” is basically all in your (or one’s) head.”

There you go again, I didn’t say that. For proof even you can accept, see Amy’s comment just after yours. 🙂 Sizable minority were her words. She knew what was meant and she by no means is backing down. Maybe you agree with her, maybe you don’t.

Apparently, her view is that she can bury claims like this in an avalanche of words. Here is Amy’s “source”:

“I believe the study, btw, that says that there’s a small number of serial rapists. I just bet that there’s also a long tail that the study doesn’t see, guys who cross the line once or twice, or who have one relationship that’s kinda rapey and they don’t talk about it that way, and after they break up he doesn’t try it again because the next woman’s like, “What are you doing?! Stop that,” and even if he was uneasy with what went on in the previous relationship, he recasts it after a while as “that was just us, she was into it too.””

That’s it. And, don’t you just love how smart and hip all of this is with words like “rapey” — makes it all so much more accessible and credible. Only a fool could doubt her conclusions, no?

And, since we seem to be placing bets, I’d bet that she also could come up with a pithy way to “prove” that between shirts and rape, there is only one very small step — so small as to be virtually meaningless — a very slippery slope indeed.

And that must be what makes every skirmish, every battle, so vital and important, regardless of the equities involved in a particular case. Regardless of the actual facts and circumstances, there is a greater good to be served.

Well, justice for women is a great good, but it is not the only good.

305. Scott Says:

Zilch #302: Amen!

306. Scott Says:

Anand #300: You’ve also provided some insight into where you’re coming from. Amy might not, as she says, “be here as part of anyone’s army,” but you were here as part of an army, which makes your critique inherently less interesting than hers. Look, I didn’t even know what “#GamerGate” was, and reading now about its labyrinthine details just makes my head hurt. More to the point, even if Christina Hoff Sommers were evil incarnate (she isn’t), and even if I strongly disagreed with some of her political views (probably would, if I knew what they all were), how does that invalidate her facts and arguments? On the main topics she writes about, she seems to have done her homework.

307. Scott Says:

Amy #301: Let me see if I can rephrase Dorothy’s and Mike’s point. On the one hand, feminists can push for rape, as most women and men today understand the word “rape,” to be prosecuted aggressively and punished as harshly as possible, e.g. with mandatory life sentences. In that battle, I think they’d actually have extremely wide public support. On the other hand, feminists can also push for the definition of rape to be expanded to behaviors that not everyone characterizes that way—e.g., drunken hookups that neither party remembers afterward (except in such cases, why didn’t the woman rape the man, inasmuch as the man raped the woman?). In the latter case, most people’s moral intuitions would, at the least, call for lighter sentences.

The only part that seems problematic is to do both things at the same time: that is, to retain the word’s original horrific connotations, but then also expand its meaning to the point where a sizable fraction of the male population is guilty of it. Do you really believe that, let’s say, 30% of the entire male population deserves to be behind bars? (Even setting aside the logistical impossibility of such a thing?)

308. Upset Says:

Wow Scott, I’m genuinely amazed at the disregard with which you view harassment victims. MIT has a responsibility to be a safe place for people wishing to learn, and allowing videos of a known harasser to just be available on OCW for harassment victims to stumble across while merely attempting to learn physics would be a horrible flaw in OCW. Now, I recognize that MIT has less pure motives than this for the removal, but that does not change the fact that removing them is _absolutely_ the right call. People can be very sensitive, and not unjustifiably so. If this were a convicted rapist we were talking about–and yes, I realize this is a step below that–then having images of him available on MIT e-learning resources would obviously be a horrible offense to rape victims hoping to learn. Try to put yourself in the shoes of harassment victims. No, it’s not as extreme, but it is absolutely relevant.

309. Rahul Says:

Scott #307:

“….e.g., drunken hookups that neither party remembers afterward (except in such cases, why didn’t the woman rape the man, inasmuch as the man raped the woman?).”

…..the physiological asymmetry of the male vs female tooling needed for penetrative sexual intercourse & the effect of extreme alcoholic intoxication on said tooling?

310. Rahul Says:

I was hoping someone could produce a tl;dr summary version of all of Amy’s posts.

311. Scott Says:

Rahul #309: I actually think most feminists would disagree with you. On the feminist view (as I understand it), rape doesn’t require any element of force, only non-consent (including but not limited to coercion, threats, incapacitation, etc.), and it’s entirely possible for women to rape men, both logically and physiologically.

312. Rahul Says:

Scott #311:

You are probably right. I was merely addressing the common legal definition of rape.

Arguing against a feminist definition is a futile exercise because you cannot even wrap your mind around what is the acceptable working definition.

Furthermore, pick six feminists and you will most likely end up with six distinct definitions of rape all at odds with each other. And a fierce quarrel about which feminist has the right definition & how the other five are silly pseudo feminists.

313. Curious Mayhem Says:

If the charges are as serious as MIT is claiming, stopping Lewin’s future contact with students, either online or in real space, is probably warranted. A privacy-filtered version of the MIT report should be released as soon as possible. If I were Lewin’s lawyer, I would be pressing MIT strongly on this point. If Lewin wants the case against him released, keeping it out of public scrutiny is a violation of state and (possibly) federal labor law.

However, Scott is completely correct that removing Lewin’s existing lectures from the website is not just unwarranted but another reminder of the neo-Stalinist thought control now commonplace on campuses. It’s not a “gift” to anyone, but a reminder of the ugly reality of the overpriced, repressive monstrosity that post-modern academia has become. It isn’t a matter of personal harassment or assault — censorship and suppression of non-PC views, bowing to pressure groups, are so common now that organizations fighting campus repression can’t keep up with the case load.

BTW, the persistent reports of high levels of sexual assault on campuses are bogus — they come from uncontrolled, self-selected magazine surveys and have no serious weight. The violent crime rate is at a 50-year low in the US, and no hard crime reporting statistics back any of this up.

314. Frederick Says:

Scott #311 I have to say that under any sensible definition, if you threaten to kill someone unless they have sex with you, that is rape. You don’t need to be a feminist to see that. Just human. I do however completely agree with you on #307.

315. Footnote Says:

http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/fvsv9410pr.cfm

To be fair, many crimes of this nature do go unreported and as discussed above, the precise definition of “rape” is in flux and might well be reasonably broadened. Nevertheless, take it for what it’s worth.

316. Douglas Knight Says:

Rahul, the key summary of Amy is: if you think you have seen a physician grabbing an ass, you’re hallucinating and you should educate yourself about what you are allowed to notice.

317. Rahul Says:

What is the distinction between sexual harassment as an institutional offense versus a criminal offense? Are all / some forms of sexual harassment crimes under the legal codes, state or federal?

In this case, if the offense is so serious, isn’t MIT bound to also call in the police?

Or is it one of those things which an institution rates serious enough to inflict severe sanctions, yet under criminal law is not an offense at all?

318. dorothy Says:

Amy #187. I know nothing of what happened with your ex-boyfriend other than what you have told us. If he was genuinely aggressive and scared you then I am very sorry this happened to you and he should indeed be punished for it.

However, a (possibly different) hypothetical situation where you are in a consensual sexual relation, in fact are naked in bed together happily and one party places his or her genitals on or in your mouth and asks you to perform oral sex, this can really not be called rape of any sort. Just to be clear, I am assuming there is no force and no threat or coercion of course.

Not all impolite or ill-judged behaviour in the context of sex is rape. To call it rape is to demean the entire term and is frankly insulting to people who have been raped.

Do you really think such a person should be sent to jail?

Perhaps this is also a good time to get back on topic and to say that MIT is 100% right not to host Lewin’s videos.

319. Scott Says:

Frederick #314: Of course, we agree. Now, the feminist definition doesn’t require threats of force either, just a lack of active consent. In any case, my comment wasn’t disagreeing with the feminist definition, just explicating it to answer Rahul’s question.

320. Ignorantmale Says:

Scott #319. At the risk of sounding a little too nerdy and male, I don’t really understand what situation we are talking about where there is no threat of any sort but yet there is sex without active consent. Why and how would that happen? I mean why wouldn’t the party that didn’t want to have sex just say no in these circumstances?

Is the assumption that typically men just can’t tell whether they have threatened or coerced someone into having sex with them? So if you just assume that without an objectively verifiable certificate of consent it *is* rape, you are going to be right with high probability?

If this is it, it’s a very sad story indeed.

321. Scott Says:

Ignorantmale #320: The contemporary feminist view is that a woman might never say “no,” push away the man, or do anything else of the kind, and might not be incapacitated or under threat either, but it could still be rape—for example, because she was too terrified to try to resist. And many feminists support affirmative-consent laws, like California’s, precisely in order to close off the male defense that such cases are just honest miscommunications. But this is an extremely fraught subject, and I’m not an expert, so I should let Amy or others clarify further if they want to.

322. Ignorantmale Says:

Scott #320 Thank you in any case.

I can see of course that you might not actually say “no” if you had already been threatened and clearly you might also not physically resist for the same reason. What I don’t understand is why you are so scared if there is in fact no threat. I will wait for someone who can explain this as you suggest.

323. Ignorantmale Says:

Scott #320 I have now read up the topic of affirmative-consent laws. Surprisingly to me it seems that two quite different things have been elided. One of these two has as an example where you are making out with someone but as things progress you realise you don’t actually want to have sex. However you feel too awkward and embarrassed to say anything and so go through with it.

In my view this situation should have nothing to do with the legal system at all (and the word rape shouldn’t be anywhere near it) but is rather a difficult personal problem of self-confidence for which one should seek help and advice.

324. Amy Says:

Hi, Dorothy –

To be clear, when I’m talking about rape, I’m talking about what I think most people think of: penetrative, uninvited, penis-or-other-object is thrust into someone else’s body in a sexual context. When I spoke of rape way back in the thread, I was actually not thinking of that recent boyfriend; I was thinking of an instance in college where I’d specifically said no, I didn’t want to do that — and next thing I knew he was inside me anyway, telling me to relax. As for the recent guy, I’d also said specifically, no, I don’t want to do that — and then all of a sudden there was a penis in my mouth and a “just do it for me”.

Your scenario with the “what if you’re just laying there and he puts his penis in your mouth and then you can decide if you want it there or not” — uh, no. Just no. Honestly, I’ve been having sex for nearly 30 years now, and it never occurred to me that a guy I had actually invited into my bed would do that. Do you regularly climb onto people’s faces, uninvited? I mean even if it’s something you do often, how do you know he’s in the mood for that right then?

I don’t understand this aversion to communicating with words — do you want, I’d like to, how about if I, may I, want to? Every boyfriend (and husband) I’ve had has been quite good at it, it’s what I do as well, and nearly all of the men have understood “no, I don’t want to ____ right now” quite clearly.

Nor do I understand this notion that women are accusing men of rape as a form of one-star sex review. (Or, in a throwback to before my lifetime, women announcing rape because they’re ashamed they had sex.) It’s actually not a trivial or pleasant thing to accuse someone of rape, and usually women who do it come in for a tremendous onslaught and character assassination. Surely if you’re ashamed you had sex with someone, you won’t want to advertise the fact by making a rape accusation that may turn into the centerpiece of your life for the next year or so; you’ll want to go home and take a shower and forget the whole damn thing as fast as you can. And…yeah, I don’t even know what to do with “I didn’t enjoy it so you raped me” — I don’t see the point at all. I think the usual formula is “It was pretty meh” or “omg, he has no idea what he’s doing” or some such, not “he raped me”. Of course, if your “not knowing what you’re doing” extends to “just get on her like she’s a blow-up doll, shove your cock into whatever hole you find at the first opportunity, and ride for glory, or grab her head and force her to go down on you,” then yeah, you’re liable to find that the next week she’s told people you raped her.

@Ignorantmale #320 – again, if you do a bit of googling (I’d suggest “rape ‘why I didn’t say no'” or some such) my guess is you’ll find women and maybe a few men explaining why they either didn’t say no or said yes after being badgered endlessly. If you’re talking about young women, often it’s partly about surprise and inexperience — they’re not actually sure what’s happening until it’s well underway. (Actually that’s similar to Shia LaBeouf’s description in the recent business that happened to him during his show.) In marriages there can be a lot to do with fearing consequences of divorce or disrupting fragile situations, particularly if the guy is unemployed. And there are still women who believe that they just have to take it, that it won’t do any good to say no and that nobody will believe them so there’s no point in reporting anything.

I’d suggest though looking online for stories and explanations from people who had reasons for not saying no. I’ve got only one, and it was a very strange circumstance, from long ago when I was quite young: it was near the end of a relationship, he’d moved out, I’d slept with someone else, and he came back and found a used condom. At which he got very angry and grabbed me and started making love to me, kissing, pushing down on the bed, etc. And he took my pants off and went down on me, and I understood that my job was to come. That this was his way of staking territory, and some bad thing would happen if I didn’t let him prove himself. I wasn’t generally afraid of him, but I was afraid of the situation, which was strange and volatile. Would I let a thing like that happen now, no, absolutely not. At the time, though, I wasn’t experienced enough to handle it. Another woman recently told me a story in which she’d been fending off an ex-boyfriend forever, and then one day when she was sick in bed with a fever and he came over to help out, he badgered her again until she said yes just to make him stop because she was too tired to fight with him anymore.

As for the question of “no threat”…I think a lot of guys forget how much bigger they are than most women, and how often women really do get beaten up by men. I once saw someone explain to a guy that for a similar dynamic to exist for him, he’d have to be naked and dealing with a 7-and-a-half-foot tall, 380-lb guy. That’s the physical arrangement, but I think actually that leaves out other parts of the story. In any case it takes some real confidence that someone who’s that much more powerful than you are isn’t going to take it out on you if you displease him rather than just dealing and waiting for the moment to pass. Or you can think of that inane question the CNN guy asked that alleged Cosby victim — why didn’t you just bite it off? Gee, I don’t know, maybe she didn’t want her neck broken?

All these things are part of why the consent rules exist, and why you’ll hear people talking about enthusiastic consent and continuous communication. I think, incidentally, that any attempt at enforcement is going to be an absolute shitstorm. But the general ideas — use language, say what you want, what you don’t want, ask before doing — are very good ones.

325. Amy Says:

Rahul #309, I agree with Scott, I don’t know of any self-described feminist who’d say that women aren’t capable of rape. And in fact I’d say it’s something more women should think about. You can’t assume that your partner will like or want X just because this is what you’re used to in sexual relationships, and you can do a lot of damage with those assumptions.

326. Amy Says:

Scott #307 – about the drunken-hookup thing, I actually don’t see why a woman shouldn’t be as liable as a man. I think though that the whole drunken-hookup thing is a lot of baloney, and I say that as a fully participatory alum of a hard-drinking school and a lot of drunken hookups. This is back to the “she’s ashamed/didn’t like it so now she says it’s rape” thing. Drunken hookups in general are, how shall I say, not the world’s greatest, but if in the course of the hookup the guy becomes aggressive and just starts doing whatever the hell he pleases to the woman — well, yes, it’s not too hard to see where the rape comes in. You can look at the recent Columbia case, the mattress-girl one, for an example of that.

I hope over the course of this, btw, that you’re seeing how much work is going into refusing even to discuss that scenario — that instead we have to invent a woman who’s ashamed for her reputation (and so announces to the world that the same embarrassing guy raped her?) or who just didn’t enjoy herself (fickle, vindictive bitch who apparently has a lot of time and reputation to burn in giving bad sex reviews). And my guess is that the rhetoric reaches all the way back to the early 90s, when “date rape” entered the vocabulary.

327. Amy Says:

All that’s apart from the general sense that if you show up on a campus, you’re there as fresh meat. Again, less than welcoming.

328. Amy Says:

(Oh, incidentally — life sentences for rape, Scott? What? Why? I can’t see being in favor of that, myself.)

329. Anon. Says:

Amy, am I correct in inferring that you don’t think your ex-boyfriend (the “just do it for me” penis-in-mouth guy) deserved to go to jail for that act?

If I’m correct, then I insist that there should be a terminological difference between the “rape” for which we aught to sent people to jail and the “rape” for which we aught not to. Personally I think the latter shouldn’t even be called rape. But if we do want to call the latter rape, then we should call the former “criminal rape”, or something like that.

330. Scott Says:

Amy: I’m in total agreement with you about the importance and desirability of clear communication. Unfortunately, I also agree that enforcing feminist consent standards is likely to be a legal nightmare—for how do you convince a jury that, for example, a guy knew his girlfriend was only having sex with him out of fear that he would leave her if she refused? (And even if her fears were accurate—well, if someone is seeking a sexual relationship, then surely it’s better for everyone involved if they end it once they realize there’s a deep incompatibility between their wants and their partner’s?) So maybe this kind of standard should have moral and cultural force, but not legal force.

Likewise, regarding academic relationships: if you ban dating, not only the people with whom you have a conflict of interest, but also everyone with whom you might, conceivably have one in the future—well, the trouble is that you’ve just ruled out a huge fraction of all the people an academic is likely to meet, and with whom they share common interests. Note also the tension with a different piece of feminist advice often given to male STEM nerds: namely, that they should forget about dating cheerleaders and party girls, and go instead after their intellectual equals, like female STEM nerds. Well, what does that mean but people with whom a future conflict of interest is possible? If it happens, just declare it and work around it, same as with any other professional conflict of interest. So it seems right to me that these matters stay in the domain of advice, prudence, and wisdom, rather than university policy.

331. Wayne Says:

Upset #308: assuming you didn’t discard implicit /irony-/eirony tags, are you seriously suggesting that the video lectures needed to be removed to avoid future trauma to later, unsuspecting viewers?

One wonders what the effect might be should someone actually see Lewin — in person! — on the street. Almost too horrible to envision.

Why stop here? Richard Feynman attended strip clubs. Surely, for the purposes of moral consistency and in our efforts to “protect” others from some hypothetical harm, his Lectures, books and any videos containing his image should be tracked down and burned as well? And once this crusade has taken off, at what point can you declare victory?

There seems to be an odd inability to distinguish Walter Lewin, the person — at least as he is currently perceived based on MIT’s statement — from his (much) earlier teaching work. I’m afraid this suggests a serious case of intellectual laziness.

332. Douglas Knight Says:

Indeed, Scott, “don’t date your students” is not “formal university policy,” despite the claims of many people in these comments. At least, not at any school whose policy I have read. And at MIT, Staff seems to have tried and failed to find such a policy.

333. Amy Says:

Doug, I believe mine does have such a policy, though I will check. I think it actually is in our operations manual.

Scott, while I appreciate the problem for the academics, the policy’s not written for the convenience of professors. And if you’re talking about a city like Boston, it’s hardly a meaningful complaint — go fish at another university. Where it’s really problematic for faculty is in remote universities in small towns, where if a faculty member divorces, the prospects of either the professor or the spouse finding someone else to date are slim indeed. In any case, you know, students graduate every year, and studenthood is a temporary condition. Wait till someone graduates and is out. I actually know TA/student couples who’ve done that.

This sort of thing has been the norm in large companies for decades, btw. I think someone else brought that up, but every large company I’ve worked for has had an anti-nepotism rule that forbade relationships between employees, partly because people move around in a company. It’s also — as anyone who’s been involved in one of those relationships can tell you — a hell of a distraction when a relationship falls apart. Makes work difficult for the entire unit. They’re not joking about it, either. If it’s clear that you’re in a relationship with another employee, one of you will go.

As for the long happy professor-student marriages…maybe that worked well in the days when the students were there primarily for an MRS, but I’ve yet to see a professional situation where the student-spouse wasn’t viewed as having slept her way to advantages she wouldn’t have earned on her own. (I’m also trying to think of a woman-prof/male-student relationship that didn’t turn out to be a trainwreck, and don’t know of any offhand.) It doesn’t look to me like a great professional move on the student’s part.

334. Amy Says:

Anon #329, it’s an excellent question. It’s usually up to the victim of a crime to decide whether or not to report it and, in some cases, press charges, and in this case I probably would not. (Though I may regret that someday. I can tell you that if I could go back in time, I’d report the first one.) And I don’t think I know enough about criminal justice to be comfortable saying what a sentence ought to be, but I’m reluctant to say that we should have “just a li’l rape” “pretty much rape” and “terrible rape” distinctions, partly because of how light sentences for domestic violence often are. I think it risks trivializing many rapes. I also think that it’s not a simple question, prosecute or don’t prosecute.

My object, incidentally, is not to see tens of thousands of men behind bars for rape. (It’s interesting how in my conversations about rape with men, much more than with women, the conversation heads to prison, punishments, etc. — with men both afraid of and demanding prison sentences.) The larger point, I think, is to become more cleareyed as a society about how accepting we are of rape now, how mundane it is, and to figure out how to change that. Obviously the answer can’t be “just assume we’re going to lock up XX% of men for rape.”

335. Rahul Says:

Amy #327:

“These university relationships change all the time — a philosophy major may be a history major next year, and then what do you do?”

You go to your department’s TA co-coordinator, declare a conflict of interest & request to be reassigned to another course, one which your partner isn’t taking.

Even if they cannot or will not reassign you for some reason (rare) the fact that you pre-declared the conflict bolsters your case against any false accusations of harassment later. Often the coordinator / chair in such cases might pro-actively counsel the potential victim so that any potentially harassing conduct might be rapidly brought to attention & immediately nipped in the bud.

A declared conflict of interest & diligent supervision & counselling can help a lot in these tricky situations.

Actually harassment might be the less common worry. More commonly some other student on the course will complain about favoritism.

336. Anon. Says:

Amy, to clarify, my point was not to determine the appropriate punishment for rape. My point was to distinguish several different types of actions, all of which you call rape, and not all of which the rest of society calls rape. I believe the difference between these actions is important.

(Also, I can’t help but feel slightly offended and stereotyped by your suggestion that, since I’m male, I am “afraid of or demanding prison sentences” instead of caring about preventing rape. My gender does not define me. To counter-stereotype you, I find that feminists tend to stereotype by gender quite a bit.)

If you look at the history of the word rape, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that it used to exclusively mean something like “rape by a stranger under explicit threat of violence or explicit use of force” (the type of thing that happens during wars, for example). Now, compare that crime to your boyfriend pushing his dick in your mouth (and backing off once you get mad). I think they are so different that I and many others would prefer it if there was a way to distinguish between them using the English language in some concise but non-controversial way. For example, we could call the former rape and the latter “rape” (with the quotation marks) 😛

337. Scott Says:

Amy #334: I fear this is my “male bias” speaking, but surely you can see the problem. Activists have been telling the world that there’s a rape epidemic, that we live in a rape culture, that rape is a mundane yet horrible reality for millions of women.

So then any decent male asks: what can we do to solve the problem?

Harsher prison sentences? No, this isn’t about prison and punishments; that’s a male obsession.

More aggressive prosecution? Err … that’s complicated, because of how traumatic it is for victims to press charges.

OK then, how about addressing the role of alcohol? Teaching women about dangerous situations to avoid? ABSOLUTELY NOT! That’s victim-blaming!

But then at some point the question becomes: what’s our goal here? Is it just making all males feel guilty about their complicity in “rape culture” (with the guilt, of course, falling disproportionately on the shy, nerdy males who pose the least threat, but upon whom such guilt will gnaw like soul-destroying acid)—or is it taking real steps to end rape?

It reminds me of shortly after 9/11, when I was a grad student at Berkeley, and I went to a panel discussion by Afghan women about the misogynistic horrors of the Taliban. The women spoke eloquently about the stonings, lashings, girls forbidden to go to school, etc. But then they said that they strenuously opposed the pending US invasion of Afghanistan: war was not the answer to these evils.

Since after an hour, no one had even acknowledged the question as being a question, I finally raised a hand to ask: so then what is the answer? what do you believe should be done to fight the Taliban’s misogyny?

In reply, I got a lecture about how “what should be done” was the wrong question: the point, rather, was simply to reflect on how bad things were, and on the guilt we all share in letting them get that bad.

I didn’t understand that answer then, I don’t understand it now, and may I go to my grave not understanding it.

338. Amy Says:

Anon #336, it’s been a long time since that’s been the definition of rape in the US, which criminalized marital rape later than many countries. That process began in the 1970s and all 50 states have criminalized it since ’93, meaning before current undergrads were born. Consent and age have defined rape for decades, too. Under any current legal definition of rape in the US, that’s what my ex-boyfriend did. I said no, he stuck his penis into me anyway. The current DoJ definition of rape is: ” “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without
the consent of the victim.” ”

If you’re that unclear about what rape is, and you reside in the US, I’d suggest you check your state’s code before your next date, with the DoJ def as baseline.

Scott, this above is one example of what I think needs doing. If Anon, who appeared genuinely not to understand what rape is, takes the definition-giving as a cue to panic that he’s about to commit rape, or is somehow complicit in someone else’s rape, then I’d suggest he speak with a psychologist, because nowhere in either the text or its delivery is the suggestion that he is or is about to become a rapist. No more than my reading about what constitutes vehicular homicide means that the writer believes I’m about to go mow people down in my car.

339. Anon. Says:

>Anon, who appeared genuinely not to understand what rape is, takes the definition-giving as a cue to panic that he’s about to commit rape, or is somehow complicit in someone else’s rape, then I’d suggest he speak with a psychologist, because nowhere in either the text or its delivery is the suggestion that he is or is about to become a rapist.

And nowhere in my comment was the suggestion that I am panicking that I’m about to commit rape. It’s all in your head, Amy. I’m simply offended that you equate (by using the same word) your ex-boyfriend’s inappropriate bedroom action to the devastating act of (other types of) rape. I would be equally offended if someone equated inappropriate jew jokes to the holocaust.

340. Amy Says:

Rahul #335 – yes, you can do that. Are your department’s TA coordinator and the faculty member responsible for the course going to be happy with you, especially if you can’t be reassigned? Unlikely, partly because, as you say, of the potential for charges of favoritism. Nor will faculty enjoy spending time on the issue in faculty meetings, where no doubt the issue will pick at gender-equity scabs that don’t need picking at in the first place. In other words: have some brains about it.

341. Amy Says:

Anon, that’s twice now that you’ve missed the context (I’m assuming you haven’t read from the top). I am not suggesting that you were going to panic. Scott described sexual-assault awareness programs having that effect on him, earlier in the thread, and I was responding to him.

342. Anon. Says:

Oops, I think I missed the single word “If”, which came before the part I quoted. That completely changes the meaning of Amy’s paragraph. How embarrassing…

343. Amy Says:

Scott, about the “what should be done” question (#337) –

I actually think that this is part of what should be done. Talk, conversation, argument. Sometimes in legislative chambers, where definitions and stakes change to reflect that conversation — and often the stakes that wind up being most meaningful aren’t jail time, but loss of institutional or block-grant funds. Sexual-assault awareness and bystander courses are part of that, too, with, as necessary, concomitant changes to assessment and how these things are taught so that students don’t walk away believing they’ve been charged with things they haven’t done.

It’s because of talk that fewer women believe they’re to blame in rape, and are willing to say, “He did that to me,” or even “That happened to me, here’s my story.” It’s possible to talk about these things now in ways that I don’t think were possible 30 years ago.

When I was raped nearly 30 years ago, I didn’t even know what had happened to me. I knew it wasn’t good, I knew how terrible and ashamed I felt in subsequent weeks, but I had no language for it and would have been ashamed to talk about it even if I had. And even if I’d known who to talk to (I didn’t; it didn’t occur to me that there might be anyone to talk to). Those things have changed for many, many people. And that’s a big advance. There was also no Clery Act at the time, no way of knowing how often these things happened, and where, at universities.

Universities are very far ahead of anyone else, I think, in talking about these things. Nowhere in here have we talked about the cousins-in-a-bed-or-tent situation — three guys so far have told me about being molested or raped by cousins when they were between the ages of eight and twelve. We don’t teach children how to talk about or handle these things, not really. We’re still remarkably silent on marital rape. The existence of nursing-home rapes has just come to light, and I’ve yet to hear any programs on how to report or deal with being raped in a nursing home, or finding that your Alzheimer-patient mother’s been raped in a nursing home, either by another resident or a staffer. So there’s a lot to do.

The attention to rape always seems to pull attention from less dramatic forms of abuse of women. But I think that as this conversation goes on, and it becomes plainer how ordinary rape is, it will prompt conversations and a good deal of introspection about why men do these things and how we all regard women. And that does, I think, lead to change. I’ve seen a tremendous amount of it in my lifetime. The sort of life I lead was unimaginable even 40 years ago.

Incidentally, I agree that war in Afghanistan was in no way an answer, but that’s mostly because the track record of empires waltzing in and setting things straight in Afghanistan is pretty lousy, it’s on the other side of the world, the terrain sucks, and we know precious little about it. It’s hard for me to see how genuinely helpful we could be there by running in and bombing away, and I don’t know any diplomatic/CFR types who thought it was a brilliant idea, either.

344. aviti Says:

Anand Sarwate #190, I still dont get your point that the lectures are a necessary evil themselves. If I had read #190 from some other “crassy” blog or anywhere, I would not have bothered to check you out on your blog and read some interesting stuff there, though I cant wrap my head on them. I follow this shtetl because I get to learn a lot of stuff from people who contribute on shtetl, you included. I saw you are a faculty yourself. What amazes me is that you fail to see the importance of learning materials, as those lectures. Please enlighten me on this sort of “double mindedness”.

So for example, lets say you commit some crime. Then, do we, the public, in the sake of public good, in the sake of avoiding collateral damage, take down your blog, your arxiv papers, discredit all good work you have contributed to womanity…sorry humanity?

By the way, I can guess that had Scott been “black”, then he would have had more problems to deal with to begin with. Possibly his dream of becoming a TCS guru would have taken longer than was, or would not have materialized. Of course this is a wild guess, mine alone (or so I hope).

345. Amy Says:

Oh! I see, Scott, you’re missing a mechanism between “dwell on how bad things are and whose fault it is” and “situation in which fewer bad things happen.”

It’s a social-science engineering problem. Just noticing that there’s a problem is a big thing, and then you have to try to figure out what the problem is and its meaning(s), which means you’d better understand the system and what’s contributing to the problems. This isn’t simple, particularly since you don’t get to play God with societies; a good chunk of the society itself has to notice and agree that a problem exists, and agree more or less on what the problem is, before anything’s going to happen. And when they do, after years and years of talk, and lurch at a partial solution, which is all that can happen politically even if an opportunity presents itself, it’s another age before any consensus, or even coherent camps, emerge on what it’s actually done.

You cite a few possibilities for dealing with rape: prison, more prison, return to comportment standards of the 50s for women. And you also cite reasons (however sarcastically) for why they’re actually not great solutions. (My reason against “more prison” isn’t a male-obsession thing, but it doesn’t matter.) My response: Yes. It takes a long time and a lot of work, including experiments that turn out not to work so hot. It’s a society, this is how they go. Some faster than others.

346. Amy Says:

aviti #345, I think you’re missing Anand’s point.

The question is not “should Lewin’s work be destroyed for fear of damaging all future viewers with its association with sexual harassment.” The question is “should MIT associate itself with and support the career of a faculty member who sexually harasses students.”

Hosting his videos is part of associating, supporting his career and promoting his work. So the answer is no, and the message to students and other faculty is: We will not promote the success of or associate ourselves with faculty who contribute to an environment that damages the ability of women to succeed. We choose you over him even though he’s beloved and esteemed. (Also, we are aware that if we don’t make this statement we’re asking for some real trouble.)

In other words, the guy is radioactive, I’m guessing in part because he is high-profile.

As for the learning materials…you know, I really think it’s possible to overstate the case here. Yes, they’re terrific. But nobody’s burned them in a barrel, and it’s not as though he’s the only good physics teacher there is anyway.

Also, Scott, I don’t know why you say Anand is here as part of an army.

347. Rahul Says:

Amy #340:

You are reinforcing the stereotype of a careerist cold blooded feminist for whom emotions of the heart don’t matter. (sorry if this seems mean but you started it)

Look, sure the scenario (History-TA-dating-Philosophy-undegrad) means an extra hassle & getting some people irritated. But do you fall in love in a calculative manner so as to avoid all additional hassle & the tiniest iota of impact on your career? Asking your Department for maternity leave upsets their planning too but is that a good reason to not get pregnant?

The basic question was whether dating someone not in a direct reporting relationship was illegal or verboten under letter of University law. Thankfully, the administrators are not as cold-hearted as you and have instituted procedures for it in place to accommodate the odd instance. It is not forbidden (unlike say dating your own adviser or PhD student etc. which is a no no)

Besides, since you are oh-so-pragmatic can you use your brains to compute the probability of me a history TA dating a philosophy undergrad and she by a quirk of fate deciding to take a class in my Department & then the very course I am a TA for?! If you think the probability is high enough to not fall in love, then I’m not surprised you are having some bad luck dating.

You bring up the hassle of annoying faculty & ask me to use my brains. Hey, that’s why the heart matters for love (a lot) & not just the brain. Otherwise we’d all be seeking cushy relationships that made career sense & financial profit.

348. Nick Says:

Amy, no. 333: “every large company I’ve worked for has had an anti-nepotism rule that forbade relationships between employees”

Every one? Universities regularly and deliberately hire couples; it’s called “solving the two-body problem”.

349. Jacob Johnson Says:

Having seen no rebuttal to my comment #263, I stand by my opinion therein. I would like to say to Amy that I am very sorry and horrified to hear of your terrible experiences of rape.

350. dorothy Says:

Amy #324. Thank you for clearing up your definitions.

Going through your reply I can’t help feeling however that your persective is really quite different from mine and from many women like me. Let me take things one at a time.

First take this text from you.

“Your scenario with the […] uh, no. Just no.[…] how do you know he’s in the mood for that right then?”

It is now clear that what I described to you would always be something terrible for you personally. However, I can myself very easily imagine a situation where it would be part of a normal healthy sex life between two people. As this is more or less anonymous I can say that I myself have done almost exactly what i described and both I and my partner were very happy about it. Maybe my imagination is just better than yours of course 🙂

Of course I can also imagine a version which is annoying, unwelcome or even rude. In a very small number of cases it could even be criminally bad behaviour but my point is that in the normal course of things, even an ill-judged sexual advance in that context should have nothing to do with the criminal law nor with the language of sexual assault.

In general I get the feeling that you are imposing your own personal private sexual preferences as being normative for the rest of the world, and in particular all women, and in some cases raising offences to those preference to the status of criminality. Please don’t do that.

Second, let us take this:

“I don’t understand this aversion to communicating with words”

The problem is the world that I think you would prefer is implausible, barely logically coherent and in fact unattractive to many people. I don’t want to ask every time I touch someone I am in a relationship with. Do I ask if I change where I am touching each time, just the first time, every prime numbered time? Is there a time limit for permission? Do I have to re-ask every 5 minutes? Do I ask if I change from using a hand to a tongue? It just doesn’t make any sense and real communicated doesn’t work the way you seem to suppose.

Also, what is the purpose of this verbal asking? If, as in your description, a woman is secretly afraid, why would they not just answer yes as they previously would have just stayed silent? If someone is so insenstive that they can’t tell you are afraid when you are silent, why would they know that you are afraid when you said yes but wanted to say no? If you remove all assumptions of humanity from the situation, as you often seem to do for any men you talk about, then there really is no solution other than abstinence.

Now let us consider your long paragraph that starts:
“Nor do I understand this notion that women are accusing men of rape as a form of one-star sex review.[…]”

This is a great turn of phrase I have to admit. However, your supposing when someone would or would not accuse someone of rape is really unhelpful guess work. There are all sorts of people with all sorts of different reasons for doing things.

Perhaps worst of all however is implicit in your text about women who are badgered into having sex. As you are someone who likes to talk about agency, surely people have *some* responsibility to look after themselves. If you have sex with some because they asked you in a non-threatening way a lot of times but you really didn’t want to…. come on, I am sorry to say but this is really your fault and you have no one to blame but yourself. Comparing this to rape or even sexual assault is just ridiculous.

For the sake of Scott’s sanity I will stop, but I would just like to finish by saying one more thing. Looking back on my life I do not have a single friend who was raped and they all went to College. To be clear, they and I were the normal decadent Western hard drinking, drug taking, loose moralled types that we are all so familiar with. In my wider circle of acquaintances, I know that the sister of someone I know was date raped and I think someone at College was too. So that is two people in total in my life. On the other hand, I sadly know more people who were sexually abused as children and even more who had some sort of eating disorder. What I mean to say is that I would expect to know of terrible personal traumas that had happened in my friends’ lives.

I also asked my partner if he knew any of his male friends or acquaintances who had raped anyone. He said he had heard of an accusation against one acquaintance. He also said that a sizeable subset he would expect to know as they had talked about their sex lives, good and bad, moral and frankly disgraceful, in great detail when he was younger.

The point being that those are the percentages which I believe are true and not the frankly outlandish ones which seem to be claimed in some feminist circles.
I suspect that may people here will recognise these percentages too.

351. Frederick Says:

In people’s desperate aim to score winning points, there is a lot of inconsistency going on here.

This definition of rape was given in a way that I think implied Amy approved of it.

“Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without
the consent of the victim.”

Then separately Amy wrote in an impassioned way that women can rape men by mentally coercing them into having sex. These two things can’t both be true.

There is of course little point in arguing over words.

352. Rahul Says:

@Nick #348:

“Universities regularly and deliberately hire couples; it’s called “solving the two-body problem”.”

Exactly.

And not just universities any more. I remember at least two large companies (P&G & ConocoPhillips I think) mentioning in an on-campus recruitment presentation that if relocation was a problem because of your partner’s job you should let them know & HR would try & find a suitable position internally, if available. A lot of other recruiters informally have stated similar sentiments.

I think institutions have become a lot more accommodating & flexible about these things than Amy supposes.

353. Gil Kalai Says:

1) TA and students. I was wrong to include TA’s. I think that there are general university rules against university professors approaching undergraduate students (but I am not sure about it, and perhaps it applies to all students). I don’t know what are the rules regarding TA’s. Approaching a person when you have power on that person is probably forbidden by universities and perhaps also by the law.

2) Prostitution and pornography. There are large parts in the feminist movement which support banning prostitution. (The same applies to pornography viewed as documented prostitution.) But these issues are not in full agreement.
(I think that your specific argument, Scott, in favour of prostitution is familiar *and* wrong.)

3) Magnitude of sexual assaults. It is largely accepted that more than one of every ten women experiences serious sexual assault in her youth and more than one out of two experience a serious case of sexual harassment. One indication of the magnitude of the problem is the number of celebrities who reported rape and other sexual assaults in their youth.

4) I don’t have an answer to the “what to do” question. Personally, I do not support harsher prison sentences. I think that the denial is damaging. Often people instinctive denial is translated to specific cases; typical reactions I have heard for cases where people were convicted: a) “I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” (It is up to the court to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt not up to every bystander) b) “There is the presumption of innocence” (yes, but not for people after they were found guilty), c) “”I want to see the evidence myself” (and then what? to cross examine the witnesses yourself? not really, you simply want to disbelieve) etc. etc.

354. Tyle Says:

Dorothy #350, this should really go without saying, but… Regarding sticking your penis in someone’s mouth without asking, the problem is not that *nobody* would like this, it’s that some people would find this very disturbing. So unless you know which of these cases you are in, you can’t just stick your penis in someone’s mouth. Amy has already said good things about this, see her comments about communicative norms in the BDSM community.

Also, thanks for your comments about consent being an impossibly confusing concept – you may have been serious, but it gave me a good laugh. (“Do I need permission for every third thrust???? OMG this is so hard!” lol) To keep it constructive, I’ll just add – although this also really should go without saying – that while obviously it’s possible to dream up scenarios in which it’s hard to discern whether both parties have consented to a sexual act, these scenarios are easily avoided. Just ask your partner if she wants to have sex with you before getting started.

355. Amy Says:

Dorothy #350, what you’ve described, by the law of our land here, is rape. If you’re in a relationship in which you guys do that sort of thing to each other and you’re happy about it, that’s your business. If one of you becomes unhappy about it and decides to go to the police, then you have a problem. I don’t think there’s really any more to say about that. You asked me for my definition; I gave it, and it happens to be the legal definition in this country, so no, it isn’t some strange, idiosyncratic notion.

Nick and Rahul #352, yes, we do two-body solution, but that’s an anomaly. If you go and work in industry for any sizeable US company you’re likely to find anti-nepotism rules that are enforced. They are a giant pain in the ass and were the subject of many outraged magazine stories when they started being implemented in the 90s, but they also have a lot of fans amongst employees who’ve had to live through Divorce Wars of the Titans.

I also have to say I don’t understand the swift outcry about not being able to date where you work, particularly if you live in a big city. It’s not 1983. Many dating sites are alive and well. I live in the middle of nowhere, the local population of dateable, appropriate men is miniscule, I’m not young, and I’ve been a breadwinning, custodial single parent of a young child, and yet I’ve still managed to have long relationships (if a bit exhausting and involving travel). If I can make that work here, I think single childless metro-area guys can probably make a go of it too. (Handily, actually. My New York women friends have complained forever that there are No Men looking for serious relationships.) If you have to stretch yourself so that your campus is not a hunting ground for olds, I don’t see this as a terrible thing. I notice you also ignore the problems that dating-the-prof creates for the students.

356. Amy Says:

Frederick #351 – the given definition is DoJ’s, which looks reasonable if narrow to me. The bit about coercion would run afoul of California’s new rule, and frankly I have no problem with that, either. Why should I be bullying someone into having sex with me? That’s not right, and for all I know may be as damaging to that man as rape was to me.

To argue in a manner that lays out coercion as “not that bad” is a bit of a problem, no? We do codify coercion in other legal contexts, so if some enterprising legal mind wanted to extend this to sex, I’d be interested to see how that might go.

357. Rahul Says:

@Tyle #354:

(“Do I need permission for every third thrust???? OMG this is so hard!” lol)

Life is stranger than fiction. If memory serves me right, circa 2006 there was a US Supreme Court case on very close to the same topic.

I don’t remember the gory details, but I think it was the court ruling about at what point in the sexual act does it become (if at all) an involuntary reflex from a conscious act.

i.e. If a woman gave consent could she revoke it once the act starts & till what point. IOW, is there a point of no return at which a man may reasonably claim that he was incapable of stopping.

358. Amy Says:

Also, Rahul, re “sorry if this seems mean” — this should be a cue to you not to post it, then. From the drawer that’s got “I don’t mean this in a racist way.”

Back to Dorothy #350, though. Dorothy, if you have no friends who were raped, you and your friends are extremely fortunate. Amongst my college and local friends…including men who were raped as boys, I’d say the ratio’s now somewhere between a quarter and a third. I heard about most of those only in the last five years, which is maybe not surprising; as a society we’re talking a lot more about rape than we used to. I only started talking about mine maybe three years ago.

The large numbers, incidentally, come from Pew and other reputable polling sources. There’s not some den of Steinem trolls manufacturing the numbers. WHO reports similar numbers worldwide in developed countries, higher in third-world countries. Here, incidentally, the numbers are not one in ten, but one in five. According to some polls one in four. Those are women who voluntarily report having been raped at some point in their lives. The polling companies are not amateur or student outfits and my guess is they defined “rape” clearly and non-controversially in asking the question.

It has been quite remarkable to me, over the last few years, watching the rhetorical acrobatics people go through in trying to get away from and discredit those reports, as well as reports of individual rapes. I can list them for your here:

Individual:

– she’s lying
– she just wants attention (hell of a way to do it)
– she wants revenge (she might’ve picked an easier way)
– she’s trying to extort money (again, easier ways to get money)
– she’s mad he broke up with her (I can accept a few loons like this per decade, but the accusation gets trotted out every time)
– she’s nuts
– she’s a sad case not as famous as the accused and wants to jumpstart her career (when’s the last time you heard of a career jumpstarted by being raped?)

Reports:

– People just like to think of themselves as victims (so they…tell random people they were raped? Does this happen in your department?)
– People just want attention (what is this thing with attention? Is this actually the listener’s annoyance at having to *pay* attention?)
– The numbers are made up (actually no)
– The numbers come from untrustworthy sources (also no)
– They define rape in some crazy way that’s like “he made me feel bad” (nope)
– It can’t possibly be true (is this how you deal with things in your lab when the data keep turning up in a way that surprises you?)
– It’s a tiny cadre of serial rapists doing it (we’re back to the very busy subhuman monster)
– it’s the women’s fault (dress, alcohol, breathing near men)

A very simple explanation of the repeatedly high poll numbers is that there’s actually quite a lot of rape that goes unreported to the police, and — given that our subhuman fraternity monsters really cannot be everywhere at once — a pretty fair number of guys committing the rapes. If you were studying this in another species, you’d say, “damn, this a rapey species” or — if you couldnt see evidence of rape on the females, and had to rely on their say-so, you’d wonder whether there was some plot against the male of the species. But since it’s not as though the outcry from women’s groups is “Lock up millions of men, destroy!” but “We want this to stop and for life to be safer for women!”, it seems unlikely, no? It isn’t as though some evil cadre of 20-25% of women are hellbent on destroying men; we’d just like the attacks to stop. And in that, if you ask me — given the number of women attacked — women show remarkable constraint.

359. Rahul Says:

Gil Kalai #353:

So far as I know the general spirit of these rules is:

(a ) TAs: OK to have a relationship with anyone except students in classes assigned to them.

(b ) Professors & undergrads: Always forbidden

(c) Professors & Grad Students not of the same department: Allowed

(d) Professors & Grad Students of the same department when student has a reporting / power relationship: Forbidden.

(e) Professors & Grad Students not of the same department where no supervisory relation exists: Frowned upon though not strictly forbidden. Mandatory for professor to pre-declare the potential conflict of interest. ( i.e. Chair will watch you like a hawk)

360. Rahul Says:

Amy #355:

“I also have to say I don’t understand the swift outcry about not being able to date where you work, particularly if you live in a big city. It’s not 1983.”

That’s like asking a White man of the 1920’s “What’s the big deal about anti-miscegenation laws? Aren’t there so many white women you could anyways marry? Why do you care if you cannot date this particular black lady. “

361. dorothy Says:

Amy #355 I didn’t expect us to agree 🙂

However, I just wanted to be clear that your view is not some universal female truth.

I don’t even agree with your interpretation of the law. As you may know, the law of consent is not uncontroversial or without subtleties of interpretation. It would be madness to suggest, in my view, that there is never any implied consent for one half of a couple to present themselves overtly sexually to their partner. Are partners, in your view, always to approach sex with each other as if they have never met before?

If you accept the concept of some form of limited implied consent, which I think you should otherwise you end up in the ridiculous situation I described earlier, then what exactly you have consented to implicitly is of course the key question. This is entirely context dependent and a matter of the facts of the situation.

In some situations and contexts people have consented to having their partner place his or her genitals on or in their mouth even though they didn’t actually talk about it. I feel to say otherwise is just dishonest. If you can’t imagine such a situation, I suggest you try a little harder. Clearly if it turns out you didn’t want it after all, you should say so and the other person should immediately comply.

362. dorothy Says:

Tyle #354

” So unless you know which of these cases you are in, you can’t just stick your penis in someone’s mouth.”

I don’t think anyone could disagree with that! I hope it was clear that what I said didn’t contradict that. The question is, can you know the case you are in without asking (e.g. you are in bed naked, have had sex 3 times that week in various different ways, clearly in love, enjoyed the same thing last time, looks in the mood etc) or do you really have to each time explicitly ask if that is what they want.

“Also, thanks for your comments about consent being an impossibly confusing concept – you may have been serious, but it gave me a good laugh. ”

Thank you! I hoped someone might enjoy it 🙂

“Just ask your partner if she wants to have sex with you before getting started.”

So here is the problem. First, it would be a stupid world if a loving couple couldn’t just kiss each other and eventually move to have sex without having to stop and ask. And second, there is an extreme view being expressed here that it’s not enough to ask “do you want to have sex?” You have to ask about every aspect of having sex at all times. You can’t place your penis/vagina here or there without asking first no matter how far into having sex you are. This is not a world which is realistic or desirable in my view.

363. Ignorantmale Says:

FWIW The official UK figures are that 0.5% of women had suffered a serious sexual assault in a particular recent 12 month period. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/214970/sexual-offending-overview-jan-2013.pdf

Quote: “To put these figures into context, over the same period,
2.2 per cent of adults had been a victim of a violent crime resulting in injury in the last 12 months. ”

I don’t know how to extrapolate the yearly figure to a lifetime one.

364. Ignorantmale Says:

Oh actually it’s all in there.

” 5.3 per cent of females had been the victim of a serious sexual offence (including attempts) compared to 0.5 per cent of males “

365. Scott Says:

Gil #353: While you don’t make your position exactly clear, you indicate that you might support banning both prostitution and pornography, as part (though not all) of the feminist movement wants to. Unfortunately, you don’t give any arguments for your position, only state in passing that an argument I had made, riffing off of Amy’s arguments, is “familiar and wrong.”

So it’s not clear that there’s anything for me to respond to, but FWIW, I’d like to point out a tension between your position and a different feminist position.

Namely, when they address shy, nerdy males at all, radfems often say some variant of: “aw, boo-hoo! Just because you’re too scared to make romantic overtures toward women, it’s absurd to claim that you’re ‘suffering’ or ‘deprived’ of anything. I mean, if you were really that desperate, you could always just hire a prostitute.” Or: “if you were really that desperate, you could always just stay home and watch porn.” Well, if you outlaw those things (and seriously enforce the laws), what becomes of that argument?

So it seems to me that the neo-Victorian prudery of (e.g.) Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon is extremely damaging, not only to nerdy males, but ultimately to feminism itself. If you effectively say to millions of males: “our political program is to think of every possible consensual way you might alleviate your misery, and close them off one by one. We will ban A and B, justifying it by pointing out that you still have C, but then we’ll ban C too”—if you do that, then you’ll necessarily alienate a large proportion of the people who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminist concerns, and predominantly at the young, impressionable age when you most want to reach them.

Again, I’m trying to help the feminist cause! Even if it requires verbalizing something that almost no one says in polite company.

366. Ignorantmale Says:

Scott #365 There is already in existence already an infinite quantity of porn. You could ban the production and importing of porn today and for the next thousand years no one who wanted to watch porn would be without it.

367. Rahul Says:

An aside but without porn the internet backbone would sure look deserted. Isn’t porn like the single largest bandwidth component of internet traffic?

368. Scott Says:

Ignorantmale #366: Yes, of course, but there’s a question of principle at stake. Even if something is easily available in practice, the fact that it’s illegal can, in some people, be enough to induce totally-unnecessary feelings of toxic guilt; and even if it’s legal, the fact that prestigious people and organizations want to outlaw it can do likewise. (Incidentally, the same is true of recreational drugs.)

369. Anon. Says:

Amy, can you link me to these polls that say 1 in 5 women have been raped? I’m not sure I believe that.

Here’s Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature”:

“Junk statistics from advocacy groups are slung around and become common knowledge, such as the incredible factoid that one in four university students has been raped. (The claim was based on a commodious definition of rape that the alleged victims themselves never accepted; it included, for example, any incident in which a woman consented to sex after having had too much to drink and regretted it afterward.) An imperfect but serviceable dataset is the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, which since 1973 has methodically interviewed a large and stratified sample of the population to estimate crime rates without the distorting factor of how many victims report a crime to the police. The survey has several features that are designed to minimize underreporting. Ninety percent of the interviewers are women, and after the methodology was improved in 1993, adjustments were made retroactively to the estimates from earlier years to keep the data from all years commensurable. Rape was defined broadly but not too broadly; it included sexual acts coerced by verbal threats as well as by physical force, and it included rapes that were either attempted or completed, of men or of women, homosexual or heterosexual. (In fact, most rapes are man-on-woman.)

in thirty-five years the rate has fallen by an astonishing 80 percent, from 250 per 100,000 people [per year] over the age of twelve in 1973 to 50 per 100,000 in 2008. In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized.”

Note that 50 per 100,000 per year is at most 100 per 100,000 women per year. If women live for 70 years after age 12, that’s around 7000 per 100,000, or 7% (we also need to account for rapes of women under 12, but those are probably relatively rare).

Of course, as Pinker mentioned, rape used to be much more common, so it’s possible a lot of older women have been raped 40 years ago. So maybe the number of women raped in their lifetimes really is 20%, but most of these rapes occurred a long time ago. Incidentally, maybe the difference between Amy’s and dorothy’s experiences has to do with a difference in age, since rape has gotten less common over time.

370. Scott Says:

Amy #358: My understanding is that reliable statistics about these matters (e.g., the incidence of false rape claims) simply don’t exist; in any case, the answers probably depend strongly on how the question is phrased. What we have, mostly, is the testimony of people like yourself who are courageous enough to share their stories.

371. Gil Kalai Says:

Hi Scott,

You wrote: “I’d like to point out a tension between your position and a different feminist position.

Namely, when they address shy, nerdy males at all, radfems often say some variant of: “aw, boo-hoo! Just because—partly because of us, admittedly—you’re too scared to make romantic overtures toward women, it’s absurd to claim that you’re ‘suffering’ or ‘deprived’ of anything. I mean, if you were really that desperate, you could always just hire a prostitute.”

I find it hard to believe that anybody sensible, certainly not a person with a feminist point of view, will give such an advice. Do you have a reference?

“if you do that, then you’ll necessarily alienate a large proportion of the people who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminist concerns, and predominantly at the young, impressionable age when you most want to reach them.”

It appears that the vast majority of women (and men) in the sex industry are not accompanying rich men on exotic vacations, but rather are terribly abused. To buy your sympathy you ask feminists to avoid even making people feel guilty about it. If this is the alternative maybe they should give up on your sympathy.

372. Scott Says:

Gil #371: Then isn’t it obvious that the solution is to have strong laws to protect the women (and men) against abuse? As I’m sure you realize, it’s a lot easier to regulate a legal industry than an illegal one.

373. Scott Says:

OK, as long as we have so many articulate commenters here, I have one last mini-essay that I’d like to get people’s reactions to, before closing down this thread—which, alas, is taking too much of my time. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about “the problem of the shy male nerd.” If I do, then this thread will have been extremely valuable in refining my thoughts, and will have more than repaid the time spent on it. These problems are (thankfully) no longer the slightest bit relevant to my life, but they affect so many young people in math and science—and the stigma against mentioning them in “respectable” circles is so immense—that using my tenured freedom to talk about these things does seem like one of my best hopes to do some lasting good for humanity.

The Shy Male Nerd and the Problem of Other Minds

According to the theory of Simon Baron-Cohen (i.e., Borat’s cousin), the shy, nerdy, autism-spectrum males who we’ve been talking about here tend to be “hyper-masculine” in their thought patterns. This suggests one possible explanation for the problems they face, which I’d here like to explore. Namely, such males might find it impossible even to imagine what it would be like to be sexually attracted to a male, or what could make a male sexually attractive to anyone.

In my own case, I find I have zero intuition about which men are attractive and which aren’t, even though most men seem to have at least some such intuition. Is George Clooney handsome? I guess he is, because other people say so. It’s like colorblindness.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but having an orifice penetrated? How could anyone find such an ordeal pleasurable, or even non-horrible? There’s a failure of imagination here, a philosophical problem of other minds, for which no intellectual understanding can fully compensate.

And this failure of imagination has major implications for young, inexperienced male nerds. A cute girl in class is smiling at you, goes up to talk to you. Could it mean she’s attracted? Could it even mean she thinks about you in the same sort of way you think about her?

No, it couldn’t possibly. You wouldn’t be sexually attracted to a hairy creature that looked like you, so why would someone else be? The very impossibility of imagining how your hopes could be true—or rather, of simulating the mental states of the other person that would make them true—feels like evidence that they’ve got to be false.

The only cure for this problem that I know about is experience. If it turns out enough times that, holy cow, she was attracted to you, then at some point it becomes like the double-slit experiment: no, on some deep level, you can’t grasp how the world could be this way, but you learn to proceed as though it is.

And that brings us to something several commenters mentioned before: how could universities, in a hypothetical world where they cared about such things, run sexual-assault prevention programs that would achieve the intended effects (maybe even better than today’s programs), while not needlessly exacerbating nerdy male fears?

I think a key observation is this: in the feminist discourse about date-rape, domestic violence, and even just men being boors within relationships, the question of why the woman invited such a horrible man into her life in the first place is always left unasked. And there’s a clear reason why: because it’s felt that exploring the answer would constitute “blaming the victim” for her choices, and take us back to the 1950s.

But there’s another issue, which is not widely understood, and which has nothing to do with “blaming the victim.” Namely, leaving out women’s agency in these matters means that the discourse becomes an endless loop of despair, of stories that start in the middle, rush to a horrifying end, and leave out the beginning:

“A girl is in a boy’s dorm room, making out with him. Then the boy rapes her. The girl feels like she wants to die.”

I’d like to examine a young, inexperienced male nerd’s reaction to hearing 10 or 20 or 100 stories with the above arc. Not only has he never done anything like the heinous acts described—not only can he not imagine doing anything so awful to another human being—he’s never even been in any situation at all like the ones being talked about. As a result, his curiosity is automatically drawn to different questions than the ones he’s supposed to focus on. It would be as if Air Force cadets were warned over and over about certain reckless maneuvers they must never attempt at risk of killing their crewmates, with the message reinforced by horrifying montages of charred bodies and planes descending in flames, then sent off to war without being told how to start the engine or take off.

What’s the cumulative impact of this on the nerd’s psyche? The nerd takes away some message like the following:

The world is full of horrible, violent men, yet somehow, at least according to this workshop, women keep consenting to be in sexual situations with them—a prospect that, for me, is as much a fantasy as walking on Titan. Maybe all men, deep down, are this horrible and violent, in which case I should feel tremendous guilt about my very existence. Or maybe I’m not like the men they’re describing—and it’s because I’m unlike them that I’ve never even been in a situation where the things discussed in this workshop are relevant. If so, then what a hateful world to have been born into!

Now, what positive and uplifting message could a program offer, to ward off trains of thought like the above? No one would ever mistake me for a psychologist, but let me give it a shot:

“Look, everyone, these women didn’t invite rapists up to their rooms, specifically in order to spite nerdy males like yourselves. They didn’t do it because, like Jesus, they were sent into the world to suffer and be victims. They didn’t do it because they knew, or suspected, that the guys were going to rape them, and they secretly wanted it. They didn’t do it because they lacked the agency to say no—so that the guys were already evil even to do the things that the women agreed to. The reason the women put themselves into such vulnerable positions with exploitative men is straightforward: because they were sexually attracted to them. They, too, were interested in a possible sexual relationship, except they wanted to pursue it at their own pace, a pace the men criminally ignored. And it’s not that the women were attracted to the men because they were predators. Rather, it’s that they wanted male affection so badly that they were willing to physically endanger themselves in pursuit of it, despite what they knew in general about the possibility of rape and assault.”

“Think about that! Even if you can’t understand heterosexual female desire, even if your brain is wired in such a way that you’ll never understand it, think about how strong it would need to be for women to take these risks for it. Yes, you are different from the men we described in the horror stories—you’re better than them, more moral—but empirically, it’s been found that female desire can latch onto you as it can onto them. And when it does, you, unlike them, can do something about it while retaining a clear conscience. That’s the gift you have; that’s why you’re lucky to be you and not them.”

“So speaking in my official capacity, on behalf of the Campus Sexual-Assault Prevention Center, the University Feminist Alliance, the President, the Provost, and the Board of Trustees: if you meet a girl you like, then I hereby give you my formal sanction to ask her out on a date. If she says no, you should move on. But if she says yes, and the date goes well, then—always asking and waiting for enthusiastic consent—I also formally sanction you to try to take things to the next step. No, I do more than sanction you: I all but order you to do this. If you see yourself as a decent human being, I say you’re ethically obligated to. For if you don’t ask, then for all you know, you might be denying some poor girl one of the greatest pleasures of her life—and how could you do that? What kind of person are you, anyway?”

Many people will say that it’s not universities’ business to say stuff like this. I’d reply that, for better or worse, universities have already made the decision to get involved in their students’ sex lives—so then the only question is how well and how compassionately they do it.

374. Amy Says:

Rahul, honestly, I live hundreds of miles from anything resembling a major city, and I’ve had all the obligations and responsibilities of raising, supporting, and caring for a young child. If I’ve been able to date under these circumstances — while, I might add, protecting my child from the vagaries of my romantic life — you cannot possibly expect me to be sympathetic to a childless, metropolis-dwelling fellow who puts his ability to date whoever wanders down his hallway ahead of his responsibility to maintain a safe and welcoming environment for students of the opposite sex. That’s simply arrant selfishness, in my book. Not to mention considerable laziness. Nope, no sympathy points from me.

Let me repeat this: The rules against dating your students are not there for your convenience. They exist to protect the students and thereby the university.

You’re giving me a window into STEM psyches, by the way, that I had not imagined still existed. I don’t wonder that women in STEM say the things they do about their work environments, if you’re anything like representative. And yes, having worked in other environments, I can tell you that actions springing from attitudes like yours are simply not tolerated in other places. For which I am grateful, for both myself and my daughter.

375. Amy Says:

Scott – so your solution to the problem of these young men’s bafflement at women’s sexual behavior and their misreading of sexual-harassment workshops is that they should…harass women on campus for the women’s own good?

I’m thinking that this is not a brilliant solution. Also, the “wonderful nice nerdy us vs. the horrifying Neanderthals” narrative is not one that’s got legs, so using that as a basis for the theorizing, can’t say it’s a great idea.

Perhaps we should go back to the idea of teaching such young men how not to misread what they’re getting from the sexual-assault workshops (which are developed for broad audiences).

The problem of reading these things through the filter of autism is, I think, a separate one. I do think it’s something that needs much more discussion and attention.

376. Scott Says:

Amy #375:

so your solution to the problem of these young men’s bafflement at women’s sexual behavior and their misreading of sexual-harassment workshops is that they should…harass women on campus for the women’s own good?

What?? That’s an unbelievably mean-spirited reading of what I said. I expected more from you.

My imagined speech told nerds to ask a girl they like once for a date, and then leave her alone forevermore if she says no. Do you really believe that constitutes “harassment”? If you do, then you’re advocating what I came after years to see, and still wish to see, as the “absurd, straw-woman, paranoid fantasy version” of what feminists think. I don’t want to live in a world where asking someone once for a date is sexual harassment, and I take solace from the fact that I don’t think most women do either.

377. Rahul Says:

Amy #374:

Thanks. And personally, I’m glad that there are not more women like you, especially in the places I’ve worked with. Most of my female colleagues have been genuinely helpful & extremely nice people.

In fact, your sort of extremist, militant wacko views in a colleague would make her very annoying to work with. Perhaps your male-hate is justified, if you project how guys react to a person like you to how they interact with women in general.

And let me repeat this: I’ve not been advocating breaking any rules against dating your students. Me and a few other commentators are merely trying to make *you* understand what the actual rules are. There seems to be a wide gulf between the rules in reality & your conception of it.

Which isn’t surprising, looking at how much at odds your own personal definition of rape was with the legal codes.

You can very well go about advocating your extremist, draconian rules: “Absolutely zero relationships within institutions & universities, particular circumstances be damned!” But please don’t give people the impression that that’s what the rulebook says.

378. Rahul Says:

Scott #376:

For what it matters, what you described didn’t sound anywhere close to harassment at all.

And yes, I don’t think most women I’ve known & worked with (at least in STEM departments; perhaps women in sociology are different! ) have thoughts & opinions anywhere close to Amy. Thank goodness for that!

379. Amy Says:

Scott, it’s not meant as meanspirited at all. You’re proposing (I’m assuming this isn’t serious, btw) that the university *direct young men to hit on women when they see ones they like*.

Maybe you’ve missed all the recent talk about street harassment, but no, women don’t need dozens more men interrupting their days to ask them for dates or “show their appreciation”. We don’t need universities directing young men to hit on us in order — bizarrely — to save us from bad guys.

1. Rather than foisting yourself on women who don’t know you (and about whom you know nothing, other than how they look), get to know a woman within some context you share, whether that’s a class or a shared interest or a dating site where people are there specifically looking for dates, and once you actually have some sense of who this person is and know that you like and are attracted to her, and also have some inkling that she may like you back, ask her out.

2. Let women ask you out.

I just had after-work drinks with a former student who now works in our department, and the fact that she sits behind a desk in a public office seems to make a certain subset of young men believe that she’s there to field sexual/romantic advances. In fact she isn’t, and it’s making the job increasingly unpleasant for her. We’ve already had to reprimand one person who ought to’ve known better. She’s actually a valuable employee, and if this sort of thing keeps up she’ll likely look for something else where she doesn’t have to keep dealing with this.

(If the reaction is “why would she be offended? I wouldn’t be offended, I’d love it!” I’d direct any such reader, once again, to Google. Plenty of explanation awaits.)

380. Amy Says:

(Unless I’ve misread your meaning in “when you see a girl you like.”)

381. Observer Says:

Scott, you had the difficult task of figuring these things out for yourself, as no university is going to teach you.

There is a school of thought that most of what society tells you about male-female relations is wrong. It says that men and women are so different that a man cannot understand women by trying to put his mind in her place. He has to study the human nature of those difference, and learn from masters who have figured it out. And he has to take the “red pill” to symbolically unlearn what he has been taught.

The info is available in books, blogs, and seminars. Some of it is labeled for pick-up artists, and it comes with all sorts of politically incorrect comments. It has its own peculiar jargon and mantras. While some of it may seem manipulative or exploitive, most of it is not, and consists of lessons in flirting skills.

One of the lessons is to identify “indicators of interest”. These are signals from women that many men are completely oblivious to. Men are apt to think, “why doesn’t she just tell me if she likes me”. She might, but most women don’t.

The pick-up artists have no interest in stalking or harassing women with unwanted advances. They believe in approaching the women who show interest.

Another lesson is to have flirtatious conversations or text messages that show interest without seeming creepy. For the shy nerdy male, this is a tricky one. Without some practice or coaching, you will almost always fail.

While much of the material is oriented towards the quick seduction, a lot of it also by people who are firm believers in old-fashioned relationships and marriage, and they insist that many of the techniques are essential to maintaining the spark in a long-term marriage. Wives are happier too, when the husbands understand them better.

You will not learn this stuff thru reputable channels. I would recommend that a shy nerdy 18-year-old boy hire some sort of dating coach, unless he has a dad or brother to teach him. It is one of those things like public speaking that come naturally to some people while terrifying most people, but they can learn with proper training.

382. Shmi Nux Says:

Scott, since we are now well into the hypothetical first-year remedial sex ed for nerds, your apparent emphasis on males being necessarily active and females offering passive if enthusiastic, consent, then maybe it is also worth educating aforementioned females that if they are attracted to these nerdy types, then they should take charge if they want to get anywhere, and not just give their subtle standard social clues and assume that the other party would pick up on it. Also, run-on sentences suck.

383. Gil Kalai Says:

Scott: “Then isn’t it obvious that the solution is to have strong laws to protect the women (and men) against abuse? As I’m sure you realize, it’s a lot easier to regulate a legal industry than an illegal one.”

No, the main abusive aspect in prostitution is its own nature. Regulations largely protect the clients and lead to having along with the regulated “industry” additional illegal one. I think that a large consensus in the feminist view is that if you ban prostitution (which is indeed illegal in the US and many countries) you should regard the client as committing a crime, but not the prostitute. Sweden is mentioned as a place were this policy is enforced successfully.

384. A STEM woman Says:

Scott,

Thank you for this thread — it’s been fascinating.

I’m a STEM woman who has been involved with teaching/mentoring teenagers at various summer programs, and elsewhere. I’m particularly interested in helping women to thrive in STEM environments, and have realized this is something that requires support from the men in the environment — peers particularly.

So it’s really useful to get a thoughtful point of view on the male nerd sexual coming of age experience — thank you.

A brief comment on my teenage experience of The Problem of Other Minds, shy female nerd version:

My impressions, growing up, were that (a) stereotypical male sexuality was kind of scary, (b) typical males were not actually interested in geeky, unattractive me (c) sexual harrassment did happen, not to me, but to other girls, and I didn’t really understand why — but it probably had to do with the fact that, supposedly, guys were spending all their time thinking about having sex with girls of the attractive, not-like-me, type.

This led to some basic level of unwillingness to trust guys, or to talk to them about these sorts of subjects, because I was afraid I wouldn’t like what I’d hear — and I’m sure some of this is still with me, even as an adult.

385. Amy Says:

Incidentally, I agree with Gil #371 – that sounds like no feminist I’ve ever talked with or read. I didn’t see the “hire a prostitute” thing coming at all (nor the equation of lonely with horny), and…okay, about this meanspiritedness with the boo-hoo.

In my experience you really have to push most women pretty hard before they get mean like that. The feminists I know and read are generally pretty careful to think about and consider other people’s points of view — you have to, in a community that comprises so many different backgrounds, experiences, sexualities, desires, interpretations, advantages and disadvantages. But a refusal to acknowledge one’s own privilege, advantages, power, call it what you will, in a political economy that’s really about sorting privilege with an eye to fairness…sure, I can see that getting you some eyerolls and anger.

And to be honest, I don’t really understand it in your conversation, myself. I’m well aware that despite the difficulties of single motherhood and being responsible for keeping a family while female, I have a great many advantages, completely unearned, some of them historical. I’m white (a relative novelty; in my childhood, Jews didn’t rate as white), have a nice mind, a prestigious degree, talent in things people pay both money and respect for. I spent a long time being pretty. I’m very healthy, remarkably so given how I’ve lived the last ten years, and I enjoy things that engender health; don’t really enjoy the sorts of things that lead to dissolution. I was born into an intellectual household in a family of professionals and successful businessmen. I like sex with men. And so on. I even get credit for having a nice, smart, thoughtful kid, even though, as every parent knows, mostly kids just are who they are. There are reasons why I’ve been able to do as well as I have, for myself and for the kid, and only some of it has to do with working hard and enterprisingly.

I know that there are people with much more tenuous holds on the world who’ve also had a better time, been happier. That makes my privileges no less real, and these things are meaningful generationally. I know I keep going back to this, but I don’t hear you saying anything about how your privileges will benefit your child. Life is genuinely grinding for most people once they get past 45 or so, but those of us with liberty to do our own work, remain physically free and largely in control of our own time, graced with excellent insurance and benefit packages…you know, we have much easier lives, and when we look at our kids, we know that they likely will, too. That’s a big thing, a very big thing.

So I look at what I can see of your situation, and I see a young guy at the top of a well-respected field and in a legendary lab, tenured in a magnificent racket where he’s guaranteed a healthy income till he retires (and he’ll get to retire), happily married, nice baby, and I think: what on earth is there to complain about? How is this not privilege? You were unhappy? Who doesn’t have time unhappy? Listen, if you’re lucky, you’ll know a lot more unhappiness before you’re done.

I’m halfway through, I figure: so far I already know rape, suicide, dementia, poverty, chronic illness, mental illness, divorce, exhaustion, various forms of abuse, unemployment with a young child, the loss of career dreams. I’m old enough now that I have friends dying without meaning to, and find that what happens is that you’re obliged to carry them with you until it’s your turn, too. They aren’t light. I think they call this life. It seems to me the question, and the thing that defines privileges, is this: Despite life, can you get by? Can you do right by your children? Can you rest when you’re tired and ill? Is there pleasure now and then? If you’re very lucky, can you make a thing worth making, are you that free and gifted?

What else can be important?

Amy #375: that was an insane misreading of what Scott said. He started with the point that, even if you (a naive, shy young man) can’t imagine it, women do have sexual desires that they would like to be fulfilled, and moved on to conclude that it is perfectly acceptable to begin attempting to see if you might be a suitable object of those desires (should you wish to be) by politely asking the woman out on a date.

Why in the world did you feel it necessary to respond in such a flippant manner to so reasonable a proposal? The foundation of all of Scott’s arguments is that we are all adults and as such can be expected to handle the stressors of normal interaction, like being asked out on a date. Personally I was uncomfortable asking for dates in random social situations but I solved that problem by moving to Internet dating, where I knew the women I wrote had made the adult decision to put themselves in a position where they could be contacted by strangers and possibly asked out.

387. Vitruvius Says:

“What??” (#376) indeed! So it only took you 375 comments to figure it out, Scott: Amy is that absurd paranoid version of feminist you had hoped did not exist. You should require no more evidence than that a topic ostensibly about the behaviour of Walter Lewin and the behaviour of MIT has become a discussion of Amy and Amy’s “feelings” and Amy’s “definition” of harassment and Amy’s definition of sex and Amy’s whole statistically unrealistic model of reality, all conducted under the guidance of Amy’s 45 comments (so far) and Amy’s sexual “revolution”. Have people forgotten that Franz Kafka said that “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy”?

Meanwhile, there has been effectively no discussion of the feelings of Walter Lewin, of what he actually did, and of the context of what he did (which MIT won’t tell us) from his perspective. Most people seem to accept that he has mis-behaved sufficiently, even knowing how badly MIT has handled some other files in the past, even knowing about Duke’s gang of eight-eight and of Rolling Stone magazine’s fiasco, even knowing about how rent seeking and producer capture affect MIT’s administration, and so even knowing that we do not have any good data, and so pace Sherlock Holmes’ dictum thereto from A Scandal in Bohemia. Have people forgotten that Einstein said that “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth”?

What if Walter simply said something like you related in your penultimate and imaginary paragraph of your #373 above, Scott, and someone like Amy mis-interpreted it in her Amy-like way, and it hit MIT’s administration on a bad day, and escalated from there? Does anyone here care about how many sigmas of confidence we have in the degree of badness of what Walter did, or what his intentions were? Have people forgotten that Voltaire said that “It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one”?

Why does no-one here care about good data, and about Walter? Why does no-one care about how Walter feels and about what his intentions were and what his desired goals were and about how they have been represented and mis-represented, about how they have been interpreted and mis-interpreted? That’s what I can’t figure out: Why doesn’t anyone care about Walter? Is it because he’s an old man? Are you people here being ageist and sexist simultaneously? Do I have to wait until you’re all old enough to understand that old people have their ways and their feelings too? Do I have to wait until you’re a doddering eighty, like Walter? I hope not, because I’ll be dead long, long before then.

388. jonas Says:

Scott: I think you might be generalizing too much of your own experiences to all shy, nerdy males.

389. Vijay Says:

Scott, this has been an amazing thread. Thanks for hosting it and sharing such deeply personal and formative experience in such a brutally honest and eloquent way.

I find it depressing that after an exchange of hundreds of thousands of words, different readers (for example, Amy and myself) do not assign the same intent to the same piece of text (your essay). I say depressing because it might be that there is a threshold of miscommunication that cannot be eliminated from human interaction.

Amy, #375:

I interpret Scott’s “shy, nerdy, male” to be one absolutely terrified and incapable of making a romantic or sexual advance and also unable to comprehend how so many participate effortlessly in a seemingly impenetrable social protocols that seem weighted against oneself. The reasons for this internal perspective and their validity are complex and debatable. The consequence, which is about a third of a lifetime of social terror, isolation, silent misery and despair, is not. The notion of “miserable, nerdy us vs. socially successful Neanderthals” is not our opinion, it is our fact.

I do not believe this experience to be restricted to male-female interaction either. I know gay men with similar experiences. I have come across at least four such people. I have no idea how many exist, but they do.

How does one break free from such circumstance? To a shy, nerdy, male (very strictly in the sense above) a lot of dialogue on social interaction appears to deny you exist, or disenfranchise you by disbelieving your pain, or treat you as part of a larger group you do not remotely identify with. I must emphasise that I’m talking about how things appear from inside one’s head, and not making a statement about the social universe.

Against this background, I see Scott’s speaker as first and foremost, acknowledging this internal state of affairs, and then telling their audience how to work from within to breathe, calm down and act without freaking the hell out. I don’t interpret Scott as suggesting this message should be preached from the mountain tops. Rather, this is the kind of advice he could go back in time to give his former self and others today who inhabit that same state (again, very strictly in the sense above). If he think it would have helped his former self, I don’t see what there is to disagree about that.

390. Vijay Says:

Amy #355

I have no opinion on the matter but no-relationship norms are not universal even in private industry in the United States (or elsewhere, for that matter). I know of couples amongst family and friends in various US tech and consulting companies where relationships are a non-issue. They have anti-nepotism rules, for sure, but do not implement them in terms of no-relationship rules.

I can offer two reasons for the outcry about not being able to date where you work. The people in the workplace (not necessarily the ones you work with) are the ones you see most regularly and are the easiest to access and get to know without possibly paralyzingly heavy social or time pressure. These are also the people who can grow on you over time, and some people find it significantly easier to develop interest in and affection for other people in this mode.

A second issue is that, even in a big city, there are many people who do not enjoy going to bars, meet-up groups, or sports centers. These people rely on circumstance and coincidence. It’s not that they are too lazy to follow the other route. They may not enjoy or be able to function in these environments or around people they meet there, or the whole process might just be too stressful. The process is probably stressful for everyone, but someone people can deal with the stress and some people cannot.

A third reason is that online dating does not work for everyone. Some people are not as photogenic as others. Some cannot cook up profiles that garner attention. Being a racial or cultural minority on many dating sites is a miserable experience in being ignored (and the situation is slightly worse if you are a man rather than a woman). Minorities that have critical mass (LGBT community, large ethnic minorities) have better luck in dedicated forums, but there are enough people who fall through the cracks. See for example the OK Trends blog post that provides some data about these things.

http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/race-attraction-2009-2014/

I know of many men who would like to find partners and start families, so this tale is not exclusive to your women friends in New York. That does not mean putting such people in touch would address everyone’s needs.

To summarize, there are large companies where employees date, marry, divorce and more even today and the dating options you sketch don’t work for everyone.

That said, I completely understand why checks are required to decouple non-professional relationships from workplace power structures with student-prof interactions being of particular concern. However, I think disallowing all workplace relationships is only one way to address this concern. Different institutions and countries have their own ways to address this issue and I hope that one day we will be able to collect sensible information from these social experiments and compare notes.

391. Frederick Says:

Scott #365 (and others).

Have you considered a new blog called “Scott on sex”?

FWIW (possibly not much) I also think that government policy should be to reduce the numbers of those in prostitution and I see porn as no more than a video record of prostitution. They are both the same thing (in substance – I am not talking legally as the law, on this topic, is an ass).

Whether this is best done by making things illegal is a more complicated question which probably needs empirical evidence, god forbid. I did have an idea at one point that prostitution could be illegal for those under 25 and it could be illegal to make money from other people’s prostitution (applying my reasoning above this would apply equally to porn). So if people 25+ really wanted to video themselves having sex and sell it they could but I imagine that wouldn’t be too many. However this is better for you new blog.

392. dorothy Says:

Rahul #357 You may be talking about “post-penetration withdrawal of consent”, the “five second rule” and possibly the “Baby case”.

If thinking of that particular court case, this quote from
http://www.wcl.american.edu/modernamerican/documents/Huff.pdf is highly relevant.

“Understandably, the “five to ten seconds” timeframe upon which Baby was convicted is the key source of public outcry. However, the facts of the case were more complicated than the media would suggest.”

It should be said that the US’s laws relating to sex and sexual assault (not to mention a whole host of other women’s rights issues) have always been pretty backwards compared to the rest of the developed world.

393. Gil Kalai Says:

“It would be as if Air Force cadets were warned over and over about certain reckless maneuvers,… then sent off to war without being told how to start the engine or take off.”

Here I agree with you, Scott. It looks that young kids often derive their information about dates, relationships, and sexuality from a very unfortunate combination of unsuitable instructions that are well above their heads, and the irrelevant gymnastic they see in porn. And kids, of both genders, nerdy or not, straight or gay, need to have relevant information, consoling and support. Of course, people for whom social interrelations are more problematic need this more than others. Probably the most relevant time for this is high-school years and also the years in the university when kids are often away from home and on their own.

394. Anon. Says:

Amy #374: I think some of your arguments against dating between professors and students actually deny agency to the female students. What if a female student wants to date her professor? Do you want to deny that to her in order to protect her, because she’s not smart enough to make her own decisions?

395. Scott Says:

Amy #380:

(Unless I’ve misread your meaning in “when you see a girl you like.”)

First, I’d tell nerdy males that, while there might be rare “love-at-first-sight” exceptions, in most cases you should not know, merely from seeing what a girl looks like, whether she’s someone who it would be worth your while to go on a date with. In most cases, you should get to know her first through shared activities, and look for signs of mutual interest.

Second, believe me, the nerdy males we’re talking about are not at risk of attempting routine street pickups. For them, it would be a major step forward to do the things you suggest.

Third, there’s the famous study by Hatfield and Clark (conducted around 1980), in which men approached random women on a college campus, and women approached random men, asking (randomly) either for a date, to come back to their apartment, or to have sex with them. The most famous result of the study was that 75% of the men agreed to immediate sex, whereas 0% of the women did. 🙂 But there was another, equally striking result: 50% of the men agreed to a date, and 50% of the women did as well. And this has been replicated by later studies (and you can watch demonstrations on YouTube).

So, how do we reconcile this with your view that women see a polite request for a date from a male stranger as unwanted harassment? Yes, some of them might, but—holy cow! 50% actually agree to a date? I wouldn’t know firsthand, since I’ve never attempted such things, but the results of the studies seem pretty consistent.

396. Scott Says:

Amy #385:

So I look at what I can see of your situation, and I see a young guy at the top of a well-respected field and in a legendary lab, tenured in a magnificent racket where he’s guaranteed a healthy income till he retires (and he’ll get to retire), happily married, nice baby, and I think: what on earth is there to complain about? How is this not privilege?

Indeed, I try to remember every day how unbelievably lucky I now am to be where I am, doing the interesting things I get to do, and with a wonderful wife and daughter. I don’t complain about it for a femtosecond. But with privilege comes the responsibility to help those who are less fortunate—especially those in whose misery I might have special expertise. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do, in a small way, in this thread.

397. Scott Says:

Frederick #391:

Have you considered a new blog called “Scott on sex”?

LOL, I think I’ll wait on that one. (Also, this blog is already “Scott on whatever Scott feels like talking about at the moment.”)

398. Scott Says:

Vitruvius #387:

What if Walter simply said something like you related in your penultimate and imaginary paragraph of your #373 above, Scott, and someone like Amy mis-interpreted it in her Amy-like way, and it hit MIT’s administration on a bad day, and escalated from there?

It comes down to this: there are people at MIT who I trust, who know the situation better than I do, who might be closer to me than to Amy in their general views of what’s acceptable, and who assured me, firmly, that it was nothing of the kind. So I’m making a calculated choice to believe them. I wish I could do better than that, but I can’t. If it turns out I was wrong, I’ll admit that I made a grievous error.

399. Scott Says:

Shmi #382:

maybe it is also worth educating aforementioned females that if they are attracted to these nerdy types, then they should take charge if they want to get anywhere, and not just give their subtle standard social clues and assume that the other party would pick up on it.

Yes, a quadrillion times yes! That’s the other half of the imaginary speech, the half that I didn’t write but should have. Thank you.

400. Ben Bevan Says:

Here’s one for you Scott: do you think you would have ended up as successful in your field if you hadn’t had to go through this torment during your formative years?

401. Scott Says:

STEM woman #384:

Thank you for this thread — it’s been fascinating.

You’re welcome, and thank you!

My impressions, growing up, were that (a) stereotypical male sexuality was kind of scary, (b) typical males were not actually interested in geeky, unattractive me (c) sexual harrassment did happen, not to me, but to other girls, and I didn’t really understand why — but it probably had to do with the fact that, supposedly, guys were spending all their time thinking about having sex with girls of the attractive, not-like-me, type.

I’d love to be able to improve the lives of geeky females, not just of geeky males. And to that end, I hope the suggestion of Shmi #382 is helpful. I hope this thread has made it clear why, even if a nerdy male were extremely attracted to you, he might feel blocked by society from making a first move. Your taking charge—not sending subtle signals, but just directly, explicitly asking him—would in that case be a godsend to him.

402. Ignorantmale Says:

For Anon #369 and anyone else.

The US counterpart for the UK official rape figures I gave earlier are at http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

On page 18 the figures are given and they are pretty much what Amy claimed and so about 4 to 5 times as high as the UK numbers.

However, if you read http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/cdc-study-on-sexual-violence-in-the-us-overstates-the-problem/2012/01/25/gIQAHRKPWQ_story.html it is clear what the problem is.

To start you off here is a quote from that article

“Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation.”

403. Rahul Says:

dorothy #392:

“It should be said that the US’s laws relating to sex and sexual assault (not to mention a whole host of other women’s rights issues) have always been pretty backwards compared to the rest of the developed world.”

Could you elaborate? I always thought of the US legal framework as pretty good in this context.

Can you mention specific laws where the US law has a lacuna that other particular nations do not?

404. zermelo Says:

Amy, I just want to thank you for your contribution to this thread, although I disagree with a lot you say. (I am, or at least used to be, one of the shy nerds and identify a lot with what Scott has been describing.) I think you’ve been really constructive and patient and obviously made an effort to understand different opinions (though maybe still misunderstood e.g. Scott’s last points about approaching women?). This would not be such a great discussion without you.

I don’t know if my compliments are needed, but I just wanted to provide some counterweight to the unnecessary hostile comments from some.

405. Rahul Says:

Vitruvius #387:

“What if Walter simply said something like you related in your penultimate and imaginary paragraph of your #373 above, Scott, and someone like Amy mis-interpreted it in her Amy-like way, and it hit MIT’s administration on a bad day, and escalated from there? ………..Why does no-one here care about good data, and about Walter?”

+1

The whole saga has this mysterious air of secrecy to it. In the absence of further information, I’d rather hold my opinions before damning Walter Lewin.

I’m still not discounting the possibility entirely that once the whole details do come out I’ll be feeling sorry for Walter.

In the larger sense, I’m afraid of how we as a society have created this whole class of pseudo-crimes, i.e. conduct that is explicitly non-criminal & not punishable under any law but we are ever ready to damn a person & destroy his career by using quasi-judicial institutional processes, cloaked in secrecy, adjudicated by amateurs, denying due process & overall a sad perversion of true justice.

Scott #373: I share your pain! As a nerdy MIT undergrad, there was one point where I was convinced that a romantic interest had become scared of me due to a few very fledgling advances. I started vigilantly avoiding her, lest she felt pursued, and hating myself for ever being interested. In retrospect my paranoia was completely silly, and eventually she had opportunity to assure me of the same, but for the interim it was quite a miserable amount of self-loathing and guilt. In other words, I’m convinced the problem you described is real, and not at all uncommon.

That said, I’m not sure I agree with your prescribed fix for the situation. There are at least two issues here:

1. “Shy male nerds”. I think this represents a major mis-attribution of cause. There are plenty of shy male nerds who are legitimate stalkers, creeps, and sociopaths. I’m not sure that being either shy or nerdy is more likely to make one more respectful of women (or a better person in general, for that matter). I think there are other characteristics that led to our condition. Perhaps “over-sensitized” or “self-doubting” men? The important thing leading to our anxiety is that we were not confident in our own level of knowledge about social protocols. The absolute level of our skills is somewhat peripheral, and may have even been acceptable.

2. The book. I’m skeptical that any broadcast media can make a meaningful dent in the situation. My bookshelf already includes timeless classics such as “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “Why Men Are the Way They Are”, “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty”, etc. These books don’t really register, because the self-doubting reader thinks they are speaking to someone else. The missing link is in how to translate advice to one’s personal context, as opposed to seeking out more generalities.

If I had to take a pass at a solution, I’d say it more or less boils down to this: seeking support. There is no substitute for making a variety of friends who can provide reality checks and tell you what’s creepy or not — in exactly your personal context. I admire your consultation with a psychiatrist, though I think their advice on social protocols is often tricky to interpret, as they usually come from a different generation and peer group, and with their own set of incentives and liabilities. Maybe there should be more books written on how to make friends in college? Though there are already no shortage of websites and blogs on the subject.

Long story short, if you have any Public Service Announcement to make, I think it could simply emphasize the importance of social support for young people. Addressing that problem is the best stepping stone towards all kinds of social fulfillment (including but not limited to romantic relationships). I think too many guys try to skip this step and go straight for a soulmate, which is where their lack of skills, experiences, and support in the social arena can be a dangerous thing to both themselves and others.

I also wanted to thank Scott and Amy (and others) for the fantastic dialogue. This thread has really meant a lot to me, and I’m grateful for their thoughtfulness and openness in taking on these issues!

408. dorothy Says:

#403 I am not a lawyer etc but this is my understanding without spending too long checking my facts.

– Maternity leave. Where in the US the federal minimum maternity leave is 6 weeks in many developed countries it is one year or more. Often a large proportion of that time is paid at a high percentage of your normal salary as well.

-Part time working rights. Are there any in the US?

– Marital rape . The US it seems only made marital rape a crime in all states in 1993. The Talmud, on the other hand, made it a crime in the 6th century. The wikipedia tells me that even after 1993 the following was true “[for] married persons cohabiting (spouses living together under ordinary circumstances), many state laws were initially very restrictive, criminalizing only the “worst” forms of domestic sexual violence (e.g. requiring violence, a higher level of threat, injury etc.; and often punishing the crime less severely).”

– Rape. Until 2013 a standard legal definition of rape in the US was “The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” which meant that “Many agencies interpreted this definition as excluding a long list of sex offenses that are criminal in most jurisdictions, such as offenses involving oral or anal penetration, penetration with objects, and rapes of males.”
-Rape. I am told that over half the states have a ‘use of force’ requirement in order to prove rape.
– Legalised production of hardcore pornography.
– Others I can’t produce quickly without having to do too much research.

409. dorothy Says:

My previous comment was for Rahul #402

I would also like to thank Amy and Scott. Amy in particular has injected life and energy into what might otherwise have been a dull and predictable discussion amongst like minded people.

410. Frederick Says:

Gil Kalai #383 I hate to say it but prostitution is in no way illegal in the US. In fact I can’t think of a country where it is more obviously legal. Prostitution is only illegal if you forget to film it for profit.

411. Amy Says:

Thank you to those who thanked me! This has been occasionally frustrating but quite enlightening.

About harassment (and there is a large body of conversation about this online already, so I’d encourage those interested to go and look) – there are several reasons why it’s not nothing, the “maybe ask a random girl – 50/50, she’ll say yes!” idea.

Women go through their lives being hollered at, cornered, distracted, and having it made clear to them that they’re public “I wantcha baby” property from the time we’re maybe twelve years old. I still get this stuff, uninvited, even at my advanced age, and no, it’s not flattering. Well, okay, there was a time when it was flattering — when I was 13, and my best friend and I used to walk around collecting car honks and window shout-outs. It was flattering because we didn’t know either what it meant or how dangerous it could be. It is, in the US, relentless. And, as I say, sometimes dangerous. We have no idea who among you will be polite and take off; who will badger us for the next five minutes until we hide from you inside a store; who will start shouting abuse at us or even attack us. We don’t know which of you is going to start showing up at the corner every time we leave our apartments for class. (I’ve had two stalkers, one of them quite persistent, and had guys try to pull or steer me off a sidewalk.) You, shy young man, may be a model of tact and civility, but unfortunately many of your brethren are not. So every time you approach us, the tension level ratchets up — what does he want? Will he be nice? And we worry, too, about having to say no all the time. Not only do a lot of men have trouble taking that well, but it’s just not nice to have to do, over and over.

This is why advising numbers-games “just go for it, try it more!” advice ultimately backfires. We are after all people, not targets. So if the advice is “you already know her, you and she like each other, you feel there’s a bit of a spark, ask” — I think that’s terrific advice. “You’ve seen her around, she seems nice, you don’t really know her” — no, you’re just adding to the ambient harassment load.

Much of the back/forth here comes down, I think, to “SMN’s right to do what he can to get a date/married/family” v. “women’s right to go through their days unmolested by batteries of men giving it a try, and to be viewed at work/school as being there primarily to do their thing, not to run a daily gantlet of guys looking for dates.”

@Vitruvius, ignoring the rudeness: I have no idea how Lewin feels, and wouldn’t want to conjecture. I don’t even know the circumstances beyond what Scott and MIT have said.

@Dorothy: it’s actually worse than that – there effectively is no mandated mat leave in the US. The FMLA rules apply only to larger companies and employees with about a year’s worth of steady employment. It’s a problem, women getting fired because they’re pregnant or had a baby. Childcare is also a serious problem – not only is it hard to find any childcare at all for infants in some places, it can be extremely difficult to find qualified childcarers who’ll turn up consistently, and it tends to be extremely expensive. It’s easy to spend more on daycare than on college. The childcare difficulties and expense contribute to a lot of women’s deciding it’s not worth it and not safe for the children, so they leave work, which gives a certain set of really sour people license to complain about how useless it is to hire women because they’ll just have babies and then stab you by not coming back to work like they said they would. (The same people are seldom in favor of building a more sensible childcare and mat-leave system, and tend to refer to the kid-having in the first place as “your choice”, though they seem to rely on lots of people making that choice in order to keep their businesses running.)

In much of the US the only working rights that exist are those embodied in federal law – health/safety, a short list of labor rules, and laws to do with civil and disibility rights. Enforcing those requires a lot of free time and the willingness to spend years with (and on) lawyers. The only people who really have workplace protections are union members, and we have few unions. Most jobs are at-will, meaning an employer can fire you any time for any reason or none. Few part-time jobs come with employee benefits like health insurance, disability insurance, etc.

@Scott – Maybe the book should be called “How to Date When You Are Terrified of Women” and have a lot of those “so-and-so gives another view” boxes.

@Someone (I’m on a bus, sorry, scrolling’s making me queasy) asked whether banning student-prof dating removes women’s agency (assuming the student is a woman). These arguments are well-rehearsed (again, Google is your friend)(not really, but in that context): the answer is yes, do it. Why? Because she may say it’s fine and that she accepts the power difference, but it’s unlikely that she understands what it means. I think we’ve all seen babes in the woods wandering into these situations and how poorly they tend to come out of it. If she’s still hot for teacher when she graduates, enjoy. Again, the university may be a convenient dating pool for you, but the rule does not exist for your convenience.

I’m reminded actually of the situation in gyms. I worked in gyms for a long time, and I saw the differences between gyms where the owners viewed the floor as a meat market and gyms where the idea was that people were there to work out. Unsurprisingly, the meat markets developed bad reps. As it happens women figure it out when they’re being viewed as targets, and generally we don’t like it, particularly when that’s not why we’re there. Nobody wants to run on a treadmill when she knows the owner is sitting at a desk watching her ass.

Until pretty recently, I think, the attitude in universities has been that “everybody knows” that “Professor Hornypants” is “just gross” and [story about his poor wife, she seems really nice, why does she stay, he has daughters older than his students], etc. It seems to me that the tolerance for this is evaporating and I’m very glad.

@Ignorantmale #401 (and then I’ll stop, because the bus is making me go cross-eyed) – that research method for rape is standard. The problem is one that’s already come up here: if you say “rape”, people will think of everything from bandito-in-the-alley to “drunk guy at a party kissed me hard”. So you ask about specific actions, behaviors, perceptions, and then correlate that with the study’s definition of rape. There was a similar study done at, I think, Illinois? some years ago in which a lot of undergraduate men were surveyed, and few admitted rape, but some shocking percentage said yes to having done things that do in fact constitute rape and/or approved of men’s doing those things on dates.

I’ll just add something I’ve been thinking of for a few days, btw, which is how relentlessly hetero this conversation is, and how life-goes-date-marry-kids-grave. Which is an awfully narrow take. (I actually didn’t even have much interest in marriage; I just thought, mistakenly, that it’d make things easier since we were planning to have kids. Completely wrong, made things a legal mess.) Some surprisingly large percentage of young women in the US are uninterested in having kids. I don’t know what the numbers are like for young men. All this to say that I think the convo’s been too narrow.

412. Frederick Says:

Scott #395 I suspect the results of that survey would not be the same now. In particular I would be surprised if it is still 75 versus 0 for the sex question. It would be worth repeating it every ten years to see.

413. Rahul Says:

There’s one highly asymmetric aspect about the online learning model in this case: The students (especially in EdX ) can be totally anonymous & have no expectation of conduct nor responsibility.

i.e. The slightest infraction can damn the Professor but OTOH you can be a student & pretty rude & nasty and the worst they can do is dump you from a class that you did not even have to pay a dime for in the first place.

This asymmetry kind of irks me. It seems unfair. At least in a regular brick & mortar class the boundaries for students are more well defined & penalties for egregious conduct more likely & tangible.

I mean the same Prof. could have been on USENET or Stack Exchange or any such other online anonymous forum, have said the same thing & his conduct would have got him no repercussions.

Essentially, the University seems to be creating a litigation magnet for little or no reward in return.

414. Scott Says:

Amy: Just for you, I changed “if you see a girl you like” in comment #373 to “if you meet a girl you like.” Which means: if any shy male nerds want to try asking women they don’t know for dates, they can do it on their own, without the explicit encouragement of their university’s provost and board of trustees. 😉

But you still haven’t explained the Hatfield-Clark result. That a large fraction of women will agree to polite date invitations, phone number requests, etc. out of the blue seems like a pretty robust empirical finding (again, not that I’ve ever tried it). At most, you’ve given us strong reasons to think that you’d be among the ~50% who’d say no.

415. Zilch Says:

While 96%-99% of individuals have a conscience (the rest are sociopaths/psychopaths), zero percent of institutions literally have a conscience. The question is, how do you get institutions to at least behave as if they had a conscience? Often institutions response to the incentives they face is to simply protect their own interests with no regard for what’s right. I don’t know to what extent, if any, this applies to MIT in this particular instance, but there are plenty of examples throughout human history of institutions behaving badly, and I’m sure almost everyone has direct experience of this to varying degrees.

There’s been a lot of talk here about individual behavior, but you really can’t begin to even scratch the surface of this topic without also taking a long deep look at institutional behavior.

416. Scott Says:

Observer #381: Yes, I’m aware of the existence of the pickup artist community. However, I reject, in the strongest possible terms, the idea that nerdy males should—like the denizens of a totalitarian state—be forced by our culture to develop split-brain personalities, with one half representing what they’re allowed to say in public or in academic environments, and the other half representing what they secretly think, but which (because of its secrecy) never gets exposed to the cleansing fire of open moral criticism.

Yes, the PUA message contains kernels of truth, but it tends to be expressed in highly-offensive language and to be laced with unexamined misogyny. If some nerds feel they’ve been forced in that direction because the PUAs have been the only people to speak openly about their problem—the only ones even to acknowledge its existence as a problem—then I regard that as a sad statement about the world. To any feminists who (understandably) oppose the PUA subculture and want it to die, the upshot of this should be obvious: you can defeat this mold only with sunlight, by making it possible to address the problems of the shy nerdy male without being booed or hissed at.

417. Scott Says:

Amy #411: Incidentally, I haven’t discussed the dating problems of gays and lesbians here not because I find them uninteresting or unimportant (did you see my Alan Turing post?), but simply because I don’t want to presume to speak about something that I know much less. Well, and also, this thread already has one of the widest scopes of any blog comment thread I’ve ever participated in. (Though I won’t stop someone if they want to make it even wider.)

And we didn’t really say anything about marriage and children, so I don’t know where you got the idea that anyone was assuming that’s the only life path. I’m sure there are plenty of SMN’s who are, or would be, interested in casual dating relationships.

418. Frederick Says:

Amy #411 Thanks for the correction on mat leave.

Although I really don’t like arguing about the percentage of women who have been raped, and I admire in a way your standing by your position come what may..

Well I have now read the article about the CDC figures (and others), the CDC report and the UK report as well as a few other things. Given your clear and unambiguous definition of rape following the DoJ guidelines, it is just not possible to claim that there is any support for a figure of 20%.

Did you read the questions? ““When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” This accounts for 8% of the almost 20% they end up with.

” Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.”

And so it goes on.

So having argued that 20% is far too high what do I believe? My best guess given all the available evidence is that it is somewhere near 5%. This is 1 in 20 people is a disgustingly high number that we should all be ashamed of. If 1 in 20 men had been raped I feel that men would feel completely differently about rape in general.

I don’t expect you to agree but I would like you to at least allow the possibility that by repeatedly stating that rape is completely commonplace despite clear flaws in the surveys that support the claim and the evidence to the contrary and also claiming that a large minority of the women we all know who seem perfectly happy and have never complained about sexual violence to anyone, will have been raped, you damage the cause of feminism and the fight against sexual violence.

419. Sniffnoy Says:

Holy crap this has gotten tangled, not even going to attempt to say most of what I’d like to here (there’s more that I would like to reply to than I can even remember that I’d like to reply to). A few brief points (in the order I thought of them) before the thread is closed:

1. Given how the term “shy nerdy male” has apparently failed to get across the meaning to everyone here, I’d suggest a different term. Personally, I like to refer to the problem as “feminist paralysis”.

2. Scott: Your opening claim about theory of mind in #373 seems a bit farfetched — or, at the least, unnecessary. The skewed risk assessment suffices. (Although for me at least it wasn’t a risk assessment at all but rather deontological rules! Since that’s always how these things are framed. Honestly, I think “be consequentialist” could help to some extent with the problem, though it’s far from a solution.)

Similarly, given that, your point in #395 is irrelevant — the relevant number is not what fraction said “yes” vs. what fraction said “no”, but rather what fraction said either yes or no vs. what fraction said “How dare you!” (Except that’s not really the relevant number either, because you could still have done something unspeakably wrong and still just get a no, now you have to live forever with the possibility that you’ve done something horrible and don’t even know.)

3. Amy: I can’t find it right now, but your explanation of why many women don’t ask also seems overly complicated. There’s a much simpler explanation: Nobody wants to be in the position of asking, and at present, they can better get away with it. Just a bad equilibrium.

4. Amy: Your exhortations to use words, without any further specification, is exactly the sort of paralyzing requirements people are complaining about. Without even getting into the swamp of “some people prefer not to / what’s wrong with them”, it’s simply not implementable without having some idea of what escalations are major enough to be worth asking about. Taken literally it becomes, well, a common subject of parody (“Can I put my hand here? Here?”), but the paralyzed will take it literally anyway (not that they’ll frequently be in a position to apply it) because they believe it’s the only way to be good people. (Ozy Frantz actually wrote a decent thing on what is worth asking about, but unfortunately it was on Tumblr which is a swamp and so I’m not going to try to locate it at the moment.)

5. I forget what point I was originally going to make with this, but it is worth remembering that the natural tendency of things is that any direction-pushing advice you give will be primarily heard by those who most need to hear the opposite. Getting around this problem is hard. My hope is it can be addressed by being detailed, calibrating your abstract terms against real-world examples, and generally trying to hit a target rather than push in a direction.

(By calibration I mean things like, “What counts as ‘slow’? Is the SR-71 ‘fast’, or is it ‘slow’, since light is far faster?” Some words only make sense once calibrated, and feminism-at-large’s assumption that everyone’s using the same calibration as them is a lot of the problem here. Note that as with demonstrating any concept, you need both positive and negative examples: Not “Q and C are both fields”, but rather “Q and C are both fields, but Z is not.” And the examples shouldn’t be so far away from typical as to be useless. Etc…)

6. Some of the comments here on feminism and prostitution and/or pornography seem very off in implying some sort of consensus. Radfems and libfems are going to give you very different answers here. (Not to imply that those two groups comprise the whole of feminism. And radical feminists don’t seem to be very big these days. But still.)

7. I’d like to generally express my surprise and dismay at how nasty some of the commenters here have been to Amy.

8. Amy: It’s worth remembering that for the paralyzed feminist guy, the hard step is not initiating sex or kissing but rather doing anything at all that might imply he has or might have any sort of romantic or sexual interest in the first place, since (in his mind) basically anything that even suggests the possibility could constitute sexual harrassment. Well, OK, no — they’re all hard steps, but this is the first step, so it’s where you spend most of your time stuck. People don’t tend to focus on this because it’s harder to talk about but it’s kind of key.

9. Personally, I wonder how much of the ethics of this can be summed up as “use the same ethics you would for anything else”. Like, don’t badger people, just as you wouldn’t badger people about other things. Unfortunately if the person is generally an asshole, this is totally unhelpful! And as I mentioned above, advice like this generally gets mostly to the wrong people, so this is not a workable idea.

The reason I would be tempted to phrase it this way, though, is because to the paralyzed feminist — the person who needs to hear this message — they know they’re not supposed to pressure people on such matters, but they’re worried that every thing they might do would somehow be “pressuring”. (It is hard to phrase a request in a way that conveys absolutely no expectation at all — or at least, to do so without sounding terribly awkward.) And what I would like to say here is, no, if you want to determine whether something is “pressuring”, just do it the same way you would in any other context. (Although some people might be paralyzed about asking for things in other contexts too, for that same reason. Blech.)

(I suppose this falls under the more general strategy of “embrace imprecision, common sense, trying things once, and forgiveness”, which is in distinct tension of the other strategy I like to endorse, namely “state things precisely so we all know what we’re talking about”. But I think it is possible to make these two work together! Just not as the paralyzing interpolation that is so common.)

10. Not a statement, but — might also attempt to answer later Amy’s question of “Given everything you have going for you, why does this particular problem so upset you?”, though I’m afraid I can probably only answer that with a rant.

420. Shmi Nux Says:

Amy: (Any, actually, not just Amy)

If you have found this thread illuminating, what have you changed your mind about as a result of the discussion?

421. Scott Says:

(1) Which terminology we use doesn’t really matter to me; I just latched onto “shy male nerds” for lack of something better. What’s important is that we’re talking about a group with the following characteristics:

(a) They have real or imagined (or more often, real and imagined) difficulties understanding social protocols that others take for granted.

(b) They’re shy, introspective, and congenitally incapable of committing sexual assault or any other serious violence. (Even a date request is a major achievement for them.)

(c) They have something of lasting value that they want to contribute to the world, going beyond their personal gratification. This could mean STEM, but it could also mean lots of other things, like art, music, writing, or social activism. However, what makes STEM different is that males in any of those other fields, who achieve anything of any importance (or even look like they might), generally have no trouble whatsoever getting dates. STEM is an outlier in that there, and only there, do you ever really see the combination of top, widely-admired achievements with continuing anxieties of the sort we’ve been talking about. What this says about the world is left as an exercise for the reader.

(2) To clarify, the book that I’m imagining wouldn’t be “self-help”—or rather, only in the sense that lots of moral and social philosophy could be called that. I guess what I mean is more Bertrand Russell than Tony Robbins.

(3) What you say about social support might be true (and important) for some people, but my experience was different. I never had any problem making friends: not that I was ever a politician, but everywhere I went, I’d develop close friendships with a few people who understood (or could tolerate?) me. But that had nothing to do with the other issue: either the friends were as clueless as I was; or they were clueless as to how anyone could possibly have a hard time of it; or the friendships were on an intellectual plane, where one simply didn’t discuss such things.

422. Vijay Says:

Amy, #411: Yes, the conversation has been extremely hetero-normative, and that has possibly dissuaded other people from chiming in. But it has also been rather US-centric and been heavily concerned with university-educated folks and males pursuing females. Yes, those of non-normative sexuality, the late bloomers, the shy nerdy girls, and various ethnic minorities are among those who read this blog but haven’t been represented in the discussion.

I don’t see how that is an issue. I didn’t feel like participating because I feel like an outsider to much of this discussion. While I can relate to some emotional experiences Scott describes, my own experiences were formed in quite a different socio-cultural universe. This thread didn’t start out as a discussion of the human condition but has reached there by oscillating between deeply personal experience and big-picture brush strokes, so the narrow scope is a natural side-effect of the audience and nature of the conversation.

It seems to me that it has been difficult enough to communicate intent and even partially understand each other even within such a narrow scope. Broadening the scope would, I expect, only make things more difficult. Why should the scope should be broadened for its own sake? That appears to me to amount to a different discussion.

423. Scott Says:

Ben Bevan #400:

Here’s one for you Scott: do you think you would have ended up as successful in your field if you hadn’t had to go through this torment during your formative years?

Good question! I hope so—because if not, the implication would be that the things we’re talking about could increase nerd happiness, but only at the cost of slowing down the progress of science.

Truthfully, though, I have no idea whether the torment had a positive effect, no effect, or even maybe a negative effect on scientific productivity. I can tell you that my dream, for a while, was that getting into a relationship or married would let me simply stop worrying about that aspect of life, so that I could do better science. Obviously that was a bit naïve, and I certainly hadn’t thought all the way through to having a kid, and to the productivity drop that would cause.

424. Scott Says:

Rahul #405: Well, I guess the other obvious point is that if Lewin thought the charges were false, he could offer a public defense, but thus far he hasn’t.

425. James Gallagher Says:

Throughout this, Scott has been saying pretty straighforward stuff without much need for interpretation, but quite a few people have been responding with phrases and ideas that do require a lot of interpretation.

When it comes to discovering new things about Nature, you can’t hide behind layers of interpretation. You need to speak as plainly and as accurately as possible. (Even if that “plain speaking” might be mathematical)

So the thread was at least a good illustration of one of the abilities that makes a great scientist.

426. Vijay Says:

A STEM woman, #384: Thanks for speaking up! I was aching to read something from a shy, nerdy woman and from someone with the experience of not being on the sexual radar and you addressed both.

Stereotypical male sexuality (when exuberantly expressed) is extremely scary for a man too, if your own sexuality does not manifest in the same way. As a teenager, I had friends who were socially in the cool circles but also interested in science, so after a couple of unsavoury experiences with adolescent violence, I never had to worry about such things. Nonetheless, I would never choose to be a teacher of pre-university teenage boys because the thought of returning to that environment terrifies me.

I know both men and women who don’t give off whatever it is that induces romantic or sexual interest in others. Having experienced this, I found it extremely liberating, because as you observe, people leave you alone. It only came to bother me much later, when I realised I had spent most of my life excluded from an experience that was a part of everyone else’s lives.

I have a couple of shy, nerdy, female friends. Sometimes they are perfect companions for hanging out, and sometimes I feel like we are stuck in a circle of mutual impotence and awkwardness. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in that place too.

427. Scott Says:

Gil #393:

Probably the most relevant time for this is high-school years and also the years in the university when kids are often away from home and on their own.

In my case, probably a big part of the problem was that I skipped three grades and started college at age 15. That meant both that I missed all the usual high-school coming-of-age experiences like the prom, and also that when I got to college, my classmates were several years older than me. Now, if I had been socially-skilled enough, all those things would’ve been surmountable, and I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have had big problems even if I hadn’t skipped. But it didn’t make things easier.

The main reason I skipped is that I was already having a socially-awkward, mostly-miserable experience at ages 12-14. So I seized on the facts that I was already way ahead in math, and that I was moving chaotically between schools (my family moved to Hong Kong and back during this time), as pretexts to just get out of high school as quickly as possible, and into college, which I idealized as a nirvana where I’d succeed on intellectual merit and everything else in life would take care of itself. And yes, my parents warned me that skipping grades would make dating harder. But my reasoning at the time was that

(a) academically, college would certainly be more enjoyable than high school, and

(b) socially, it couldn’t possibly be any worse!

(a) turned out to be true, but I’m still not certain whether (b) was.

428. Vijay Says:

Just a note on workplace romances, in case anyone is still interested. Facts seem difficult to come by.

Title VII and the Workplace Romance by John J. Davis in 2012 provides a survey of the legal history of this issue in the United States. There does not seem to be a clear pattern to how various US courts will treat claims of nepotism, sexual harassment or hostile work environments based on workplace romances. The article concludes with this comment:

“Employment policies prohibiting fraternization in the workplace may be of some benefit, but regular anti-discrimination training and a good employment practices liability insurance policy should also be considered. Because workplace romances can never be effectively eliminated, wise employers ought to prepare themselves to deal with the anticipated (and frequently unanticipated) consequences.”

I found a careerbuilder.com survey of 3008 people in 2013 that concluded 38% were involved in least one office romance and 16% in more than one. A valut.com survey from a similar timeframe reported even higher numbers.

I couldn’t find a rigorous survey. From this information it seems that workplace romances are far from rare in the US industry today.

429. Vijay Says:

dorothy (#409) Thanks to you too for providing a valuable third perspective, especially one that I don’t easily encounter. And of course, thanks Amy for the new perspective. Your stamina is amazing.

430. Rahul Says:

Scott #427:

Do you think if we just stopped letting kids skip grades, would that be a bad thing?

That’s the same reasoning I’m sympathetic towards colleges who resist letting young over-achievers in, even though they might have satisfied all the academic requirements of entry.

Is the risk high of students who are academically prepared for college but lack the emotional maturity & fit that will be necessary for having a wholesome university experience?

431. Raoul Ohio Says:

Of related interest:

http://www.wired.com/2014/12/mit-scientists-on-women-in-stem/

This starts with a photo of part of MIT that brings up a question:

Is that building:

A: The ugliest building ever, or,

B: Great Art?

432. Amy Says:

I am post-wake and apologize for any pinot-noir-driven emphasis.

@Vijay – my stamina is something, anyway. 😀 Why widen the scope? To get, as rapidly as possible, a sense of the variety of the issues and perspectives. That’s all.

Scott – I also started college early, at just-after-15 (no prom, sure as hell didn’t miss it), but would submit that this is a totally different experience for girls than for boys. I had, in no uncertain terms, an awesome time, intellectually and in every other way. But I think that in the same environment it would’ve been a much more difficult time for a boy my age. HOWEVER. (Apologies for caps.) I would submit that this, again, is describing a somewhat unusual young male nerd circumstance, esp. in absence of a real-life Jordan.

@sniffnoy #420: Using words, once you get used to it, is delightful. You ask for an example. Here you go: I am recently returned from a wake for the man who was, for the last few years, Chicago’s best writer. At said wake I began talking to an artist. Said artist was clearly jaw-jawing as an excuse to keep having to do with me. So I said: “You’re looking for something to say, but you would rather just kiss me.” Which was true; after some “may I” negotiation, commenced kissing. What a lovely time and now his reputation’s sullied in the nicest way. I have to go lie down now, will reply to others tomorrow. Chicago needs to hang onto its writers better.

433. Amy Says:

Oh, also, Vijay, no, of course such romances aren’t rare. But the existence of the rules is protective (“sorry, no, can’t date you, against the rules”). That is of course not the object of the rules — the object is to protect the company owners — but along the way they help those who’d rather not be molested at work.

434. Amy Says:

@James #426 – I think you’re right…maybe. I think you’re right if you’re already familiar with Scott’s perspective. But I don’t think it’s a given. I do think it’s fair to say that the sexual-politics/feminism shorthand that’s been bandied about requires some background, sometimes, and I agree with you there about the clarity.

435. Amy Says:

@Ben Bevan #400 – I’m not a great fan of the “torment makes the genius” argument (and of course there’s always the “too far!” joke). If someone uses a bad time well, okay, but there are certainly people who’ve done well in happy circumstances. I mean I don’t think anyone would say Perutz wouldn’t have worked out hemoglobin if he hadn’t been shipped off to Canada.

I think the success simply demonstrates resourcefulness, is all.

436. Amy Says:

Oh, Sniffnoy #420 – that first-step point is well-taken.

And Scott, re “why STEM”, I’d suggest that this is historical: that to a considerable extent humanities and soc sci were abandoned for STEM postwar, money-and-prestigewise, and that the field was to some extent left open for women in those fields. But not in STEM, where the training remains German-military hierarchical to an extend that I don’t think is the case in other fields. A guess.

On (1c): I’m not convinced that excellent artists, musicians, writers, etc., necessarily have more social skills. Have you seen Sia, current top-40 artist who can’t bring herself to face the camera when she performs? I think your message could apply equally well to such introverts in other domains.

On (3): I agree that not every friendship helps with dating skills. But I would still argue that building a diversity of friends, including those knowledeable and conversant on dating, is one of the easiest steps towards a healthy approach to dating. By analogy, you routinely advise amateurs to steer away from the holy grails of complexity theory (let’s say P vs. NP). Much better for novices to attack the smaller questions first, gaining requisite skills and collaborators before thinking themselves qualified for the big leagues. I’d be a bit wary of an approach to dating that embraces the opposite philosophy, one of skipping beginner/intermediate social skills to jump straight to romantic intimacy.

BTW, I’m amazed you have time to respond to everyone! No obligations to respond to this one. Thanks!

438. anongirl Says:

Amy #187

I mentioned your story about a boyfriend who put his penis in your mouth and how you had called it face-rape to a girlfriend. She asked the obvious question that maybe all the guys here are just too shy to ask. If there was no force, which I think (and hope) you said was the case, how can this actually happen physically? I mean, I don’t want to sound crude but first your face has to be right next to his penis and second your mouth has to be open (sorry Scott.. don’t faint).

439. Vitruvius Says:

Even if MIT has acceptable cause for stripping Walter Lewin of his honorary emeritus status and banishing him from the record, Scott, not making that information accessible for public understanding or even publishing a statement from Walter thereto is leaving your institution in a bad position.

Over the last several days I’ve spoken to a dozen STEM professionals, with one or more university degrees each, including a retired dean of science and two department chairs thereof (one retired) and a couple of Fortune 100 executives, in age from 50 to 70, regarding this matter. The overwhelming consensus is that, based on available information, MIT has totally mishandled this situation.

If Professor Lewin has been misbehaving for a long time, then folks want to know how MIT let that happen. If he’s been misbehaving, why did MIT keep him in contact with students?

And if this development is recent, folks want to know why MIT isn’t graciously showing this legendary eighty-year old man the door with respect ~ for if this is a recent development, then given Walter’s clear faltering on occasion in the later of his available on-line YouTube &c lectures (I’ve watched all of them including all of 8.01, 8.02, 8.03, and all the related videos) and given his long traditional history of placing his students first, recent changes in his behaviour would indicate that he’s simply losing it due to old age.

Folks are thinking: if that’s how MIT treats their senior citizens when they start to loose it, then that’s not cool, that’s certainly not a place where I’d like to be. One in five of our senior citizens Walter’s age are now showing the effects of dementia. To the not-young segment of the population, people want to know how it is that MIT isn’t skating too close to the open waters of elder abuse.

So I think you should prevail upon your institution, Scott, to reconsider their position in this matter. After all, you don’t want this to happen to you at some point in the future, do you? Or is that what MIT tenure means: that when one falls from grace due to old age one is simply thrown out with the trash?

440. Jair Says:

I must say that the last full paragraph of Amy’s #385 deserves applause.

441. Amy Says:

@anongirl #439 – my guess is that at some point in your life, you turned your head while talking and someone — friend, parent — shoved some food in your mouth and surprised you. It’s not that hard to do. If someone’s going down on you while…er…antiparallel to you, and you’ve got your eyes closed and mouth open, it’s no trick at all for someone to stick whatever they like into your mouth without permission. I will leave the rest of the mechanics to your imagination, but will point out that this question is not unlike the one the Columbia woman faced from faculty, who demanded to know how she could’ve been raped anally without lube. At best it’s a little weirdly naive/unimaginative, coming from (one assumes) sexually experienced adults; at worst it’s the sort of public “prove it” grilling that nobody should have to undergo outside perhaps a courtroom, and precisely the kind of question that stops women from going to the police.

If someone tells you about a rape and you can’t figure out the mechanics, I’d suggest trying the question out on sexually experienced people other than the victim. They will probably give you several perfectly reasonable possibilities.

442. Scott Says:

Rahul #430:

Do you think if we just stopped letting kids skip grades, would that be a bad thing?

Yes, it would absolutely be a bad thing. First of all, grade-skipping is already so widely discouraged that it’s “effectively” banned for most students—again, it was only by exploiting unusual circumstances involving Hong Kong that I was able to do it. (See my Return to the Beehive essay for more.)

I suggest exactly the opposite: let all students advance in every subject according to ability rather than age (that is, make high schools more like universities), and let them start college whenever they can prove they’re ready for it. This is worth doing for all sorts of reasons having nothing to do with dating. But, yes, imagine if when I got to Cornell, there had been hundreds of smart, nerdy girls there my own age? (Well, life still might not have been easy, but it certainly wouldn’t have been harder.)

443. Scott Says:

anongirl #438:

sorry Scott.. don’t faint

Ha-ha. Look, I have to maintain certain standards of decorum in my own comments, among other things because, unlike with most comments here, mine are tied to my full name and professional identity. But what makes you think I care if other people violate those standards?

444. Rahul Says:

Scott #443:

But that begs the question, how does one prove that one is actually ready for college? And I don’t mean just the requisite academic tools.

Presumably you’ll live on your own, independently, there will be peer pressure, sudden independence & the ability to exploit it perhaps to your own detriment. Now, no doubt, you can send a regular 19 year old, who didn’t skip grades, to college & too can create a royal mess out of it.

But my question is are there non-academic factors necessary to make a good experience out of college? Do we have good ways to measure those and decide when someone is ready? And if not, does age serve as some surrogate of such readiness?

Do those additional years spent in HS, even if not useful academically to a high-achiever, serve to sort of stress test him in a more controlled setting, where a safety net is available & perhaps teachers are more tuned to looking for signs of problems than in a university where the faculty pretty much leaves you to your own devices.

Again, I don’t know & I’m only speculating & wondering what the pros & cons of early college are.

My only anecdotal example is a precocious math genius I’d known who was similarly sent to college at an early age & ended up being quite the tragic story just because he couldn’t handle the non-academic stress of being in college.

445. Rahul Says:

Scott:

I’ve a comment (Comment #413) stuck in the bowels of your spam filter / moderation queue! Nudge nudge. 🙂

[Well I cannot spot anything obviously offensive or verboten in it so I’m assuming it just escaped your attention!]

446. Amy Says:

@Vitruvius #440 – I think this is the first time I’ve seen an academic express the expectation that a university is a benevolent aid society. Not that I think you’re wrong in the hope, but kindliness ahead of politics is not what I’ve seen at any university.

It’s a fair point, though, about “if he’s had a history of harassment, why did MIT keep him on before”, and I think this conversation is perhaps a demonstration of why. A combination of real confusion over what constitutes harassment; disbelief that it’s meaningful; the idea clung to that academics should be able to go fish in the hallways (I’ve actually heard a harassment case defended with the argument that the guy was recently divorced and lonely, and therefore everyone should just let it pass); disbelief that some shy and retiring guy was capable of it; etc. If you stack that with institutional unwillingness to have bad PR, and the fact that tenured faculty tend to get litigious, and the fact that students are but mayflies in the life of a university, and a lack of direct, clear ways of reporting such events, *and* the fact that until very recently there’s been no substantial penalty for “handling things quietly”…well, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if any faculty member who harassed students simply got frowned at and maybe had to sit through a sexual-harassment video.

In other words — this is entirely conjecture, but the answer to your colleagues’ questions may be “it became safer to disassociate completely from Lewin than to maintain any association whatsoever”. In which case MIT was simply behaving like a university. But who knows.

@Scott (and like Brad #438 said, really, this is a crazy amount of time and please don’t feel obliged to go on replying) — you asked about the 50/50 odds, but I don’t really see that it needs an explanation. There’s nothing wrong or strange about a girl’s wanting to go out on a date, particularly if the guy’s already passed a lot of nonverbal filters (around the same age, clearly a fellow student, maybe reasonably goodlooking, probably same-race — my guess is that if you repeated the experiment with, say, men who looked like staff, or non-university citizens, or even nonwhite college men, you’d see significant changes in the yes rate). There’s also nothing wrong or strange about a girl’s not wanting to go out on a date. What’s at issue is the socially acceptable manner of approaching girls and women and whether it does or doesn’t, in general, lead to an environment of harassment for them.

(I’m also wondering about that study, and will look for it — do the girls actually go on the dates, or do they just say they will? If they’re only saying they will, then you have to account somehow for the fact that saying no is hard and risky, and some women will say yes in order not to be mean or antagonistic to someone’s face, even though they have no intention whatsoever of answering the texts and actually going out. I guess you could catch some of that by revealing right away that the ask was for a study, and asking followup questions about why the woman said yes or no.)

447. Amy Says:

Rahul #430 – I agree with Scott on this one. It’s not like holding those kids back is helping them socially, either. I do think though that there are ways of easing the transition (after all, in a couple of years most grade-skippers will be “normal” university age, which is crumbling at the other edge anyway). I lived, for instance, in a selective-admit small, all-four-classes, co-ed residential college — only a couple hundred kids in the building, and faculty associated with us. So there was a four-year spread of interesting people. My experience would’ve been very different in a freshman dorm, where I would’ve stuck out much more. I think an environment like that would still have been harder for a boy fifteener than for a girl, but much easier socially than many other situations.

448. Scott Says:

Vijay #426: I agree that the comment of STEM woman #384 was one of the most touching and interesting in the thread—among other things, it was the only one to own up to the anxieties I mentioned in #373 (how could anyone of the opposite sex possibly be attracted to a nerd like me?), but from a female perspective. So maybe I’ll circle back to it.

The whole time I was growing up, whenever I found out a girl in my environment was also a nerd—and in particular, that she could write or argue well or score highly in math competitions or do anything else that I understood and respected—I would instantly become more attracted to her. I would even see her as physically more attractive than I had the moment before.

Now, what’s the explanation for male sexual attraction to geek girls, qua geek girls? I’d love to be able to say that it springs from pure, honorable feminist motives. Alas, if many of the guys who feel such attraction introspected honestly about it, they might find something more like:

“The greater the quality of her intellect, the more obviously she’s not just a sexual plaything for male enjoyment—but for that very reason, the more thrilling it would be to be able to treat her as one for a little while.”

Now, I don’t know whether knowing this would make “stereotypical male sexuality” seem more or less scary to the teenage version of STEM woman! But I’m pretty sure that it represents a major truth about how it operates (the above being just the nerd version of something much more universal). The feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum once made a closely-related observation, which struck me: “it is sexier to use a human being as a thing than simply to have a thing, because it manifests greater control, it shows that one can control what is of such a nature as to elude control.”

Anyway, what does this mean for smart yet “sexually-invisible” geek girls, who might find themselves in the self-conscious situation of the teenaged STEM woman? I guess it means both bad news and good news. The bad news is that guys might not become attracted to you for exactly the reasons you would most want: it might be less about the intellectual pedestal you’re on, than about his own ability to push you off that pedestal. The good news is that, if you don’t mind that, or you even enjoy it in a playful, make-believe sort of way, then yes, you should absolutely be able to garner male sexual attention, when and if you want it. It also suggests all sorts of possibilities for how to go about doing so—but since we’re talking about extremely intelligent girls here, I guess I should leave that as an exercise.

And with that, I hope I’ve discharged my obligation to say something useful, not only to any younger versions of myself who might be reading this thread, but also to their female counterparts. I’m practically a saint.

449. Scott Says:

Rahul #445: OK, I dug up your comment, moderated it to appear, then fixed the numbering on all the subsequent comments. Like I said, “saint.”

450. Vijay Says:

@Siffnoy #419 (was Siffnoy #420 I think) Yes, things exploded but also seem to have slowed since then. It’s remarkable that the original thread of discussion is still alive at all.

You are absolutely right that “shy, nerdy, male” has been interpreted differently by different parties. I suspect that “paralyzed feminist guy” or some variation thereof would suffer similar misinterpretation because “feminist” and “guy” still trigger very strong associations that will not be overridden by any amount of definition and clarification. Maybe a completely new symbol (yso == young shtetl optimizer) or defiantly narrow term for “equivalence class of the pre-enlightenment Scott Aaronson” would reduce the semantic overload (and probably much of the interest 🙂 ).

Your point 5. Examples and counterexamples are excellent for mathematical understanding but I find them fraught with ambiguity in general discussions. Most scientists have a common general understanding of their universe and can independently fill out the details of a technical example in the same way and it often requires effort to construct non-standard models. The boundaries of a social interaction example are less delineated and people don’t have a common mental model so tend to extend examples and fill in the gaps in different ways leading to way more time spent on the examples than what is being conveyed. I don’t know a way out of that.

Your point 9. There is an additional complication of people having different social norms. “Give them as much personal space as you would like” is not helpful unless you have reason to believe the other person has similar conceptions of personal space. So in addition to embracing imprecision, common sense and all the sensible things you point out, I think the general strategy should include making observations to calibrate whether your norms are the norms of the other.

I’m still waiting for your 10. It’s an issue I thought about outside of this thread and I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

451. Guest Says:

What the MIT did is just ridiculous and very annoying for any people who are self-studiying physics.

Hese there been an official legal treatment of the issue, with BOTH PARTIES being fairly heared, or is it rather possible that anybody who had a personal disagreement with a professer who gives for may people immensely valuable online lectures can abuse this MIT report channel to sling around unfounded accusations to destroy the live (and valuable study material for millions of peope) ?

I guess it is the latter …

BIG SHAME ON YOU, MIT !!!

For destroying the live and reputation of an appreciated professor for just a weak anonymous hint which could well be an unfounded accusation and defamation.

Before doing this the issue should have been brought before and decided by a legal court!

What the hell is going on in the US, lynch justice …?!

I just cant believe that such silly and monstrous things can happen!

452. Vijay Says:

Amy, #385, #432: I’m clubbing various stray responses together in one long post here.

Yet another coming-of-age script

As far as I could tell there was no difference between boys and girls till about the age of 13 and the world changed thereafter. Everyone was interested in cool clothes and shoes and TV-shows. The boys wanted to talk about sex, watch racy movies, and fight and wrestle. The girls seemed interested in the boys, and dressed a bit differently. None of these things remotely interested me. I couldn’t tell what constituted cool and was happy to wear the same kind of clothes as always. I could not relate to the excitement the boys seemed to have when talking about a make-out or sex scene in some tape they managed to pass around. I had no idea why when I made a joke in class with a girl I had known and talked to in the same way for a few years, I would suddenly get roughed up after hours by some guy who had decided he had a thing for her. It was also clear that there was a world of phone-calls, meet-ups and other things happening outside hours that I knew nothing about.

I tried to invent and will myself into a crush to see if I would suddenly understand. I tried to imagine the kinds of scenes the boys were talking about to see if I could fake their arousal and drew a blank. What was clear though was that my own behaviour, which I didn’t think had changed at all was now interpreted very differently. If I talked to a girl, both the boys and the teachers would get on my case. If I was mucking around with the boys, the teachers would assume there was either porn or drugs involved and the girls seemed to think there were girls involved. Not only did all this not make any sense, it was terrifying because of people expressing violence, aggression and emotions I neither felt nor understood and also grossly unfair, because my side of the story “We were making a stupid joke, nothing involving girls, porn, etc.”, “We are just friends”, “They don’t talk to me about girls” was never, ever, ever believed.

These experiences continued well into my twenties. Oddly enough, I feel my situation was almost the opposite of Scott’s description of his youth, though many of the consequences were the same. I felt absolutely no sexual desire or frustration, or romantic attraction thoughout my youth. I felt no barriers to talking to people of different genders, races or ages. Nonetheless, I developed a deep sense of isolation and of being an external observer to a social world I was supposed to inhabit. This disconnect was a two-way non-street because no one could imagine or believe that I was not feeling and thinking the things they were, nor could I imagine or recreate the feelings and fantasies of others. While I eventually developed a mental model of what other human beings were like and learnt to accept the things they said, I also didn’t feel this courtesy was extended to me.

While these things didn’t make sense, what did was mathematics and philosophy, at an intellectual level, and literature because there seemed to be more that was vivid and that I could relate to in the words of Shakespeare, Dickens or Douglas Adams than the experiences of people around me. I tried reading some classic feminists and coming-of-age novels in the hope of understanding society better and finding a reflection of my experience but the constant backdrop of aggression, sexuality, emotions and a strong Occidental bias only contributed to a stronger feeling of alienation.

The denouement is also similar to Scott’s. A combination of age, scientific maturity and success contributed to a feeling of confidence and self-worth that eventually spilled into other areas of life.

Privilege and Pain

Amy #385: Majority of the people in Western countries, especially the ones with university-level education have their needs met in terms of food, water, housing, electricity, clothing, basic comforts and even luxuries. Things could be much worse if they had been born or raised elsewhere. When foreigners like me from less developed countries arrive in a Western country, the problems the locals talk about seem bizarre and beyond comprehension. In my case, I came to understand that “first-world problems” are problems too and also that despite the big-picture being largely hunky-dory, people endure personal anguish. Many people will happily accept that they have benefited from circumstances beyond their control. However, we also experience pain due to circumstances beyond our control. Sometimes it is valuable to hear “You were unhappy? Who doesn’t have time unhappy? Listen, if you’re lucky, you’ll know a lot more unhappiness before you’re done. ” but sometimes this provides no help and if anything, drives people away. Just as it is important to acknowledge privilege, it is also to acknowledge pain, no matter how unusual the circumstances.

453. Vijay Says:

Amy #441: I didn’t concern myself with the mechanics of the situation in Amy #187 until anongirl #438’s comment. I have no inclination to work out that detail but want to add that sexual inexperience, naivete and lack of imagination would all apply to me and who knows how many other readers of this blog. I hope that’s not weird. We just happened to turn out that way. Please add immaturity and some degree of ignorance.

Someone (Anand?) commented much earlier that this comment thread was not a safe place. If anything I feel the opposite. There are many discussions on the internet I am terrified to participate in because I may misspeak completely unintentionally and get banned, yelled at, insulted and unintentionally trigger consternation and anger without meaning to and it is the latter that bothers me most because I would rather not mess up someone’s day. A thread on feminism related topics on a predominantly science blog like this one is safe because I would hope that if I say something incorrect unintentionally, someone will correct me without getting upset. If I don’t understand some terms, even if they are common knowledge in a different intellectual circle, I can ask and someone will explain it to me. I have at least seen that happen multiple times even with scientific topics, where naive questions are repeatedly asked here (say about properties of complexity classes) and repeatedly receive legitimate answers.

I say this only because it seems to me that anongirl #438’s is an example of completely naive curiosity from someone lacking your awareness and vocabulary. I think you are completely right to point out how such a question comes across and also how to deal with the situation in the future, but I would also expect that a public inquisition was not the intent of the question. The analogy to the Columbia woman is a bit terrifying in response to an ill-thought question, when in an uncharitable reading of your words, being called weird, unimaginative, naive and sexually inexperienced is admonishment enough, especially when a reader like me would be guilty on all counts.

454. Anon. Says:

I’d like to thank Amy for her patience, which greatly exceeds mine. However, I still find most of her positions on these issues to be unreasonable and somewhat self-centered.

First of all, asking a girl out politely should not be considered sexual harassment. It is completely commonplace and expected in our society. In any case, most girls are not bombarded by sexual advances; this seems to be a “first world problem”, which only applies to attractive girls (and if it really bothered them, they could probably get rid of this problem by dressing differently or not wearing makeup). Of course, guys that won’t take “no” for an answer really are a problem.

Secondly, I strongly disagree that STEM fields are worse towards women than other fields, such as medicine (humanities fields are possibly an exception, though, due to their obsession with feminism). Amy seems to just have a bias against STEM for some reason. The fact that there are less women in STEM is probably just explained by them viewing it as “nerdy”. Another possible explanation is that, for genetic reasons, there are less women whose talents lie in STEM fields than there are men (Pinker made some arguments supporting this, if I recall correctly).

I also disagree that all workplace dating (or student-prof dating) should be banned. People sometimes fall in love; this is something that actually happens, even if Amy ignores it. It is more likely to happen with people who see each other regularly, which in practice mostly means coworkers. This does not mean that men “go fish in the hallways” (I find that assertion to be sexist).

Finally, on the topic of rape, I can accept an extremely broad definition only if there is also a term reserved for the really heinous kind (e.g. the type of stuff that happens during wars). In the absence of such a term, I think calling relatively harmless bedroom activities “rape” is insulting to actual rape victims.

Does anyone have any good book recommendations on the topic of feminism? I would prefer something closer to Scott’s views than to Amy’s views (I fear that a book full of Amy-like views would just make me hate feminism).

455. Vijay Says:

Scott, #448, Thanks for the love. I feel like I’ve been hugged.

I feel like there’s a lesson in this discussion about the complexity theory of human communication. Some problems like determining the time, given that one party has a watch and the other has eyes and a mouth should be in a low-lying class. On the hand, translating burning sexual desire into a gentle, non-creepy date request appears to be in PSpace for certain shy, nerdy types, and falls to be NP-complete once they pray to the patron saint of the complexity zoo.

456. Vijay Says:

Anon, #454. I liked your first sentence.

Wither this confidence about the female condition? Having a sister, cousins and close female friends all from non-Western, non-first-world countries, I can assure you in the strongest terms that they all suffer sexual advances. As for “if it really bothered them”, well it does, and they’ve tried just about everything, so maybe it’s time to try and teach the rest of the population about decency? While some men seem to know about it, it’s clearly not enough

457. Anon. Says:

Vijay #456, First, I’m all for decency. I just think it’s perfectly possible to ask a woman out decently. I do agree that we need to teach the population about decency, because many males are to pushy.

But okay, perhaps it is not my place to speak for women. However, I’d like to note that I did talk to my SO about this, and I’d also like to point out A STEM woman’s comment as well as Scott’s 50%-date-acceptance statistic. It does not appear to be the case that all women are bombarded by unwanted advances wherever they go (though again, this is probably true of some women).

458. aviti Says:

Yeah dorothy, where I grew up a no sometimes means yes in disguise. It is difficult for inexperienced boys to master the nuances of romance. Sometimes the boy gives up whilst the girl really liked him.

OTOH, I support the idea of legalizing prostitution with all proper oversights and regulations in place. There are people who enjoy sex so much that that setting is perfect for them to do what they enjoy best. Just like musicians, mathematicians etc who enjoy their vocation while getting paid.

459. Raoul Ohio Says:

Scott: Given that you intend to put some of SO into a book, this thread should be a chapter or more.

Amy: I might not agree with all of your view points, but totally admire your contributions. Because, for example:

Your writing energy makes even Scott look like a slacker, and your ability to put out huge amounts of coherent material rapidly is impressive.

You are out front telling what you really think and about your personal live: you “tell is like it is”, in the words of the great Aaron Neville song. Doing so is hard for me; I usually edit before hitting “submit”, because I worry about sounding crotchety, dumb, or whatever.

This blog has been going on for a long time, and you have zoomed to the top of the most interesting contributor list! Keep up the good work. If you have writings elsewhere, you might consider giving the SO readers a pointer to it.

460. GK Says:

Scott #171, 373, etc.:
Thank you so much for these deeply personal, touching, and insightful posts. I can definitely relate, as I have felt similar feelings throughout middle school, high school, college, and even graduate school. It always felt like this only affected me, since others either were more romantically successful than I was, or put on an image of that nature in order to fit in. In fact, until reading your post, I never realized that others had the same ridiculous trains of logic as I did.

Thankfully, I was recently able to escape this rut. After obtaining what I thought was irrefutable evidence of a girl’s interest and (after an agonizing amount of deliberation and encouragement by friends) providing the most minor indication of my own interest, I was fortunate enough that she had the insight to open a candid conversation with me, which has since led to a happy relationship.

It would be nice if there was an equivalent of the It Gets Better Project for this (for lack of better term) shy male nerd character, with videos by successful older male nerds. If I become a successful and respected researcher in my field (and grow the courage to fight strawman arguments like those apparent in Amy #375), it would definitely be something I’d be interested in leading. Just to tell these boys that they’re not alone and not to give up hope.

461. anongirl Says:

Amy #411 I was going to thank you for the explanation but your comparison to the anal rape of a Colombian woman is so offensive I am not sure I can. You then go on to suggest that I must be sexually naive in way which I don’t feel is meant without criticism. To me this comes across as bullying and deliberate intimidation to shut someone up.

As a result, I have to reply to the substance of your comment. So let’s get this straight..

You were naked, someone was going down on you and your position was antiparallel (69). You had your eyes closed and your mouth open. He then put his penis in your mouth and asked you to perform oral sex on him, just as he was on you at that time. This is rape??

462. dorothy Says:

aviti #459

Someone should classify the comments in this thread. This one goes in the stupid and offensive bin I am afraid.

I am not sure it needs saying but … No sensible person thinks that a non-negligible fraction of prostitutes do it because they love sex so much that they want to work out how to do it for a living.

463. dorothy Says:

Anon #369

My guess for why my experience of knowing few people who have been raped is so different from Amy’s has a few more parts in it than our potential age difference.

The first and most obvious is that is that if you are known as a campaigning feminist then you attract people who have had terrible experiences with men. I am sure that accounts for almost all the difference.

Second, I suspect that I have experienced some under reporting and that Amy has experienced some over reporting. I won’t know about all cases even amongst my friends and Amy may have interpreted some cases as rape that others wouldn’t. Amy’s particular definition of rape is very confusing for me as it has ranged from a strong DoJ one to then approving of the idea that any sex when drunk is rape. It’s not clear to me which rule she applies when talking of her friends.

Third, although this point doesn’t directly address the question, it *is* possible that US college campuses are now a hot bed of sexual violence. You can certainly hear reports of disgraceful behaviour by frat houses. As I have no direct contemporary experience of undergraduate life I wouldn’t know.

464. Rahul Says:

Vijay #457:

I’m curious, since this thread started out about how hostile (western ) STEM departments were towards women, at least in the assessment of a few commentators:

Do you have any anecdotal statistics about whether any of these unwelcome advances came within the context of an (American) University STEM Department?

465. dorothy Says:

As Scott has kindly allowed this discussion to carry on, let me try to inject some more sisterly honesty into the question of dating and what women do or don’t want.

Let me start by noting that there are a few billions women in the world so the question as posed is ridiculous . In fact I will just say what the sort of women I know well want and leave you to guess how widely applicable this could be. Everything below is unbelievably obvious to most people but I feel is somehow being hidden from the argument by feminists.

In broad brush strokes, we would like the attractive men to find us attractive and potentially to hit on us and the unattractive men not to notice we are women.

In fact we want a very small percentage of men to find us unbelievably attractive and to hit on us, but in, you know, a nice way. We would like a slightly larger number of men, but still small, to find us very attractive but to do nothing about it (they can talk to each other about how hot and unattainable we are though) and the rest just to completely leave us alone and preferably have no thoughts about us at all.

But of course it’s not actually that simple, sometimes we don’t even want the hottest men to hit on us. It depends. To achieve this attraction of the hottest men, we would, like millions of women, dress in a way that is designed to be maximally attractive. A lot of thought and a lot of money goes into the design of the clothes women wear and it’s not an accident that your eye naturally runs up the leg of the dress or down the cleavage. But how can you dress in a way that is attractive to the men you want but not attractive to other men? How can you let it be known which subset should hit on you? You can’t of course. We Western women take a not very well calculated risk every day hoping that the odds will work out in our favor.

It is of course disgusting when an unattractive man hits on you in any situation. You might say we should hit on men. Apart from the fact that you would then just reverse the problem, we don’t want to. Rejection is humiliating.

As you may tell, we would like to have all our cakes and eat them at once. But who wouldn’t? Women are just like men, people. Those who are aware of the other nations of Earth will also notice that some cultures don’t think this degree of freedom for women is a good thing. Despite what our media may suggest, they are not simply insane. Although you may not agree with them, our system is not without its flaws.

My advice to nerdy men would simply be this. If you see a women you would like to date, ask her gently and respectfully (and only once) for a date somewhere non-threatening. How about lunch? She may reject you out of hand. If so, take it politely but confidently and move on and don’t worry about it. Everyone normal understands that what you have done is perfectly reasonable even though you may feel embarrassed at the time.

466. Scott Says:

Raoul #459:

Given that you intend to put some of SO into a book, this thread should be a chapter or more.

Sorry, it would need to be a different book! The book I’m planning will collect the best posts having to do with math, CS, physics, and philosophy; this thread would be pretty out-of-place.

467. Scott Says:

dorothy #465: Thank you, in the strongest terms, for your unusual candor about these matters; and for showing a clear understanding of the tradeoffs of a free society that I kept looking for in Amy’s comments but missing. As others have pointed out, most women don’t need to turn down multiple polite date requests per day. But if one of them (like Amy) does, or did—well, would she want to hear me complaining about the burden of having to turn down so many academic job offers? (Related Onion article)

As far as I can see, the two things are different only if we choose to see love and sex as completely different from any other motive that could prompt one human being to ask something politely from another one—as the only motives tied up with guilt and shame and “Original Sin.” I want a world where, as Sniffnoy #419 suggested,

…the ethics of this can be summed up as “use the same ethics you would for anything else”. Like, don’t badger people, just as you wouldn’t badger people about other things.

To put it differently: I want a world where a shy nerd would have no more trouble walking up to a girl in class and asking her politely for a date, as he would in walking up and asking whether she might, just possibly, have a freeze-dried camel pancreas handy, and be willing to trade it to him for five pieces of gold (but if not, don’t worry about it).

468. Vijay Says:

Rahul #464, Anon #457:

The anecdotes.
– As a grad student, senior US-based theoretical computer scientist visited my department. Some postdocs and grad students went for dinner and drinks with him in the evening and two of them said, after a few drinks, he was all over them. This is someone who has featured in an opening picture on the Goedel’s Lost Letter blog.

– I know two grad students who were petted by visiting, tenured, senior theoretical computer scientists during one-on-one sessions. One of the students said “Is this how you conduct all your discussions” when he started stroking her leg and the prof got up and walked out of her office.

– See Meg Urry’s CNN article. You don’t have to agree with her analysis, but I see no issue with accepting the anecdotes therein.

After hearing these and more stories, it feels like the Grace Hopper Conference should have a “Creeps in Computer Science” session.

I find it difficult to interpret to interpret the statistics about such matters because a term like “sexual harassment” is interpreted differently in different contexts.

– See, for example the Survey of academic field experiences, where over 600 scientists were polled, and 77% who responded were women. Over 20% responded that they experienced sexual assault. Please see the actual document for all the details or this summary by the authors.

– There is a 2007 report on Sexual assault on US college campuses. This isn’t science related, but it gives you some visibility into the baseline.

If your question is, “does sexual assault take place in science departments”, the answer is definitely yes. If your question is whether it is more prevalent in these departments than elsewhere, or more in the US or Western countries than elsewhere, I don’t know. Maybe someone else does.

469. Vijay Says:

dorothy #465: For the second time, thanks for putting your perspective out there in such clear terms. As this thread has revealed more than once (and as have other discussions on this blog), what is obvious to you is not at all obvious to me. Yes, I expect that a woman who likes another person very much would very much like to be found attractive by that person.

However, I would not have been able to independently imagine the layers beyond this situation. For some people, the idea that someone might find you attractive is foreign. This is not necessarily a body image issue. Some people go a very long time without the experience of being found attractive (See A STEM Woman #384, for example). In my case, it never even occurred to me that the attraction of another is something to be desired because there was no reason to believe that was the case. I imagine that such basic inexperience over time translates to things that are obvious for most of the population being far from obvious to me.

470. Ninguem Says:

I’d like to address a secondary theme in this discussion, about whether precocious young people should attend college. Nobody seems to disagree that, from the purely academic viewpoint, the answer is yes. The “no” camp seems to base their opinion on the fact that these young people are not emotionally prepared for college.

I think this problem comes from a narrow (and typically American) view of what it means to attend college. Yes, a 15 year old is not ready to be dropped off in a dorm in a residential college several hours drive from their home with a bunch of partying 19 year olds. However, most people live within commuting distance of an university and it’s quite reasonable for said 15 year old to live at home and attend classes at said university. This is the norm in many countries (in Europe for instance) even for 19 year olds.

Now, the 15 year old may not get to go to Cornell (or Princeton) but it doesn’t matter. Wherever he or she goes is good enough. Terry Tao went to some no-name university in his hometown of Adelaide, Australia as a young teen and went to Princeton for grad school. Seemed to have worked OK for him.

471. Amy Says:

Jeez, I miss one day, and there’s a new book here. And thank you, Raoul Ohio.

About my reaction to being asked about the mechanics: my apologies to anongirl and Vijay. You’re completely right, I made assumptions about sexual knowledge, and that’s not right to do. I was a little stung because in other contexts, that sort of questioning is along the line of “you’re lying; prove it could happen” — and of course it’s not a particularly pleasant thing to remember, so reliving it in the context of a grilling isn’t very nice. But I see that wasn’t the intent.

This is actually something else that I don’t think has been sufficiently articulated outside this blog, where it’s starting to be articulated well: add to the problems of communicating on this subject an extreme range of sexual experience and sophistication, including sophistication in conversation about sex. Not even range: I’d call it a space. For the last few years, as the (mostly economic) feminism I’d been interested in led me to places online where people were really more interested in sexual liberties (with heavy overtones of liberation from repressive religious upbringings, which isn’t really a thing for me), I’ve gotten used to conversation with sexually adventuresome and articulate people. So it’s a thing to listen for, isn’t it, and not to assume. Anyway. I’m very sorry to have hurt anyone’s feelings.

To follow up (and maybe wrap up) on the thing with the “have a penis in your mouth” fellow — I’d already told him I didn’t want to sixty-nine. (I just don’t enjoy it.) Which is why he said “just do it once for me” on shoving his cock into my mouth. And yep, when you shove your genitals into someone’s mouth against their “no”, that’s rape.

Actually the DoJ def can be read as going farther, since it specifies “consent”, and in any other context that means “ask first”. “Sure, I took his Xbox without asking, but he didn’t yell about it or try to grab it back, so why are you at my house, officer” doesn’t mean you didn’t steal it (unless, of course, you have a standing arrangement etc.). Of course, in California you’d better ask each time — and frankly, if I *were* someone who consistently borrowed Xboxes, I’d still ask each time, because — I mean hello, it’s someone else’s. (Even my daughter understands this one and gets mad at me if I borrow her earbuds while she’s at school, tells me she’d say yes if I asked, but that she wants me to ask, because they are after all hers. And she’s right.)

dorothy #463 – It’s true that women do talk increasingly freely about rape on, say, feminist websites. (I find the characterization of feminists — “women who’ve had terrible experiences with men” — to be bizarre and seriously misinformed. If you go to feminist websites, you’ll find many married women who have nothing to say but lovey things about their wonderful husbands. You’ll also find women who’ve had bad experiences with men; women who’ve had good and bad experiences with men; men who’ve had good and bad experiences with women; women who’ve never been interested in men, and have wives; transgender women…feminism does a lot of things, you know.) But when I say that a large proportion of my friends have been raped, I mean my real-life friends, not fellow denizens of websites (with a few exceptions). My relationships for over a decade have been built primarily around the fact that I’m a mother, which is what happens when you’ve got small children. And nearly all my close friendships during that time have been with women, because women in the US are still primarily responsible for childrearing. (Before I was a mother, most of my friends were men.)

Among those mothers — the majority of them members of my synagogue, most of the rest either work friends or graduate-school friends I’ve reconnected with, a couple were my daughter’s teachers — several of them have told me about their rapes. They told me because I discuss such things and they know I’m not likely to shut them down, and they want to share. One of them had never told anyone else. They range in age from early 50s to early 20s. A major benefit of this push to discuss the campus rapes has been, I think, an increasing willingness amongst women to talk about rape.

The presumption that there is this sort of nexus of women who’ve had terrible problems with men, and who’ve been raped or claim to have been raped (and are, you know, a little off somehow), but that the rest of womanhood has a happy and amenable time — I think this is the flip side of the masked rapist in the alley. Rape is common across the board. It’s not the result of getting drunk, or wearing short skirts, or looking for trouble. It’s the result of bumping into the wrong guy, who isn’t wearing a sign saying, “Y’know, I just might rape you, given the opportunity.”

I’ve heard a lot of people explain that desire to sideline both rapist and raped as an unwillingness to believe that we could have that little control over our lives, that it’s that easy to be a victim. I guess for some that might be true. I tend to think that it’s an unwillingness to deal with complexity and badness in the world: who wants to think there’s so much of it around? And who really wants to have coffee with someone and think, “Rapist? Tax cheat? Did he stab someone in a vicious bout of politics I didn’t know about, five years ago? Mean to his kids?” I mean it makes life very difficult. A couple years ago I ran with my daughter and her friend in a girls’ 5K; the friend’s dad was along. I’d always assumed he was a nice guy, but he was a real dick to that kid on the run, pushing her to keep running even though she was tired and had a side stitch, and saying nasty things to her, acting like she was holding *him* back. My kid kept looking at me with big eyes, listening to him, and I wasn’t quick enough off the mark to suggest that he, you know, ease up on the kid. But I’m still uneasy when I see him now, and am in his house dropping off my kid. Imagine the same situation but now I know even worse things about him. Nobody wants this, socially.

And oh boy, it’s already a wall, will stop and come back.

472. Zilch Says:

The comments by “dorothy” are good, but one statement in Comment #465: “Rejection is humiliating” needs correcting.

Rejection is information.

Information is good.

473. Amy Says:

Re women’s bombardment with approaches: Someone way upthread suggested creating a female pseud and wandering an internet space full of men to see what happens. It’s not a bad idea, though it doesn’t really recreate what used to be known so charmingly as meatspace. But every guy I’ve known who’s tried it has retreated in shock within a few hours — and then tried to believe that this sort of behavior goes on *only* online.

I keep hearing, here, this “for God’s sake, one polite ask, what can it hurt?” Well, imagine it this way (and Scott, this should make clear why “many asks for dates” is not like “many offers of employment”):

Suppose — I know you love the word suppose — suppose you’re no longer allowed a spam filter for your email. Obviously you’re swamped with a deluge of spam, fine, you expect that. But you’re also frequently described by society at large, figures in the media, even people you know and respect as a heartless nasty person if you don’t at least open the spam and give it a chance.

The problem (apart from the tedium and distraction of dealing wiht all this spam) is that some of the time, if you decline to provide a bank account number or pleasure her to the max — or even if you ignore new mail for 20 minutes — the original sender will cram your inbox with all-caps obscenity-laced threats and insults. Once in a while you’ll find a sender lurking outside your actual office window chunking gravel at it while you try to work and meet with students (and if you call campus police they might come investigate, and they might tell you not to talk to him and he’ll probably lose interest and go away). Imagine this goes on for thirty years, and that you, like many of your friends, have a story about some spammer or other sender whom you’d trusted as a decent person accosting you as you walk home. Why? Because you wouldn’t open another spam email about from the “OA journal” in “Lesotho”.

Of course the very notion of being such a spammer horrifies your hypothetical SNM. These people, truly, are monsters. Totally not the SNM’s intent. But there is a colleague you don’t know personally whom you’d like to invite to a conference. You have his email address. This guy doesn’t deal in phone and has text messaging blocked. You could try tweeting at him but that would be weird, and besides you need more than 140 char.

In a similar, scarring situation five years before, you actually shrugged, figuring “what could be the harm?”, wrote an email, hit send, and didn’t hear anything back, so you sent a quick “in case you missed it” follow-up, and were demolished fifteen months later to hear that he’d told everyone that this who-is-he guy who matched your description had tried to spam him about some bullshit conference, blown the whole thing out of proportion. You spent six months afterwards feeling like you’d had a full-body encounter with boiling oil and hid from everyone, wondered if you’d ruined your career, whether you should’ve had one in the first place, whether this was why Frank wasn’t returning calls, etc. In a fit of anxiety-induced stupidity you sent out a mass apology and explanation that nobody replied to. You were teaching five times a week that semester and each class nearly sent you into a nervous breakdown, and you were so curt in meetings with students that your evals tanked.

So you’re not going to “just try” ever, ever again. Still, you really want this guy at your conference. How can you approach him?

The most obvious way is to work through a collegial network. Have someone introduce you. Maybe you know someone else at his university who knows him, or you know someone he’s written a paper with.

Another way: Actually get to know him in an environment where you’re already vetted as not-a-creep. Be at the same conference, shake his hand, have the “I’m interested in your work, we have these friends in common, and hey can I keep in touch” conversation.

I could go on with the examples, but what all of them signal is: I am not a potentially dangerous or scary creep. Your tension level does not have to rise when you see another stranger’s email in your inbox. I am already part of your crowd. (Which, btw, is what I was suggesting in my questions to Scott about the 50/50 ask-for-a-date experiment.) I’m also asking in a sanctioned manner.

All of this, of course, sounds like an insane way to have to behave. But if you’ll recall, it’s all because of the absence of a spam filter. Anyone can approach you at any time, and while many of them will ask once and vanish, many many more will ask repeatedly, and some will be nuts, abusive, even violent. And you have little or no idea which will be which, when you get that first ask.

It’s very common, in these conversations, for the guys to say, “Oh, it can’t possibly be like that, you’re paranoid.” Which is why I will once again direct you to the experiences women themselves are describing, in large numbers, online (the 10-hours-in-NYC bit got wide circulation, but the stopstreetharassment site has better stuff than that) and suggesting you try wandering around as a woman for a while.

As for STEM woman whose post I appreciated too, and who isn’t the target of such approaches — well, let me save that for the next post, this is, again, superlong.

474. Gil Kalai Says:

Like Scott and Amy I also left high school early and started university. When it came to struggling with social matters I remember that I had adopted some thumb rules which helped me to cope with things. One was the belief that eventually things will be fine, and the other was that if you are hurt give yourself ample time for healing. So these two rules can make one a bit lazy (and are terrible when it comes to university exams) but they somehow overall worked for me. Of course, there are things that you learn along the years. Having a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal at the age of sixteen is not as appealing as you might think and one should avoid mentioning it. Relationships are difficult. Yes, it does not always look difficult: Take this guy from the army, with the motorcycle, who had simultaneously three meaningful relations with highly attractive women whom he called with the same nickname “Kuki” to avoid confusion when they called. But really, relationships are difficult and happiness is elusive. (Muli Safra told me years later about a plant in Turkey I think that gives flowers once every couple of years and whose name translated to English is “human happiness.”)

Another thing that worked for me, (but it may sound unreliable or even hypocrite) is that I was more happy than envious regarding my friends. I had this very good friend, nerdier than me, that had a girlfriend years before I did and with him it was almost like thinking “50% success rate between the two of us ain’t bad.” (The motorcycle guy notwithstanding.) So with some anxiety I was not in desperation about being slow on some things because, being young it seemed that, asymptotically, when n goes to infinity, things will work out. (And then later you see that some things do work out and some things don’t, and some other things looks completely different as n get larger, and n, well, it does not really go to infinity.)

475. Vijay Says:

I want to point out the University of California’s most recent Campus Climate Study in which, in multiple UC campuses, approximately 5% (4700) of the respondents identified as asexual, meaning they did not experience sexual attraction (in contrast to being celibate, where not participating in sexual activities is a choice). This was the first time that option was included in the survey and the number is expected to go up.

Though I know several asexuals in science, I am not claiming that the nerdy males in this discussion are asexual. In fact, the 2014 asexuality community consensus found that 62% of the respondents identified as female, and 13% as male (with the rest not identifying on the gender binary).

All this to point out that possibly 1 in 20 people do not experience sexual attraction, so various points in this discussion, which are obvious or natural to some people are not even in the life experience of others.

476. Amy Says:

Gil #475, that sounds exceptionally sane and levelheaded. Would you please come teach that perspective to everyone in my department?

And Vijay #476, again, point well-taken. And while my first reaction is “well, that’s fine, no one has to worry about sexual predation from that group,” that’s wrongheaded, also insulting and point-missing. Someone who’s asexual might be much more vulnerable than others to predation because of missed signals that someone who’s in the game, so to speak, would pick up right away. And the lack of understanding might also, as here, lead to misread intent in question-asking. A facebook friend posted a link to a cartoon asexuality primer, and I thought it was pretty good…but you can see, even here, that it didn’t even occur to me as a possibility in conversation. A long way to go, then.

477. Scott Says:

Amy #476: Sorry, but as with many other disputes between me and Gil (e.g., about quantum fault-tolerance), I fail to see what’s particularly sane or levelheaded about his perspective, though he presents it as such. As Gil admits, n doesn’t go to infinity, and we’re talking about people who could have serious problems for all the remaining n’s of their lives if they don’t take steps to fix them. In what other area of life would such passivity be considered “wisdom”?

(Also, having a peer-reviewed paper at age 15 was immensely appealing to me; in fact it was one of the main things that gave me hope that my life might turn out OK. I guess Gil and I are extremely different people.)

478. Sniffnoy Says:

Raoul #459, Scott #466:

I said on the earlier book thread that if Scott for some reason wants to use any of my comments, that I would like him to attribute them using my real name. Well, if Scott ever writes this other book and wants to use any of my comments from this thread, please don’t put my real name on them!

Amy #432:

Now this gives me material for a much more interesting reply than my earlier intended rant! 😀 (Although I think I may take a brief stab at that in a follow-up comment.)

The first thing I should note is that, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re actually replying regarding the point I explicitly said I wasn’t addressing. Still, since it will naturally come up in my reply, I will include some replies on that point; however I will put them in brackets as those are less things I actually believe and also I just expect the argument there to be less productive.

(Actually, it’s probably worth noting in general that positions I argue for aren’t necessarily ones I actually hold! But please don’t think that means I’m trying to waste your or other people’s time, or that this is just for fun; I don’t do such a thing unless I expect it will produce informative replies. Suffice it to say that if I’m arguing for something, it at least means that I’m unconvinced that it’s totally wrong.)

So first off, like I said above, you seem to have missed the point I was going for, which is about resolution or level of detail. “Asking first” requires taking the world and partitioning it into discrete things that can be asked about. It’s not obvious a priori where those lines are. If you say “ask about everything” and do not specify a level of detail, the naïve interpretation is to use maximal resolution, limited by your ability to convince yourself that two things should be counted as distinct. This leads to absurd results.

[It is though odd that you make such a point of “ask first” when you — again, if I’m understanding you correctly — deny the usual stated reason for “ask first”, namely, that rape, harassment, etc., happens largely due to misunderstanding and bad inference rather than malicious actors.]

But let’s talk about something more interesting — your example! Obviously, asking first is no surefire way to avoid a problem, as often the asking is the problem. Now, you’re telling me that you expect me to believe that “You’re looking for something to say, but you would rather just kiss me” is not sexual harrassment? 😀

(OK, I personally am indeed prepared to believe that, even if I’d never dare say such a thing myself. Past-paralyzed-Sniffnoy, who I am arguing on behalf of right now, is certainly not. Just so we’re clear.)

I mean — flip the genders if it helps your intuition, but, I mean, wow. That sure sounds pressuring to me. Hell, you are literally telling someone their own thoughts — “mansplaining”, anyone? 😀

…of course, current-me trusts that you knew what you were doing, that you took a calculated risk, and that had the guy acted in a way that indicated he felt pressured by the question, you would have backed off. But I’m not sure your example demonstrates what you think it does. You seem to have intended it as an example of “It is possible to use words, not be evil, and not be awkward”, but it’s easy to read it instead as “Even what’s explicitly intended as a non-evil example of how to use words and not be awkward, still ends up being evil!” I mean, I suppose you could before asking, but then there’s no reason to stop at only 2, so… (see also, tangentially)

(The fundamental tension here, I think, is that to not be awkward, you have to make an affirmative answer seem natural — but then you’re probably making a negative answer seem unnatural, i.e. pressuring the person.)

You could appeal to the notion of “no harm, no foul”, but I’d say that’s begging the question; that’s part of what’s in dispute in the first place! Again, I personally don’t believe you did anything wrong, but I hope you can see why others might find your example unconvincing. [Also, it’s worth noting that you judged your statement OK based on all sorts of implicit stuff — which raises the question of why, if you can make such an inference reliably, and you believe in “no harm, no foul”, and are willing to back off and learn from the example if you screw up and cause a problem anyway, that asking is as necessary as you claim it is.]

479. Anonymous Says:

I’m sure this is somewhat unfair, but I have been reading Scott’s blog for many years and have come to the conclusion that Gil sometimes tries too hard to be contrary, especially where Scott is concerned. I feel it must be spillover from a general defensiveness about holding the minority opinion on the feasibility of quantum computing. The apparent knee jerk contrariness though does leave a sour taste whenever I encounter it.

480. Amy Says:

No doubt. 🙂 I can remember, doing my Impressive Thing at the age of sixteen, being worried: if I can just waltz in and do this, and I’m a kid, how impressive can it actually be? And a prize or a big success too early can, as it turns out, be a serious distraction, something that isn’t good in the end for the person or the career.

I do think that in many circumstances, in many areas of life, seeing if time will solve a problem — asking the ripeness question — is actually pretty good advice. Because often the problems really do take care of themselves, or turn out not to have been problems after all — or someone else, acting out of entirely separate motives, solves them for you. Which not only saves you time and energy but the possibility of making things worse unnecessarily by making a big tzimmes out of the whole thing. (This can go spectacularly poorly if you misjudge the kind of problem you’re looking at.) Example — suppose someone’s in a marriage that had been lovely but seems to have gone wrong. The fastest way I know of making things worse is to jump in and start aggressively managing it. And the people I know who’ve been in the longest and maybe the best marriages not only love their spouses but are people of tremendous forbearance.

Somebody else upthread had a comment about the wisdom of letting very young students live in dorms. Again, I don’t think a sensible one-size-fits-all rule can be made. For me, it was a great and very helpful thing, but I was also a (sometimes dangerously) adventuresome kid at a small university not far from home. I’ve also got a friend who went halfway across the country at 14 to Extremely Prestigious Engineering University, and that didn’t go well at all. Depends very much on the kid and the school.

481. Sniffnoy Says:

482. Amy Says:

Oop, sorry, beginning of #481 was in response to Scott #478.

483. Lou Scheffer Says:

A fascinating discussion. As an old white male, my view on these subjects is suspect. On the other hand I’ve lived through major changes in how all of these topics are treated. Caveat blog-reader.

Scott #129 and others. In mid-career, I switched from computer science (10:1 M:F ratio) to biology (roughly 1:1). The level of sexist behavior, respect for women, etc. seems roughly the same in both fields, certainly not enough to explain the order of magnitude in representation. It may well contribute but it’s not the dominant factor.

Amy #204. Agree the “Mommy track” effect is a killer in the science world. In terms of solutions, and not just moaning about the problem, one thing that seemed to help (anecdotally, my view only) was giving 5 year grants, not year to year. Over such a period you can reasonably hope to both have a kid(s) and do excellent research. This argument applies not only to women, but also to the (increasing) portion of men who understand they are morally obligated to do their share of child-rearing.

Amy #301. I would tend to agree with your assessment that there is a long tail of men who have committed one or two rapes, though of wives/girlfriends and not of strangers. I recall as a young man insisting on sex with a girlfriend who quite clearly did not want it at that particular time. Nothing came of it (in fact, when I re-met her a few decades later I apologized, since it had been bugging me, but she did not even remember the incident) but I suspect this experience is fairly common.

484. Vijay Says:

Amy #471: I’m somewhat amazed at how you and I can interpret dorothy #463 in such different ways. This is not the first time this has happened on this thread. I read dorothy as saying that a woman who may have had terrible experiences with men is more likely to talk about these matters with someone who visibly, actively cares about feminist matters. Most importantly, the definition of “a visibly active feminist” is not meant to be anyone who supports some form of social equality or agrees with a slogan or even a definition you would provide for that term. It is just a phrase for the image many readers of this blog may have developed of you: a person who is familiar with a lot of feminist literature, nuances of issues discussed in contemporary feminist circles, who will passionately engage in discussions where feminist thought has something to say, etc. (I emphasise that this is “part of the image”) I do not believe for a moment that dorothy was suggesting feminists are people who have had bad experiences with women, though dorothy, please correct me if I am wrong.

To circle back to your comment #471 about assumptions about the participants in the conversation and their intent, I can imagine that in other forums, a lot of the words in this conversation may have different, well accepted meaning, and also how malicious caricaturing of feminists justifies an aggressive defense. However, it seems many of us are speaking the same syntactic language as you but with a different semantics. Even simple terms are used here as we would define them, which unfortunately may not be the first definition you have in mind. Similarly, I believe things are said here with a different intent than the intent that may be implied if the same things were said in contexts you are more familiar with.

485. dorothy Says:

Amy #471

I have to pick you up on what you have written again. I hope anongirl won’t mind but I feel I should defend her from you too.

In reply to anongirl you suggest, again but this time while pretending to apologise, that she must be very sexually naive (and also unsophisticated and inarticulate) to be sceptical of what you are saying. This is a classic ad hominem attack and unbecoming. One step from shouting “frigid” or “virgin” at another girl in the playground.

You then go on to just repeat that the dick in mouth incident was rape while ignoring the *context* that you gave. I am, I should say, a little wary that there might be some crucial detail you haven’t told us which makes it clear that this was an horrific attack. But, until that time, I will assume that things were exactly as you described. That is you were 69’ing and having a great time, you had told him previously that you didn’t want to return the favor to him this time, you had your eyes closed and mouth open and he put his penis in your mouth and asked you to do to him what he was currently doing to you. I also assume that you got annoyed and he immediately withdrew,

Let me be clear, no one is going to prosecute a case where a man puts his penis in a woman’s mouth while 69’ing and no jury would convict. If you gave that exact situation to 100 women and asked them what they thought should happen to the man, I would be amazed if more than 1 thought anything should happen at all. Sure, it might have been have been annoying and it was rude of him to try something sexual you said you didn’t want to do that time. But was it even upsetting? I assume you had performed oral sex on him before so it can’t have been particularly shocking.

As you presumably know, there is more to the law than a literalist reading of statute. As any law student knows, you can easily make ludicrous examples by taking statute to its logical extreme. For example, when my partner is going down on me and puts his fingers in me without first asking, should I wait until I finish orgasming before I call the police?

You are making a mockery of the word rape in your example. Why would anyone care about rape if it is something so mundane and harmless? Why would anyone want to take to the streets and campaign for tougher sentences, more prosecutions, better police care?

You also misread what I wrote about “campaigning feminists” being likely to attract people who have been treated badly by men. I didn’t say that the (campaigning) feminists themselves were likely to have been badly treated. Just that they would attract people who had. However, let me narrow this down a little. I now think you, Amy, are likely to attract people who have been treated badly by men which explains to me why your friends are non-representative.

486. Gil Kalai Says:

My comment #475 was just meant to tell the story and not to advice people. Certainly, in many cases, facing one’s problem, getting support, getting advice is the right thing to do. (In fact, I even said it in one comment above.) And certainly, in hindsight, there were things in my teen age that I could do better. (E.g. I spent large time of my second year in university playing pinball.) I think that I had the thought that if I am ahead in some aspects of life, it is only natural that I will be behind on some other aspects of life, but surely I was frustrated about my weaknesses and shortcomings. (Also I was literally very short until the age of 16 or so.)

Of course, writing a paper at the age of 16 was appealing to me (actually it got published only when I was 18), but I discovered that this particular thing is not appealing to girls that I wanted their friendship. (But I am not sure about that either, as a general advice.)

Regarding being contrary towards Scott. This has some truth to it but not so much in this particular discussion. Often even when I agree with Scott’s position I disagree with his arguments, and when I agree with his arguments, I disagree with his level of confidence and strong terms. There was one case (the Elsevier boycott) where I even asked myself if my position is genuine or was just caused by wanting to present contrary opinion to that of Tim Gowers and Scott. (Generally speaking, it is sometimes important to present contrary opinions.)

On the matter of feminism I think that I had fairly solid views for many decades. So while I don’t usually have expectation or desire to change Scott’s (or other people’s) mind, if I had to choose one thing to have Scott reconsider his position, it will not be about quantum fault-tolerance but about the wrong comparison between prostitution and working at minimum-wage jobs at Walmart and McDonalds.

487. aviti Says:

dorothy#462 (^~.~^)…?

Now I better go and read “QCSD” for my mental health.

488. aviti Says:

Indeed, on top of QCSD, I added other interesting stuffs to read, such as “A new physics of life”, “machine intelligence cracks genetics control”. Hopeful, my mental health will be greatly improved.

You know, I read and re-read this thread. And it really made me rethink a lot of my past, present and future life. I even started forming a mental picture of what sort of world I would like my daughter and my son to live in when they grow up. I really would prefer my children to have such nice blogs such as shtetl where they can pour out their opinions, where noone will try to net-bully them for whatever they said. Such a blog where if they are in the wrong, then someone points out their errors such that they learn. Instead, there a few who cannot stand people making stupid comments and use strong languages to say so, they sort of want to turn this blog into a militant rebuke, rebuff space. This remind me where I grew up, where if you cross someone, then it was hit-for-tat. I grew out of that by pure reasoning, that human condition is more important, that human cooperation is humane, human erring is correctable etc.

Well my rant seems of going round and round. I cannot get it straight. Mnh…what to say? Well. Thank. You. Everyone. Who. Spent. Their. Time. To. Share. Whatever so that I read and read and read and felt confused, elated, exasperated, and then…relieved. And I learned a lot. A lot.

Vijay above gave me some serious stuffs to think about. Thanks a lot for that perspective. I always thought some of my friends are like that, but was not sure. Thanks now I concretely know.

Also, I came to appreciate that there is no clear line separating genders, sex, race, religions, cultures, etc.

Thanks guys…now am gonna be a lurker here, if and when this thread keeps on elongating. Am gonna go over and read about that Immitation game. I am a BIG fan of Turing, he is one hero I admire among the many.

489. Fred Says:

Adding a level of indirection is a powerful tool in software design.
Eventually every single human interaction will be able to happen through a virtual reality interface.

490. dorothy Says:

Vijay #486

Thank you. That is what I meant.

Scott #467 Thank you too. Although it seems that the expert pessimists might require me to change my “see” to a “meet” as they did you too. I didn’t really mean that shy nerds should spot attractive women on CCTV (perhaps using their favourite new surveillance app) and then sprint over to where the woman is standing and then, while still panting, ask her for a date before saying their name. Some common sense is always required 🙂

491. Amy Says:

Dorothy #485, I’m going to ask you to go back and reread more carefully, and also to explain your own stance and where it’s coming from.

You write:

‘In reply to anongirl you suggest, again but this time while pretending to apologise, that she must be very sexually naive (and also unsophisticated and inarticulate) to be sceptical of what you are saying. This is a classic ad hominem attack and unbecoming. One step from shouting “frigid” or “virgin” at another girl in the playground.’

Your interpretation could not be wider of the mark, and I am saying this because I hope that anongirl doesn’t read it and take it as either accurate or reasonable.

I do not offer insincere apologies, but I will thank you not to decide for me whether they are sincere or not. As for the inexperience, no, of course “inexperienced” is not an insult. It’s a state of being with both Vijay and anongirl have been willing to be open about either being or having been, and while there’s absolutely nothing shameful about it, it’s a personal thing to reveal, and it takes some courage to do so.

Frankly, I am having serious difficulty understanding where you’re coming from and what background is informing your ideas: you seem to think that “campaigning feminists” (whatever those are) are pied pipers for women who’ve been scarred by bad experiences with men; that women want to eat their cake and have it too in terms of having to deal with sexual advances and harassment; and that anyone in this conversation, let alone an obvious feminist, would go throwing multiply-offensive 50s-era men’s insults at others about lack of sexual experience.

May I ask, how old are you, what is your gender, and where are you getting these ideas from?

As for this part, you’re simply inaccurate (and kind of insulting, again. An apology is welcome anytime):

“You then go on to just repeat that the dick in mouth incident was rape while ignoring the *context* that you gave. I am, I should say, a little wary that there might be some crucial detail you haven’t told us which makes it clear that this was an horrific attack. But, until that time, I will assume that things were exactly as you described. That is you were 69’ing and having a great time, ”

Wrong. As I’ve said repeatedly, 69 was what he wanted, not what we were doing. (I assume you’re aware of the difference between cunnilingus and the 69 position.) As I’ve also said repeatedly, I told him I didn’t want to do that. If someone tells you that she does not want to do a sexual thing, and then you go ahead and try forcing her to do it anyway, and that thing constitutes rape under current law (as this did; you are free to go back and reread the legal description), then I’m afraid rape it is.

As it happens, in this case, you are also wrong about 69 being part of our sexual history; I simply don’t enjoy it. But even if it had been, if I had already said “no” that day, then “no” it was. You have no right to any kind of sex with someone just because they did it with you before, regardless of your partner’s gender or your own.

“….you had told him previously that you didn’t want to return the favor to him this time, you had your eyes closed and mouth open and he put his penis in your mouth and asked you to do to him what he was currently doing to you. I also assume that you got annoyed and he immediately withdrew,”

You still seem resistant to acknowledging what rape is, although DoJ spells it out clearly for you. The fact that you are willing to 69 (or do any other sexual act) does not obligate your partner, and does not allow you to stick your genitals into his or her mouth in hopes that this time the answer will be yes. To do that anyway is to commit rape.

The rest of your post, denying that this is rape (despite the plainness of the law, and despite the “no”), ridiculing the idea that anyone would think it’s rape or take me seriously, generally deriding the notion that something like this is at all serious, and then going on to describe me as someone who simply invites trouble, should stand in this conversation as a vivid example of why women do not come forward immediately with complaints of rape. Can you imagine a rather shy or reserved woman trying to explain what happened to her, and facing questioning, revisions, and insults like Dorothy’s?

492. Amy Says:

Vijay #484 – I agree with you and appreciate the measured tone, and I’ll go back and reread dorothy later today in that light.

Lou Scheffer #483 – thank you for adding even more perspective. I agree, btw, about the wives/girlfriends v. strangers thing (and that was a brave thing you did). I’ll come back to the CS v. bio ratios, but would take the long-grants bit further by suggesting that faculty look at their colleagues’ productivity as a lifetime matter rather than a “what have you done for me this year” matter (although obviously there are fundability issues involved, which is really the same question writ larger).

I’ll come back to both of those and pick up dropped threads later tonight, I hope – got a child waiting for me now.

493. dorothy Says:

Amy #491

I think we have reached a point of maximum disagreement so I will leave it here and let other people be the judge. The text that I read as implying that anongirl was sexually naive, unsophisticated and inarticulate was the following.

“This is actually something else that I don’t think has been sufficiently articulated outside this blog, where it’s starting to be articulated well: add to the problems of communicating on this subject an extreme range of sexual experience and sophistication, including sophistication in conversation about sex. Not even range: I’d call it a space. For the last few years, as the (mostly economic) feminism I’d been interested in led me to places online where people were really more interested in sexual liberties (with heavy overtones of liberation from repressive religious upbringings, which isn’t really a thing for me), I’ve gotten used to conversation with sexually adventuresome and articulate people. So it’s a thing to listen for, isn’t it, and not to assume. Anyway. I’m very sorry to have hurt anyone’s feelings. “

494. Raoul Ohio Says:

Many people, nerds and whatever, would like to have more friends and possible lovers. Many or most of us are or have been in this situation. I have a few observations and suggestions.

If you are young and in school, be aware that the social scene is obviously juvenile and often somewhat nasty. It is natural to want to be part of a group, and nerdy, smart, unusual, etc. kids tend to be excluded. Its pretty much that way everywhere, so it is not your fault. When you graduate, you can go somewhere else, and it is a new deal.

Try to go to college, and give some thought to where you go. Small colleges are often like a big highschool, particularly those where fraternities and sororities are running the show. At such places, you will be excluded all over again. At bigger universities, say 10K or 20K, there are enough people to say “screw this”, and create their own scene, or to “find your tribe”.

Universities have a lot of places, usually bars, where students socialize. Usually the majority of places are very much oriented to typical college students, those who might not want to socialize with you. But there will also be several or a bunch for the “alternative crowd”. There are a lot of alternative tribes and they usually get along pretty well. Live music is often a centerpiece. An easy way to be part of a happening scene is to go to music events, get up front, and pay attention to how musicians play and sing. They are usually happy to talk music with anyone who is interested.

495. Amy Says:

Dorothy #493, the issue here is that you believe that “sexually naive, unsophisticated, and inarticulate” is a shameful thing to be, rather than a neutral state of being. If you’ve simply not had much practice with sex, then of course you’ll be relatively naive. If you haven’t been in conversation much about sex, don’t have much practice talking about it — you know, these things are learned. There’s a range of experience other people have that you won’t. I am almost entirely naive in physicsland, I know nothing at all about raising twins in Montreal, and as a raised-Orthodox Jewish near-vegetarian I’m useless in a conversation about grilling cuts of pork. None of those are value judgments, either. I’ll point out, incidentally, that I did not in that paragraph count myself among those sexually articulate and articulate-about-sex people on those boards. Their conversation has been a serious education, though, even in areas I don’t and likely won’t ever really understand. At least now I know they exist.

These things are important — varying levels of experience, sophistication, articulateness, ease in conversation, backgrounds (for lack of a more precise word) — in talking about gender issues, particularly those that deal with sex. Because it’s like any other communication on complex and sensitive topics: if you don’t know where your conversational partners are coming from, it’s difficult even to begin to speak so you’re understood, and difficult to know how to interpret them. (Is “I don’t see why [sexual offense] is such a big deal” an earnest if perhaps tactless question from someone who genuinely doesn’t know, or is it a dismissal of serious concerns by someone who’s annoyed by the existence of other people’s problems?)

Anyway – that’s why all these rather personal posts from various people throughout this thread have been so valuable. To be able to talk across these experiences is not easy.

What struck me as odd in your #485 is that the notion of sexual inexperience as an intolerable insult (and “frigid”, too, which I haven’t heard anyone use in a while) has been in my experience a specifically *male* concern. I’m trying to remember the last time I heard a woman take offense at the idea that she isn’t a sexual encyclopedia, and coming up with nothing. Of course, my experience is limited. Which is why I asked where you were coming from, and age, gender, etc.

496. Amy Says:

Incidentally, in #485 Dorothy gives this example, meaning I think to show consent-during-sex as absurd:

“For example, when my partner is going down on me and puts his fingers in me without first asking, should I wait until I finish orgasming before I call the police?”

But this is actually a serious question, and an example of why to talk about sex. In the above, for instance, that might be fine and the woman might expect it; she may also be uninterested in having anything at all put inside her vagina, and may not be expecting it from a new partner. Talking solves many of these problems. “Would it be all right if I went down on you/I’d like to make you come with my tongue/do you like being eaten out” and “What do you like when someone’s pleasuring you with his tongue?” — all things you can say. All things men have said to me. The most memorable phrase might’ve been, “Do you enjoy having your salad tossed?” because I had *no idea* what that meant, and he had to explain. None of this seems to detract from all the panting and excitement, possibly because one response is “oh my god right now do it now”.

In general I’d say it’s a bad idea to put *anything* inside someone else’s body unless they’ve told you they want it there. And it doesn’t hurt to get specific, either. Your idea of sticking a finger in someone’s ass might be to really work it right in there as deep as it’ll go (sorry, Scott) and start giving a little massage action, but your partner might just want a little, you know, inside the rim, with some particular form of preparation. I wouldn’t do anything like that without asking, if only because — jeez, you have no idea what people are bringing to bed, even when you’ve known them a long time. Who knows what happened when they were eight years old. Or what medical condition is flaring for the first time in three years, though they hadn’t particularly wanted to discuss it.

A lot of this, you’ll notice, comes down to being a little *polite*.

Someone — sniffnoy? — pointed out that for some people this is still a problem because of the grain question. I don’t have a good answer for this, but will point out that — for that person — it might not a problem limited to sexual relationships, and if that’s the case, sex may not be the best place to start trying to handle it.

497. Fred Says:

#496
“In general I’d say it’s a bad idea to put *anything* inside someone else’s body unless they’ve told you they want it there.”

Right, right, and that’s why “French kissing” is so damn tricky…

498. Sniffnoy Says:

Someone — sniffnoy? — pointed out that for some people this is still a problem because of the grain question. I don’t have a good answer for this, but will point out that — for that person — it might not a problem limited to sexual relationships, and if that’s the case, sex may not be the best place to start trying to handle it.

Well, I meant it as specific to this sort of thing, since other things don’t have the same sort of paranoia associated with them. I mean obviously line-drawing can be a fully general problem, but I didn’t intend it that way.

Meanwhile, I’ll have to remember starting implicit requests with “I’d like to…”. That could come in handy, thanks! 🙂

499. Amy Says:

Back to Lou #483 – I’m trying to think how more five-year grants would really do the trick. Currently NSF will allow a one-year no-cost extension, and recommends that be used as a work-life balance mechanism…but I see nothing at all about how using those extensions affects future funding. There are reports saying that women avoid stopping tenure clocks because of colleagues’ lasting resentment about absences, and I must say that I’ve seen that play out several times in a deeply unfortunate manner. If the same prejudices come into proposal reviews, it doesn’t look good for the women (and I don’t think we’ve yet had serious conversation about men taking leave to care for infants — even NSF’s work-life statements are all about women). To try to dodge by issuing longer grants…well, first you need projects that really should take five years, and then what do you do about your annual reports? Not to mention the question of how you’re actually going to squeeze the work, including data collection, into four years.

I think it’d be better to be open/aboveboard about the fact that many people in their 30s and 40s have children, that for most children there’s a few years of intense parenting, and that you’ve committed to these faculty far enough that you’ve sunk startup costs and a tenure line into them. They’re likely to be around for a very long time. People are also tremendously grateful, on the whole, to humane employers who don’t turn their lives into nightmares of stress or demand they sacrifice their children. It’s likely time, too, to look at family-care leave more generally — while it’s true that senior faculty may be well-enough established to disappear for a bit, an ill spouse or dying parents can really kick your career into a corner, because there’s still supposed to be someone else — some faceless woman, presumably — taking care of all that for you.

It might be reasonable to look at how much time people generally spend in having small children, ill spouses, dying parents, and just put that in the bank on hire. “We expect you will take X years over the course of your 35-40 here at some combination of reduced time or leave in order to care for family. Please do it.” The rest is attitudinal.

I think it’s also worth noting that most people who manage to get tenure-track jobs are ridiculously productive people to begin with. Laying off is still likely to mean more productivity than any two normal people put together. It’s slightly depressing how often an email I send at 2:30 am gets an immediate response even from faculty parents with seriously ill children.

It does seem to me that much of the pressure against treating family care in a sane way comes from a combination of unreasonable institutional expectations of a department combined with residual attitudes about Hard Men of Science and what demonstrates commitment.

500. Amy Says:

Sniffnoy #498 – happy to be of service. 😀

501. Raoul Ohio Says:

I have a proof (too long for the margins) that either P = NP, or this thread will hit 500 contributions.

Is 500 a first for SO?

502. Rahul Says:

Vijay #468:

Based on your anecdotes I must conclude that TCS itself isn’t representative of STEM departments.

My personal STEM experience is non-TCS and if what you describe is the norm for TCS, then TCS seems the creepiness outlier. 🙂

I sure didn’t hear of any creepy professors visiting our department and stroking anyone’s legs.

503. Scott Says:

504. Scott Says:

Amy #499: I actually think you and I could find a lot of common ground on issues like maternity leave—certainly more than on the question of when it’s acceptable to express romantic interest in someone. 🙂

FWIW, I’ve always thought future generations would look back with incomprehension and disgust at the way we set up the incentives for career women to delay having babies until they’re at the absolute upper end of their fertility, and not only require expensive fertility treatments, but have dramatically-increased risk of Down’s-syndrome babies and a million other pregnancy complications. A sane social norm would encourage each woman to have whatever number of babies she wants to while she’s at her peak fertility, and put her career advancement on hold (if need be) until she’s ready to pick up just where she left off.

505. Lou Scheffer Says:

Dorothy #491 and Amy #496: In order to decide if this is rape or not, you need to invoke the hypothetical “reasonable partner”. If such a partner knows the act is unwanted, then it’s rape (not to mention exceedingly rude). As Dorothy said, what a reasonable partner might conclude depends on a lot of context – previous experiences, strength of disinterest expressed, etc.

However, unlike Dorothy I don’t think you can look at the physical positions of the partners, and the fact it was an on-going sexual relationship, and thereby conclude it can’t be rape. For example, imagine a woman lying on her stomach with the man penetrating her from behind. In this case the difference between vaginal and anal sex is just a few cm, and could easily happen “accidentally on purpose” from the point of view of the guy. But if the woman wants one but not the other, and makes this clear, and guy ignores her wishes, this is unequivocally rape. This despite the fact that she enthusiastically consented to a position where such an action is easily possible for the guy. So in Amy’s case, if she explicitly stated that the 69 position is OK, but 69 is out, then it’s the guy’s job to keep his penis where it belongs, namely out of her mouth. Ignoring her wishes amounts to rape no matter how easy it is for him to force the issue.

I think a lot of these issues come up as an unfortunate consequence of a committed relationship. It’s very unlikely that both partners have exactly the same taste in sex. Hence one partner gets frustrated because “they won’t do X, even though I really like it” and the other frustrated because “I’ve told them a million times I’m not interested in X, but they keep asking, by word or deed.” This is a tough problem.

506. dorothy Says:

Amy #495

When I was at high school calling a girl frigid or a virgin was a common childish insult amongst girls. Of course, the opposite terms were insults too.

I don’t agree that calling someone sexually naive, inarticulate and unsophisticated was a merely neutral expression in this context.

“You still seem resistant to acknowledging what rape is, although DoJ spells it out clearly for you.”

No. I am 100% clear what rape is, both morally and legally. I just don’t seem to agree with you. You seem reluctant to accept that women can legitimately have different views on this topic.

As for an apology… I did say that I was wary there is some crucial detail you are not telling us about what really happened. If it was in fact a horrible, threatening and scary attack then I do apologise to you profusely for any upset caused. This is why it is always better to talk about hypotheticals I think when discussing sexual violence. I should have kept to this rule.

My hypothetical was what I spelled out as the assumptions for your case. Please remove any suggestion that this is really happened to you, because I will never truly know what happened in your case. Simply regard it as being about some hypothetical imaginary woman. We will still 100% disagree of course.

Amy #496

I can’t help but feel that you have moved from discussing sexual politics at large to just telling us what you like to do in bed. I am sure you enjoy a particular sort of prolix love making. I don’t. I prefer gentle encouragement or dissuasion during love making without having an attorney sitting in the room. “Up a bit”, “Down a bit”, “Not that”, “Yes please”. I see no reason why your (or my) preferences should be regarded as particularly important to anyone but yourself. Also, all your description of sex sounds like sex with strangers. What about sex with someone you actually know and like or, god forbid, love?

507. dorothy Says:

Lou Scheffer #505

Your point is 100% reasonable. I suppose I would just say that in some of these cases we seem to be talking about a sort of 3rd degree rape where the recommended criminal punishment would be minimal, if any. It makes me uncomfortable to bundle this with rape where we would all agree the perpetrator should spend 5+ years in jail.

Let me be slightly cruder … 🙂 There is world of difference between a man in the course of having consensual sex attempting anal sex for 2 seconds without any physical force and forcing anal sex for 10 minutes. The latter is rape and should in my view see you in jail for a long long time. I am not sure the former should even involve a court at all. At worse, you should simply tell the man to f*** off and end the relationship.

508. dorothy Says:

Scott #504

“FWIW, I’ve always thought future generations would look back with incomprehension and disgust at the way we set up the incentives for career women to delay having babies until they’re at the absolute upper end of their fertility, and not only require expensive fertility treatments, but have dramatically-increased risk of Down’s-syndrome babies and a million other pregnancy complications. ”

Amen. It’s a disaster. People are starting to talk about how it is disaster but they hit a brick wall of concern that secretly they want women to go back to the kitchen/bedroom and stay there.

509. Lou Scheffer Says:

Dorothy #505:
Agree we perhaps need different words to talk about different cases of what is technically rape. In other of life we make this distinction – you steal a car, but pilfer office supplies. Both are theft, and both are wrong, but one is wronger than the other. And the word used makes the consequences apparent – if you are caught stealing, you’re looking at jail. Get caught pilfering, maybe an apology, pay the company back, or you get fired, but you’re not going to jail.

510. Fred Says:

Scott #503
Jeez, the amount of “man-hours times IQ” wasted in that Joy Christian thread is mindblowing…

511. dorothy Says:

Amy #491

“[…] going on to describe me as someone who simply invites trouble […]”

I did no such thing. I described you as someone who is likely to attract women who have had terrible experiences with men.

512. Zilch Says:

Some people say the video lectures should have been taken down no matter how minor the infraction. Some people say the video lectures should have been left up no matter how major the infraction. I disagree with both. The specific details really matter a lot. (I also disagree with people who present their conjectured details as facts to support their view.)

I don’t believe that the real discussion about the Lewin saga will begin until the specific details are made known.

513. Lou Scheffer Says:

Dorothy #508:

[Talking about how the status quo forces ambitious women to have children late, if at all…]

“It’s a disaster. People are starting to talk about how it is a disaster”

I’m with you so far,

“but they hit a brick wall of concern that secretly they want women to go back to the kitchen/bedroom and stay there.”

This is a very ugly accusation which I think is untrue. I think it’s more conservatism (the system is working just fine – look at the rate of scientific advancement), comparison to their own experience (I had to work 90 hours a week for 7 years to get tenure, so you should too), and mis-placed concern that the quality of the field will suffer (by letting merely incredibly hard working, as opposed to mono-maniacally hard-working, folks enter the field).

I also speculate (without proof, but is seems plausible to me) that societal expectations play a part. A talented and hard-working guy can marry a women who is younger, less far along in her career, and is perhaps willing to do 80% of the child-rearing. Nobody blinks twice.

Now take an equally talented and hard-working woman. There is pressure on her to marry someone at least as successful as herself. If she marries a younger man not as committed to his career, then her family and friends will think she is marrying down, could do better, etc. But if she marries as society expects, and her spouse is at least as successful as she is, it’s even less likely he’ll be interested, or willing, to do the majority of the child-raising. This puts her at an enormous disadvantage compared to the equally talented and hard working guy. I’ve heard this argument summarized as “a professional woman needs a wife.”

514. Scott Says:

Amy: OK, this will really be my last comment in this thread, unless it isn’t. 🙂

I think I can put my finger on what makes me uncomfortable about draconian rules that would prohibit a professor, or other professional, from dating anyone with whom there’s any real or imagined “power differential”—not merely anyone over whom the person has actual power (the latter being something we all agree about).

Let’s consider the fictional case of a 26-year-old nerdy, male, newly-hired assistant professor in a STEM field. After years of the shy misery that’s the typical lot of such nerds, he suddenly finds that social life has become a lot easier. Not wanting to get in trouble, he avoids dating anyone at his own university, even though there’s not (yet) any formal policy against it. But he sees nothing wrong with dating undergrads, grad students, law students, or anyone else at other universities. To his astonishment, he finds that, after even the mildest expression of interest on his part, these women are often the ones chasing him.

Even here, if we follow the modern feminist-prohibitionist position to its unstated but logical conclusion, we would seem forced to say: “despite appearances, these women cannot be meaningfully consenting, because of the existence of a clear power differential. Even if they’re at different universities, in different fields, whatever, they’re probably dazzled and intimidated by the professor’s higher academic status relative to theirs, rendering any ‘consent’ null and void. And after all, what if they transfer to the professor’s university and field, or the professor moves to theirs? What then? You can never be too careful with these things.”

If, as is my wont, we skip all the intermediate steps and take this line of thinking to its endpoint, we’d seem to arrive someplace like the following: before any female of “lower academic rank” was allowed to date a nerdy male of “higher rank,” we should first do a controlled experiment, where she was taken by “the Ghost of STEM Nerds Past” to see him as he was as a geeky teenager back in high school. If she wouldn’t have dated him then, then she shouldn’t be allowed to date him now either, since we’d then have clear evidence that a power differential was clouding her judgment. (And even if she would have dated him then—well, what if a big reason why was that she would’ve correctly predicted that he’d succeed in the future? If so, then isn’t there still a problematic power differential in play?)

But let’s pause to consider how selective this sort of thinking is. No one says that male basketball players or artists or musicians should be prohibited from dating any of their female admirers because of a power differential that makes meaningful consent impossible—that these men need to be prevented, at all costs, from parlaying their success in other areas of life into success in dating, and thereby corrupting and poisoning the very ideals of sport, art, and music themselves. As far as I can tell, the people who have strong feelings about this subject only have those feelings when it comes to males in “nerdy” sectors, like tech or academia.

So the implied principle would seem to be: “there’s one particular class of males—namely, the STEM nerds—who intrinsically don’t deserve female companionship, at least until they change their basic natures. All their so-called achievements are just their ways to try to ‘game the system’: that is, to get by illicit, backhanded means what we already made clear to them in high school they’d never deserve as long as they remained who they were. So it’s imperative—indeed, it’s one of our most urgent priorities as a society—that we use any levers of power open to us to restrict these nerds from getting what they don’t deserve, even if it means we need to nullify what certain brainwashed women might misleadingly call their ‘free choice’ of whom to date.”

I’m sure you’d call this a gross exaggeration of what you believe, and you’d be right! But do you deny that it’s “merely” an exaggeration of a genuine impulse that came through in many of your comments? If so, then which steps of my extrapolation are the ones that you totally repudiate?

515. Shy foreign nerd Says:

Driven by a sincere intent of giving another personal view in praise of this great and already unusually diverse discussion, but halted by a profound lack of ability to make constructive contributions from the perspective of my limited experience, I thought, what could better both encapsulate and liberate these topics so heavily burdened by taboo than the theater!

I have thus created the outline of a play, which may be viewed as a little “musical offering” on the altar of the shtetl. Although my intention was to make my fantastic debut as a brilliant play writer by publishing a complete masterwork on this blog, unfortunately, due to my inabilities in the english language and lack of imagination, as well as by the realistic assessment that this discussion will be longtime dead at the time of its completetion, my masterpiece must be left incomplete, as merely a vague shadow of its deep innate greatness on the wall of this digital cave. So I nevertheless choose to publish it here as an outsourced literary skeleton in the naive hope that maybe someone will fill in the blank spots by their own good taste and superior ability, and make something out of this rubbish! (Feel free to demolish every single aspect of it out of recognition)

It is indeed intended to be nothing but a personal expressionist abstraction of the themes of this fantastic discussion, and none of the characters should by no means be identified with a specific person on this blog. Any incidental similarity with some one else’s view or experience expressed here should be taken as nothing else than my own creation.

Those of you a little bit familiar with the ancient greek dramas will recognize the quires as were accustomed to accompanying the different sides in the intrigue with occasional rejoinders of approval, disapproval and general perspectives enriching the plot.

(Despite it´s aesthetically disgusting and incoherent actual form, all text in this play is supposed to be imagined as written in beautiful shakesperian verse)

Characters:

The Sacred virgin nerd,

Feminist venus hermaphrodite mama,

Evil orwelian dictator demagogue,

Quires (different for each act),

Let the play begin!

Act 1:

(Beginning; in the platonistic heavens of unborn heavenly solids and abstract mathematical beauty of a motherly inner fortress guarding from tormation)

Quires:

1) A thousand bullies and evil little schoolboys

V.s.

2) A thousand smug little premature schoolgirls,

Enter The Sacred virgin nerd,

S.v.n;

– I am three years old, and what I enjoy most is playing in and and exploring my own mind. The grownups all think I´m retarded since I just sit on the spot looking with big eyes at the windows of the room without making a sound while the other children play and interact with each other. I don’t want to tell them that I watch how the sunlight is distributed in the room and the fascinating geometry it creates as it is projected against different materials and how I imagine my impressions of the physical world as abstract symbols, and how uninterested I am in communicating with the others of my own age, as they barely can name most of the things I can point at, as I fear that the grownups will force me to do other things and take away all my fun. Besides, the only human I need in this world is my mom.

Enter Feminist venus hermaphrodite mama,

– This boy is clearly autistic! We must give him proper treatment from an early age so that he wont interfere with the other childrens play and grow up to be emotionally disturbed, and also so that he can make something creative and good out of his very special character and abilities! We must put him in a waldorph-school or something!

Enter Evil orwelian dictator demagogue,

– This boy could be a potential benefit if we discipline him the right way. Give him the textbooks of our proper mathematics so that he quickly will be indoctrinated into our evil society and eventually be used as our instrumental tool.

S.v.n :

– I am five years old and I just found the collected works of Plato in my parents library, where they locked me in for the day, as often happens since they work so much that they barely have time to take care of me. I found Plato interesting though and especially like Thimaeus. I don´t really understand that old weird man Socrates and what those strange boys do to each others in the various texts, but I don’t mind, since I both appreciate and recognize those beautiful solid shapes that make up the world, and the idea that our understanding of the universe can be viewed as a continuum of layers of abstraction.

Quire 1: (Imagine them singing with full power in epic harmonies)

-This boy is strange and different and we don’t understand him and are a little bit afraid of him since he seems to be able to do things we can’t, so we must torture him every day and make his life into hell as much as we can!

Quire 2:

We don’t like him either because he is so different! (One of the little girls)- Hey, I like him, but those boys hit me when I tried to play with him

Quires continues:

-We don’t like him because he is so different!

-This boy is strange and different and we don’t understand him and are a little bit afraid of him since he seems to be able to do things we can’t, so we must torture him every day and make his life into hell as much as we can!

etc. etc.

Act 2:

The outside world intrudes the mental paradise of solitude, sexual encounters with the platonic Orfeus of sin and the pitiful adventures into an unknown realm of glory and mischief.

Quires:

1) the army of a thousand frustrated male postdocs

V.s.

2) the morality embodied in a thousand virgin feminist angels

Enter The Sacred virgin nerd

S.v.n – I am twelve years old and have since long decided for myself that I don’t want to participate in this world on the conditions given by the aspects of our society representing the infinitude of madness and stupidity of humankind which I experience on the periphery of my inner beauty. Instead I´m firmly settled on the intent to devote my entire time in this life to pure reasoning and science.

Enter Feminist venus hermaphrodite mama & Evil orwelian dictator demagogue,

F.v.h.m – Such single-mindedness can´t be healthy for a child, we should try our best to socialize him and encourage him to meet new friends! There must be some kid out there with which he can play.

E.o.d.d – He must be kept isolated, like that he is much more easily manipulated for the benefit of our purposes.

S.v.n.

– My only friend Tim told me in excitement that he and a girl in our class kissed yesterday. I didn’t pay much attention to him though as I was thinking more on generalizations of the two-body problem.

E.o.d.d – The little boy has grown to a little bit to hard-headed for our taste. We must exploit his sexual development in order to control his desires! Drown his rationalism in a flood of porn and all other sexual perversities embodied in our society!

F.v.h.m – That is unacceptable! Our patriarchal society keeps destroying the vulnerable youth by tearing them apart between fear-driven religiously inherited puritanism and brutal oversexualization and porn. Besides, young boys are at least as vulnerable to these perversities as are young girls, but the fragility of male sexual development is generally much less well understood, and because of the heavy taboo on these issues regarding young boys, they are almost never discussed. We need a broader feminist discussion involving both genders on equal terms!

S.v.n- What has been troubling me lately is that strange things has started to happen to my own body, and I´m starting to experience new and unfamiliar emotional reactions to various things that makes me very uncomfortable. It is really disturbing to my previously so harmonious inner life.

Quires.. etc. etc.

Act 3:

The conclusion; married to an career and the socioeconomic aftermach of a lost youth (to be completed..)

Quires:

1) the army of a thousand corporate and academic institutionalized zombies of patriarchy

V.s.

2) The conscience embodied as a thousand suffering tormented and raped third world women.

516. dorothy Says:

Lou Scheffer #513

Although you disagree with me, I agree with you 🙂

Sorry if I seemed to be making an accusation. It wasn’t my intent.

517. liz Says:

Scott #514 – You seem to be confusing “having informed, enthusiastic consent” with “having your workplace be okay with the workplace-specific effects from your sexual relationship”.

518. Shy foreign nerd Says:

Please excuse my english spelling: Quire=Choire

519. Scott Says:

liz #517: OK, you might be right. I had assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the reason why many people want universities to ban all relationships involving “power differentials” (not only the ones with actual conflicts of interest), was that they thought that any power differential rendered consent itself problematic. If so, then as I said, there seems to be no clear endpoint to this way of thinking: do we really want the authorities to put every budding relationship under a microscope, to make sure both participants are entering into it for valid reasons? And do we want that only in academia and STEM fields, or in the rest of society as well?

However, if, as you suggest, the issue is not consent but just workplace logistics, then the guiding principle seems clear: workplaces should treat such relationships in more-or-less the same way they’d treat employees needing maternity leave or time off to take care of a sick relative. I.e., an enlightened organization doesn’t want to ban these aspects of being human because they’re nuisances; it wants to find creative and compassionate ways to accommodate them.

520. Gil Says:

Scott: “A sane social norm would encourage each woman to have whatever number of babies she wants to while she’s at her peak fertility, and put her career advancement on hold (if need be) until she’s ready to pick up just where she left off.”

I certainly agree with this!

Scott: “But he sees nothing wrong with dating undergrads, grad students, law students, or anyone else at other universities.”

I do not see anything wrong with it (unless there is a concrete conflict of interests). Also, I don’t think that it is forbidden for a professor to date a student in another university. What are the MIT rules?

The hypothetical scenario in #514 is sort of familiar in more general realistic context: What are the rules and ethics (if any at all) for a celebrity about getting sexually involved with his fans.

521. Scott Says:

Gil #520:

I don’t think that it is forbidden for a professor to date a student in another university.

That’s right, I’ve never seen any rule anywhere forbidding that. My question was why it shouldn’t be forbidden—via a process of trying to infer the rationales behind prohibitions that you and others have explicitly defended here, and then applying those rationales more broadly.

What are the rules and ethics (if any at all) for a celebrity about getting sexually involved with his fans.

Actually, I’d say the issue is even more general than that. There seems to be a widespread view today that, if a woman enters into a relationship with a man for the “wrong” reasons (to take one example: because of the financial security he can provide her), then that isn’t as consensual as if she entered for the “right” reasons, and maybe she even needs to be institutionally protected from making such a choice.

As a matter of advice, presumably we can all agree that a relationship is most likely to work if the two people are attracted on many levels at once: physical, emotional, intellectual, practical…

The point I was trying to make is just that banning certain categories of relationships between consenting parties (let’s say, any relationship between a student and professor at the same institution, or any relationship that involves a financial exchange) because we dislike one or both parties’ assumed reasons for it, seems to me like an incredibly risky path to go down, and one that’s hard to reconcile with the values of a free society. How certain is each of us that our reasons to become attracted to our current partner, and our partner’s to us, could withstand a thorough interrogation?

522. Crab Says:

Some of the themes in this discussions reminded me of Roy Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?”:

http://denisdutton.com/baumeister.htm

523. Shmi Nux Says:

Scott, to semi-quote the other Scott, where do you think is a defensible Schelling point in the power-differential dating?

http://lesswrong.com/lw/ase/schelling_fences_on_slippery_slopes/

524. Anon Says:

“Except not cool. Because somehow — despite growing up in and rising to a highly responsible position in nerddom during decades when women-in-STEM has been a continuous thing, and when there’s always been talk of barriers to women’s success, and entire programs funded to help shove women into the pipeline and (less often) keep them there — he never made the connection: girlie shirts are not conducive to an environment demonstrating respect for women. And it’s distinctly unpleasant to work in an environment in which disrespect for something you simply are is demonstrated so overtly.”

I am female. The issue is that shirt does not clearly dis-respect women. Some people find it disrespectful and others don’t. The people who find it offensive seem to think its 100% obvious they are right and therefore anyone who would wear a shirt like that just doesn’t care about hurting women. Or is too dense to realize their actions might hurt others.

Feminists being so happy to police other’s appearance always felt odd to me. They remind me of people who constantly try to ruin the lives of the transgendered. People who just don’t want to fully accept transgendered people always make up reasons. Maybe transgendered using the correct bathrooms makes women “unsafe.” Or that refusing to let trangendered people dress in the correct dress code is just “professionalism.”

525. Scott Says:

Crab #522: Thanks for the link to that talk! I smiled at the strange mixture of “obvious” and “incendiary” that’s evolutionary psychology’s special contribution to human discourse.

526. Scott Says:

Shmi #523: As I said, I think organizations are completely within their rights to ban romantic relationships that represent conflicts of interest (or better: reassign one or both partners whenever such a relationship arises). Beyond that, though, I’m skeptical of the entire concept of “power-differential dating.” For the concept seems to admit the reality only of certain kinds of power, while ignoring other kinds. (E.g., imagine an older man lavishing money and presents on a younger woman, begging her not to leave him. Is it obvious how to apportion the ‘power’ between the two?)

527. Amy Says:

Anon #524, in most businesses there are dress codes, and very few of them are developed by feminists.

An American feminist would likely defend your right to dress however you pleased. I don’t know too many feminists, though, who enjoy the casual objectification of women, particularly in work environments that have been, historically, so hostile to women that branches of the federal government have to develop and pay for special programs devoted to changing the environment, and keep on doing that for decades.

Matt Taylor was on TV representing NASA and ESA. He wasn’t at home; he wasn’t at the mall shopping for Christmas presents. He wasn’t terribly practiced about it, but he wasn’t in front of that camera as a private person, and to that extent he was speaking for the space agencies, saying “this is who we are”. A shirt that says “We dig a T&A party” is not appropriate, no. If astronomy and aerospace ever get around to something like parity in employment and respect for women that’s taken for granted, my guess is that a shirt like that will still look like a weird and probably inappropriate choice for an important project lead on camera, but will not turn into a news story. Incidentally, we’ve been through all this decades ago with the definition of “hostile work environment”, and if nothing else, I bet Matt’s appearing on-camera like that made dozens of HR people go banging their heads against the wall. Girlie pictures are the go-to example for hostile-environment discussions.

Scott #526 – If the old — let’s call him a man in a more powerful position in the organization, rather than turn it into a question of age — is in a position to crush her livelihood if she does leave him? Yeah, he has the power. You keep going back to this business of happiness v. pain, but there are more basic problems that I think you chronically overlook. I don’t suppose you’ve ever been poor? I don’t mean “living on a grad stipend, supported by parents and protected by the prestige and club privileges of a university”, I mean actually out there and poor, with or without a child to protect.

I think the point’s particularly germane within the context of your average university, where most faculty know a kind of security and financial wellbeing that are a fantasy to everyone but rich kids and Supreme Court justices, and few students will ever know that kind of life. The median household (not individual) income in the US is around $52K; last I checked, 46 million Americans were destitute to the point of receiving food stamps. BLS reports that 13.5% of recent bachelor’s-level graduates (six months out from graduation) were unemployed, meaning they were looking for work and having no luck. I think average school debt for a recent bachelor’s grad is running around$29K these days.

In this context, I don’t think that “well-paid tenured professor is lonely and in love” is so compelling a problem that students should find themselves faced with professors — who have some power over their careers and livelihoods — wanting romantic or sexual interest from them. And that’s true regardless of the gender of the parties.

528. Amy Says:

(#527) *dozens of US HR people go banging their heads against the wall. No idea what parallel law/regs exist in the EU.

529. Bill Kaminsky Says:

In regard to Roy Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?” (e.g., http://denisdutton.com/baumeister.htm) [Crab #522 and Scott #525]…

First, an observational-primate-biology / mathematical-Markov-chain-modelling question: I’m pretty sure Baumeister is making an error when he claims that one must conclude that

…throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.

in order to explain the two findings from DNA analysis that

[A] Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men…

[B] … Most men who ever lived [do] not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines [are] dead ends.

I’m pretty sure that even in primates with really obvious “alpha male/beta male” social hierarchies, let alone historical human societies, you don’t ever find such stark scenarios in which only 40ish% of males get to reproduce at all. I’m pretty sure it’s the case that in primate species that at least 55ish% of males, if not a significantly higher percentage, do indeed get to reproduce. It’s just that the higher status male primates do have significantly more offspring and thus create bloodlines that are much more robust to the vicissitudes of life over many, many generations.

Anybody know if I’m wrong? I’m too lazy — especially at this late hour — to take out pencil and paper and think about some simple Markov chain birth-and-death model.

[To be continued…]

530. Amy Says:

On the broader point, Scott, of the issue of money as power in relationships:

I think you dismiss it too easily in general. There’s a reason why laws have grown up around this issue in domestic relations: the power is too often abused to the point of victimizing the party without enough money to be independent, usually the woman. If you can persuade people to knock that off, the “does it make any sense to protect women from sugar daddies” question becomes much easier to answer with “no”.

In divorce law in, I think, most if not all states, both parents are now obliged to help pay for college, and the men are required to pay child support determined by state formulas. There is no negotiation on these matters. That’s because the men so often threatened not to pay for college as a way of forcing the women to reduce child support demands, and/or the women dropped child-support demands in order to preserve peace. All this was to the detriment of the children and the women trying to raise them, and partly responsible for high rates of poverty amongst women and children after divorce.

Similarly, if you listen to sociologists or to the women themselves, you’ll hear many stories of poor single mothers hooking up with men who abuse them and/or their children for the simple reason that it’s the only obvious way of finding food and housing. If you talk to women who run DV shelters, you’ll hear dime-a-dozen stories of women who are afraid to leave abusive husbands because although the husbands make good money, the wives have no money of their own, and there are children. I’ve sat in a coffeehouse with a mother — a woman I’d known for years in a totally different context — telling me, out of the blue, how she was trying to leave her husband, who raped her during what he figured were ovulatory days, but it would be a few years before she could get her degree and make enough money to be independent. These are dramatic examples; if you talk much to women who aren’t abused, but are married to men who make much more than they do, you’ll hear how the women’s lives are shaped and sometimes deformed by the wishes of men who live by the “golden rule” and enforce it at home. I hear these stories even from women now in their 70s. What the women put up with because what else could they do, they had children and no money of their own, noplace to go.

I went through some of that myself, actually. Before I married, I laid out very clearly, for my fiancé, the fact that he would always make more money than I did, and that regardless of what went on, my time for my work would be non-negotiable. And that if he wanted us to live more expensively than I could while paying half, that would be his business, but that I wasn’t going to drop my work to run after something that made more money. I didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about that. He said that was fine, that he didn’t mind. He was very much surprised and displeased when it turned out that I wasn’t kidding — he really did expect that his earning power would in large measure run my show, and that I’d simply give up whatever I was doing to cover his home/family obligations as his career advanced. That contributed more than a little to our divorce.

531. Bill Kaminsky Says:

[… and now continued!]

Second, there are so many things in Baumeister that have this largely agnostic Jew going “Oh, sweet Jesus, have mercy!” At this late hour, I hope just the following single example suffices for the purposes of group discussion (as well as my personal catharsis).

Baumeister starts out provocative in a more-constructive-than-not fashion IMHO with…

Thus, the reason for the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in some dubious patriarchal conspiracy. Rather, it came from the fact that wealth, knowledge, and power were created in the men’s sphere. This is what pushed the men’s sphere ahead. Not oppression.

… before then (and again only IMHO) careening into the downright crazy:

Giving birth is a revealing example. What could be more feminine than giving birth? Throughout most of history and prehistory, giving birth was at the center of the women’s sphere, and men were totally excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of years.

Let’s not overstate. The women had after all managed childbirth pretty well for all those centuries. The species had survived, which is the bottom line. The women had managed to get the essential job done. What the men added was, from the perspective of the group or species at least, optional, a bonus: some mothers and babies survived who would otherwise have died.

I’m fully willing to be convinced otherwise, but isn’t this wrong both in terms of the history of obstetrics and in terms of evolutionary biology? To be specific,

A) While many cultures have tried to attend to their notions of female modesty and male respect thereof by having only females present at *routine* births, haven’t almost all cultures reserved a role for males to attend to obstetric emergencies and do things like Caesarian births that, frankly, in the absence of modern medicine were almost always equivalent to decreeing “mother must die so baby can live”? Also, wasn’t there a massive amount of human male observation and experimentation on both routine and emergency deliveries of female *domestic animals*?! In short, isn’t it downright crazy to believe that human females somehow managed until very recently to keep all the human males from ever thinking in an informed fashion how to improve survivorship in childbirth as well as further believe that females somehow never constructively worried their own pretty little, evolutionarily-optimized-not-to-take-risk heads about it?!!

[Begin Unhinged Rant] Seriously, are you daft, man??!! Have you ever thought about what it’s like to lose a mother and/or her child on the birthing table??!!! It’s one of those things that really, really gets the people who’ve suffered it to think about how the f$!k you can keep that from ever happening again. [/End Unhinged Rant] [Begin Short Literary Digression] It is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds. –Czelaw Milosz, Nobel Lecture 1980 [/End Literary Digression] B) Again, I’m too lazy to do a Markov chain estimate at this hour to bolster my intuitions that are perhaps overly influenced by my politically liberal upbringing and my experiences as an emergency medical technician with apolitical, dispassionate mathematical facts, but isn’t advancing obstetrics in no way “optional” for pretty much any optimization that’s concerned just with how long your bloodline lasts and how many individuals are in it?! (Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t these the objective functions that evolutionary biologists think you should optimize for nigh-total insights into the human condition?) As such, aren’t the facts that… A) …it took a long time for humans to advance obstetrics beyond folk medicine, as well as B) it’s still taking a long time for humanity to make its currently advanced obstetrics universally available… …signs that human history doesn’t entirely follow such optimizations? 532. Anon. Says: Amy, I disagree that a professor has the power to “crush the livelihood” of a student of whom he is not an advisor. How would he accomplish that? This is especially true if the professor is required to disclose the relationship to his university, as is usually the case. 533. Amy Says: Scott again, re this, from #521: “How certain is each of us that our reasons to become attracted to our current partner, and our partner’s to us, could withstand a thorough interrogation?” You know, this is the difference between fiction and government, and it’s one that’s been mentioned in this thread before, in the context of individual/structural inequities. On an individual level – well, this question makes existential novels. Power within any relationship between two people is a complex and shifting thing. But governance doesn’t work on that scale. You can’t run a country on _Lolita_, or _Ulysses_ or even on _Shosha_. If you’re talking about that many people, the grain gets coarse, the people turn into stick figures. This is how people get hurt in front of judges: they think they’re there as people, and not as a case being processed in a legal machine. But if it weren’t a machine it’d make the legal process in _Bleak House_ look like an F-16. I don’t particularly like social sciences for this reason. I’ve also not seen a more humane way of running things for a very large group of people. 534. Amy Says: Anon #532, I was speaking to Scott’s more general question of whether organizations ought to interfere with consensual relationships at all, if they’re not harmful to the organization. If we’re talking about current university regs that deal with immediate-responsibility situations, then I’d say what I said before about faculty-student relationships that fall outside them: it’s not forbidden, but it’s less than prudent. Probably smarter to wait till they graduate. 535. Amy Says: Picking up pieces: Rahul #508 – yeah, that kind of stuff (leg stroking, come-ons, etc.) is decidedly not limited to CS. I think it was Vijay who mentioned Kate Clancy’s recent study of harassment/attacks during fieldwork. Worth your while to read. Scott #504 – while I agree about the career-timing business (esp in academia), I don’t know that I’d agree with the bit about encouraging women to have babies during “peak fertility”. There’s more than brood-mare involved here. I would very much recommend that women wait to have children until they’re capable of supporting those children on their own; the worst situations I’ve seen for children involve single mothers without their own money, substantial earning power, or assets. Given that a quarter of all children in the US now live with unmarried mothers, that’s not a small consideration. There’s also a good deal to be said for having a life before you have kids. Depends on the parent, of course, but it’s a tremendous, often life-and-career-defining commitment, and I’m very glad that I had a long full life of my own before turning over decades to motherhood. I had no reservations about it for that reason, and wanting to be there v. regrets, also, is not a small thing in parenting. Dorothy #511: I attract women who’ve had terrible experiences with men? Then I have some kind of power in defining who comes to synagogue services, works in the places where I work, lives in my neighborhood, and has children who are school chums with my child. Could a more reasonable explanation for my hearing these stories, while you don’t, is that the women around you are no different from the women around me, but sense that from you they’re likely to get an interrogation and disbelief/relabeling, while from me they’re likely to get a friendlier reception? Also, I know you’re not from the US, but — if I may ask — where did you spend your girlhood? I’m just curious about where high school girls taunt each other as being virgins or frigid. It’s not something I’ve run into. As for the definition of rape: look, you’ve seen what it is here, legally. You don’t have to like it. But that’s what it is. Lou #513 – there’s another issue in the marry up/down bit: I don’t see that all that many guys actually tolerate a more-successful wife/girlfriend very well. Wives would be handy, for sure, and indeed in many states a woman can have one now! Only two problems with this solution: One, you may disappoint her if you aren’t gay; and two, you have to be willing to exploit another person the way professional men have customarily exploited their wives. Both sticking points for me, unfortunately. Oh, and Scott #514…maybe I should get some sleep first? 536. Scott Says: Amy #527: No, I’ve never been poor, though I’ve certainly been miserable. As a result, one thing that was seared into my consciousness from an early age is the near-total irrelevance of wealth (beyond the bare minimum) to anything that makes life worth living. I strongly support a progressive income tax and a redistributive economic policy, but less because I’m certain that the poor people need the money, as because I’m certain that the rich people don’t. The poorer people I knew were invariably happier than I was, with (as far as I could tell) zero correlation between happiness and wealth. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I went into academia, and never had much interest in trying to become a Silicon Valley billionaire: because if even whatever I had was so ineffectual in buying anything worth having, then why would hundreds of times more of it make a difference? I wanted to prove great complexity theorems, and I wanted a girlfriend, and I wanted to write prose that would hit people in the gut, and money wasn’t the rate-limiting factor for any of the three. But it’s more than that: if you had offered me to trade places with (let’s say) a semi-literate roofer working minimum wage, but who didn’t suffer the anxieties I did, I would have agreed in a nanosecond. Let me say that again: I would have given up both all suburban comforts, and whatever mental abilities made me who I was, just in order to escape the curse of constantly worrying about what people like you thought of me. You write about men who (credibly) threaten to destroy women’s livelihoods if they won’t have sex with them, or stay in a relationship. I can only reply that that’s horrifying when it happens, and I’m glad that modern societies have evolved to make it orders-of-magnitude harder. The fact that the modern world also furnishes examples in the opposite direction—husbands ruined in divorce courts; ordered to pay child-support for children born out of cuckoldry, and alimony to an ex-wife now living with the paramour; sent to prison for failure to make payments that (being unemployed) they can’t make, etc.—does nothing to lessen the pain of a woman bearing the brunt of one of these situations. But the fact remains that both of these kinds of situations are alien to the world I know. And if you tell me that my experiences, or the experiences of all the other people I know, are too unrepresentative to matter in sociological terms—well, that will only make me want to speak up the louder for those experiences, so that at least someone is doing it. I daresay that, however thin a sliver STEM nerds are as a proportion of the total population, they have an outsized importance to the world’s future. And remember what I said before, that I’ll support social-justice movements only up till the point where it looks like the downtrodden want to thank me by putting my head on a pike. That’s my break-point (or if you like, my “Zionist-point”), where I undergo my phase transition from liberal to conservative. And while I’m always open to changing my mind, remember also that you’re talking to someone for whom learning not to live in fear of the disapproval of the world’s “Amys,” was the single happiest development in his life. 🙂 Enjoy your sleep. 537. Rahul Says: Amy #435: The question isn’t whether sexual harassment occurs in other disciplines (of course it does) but how common is harassment. In TCS as well as other non-TCS areas. Vijay’s earlier comment made it sound (at least to me) that he was saying this leg-stroking etc. was a commonplace affair. I don’t think it is. My recommendation is that people just ask their female friends & colleagues in STEM if they have been so harassed & my guess is it is the exception rather than the rule. 538. dorothy Says: Amy #535 Re: where I live, where I grew up and any other personal background information. I would rather avoid discussing that as we have too much stereotyping already in this conversation. Let’s stick to the ideas we are debating. “Could a more reasonable explanation for my hearing these stories, while you don’t, is that the women around you are no different from the women around me, but sense that from you they’re likely to get an interrogation and disbelief/relabeling, while from me they’re likely to get a friendlier reception? ” This is a fair, if predictable, debating point. Naturally I don’t agree but there is no way to go further on this point I feel. However we omitted another obvious explanation which is just pure chance. If the true proportion is 5% then you would expect in a population the size of the US to have a lot of people to have 25% of their friends so affected. “As for the definition of rape: look, you’ve seen what it is here, legally. You don’t have to like it. But that’s what it is. ” I feel you have not appreciated the subtleties here. Let me try to break it down a little. Legal. There are various versions of statute that define rape. In some places they have second and third degree rape (this latter term can be called something else) as well. I believe that many states in the US still require force (or incapacity) to establish a rape charge. The legal statute definition of consent also varies greatly in different jurisdictions even within the US. You may want to read http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/alcode/13A/6/4/13A-6-70 for example. Even if you pick a statute you like, the courts then have to interpret the key words such as “consent” and “penetration” within the context of case law and also the inferred intentions of the law writers. You then need a jury to convict and the judge to pass a sentence. My claim is that, given all that, you are very unlikely to get a conviction for rape for the hypothetical situation I set out even if you somehow had complete video evidence. That is a couple is voluntarily in the 69 position, the woman is receiving and enjoying it, she has previously given and enjoyed it but has said at some point previously that day that she doesn’t want to today. The man places his penis in her mouth (with no force) anyway, she complains and he stops immediately. Political. My obvious annoyance however wasn’t caused by a difference in legal understanding. What annoys me is that someone so articulate and outspoken, who could do so much good for the fight against sexual violence, chooses instead to bundle borderline cases along with the most serious crimes, to give them the same name and to refuse to accept any distinction. As has been said before and elsewhere, this is in my view a recipe for marginalization for the women’s movement and something that makes me sad. Personal. I don’t want to have a virtual attorney in every bedroom and certainly not in mine. I also don’t personally want to see our jails full of men who have acted as I set out in my hypothetical situation. 539. Scott Says: Gil #538: Look, even in my most depressed periods, I was clearheaded enough to reflect that there wasn’t actually that much wrong with me, and that what there was seemed outweighed by what was right with me. I thought that if only I were able to ask, I would get enough “yes” answers—which, indeed, turned out later to be true. So I’d say the issue really was anxiety: you don’t have to call it “feminist anxiety,” but maybe “anxiety, strongly exacerbated by one strain of modern feminism, of someone who could never tolerate the slightest inconsistency between his moral beliefs and his actions.” 540. Bill Kaminsky Says: Scott #540 wrote: “anxiety, strongly exacerbated by one strain of modern feminism, of someone who could never tolerate the slightest inconsistency between his moral beliefs and his actions.” I’m genuinely curious, Scott, did that extreme intolerance of inconsistency between morality and action extend beyond socially-taboo-or-awkward philosophical topics like romance & sex to wholesome-let’s-all-reason-together-in-public philosophical topics like balancing selfishness versus altruism in one’s life? === A Personal Postscript === I especially ask about selfishness versus altruism since I’ve been afflicted at times with what seems to me to be a neurotic amount of self-loathing (and certainly a much more than the typical amount of self-loathing) due to me not living my life as altruistically as I think one ideally should. I mean I didn’t always pay attention in Sunday School, but I never found a explicit answer to good ol’ Rabbi Hillel’s famous trio of rhetorical questions “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? If not now, when?” I just got the vague answer that Hillel himself gave: “Be of the disciples of Aharon; loving peace, and pursuing justice; loving mankind, and bringing them nigh to the Torah” …you know, in short, be a mensch and study more Torah and Talmud and Midrash and commentaries on the commentaries ad infinitum… which, you know, is of course what a Rabbi would say and is simply of no help at all to a rigid type like myself who wants some explicit algorithm for morality. 😉 541. Gil Says: “even in my most depressed periods, I was clearheaded enough to reflect that there wasn’t actually that much wrong with me, and that what there was seemed outweighed by what was right with me.” I think this is a *very strong* point of advice for kids in similar situation. “…someone who could never tolerate the slightest inconsistency between his moral beliefs and his actions.” This is also an important point. Perhaps part of growing up is to understand that there could be many small inconsistencies and conflicts. I think, for example, that one can understand and appreciate the moral point made by vegetarians (while disliking perhaps the most militant ones) and still stay non-vegetarian. 542. Vijay Says: Rahul #502, #537: I was making neither claim nor comment about what is common. In your comment # 464 you asked me: Do you have any anecdotal statistics about whether any of these unwelcome advances came within the context of an (American) University STEM Department? In my comment #468, I gave you separately, both anecdotes and statistics to specifically answer whether any such incident occurred in a US department. Unlike what you said in comment #537, I was not answering in a way that made such things seem commonplace. Moreover, I disagree with your comment # 502. Based on your anecdotes I must conclude that TCS itself isn’t representative of STEM departments. My personal STEM experience is non-TCS and if what you describe is the norm for TCS, then TCS seems the creepiness outlier. 🙂 How can you conclude that such such anecdotes do not have their equivalent (as anecdotes, not statistics) in other departments? Because they didn’t happen to you? Because no woman you know ever told you about such things? I know of one such incident in an aerospace, biology, immunology and experimental psychology department. Which do you think is more likely given the statistics available about sexual assault: that in every non-CS department of at least 50 faculty members, there is not even one faculty member who has at least once acted creepily, or that you may not have heard about it? Let me emphasise this. In my own personal experience spanning five universities and over a decade, I have never witnessed sexual assault in a strictly professional context or been subject to it. I have also not heard of such things from most women I know. Not only is it difficult to discuss such topics, it is also bad professional form in many contexts to gossip, so word does not spread easily. It was through a very close friend and an office mate’s wife that I got to hear such things. Look, I am not saying you (or anyone) should form an impression of sexual harassment in universities based on my anecdotes. To me, using personal experience to make a guess about statistical properties of the general population is bad intellectual practice. There is no need to do that especially when there is data available, which has even been linked in this thread. It’s not a lot but it has more information value than your or my experience alone. 543. Scott Says: Bill #541: Yes, I’d say that the extreme intolerance of inconsistency between morality and action extended to every area of life, and continues to do so. The other, related problem is that I can’t tolerate any inconsistency between what I believe in private and what I’m willing to say in public—or rather, if I feel like the world has forced me into such an inconsistency, then pressure builds and builds until I finally explode. I hope this thread has sufficiently illustrated that. This is one reason why I could never have worked for the NSA, nor could I ever have survived in a totalitarian state. Again and again, people will look at some mildly-controversial thing that I wrote on this blog or elsewhere, and conclude: “if that’s what he’s willing to say in public, then how much further from accepted norms must his real beliefs be!” They don’t understand that what I said in public was my real belief. I’ve known men who sound more reliably feminist than a Swedish task-force report in public, but then also hold Cro-Magnon views of women in private, which they act on whenever the opportunity presents itself, and brag about when they’re drunk with friends. And they probably sleep soundly at night, and the contradiction doesn’t bother them at all. That’s not an “advantage” I’ve ever had in life, or will ever have. 544. N. Says: Oh dear. I’m several weeks too late, but I feel like the shy nerdy female viewpoint is rather underrepresented here. Scott, I’m a bit worried about the dichotomy (trichotomy?) that you’ve set up between shy, nerdy males such as your younger self, Neanderthal ass-grabbers, and “women” as a species who are mysteriously overreacting to “harassment”. Imagine, if you will, a nerdy young person who finds the byzantine semi-rules of social interaction just as bewildering as you did… but who is female. This unfortunate and confused young woman *really can’t tell* when an interaction with another male is going to end up as a nice conversation about math, or with him pinning her against the wall and kissing her, or a job offer, or him guilt-tripping her into having sex when she kind of didn’t want to but was too polite to say no, or a long-term mentoring role, or him calling her every day and waiting outside her classroom even after she asks him to stop. So… basically the same amount of confusion and terror and lack of control that you had because she doesn’t have the social skills to understand the situation and articulate her needs and desires in an appropriate way, but unlike your nerdy male, she doesn’t actually get to choose to not interact with the opposite sex, because they engage with her whether she invites it or not. You worked out some of your anxieties by dreaming of chemical castration and writing a blog; some of these women worked out their anxieties by writing feminist manifestos or by choosing fields of study where they had fewer unpleasant experiences. As far as I can tell they are coming from a similar place of fear and lack of control. I think the parts relevant to academia here are: 1. It’s basically a professional requirement for a woman in our field to learn to deal gracefully with sexual attention in a professional context. (From your experience, it seems that it’s also a requirement for men, but maybe only after they become professors; most women seem to run into this earlier.) It’s not something they teach you in school. It’s not rare. Most of the time it isn’t what I’d term “harassment”, but it might feel like that if I didn’t know how to deal with it, and sometimes it does escalate to that point. It’s not always unwanted. It’s scary to feel like one’s career might be in jeopardy if such a situation spins out of control, from both sides. You can’t turn it off by dressing down or expelling “bad apples” from the field. 2. It’s better for everyone if undergraduates don’t have to negotiate the above minefield in the context of professional development. Even younger graduate students is a bad scene. I have no idea what this means for online courses. 545. Scott Says: N. #545: Thanks for sharing your perspective—I was hoping to hear from more “shy nerdy females.” So far, besides yourself, we had exactly one self-identified SNF here: namely, STEM woman #384 (though in her case, the problem was more-or-less the opposite of yours: receiving no sexual attention from males and possibly wanting it, rather than receiving copious sexual attention and not knowing how to handle it). If there are other SNFs lurking here, they should feel more than welcome to chime in! I don’t do anything conscious to influence the mix of commenters here; I just try my best to read, understand, and respond thoughtfully to anyone who shows up, with the same respect they show to me. One charge in your comment that I completely disagree with, is that I (even implicitly) lumped all women into a homogeneous group. I did nothing of the kind. Sure, I did have to stress the distinction between the Neanderthal ass-grabber males and the shy nerdy makes, in order to resist Amy’s constant attempts to conflate the two—or better, to clarify that I’m simply not interested in the welfare of males who set out to harm women (I’d be fine to throw them all in prison). I’m interested in the males who are paralyzed by their efforts to be good, and who (it seems to me) are constantly hit as collateral damage in attempts to target the first group, even as the males in the first group go unpunished. (And no, there’s no mechanical rule to decide where a given male belongs: it requires applying reason and common sense to individual cases, same as with any other moral question. That doesn’t mean there are no right answers.) Anyway, the thread is capacious enough that we’ve also drawn plenty of distinctions among females! 🙂 In case you missed them, a few of the themes have included the differences in outlook between Amy and Dorothy, between “prohibitionist” and “liberationist” feminism, between “nerd girls” and “party girls,” and between those nerd girls who want less romantic attention and those who want more. Most importantly: I completely agree with you that “shy nerdy females” can also suffer enormous anxieties, and I view that point as perfectly complementary to what I said. If nerdy women need to learn how to deal gracefully with sexual attention, and nerdy men need to learn to be graceful in how they offer sexual attention—with severe consequences for failure on both sides—then the obvious comment is that those both seem like hard problems, and that it’s far from clear a priori which is harder. FWIW, though, I’d personally choose the female problem over the male one any day. 546. igorantmale Says: Just a point of information but the quote that Amy gave from the DoJ relating to a definition of rape has nothing to do with the law. I looked it up. It is simply a new definition used when asking states to report rape statistics to the FBI. “The FBI has implemented an important change in the definition of rape that is used in the collection of national crime statistics. ” http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/recent-program-updates/new-rape-definition-frequently-asked-questions This is relevant to the debate Dorothy and Amy are having about definitions. It turns out only a minority of states report statistics in this way in any case. 547. N. Says: Oh, I certainly didn’t mean to get into a “who has more privilege” contest here. I think I’m just advocating for empathy, and trying to give some perspective on a set of behaviors you seem to find confusing. My own experience wasn’t quite what I wrote above–what happened to me in adolescence was that I got a lot of totally inappropriate attention from mostly much older men for many years while being utterly ignored by those my own age I wanted attention from. Anyway, by the time I encountered the handful of potentially professionally awkward situations I found myself in much later I was fine, but I have also seen nerd girls and friends who have *no idea* how to deal with being hit on (because they had zero experience from being ignored for years, or had had a cloistered childhood, or whatever) completely blindsided by these things, and it sucks for everyone. I think even “party girls” go through periods of learning how to deal with complicated social interactions, and screw up sometimes, and get hurt sometimes, and overreact sometimes. I also don’t think that there are very many men out there who set out to harm women. I *do* think (and I’ve seen other women making this point in your comments, though I will confess to only having skimmed) that there are a lot of men who aren’t particularly thinking about women as individuals with problems and confusions and insecurities equal to their own who manage to inflict harm. (Similarly, there are women who do the same.) Many of these men, in fact, think that they are perfectly nice people with everyone’s best interests at heart. Most people don’t think that they’re bad. Basically, my personal view of feminism is that it’s about recognizing other people as equal humans with personal autonomy and feelings and desires and the like, and since we’ve eliminated the major legal barriers to autonomy in most countries, we’re stuck with the hard work of negotiating social conventions when peoples’ autonomy and desires come into conflict. That said, if I got to do it all over in the gender of my choice, I’d be male in an instant. Grass is always greener, I guess. 🙂 548. Amy Says: Scott #540 – hey, please don’t be blaming the likes of me for the rather unusual way in which you read and took feminism. While I’m up for feminism’s making an effort to address a minority problem, to say “recenter feminism so that it’s all about me and my needs” is a little much. I don’t blame my high school for not having been able to do for me; I wasn’t the kid they designed the place for, nor is there any obvious reason why I should’ve been. About money. In #527 I describe, by the numbers, struggle and poverty. I am not talking about “doing okay” v. “wealthy”, or about romantic fantasies of a happy broad-shouldered laborer’s life. I am talking about attempting to live, esp. while carrying children, in this country. As an exercise, let’s make your family slightly below average, incomewise, and pretty average in every other way except you’re still Jewish. Think about what your life would be with an HHI of — well, make it most of median.$45K. Definitely not poverty, you aren’t eligible for many programs. No food stamps. Someone’s mother lives nearby but she works and the father is unwell, so she can’t babysit on demand. Both you and your wife work — you’re fulltime, she bounces around between 15 and 28 hours a week, depending on the season, with a lot of night and weekend work so you don’t have to pay for daycare. Your schedules are somewhat regular but there are weekend hours scheduled sometimes. You have one 11-year-old car, and you take public transportation to work when you have to — not the best, because it takes most of an hour, but you can do it.

You have benefits but they’re not great — Obamacare/Masshealth was cheaper and better than your corporate policy at family rate, but you’ve still got a fat deductible and the premium’s around $200/mo with the low-income credit. Your disability insurance is Social Security, there’s a 401(k) you can pay into but no match. No dental, no optical. Few people where you work have been there ten years; few people where she works have been there five. It’s not interesting work and you both suffer from some sort of repetitive strain injury but it’s nothing that stops you from going to work, and she especially likes the people there. You’ve never had enough money to manage a down payment anywhere, so you rent. Both of you have some school debt, and between the two of you the payment amounts to$350/mo. You have a BA, she has an AA. You both think about going back to school but see no way of making it happen. Actually you don’t talk about it much because it leads to arguments — you both want to go, but someone would get to go first.

Your effective income tax rate is, say, 14%, and of course you’ve got FICA, so your takehome’s about $3K/mo between the two of you. Barring miracles this is unlikely to change much for the better until your daughter’s well along in school and your wife can get something steadier — you apply for jobs all the time but seldom get an interview. Oh, and you’re expected to respect well-off people, though they’ll usually treat you like dirt. Fortunately, you don’t often meet them. You see no way of affording a vacation beyond day-tripping ever, either the time off from work or a way to travel. Visiting family in Israel is a dream, they’ll have to pay (and make up your lost wages) or come to you. The exercise: Make a budget. Just give it a shot. Don’t forget food, utils, all car-related expenses, medical co-pays, quarters for the wash,$200/mo for health insurance and \$350/mo for student loan payments, and the fact that your child outgrows clothing and toys all the time.

-Where can you afford to rent? Is the building safe? Who are your neighbors likely to be? Is there anyplace safe for your daughter to play there? Is there a safe public library or rec center or park anywhere nearby?
-What are the public schools like there? Are students physically safe there? Do they learn anything?
-How do you pay for unexpected or unusual expenses like car repairs and being sick, a big-girl bed?
-How are you paying for childcare when your mother/in-law can’t watch the baby?
-When your child’s a little older, what kind of activities will she be able to do? Consider what they cost, what transportation is necessary, when they happen. Who will drive her to them when your wife is working? For that matter, who takes care of her after school? If she’s in an after-school program, can you also afford to have her in, say, a sport or dance or whatever it is program?
-Who watches her in summertime, when school’s out, when she’s older? How will you pay for camp? If she doesn’t go to camp, what will she do?
– If you want her to have a Jewish education beyond whatever you have time for at home, a community, how will you make that happen? There aren’t usually synagogues in poor neighborhoods, and you may have to turn your pockets out when it comes to dues. Are you going to beg an education and a Jewish community for her for several years?
– What are you going to do about the mounting credit-card balance from all the incidentals you can’t handle right now?
– Does the kid have any hope of going to college without drowning in debt?
– What happens when one of you needs a surgery that’ll require you to be off work for three weeks?
– What happens when one of you is laid off?

I’ll come back to the dating scenario once you’ve got a sense of what just-below-median-income, average-ed would mean for your family.

549. Amy Says:

Er, let’s please not have this “nerd girls” v. “party girls” thing. That’s Scott’s idea. I know many nerdy girls who dig a good party and can dance the night away. We don’t need a new madonna/whore construct, thanks.

550. Scott Says:

Incidentally, Merry Christmas to everyone (cf. comment #261)! Peace on earth and goodwill to all women and men. (Just finished Christmas Eve dinner at my friend’s.)

551. Scott Says:

Amy #550: Sure, of course a nerd girl could enjoy dancing the night away—even I can enjoy that, under the right conditions. But at some point, a nerd without any profound sense of alienation from the surrounding society becomes like a jock without a sport, or a preppy without a sweater-vest. What does the term even mean anymore?

552. Amy Says:

Dorothy #539 — I’ll point out this asymmetry: you have pressed me, repeatedly, for fine and very personal details about a sexual act, but demur when asked to disclose anything about yourself, not even your gender or country of origin (despite describing a schoolgirl dynamic I’ve never seen or heard of, and would like to understand better — and knowing “where were you, as a girl, subject to that sort of thing” would go a long way in helping understanding).

That on top of the remarks about feminism and “what women want” make me doubt, really, that you are a woman. Which is fine; people use pseuds all the time online. In a conversation like this, though, it’d be a little dishonest, because there is meant to be some veracity of experience from men’s and women’s perspectives. I could certainly be wrong; there are plenty of anti-feminist women. But the rhetorical strategies, the pressing me for personal details while staying behind a panel, the “girls do this” claim that doesn’t bear any relation to anything I’ve seen or heard of in a lifetime of being a reasonably well-read, well-traveled girl and woman…it does make me doubt, and I will put that out there. Others will form their own opinions, I’m sure.

553. Amy Says:

#552 then perhaps it’s time to dispense with the labeling altogether? 😉

554. Amy Says:

Scott #514

>”Even here, if we follow the modern feminist-prohibitionist position to its unstated but logical conclusion, we would seem forced to say: “despite appearances, these women cannot be meaningfully consenting, because of the existence of a clear power differential. Even if they’re at different universities, in different fields, whatever, they’re probably dazzled and intimidated by the professor’s higher academic status relative to theirs, rendering any ‘consent’ null and void. And after all, what if they transfer to the professor’s university and field, or the professor moves to theirs? What then? You can never be too careful with these things.”

Wrong exit.

Objecting for the record to “feminist-prohibitionist”.

One of the problems with dating students at your own university is that they aren’t professional residents of universities. It’s rare that they know how universities work, and there’s no reason why they should: universities are weird. The tenure-system-driven courtier politics don’t exist in other businesses; they don’t have to. The networks of longlasting relationships, pedigrees, the arcane rules for funding and promotion, the desperate importance of appearances, the various people faculty cannot afford to offend and why, the lies and secrets…they’re very strange places, universities. So when a student — who occupies a rank at the university — dates a professor — who occupies another rank at the same university — the professor understands the double-dutch game that’s going on, what sorts of promises are binding and what aren’t, but the student is unlikely even to know that the game exists. Babe in the woods.The professor will also, almost certainly, put the interests of his career ahead of the interests of the student, and knows that he has certain advantages if ever there’s a he-said-she-said. Again, the student’s unaware of all these dynamics.

That’s one problem. The other problem’s the one I mentioned before, which is that students don’t sign their student loans for the privilege of being part of a bride parade for tethered professors. That isn’t why they’re there. And even if one of them does find the professor attractive enough to marry, that does nothing for all the other students who’ve come through his office and been weighed and measured as potential partners when they thought they were supposed to be talking about a senior thesis. Nor for the students who will have to wonder whether they got various opportunities because they were actually good enough to do the work or because the prof enjoyed staring at their legs and were hoping for a little, uh, reciprocation.

If you want to date at another university I see no problem with it. The only awkwardness that might come in is if you’re friends with a faculty member elsewhere, you’re dating a student who goes there, you talk to your friend like a 7th-grader about the woman, and the woman turns up in his class and you both hang around talking about what she’s like in bed. But that seems like a reach.

>”If, as is my wont, we skip all the intermediate steps and take this line of thinking to its endpoint,”

As seen before, not a great idea in social matters,

>”we’d seem to arrive someplace like the following: before any female of “lower academic rank” was allowed to date a nerdy male of “higher rank,” we should first do a controlled experiment, where she was taken by “the Ghost of STEM Nerds Past” to see him as he was as a geeky teenager back in high school. If she wouldn’t have dated him then, then she shouldn’t be allowed to date him now either, since we’d then have clear evidence that a power differential was clouding her judgment. (And even if she would have dated him then—well, what if a big reason why was that she would’ve correctly predicted that he’d succeed in the future? If so, then isn’t there still a problematic power differential in play?)”

>”But let’s pause to consider how selective this sort of thinking is. No one says that male basketball players or artists or musicians should be prohibited from dating any of their female admirers because of a power differential that makes meaningful consent impossible—that these men need to be prevented, at all costs, from parlaying their success in other areas of life into success in dating, and thereby corrupting and poisoning the very ideals of sport, art, and music themselves. As far as I can tell, the people who have strong feelings about this subject only have those feelings when it comes to males in “nerdy” sectors, like tech or academia.”

In fact women do run into trouble when they date powerful guys in their own fields, including arts. Musicians, actors, and writers know this well. Happens in business, too. The presumption is they slept their way to the top, that they have little real talent of their own, and there’s a Galatea thing that goes on, to the women’s detriment. I’m sure the woman who runs 23andMe faces that headwind all the time, especially now that she’s split from Sergey Brin. And we’ve already talked about anti-nepotism corporate rules.

>”All their so-called achievements are just their ways to try to ‘game the system’: that is, to get by illicit, backhanded means what we already made clear to them in high school they’d never deserve as long as they remained who they were. So it’s imperative—indeed, it’s one of our most urgent priorities as a society—that we use any levers of power open to us to restrict these nerds from getting what they don’t deserve, even if it means we need to nullify what certain brainwashed women might misleadingly call their ‘free choice’ of whom to date.”

I’m sure you’d call this a gross exaggeration of what you believe, and you’d be right! But do you deny that it’s “merely” an exaggeration of a genuine impulse that came through in many of your comments? If so, then which steps of my extrapolation are the ones that you totally repudiate?”

See above.

555. Amy Says:

sniffnoy #478 – you write:

‘It is though odd that you make such a point of “ask first” when you — again, if I’m understanding you correctly — deny the usual stated reason for “ask first”, namely, that rape, harassment, etc., happens largely due to misunderstanding and bad inference rather than malicious actors.’

I don’t believe I’d explicitly denied that as my reason for saying “ask first”, but I will here. (I also don’t know where that’s the usual stated reason; it’s not one I’ve seen.)

*My* reason is the rather obvious one that other people’s bodies are not yours, and that things belonging to other people are not yours to handle without permission. There’s an entire body of “but women want us to” lore that seems not to be in accordance with the number of women reporting rape and other forms of sexual assault. In other words, that preschool lesson appears to need underscoring for many adults, including some judges. In other words, it’s a matter of respect and civility. If a woman does in fact want you to play King Kong with her, all the two of you have to do is establish that verbally before you grab her and climb the ESB. (Or maybe you want her to grab you.)

While I think it’s very important to understand why men (again, hetero world) rape and harass women if *men* are to be able to change their own behaviors, if you’ve harmed me, I’m really much less interested in why you did it than in the fact that you’ve hurt me in ways that aren’t possible for you to make good, and now I’ll have to deal with that. Others look at that differently, and are more concerned with forgiveness as a spiritual construct.

Asking also deals with a retrograde (and insulting) notion about sex: that women don’t actually have independent sexuality and that men are supposed to do sexual things to them, and, if successful, turn them on. Unless you’re a lousy friend, you wouldn’t go over to a friend’s house and start manhandling or harassing him into letting you deal, and figure you were a stud if you got him to be enthusiastic about cards; you’d ask him if he wanted to play, and you would, between the two of you, work out what and how you wanted to play. If one of you changed your mind mid-game, he would say so, and the other wouldn’t pitch a fit and try to force or guilt the mind-changer into completing the game as originally proposed. If your friend didn’t want to play in the first place, you’d figure out something else to do, and if he *never* wanted to play cards with you, you’d probably find a different cards buddy. I see no reason why the interactions should be different for sex.

556. AI guru Says:

So Scott, does my latest creation, “Amy”, pass the Turing test?

557. Amy Says:

Applause for N., #545, btw.

558. Anonymous Says:

Hi Scott, very happy holidays to you.

I propose that Amy’s tone and consistent, deliberate exaggeration / misreading of your prose has reached a point where it is truly damaging to this thread.

The ideas that you wish to “recenter feminism so that it’s all about me and my needs” or that you are proposing “a new madonna/whore construct,” and especially that Dorothy’s gender should be called into question are simply outrageous.

I think a ban is in order, maybe if only for a few days, or perhaps it is time to close out this thread? It is hurting at least one of your readers (me) to see her wield this ridiculous prose in the cause of who knows what…

559. Lou Scheffer Says:

Amy #492 and #499:

“[I] would take the long-grants bit further by suggesting that faculty look at their colleagues’ productivity as a lifetime matter rather than a “what have you done for me this year” matter (although obviously there are fundability issues involved, which is really the same question writ larger).”

Funding is indeed the problem with the lifetime contribution model. The funding agency (government, university, foundation) needs to look at the derivative to guess what the lifetime contribution is likely to be. So in practice there always intermediate checkpoint(s).

A lifetime contribution model also makes it hard to change course. Think of how hard it would for new entrants (such as women in many fields) if the directors wanted to compare lifetime contributions to see if this a good idea.

“I’m trying to think how more five-year grants would really do the trick.”

Five years is a more reasonable compromise between the fears of the funders (don’t fund ineffective work) and the fears of the scientists (if I take a year off I’m doomed). It drives the child-rearing time down much closer to the noise level (if child bearing takes one full year of research time, your contribution over 5 years will be 80% of what it would have been. This level of variation happens a lot, for many reasons.) It also reduces the risk of cascading failures – with annual renewal, if you miss a year for any reason, that means you also did not apply for new grants, and hence miss the next year(s) as well.

On an entirely personal and anecdotal level, I work at HHMI where a number of scientists (male and female) have kids during a five-year renewal cycle. They seem (to me) to be less stressed over this decision than similar folks in a more traditional academic environment. Of course I could be imagining this, and there are lots of confounding factors (the five year grants are hard to get, so maybe the people who get them are sufficiently good they would have no trouble with the tradeoff anyway. There is on-site day care, which helps too, and so on). I would love to see some actual data/studies on this.

560. lucy Says:

I’m what you’d call a “shy nerdy female,” and I’ve been following discussions surrounding this topic for some time now. I appreciate the call for more female perspectives.

I have a lot of social anxiety, especially in dating situations, and I’ve had some trouble with finding people (both girls and boys) to date in the past, as well as with expressing my feelings in an appropriate way (when I was younger). This seems to be a problem among almost all nerds (as you’ve defined them). I also know plenty of nerds of various genders and sexual orientations who have felt the same way.

Scott, you’re right that nerds who aren’t straight men don’t have to deal with a certain type of feminist suspicion (and, occasionally, mockery and hatred) directed at them. I am very sympathetic to that line of argument. But I’m bothered by the implication that straight male nerds are categorically worst off when it comes to finding a partner and starting a relationship. The world is unkind in other ways toward female nerds, queer nerds, and so on.

It seems like the topic of female nerds wanting romantic attention from men has already been discussed, so I’ll just add some thoughts and personal experiences: Female nerds who have trouble getting boyfriends are often made invisible in discussions like this, and this is exacerbated by the (sometimes careless or nuance-less) assumption tossed around that women have an easy time getting dates. (For maximum clarity: This is different from “women have an easier time getting dates compared to men, on average,” which may be true.) I wish people talking about this topic would keep this fact in mind. For queer nerds, the invisibility effect is even worse.

Contrary to some widely-held preconceptions about bisexual girls, some of us are shy and awkward, bad in social situations, and sometimes have trouble finding dates. I prefer to date women, so my dating pool is already drastically reduced, and I’ve never been very successful in trying to meet people (for friendships or dates) through LGBT student groups and the like, just because I’m not good at socializing and usually meet people who don’t have a lot in common with my nerdy self. In other words, I think I have the same problems when dating as most other shy nerds out there, but the problems manifest themselves somewhat differently. So it’s not that I’m complaining about my plight.

Anyway, having relationships and dealing with rejection would be difficult enough without the various cultural and political (and biological?) factors that complicate things for everyone, including the nerds who didn’t exactly have an easy time in the first place. I would like to advance the position that the sets of dating-related problems faced by different types of shy, awkward nerds (broken down by gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.) are probably more alike than different; and that when the problems truly are different, they are incommensurable in awfulness.

561. igorantmale Says:

Amy #554

At the risk of having my gender questioned, I have to say that was an amazing piece of gender stereotyping by you!

Haven’t we moved past “she argues like a man” or “she is not a real woman” as a reasonable thing to say of someone? Dorothy already told us she is not from the US so it’s hardly surprising if her childhood experiences are different from yours. I also doubt that you or anyone can have detailed knowledge of everything that happens in all high schools even in the US. Just knowing the million different words for “cool” is hard enough.

More importantly however, gender identity is not like the two sides of a coin. Isn’t it rather offensive to push someone on their gender because you feel they are acting like a man? If someone identifies as a man or woman or neither, I would say we should just accept that. (There is also a very slight suggestion that you might have attacked Dorothy personally to avoid addressing the points she made.)

I also feel you slightly missed the rhetorical style that Dorothy was using in her comments about “what women want”. Scott always warns us not to use unobvious sarcasm and so I suppose anything less obvious than sarcasm is also at risk of being misunderstood. It was clear, at least to me, that Dorothy was at least in part referencing the writing style of sexist men as a humorous device. There was also a fair amount of deliberate self-mocking which you may also have missed.

In any case, I could be wrong of course but this is my attempt to understand what is going on here 🙂

Merry Christmas!

562. Scott Says:

Amy #555: I apologize, but I removed parts of your comment that I thought were gratuitously mean. As one of the only people here who’s sharing details of his life under his full name and identity, not hiding behind any veil, at some point I get to pull rank and lay down some ground rules.

And the first is: you don’t get to cast aspersions on my professional conduct. I’m proud of all the female students who I’ve worked with over the last eight years. If you email me, I’ll happily put you in touch with any one of them, and they can tell you exactly what I’m like in person.

You also don’t get to paint me as some sort of defender of lechery, when what I’ve been doing is defending the rules as they currently exist at most American universities. For example: don’t ever make romantic advances to someone over whom you have supervisory authority. If a relationship does develop in a situation with the potential for a conflict of interest, report it to the department head and look for workarounds. Etc. Beyond that, try to be guided by common sense.

The question of whether to impose more draconian rules is not an abstraction for me. Among my closest female friends, I count one who married her former PhD adviser (not long after she graduated) and just had her first child, one who’s currently dating her former PhD adviser (she switched advisers, of course), and one who dated her postdoctoral adviser and remains his close friend and collaborator. These are some of the strongest, most independent women I know. To implicitly call them “goods at an academic meat market” is insulting and false.

I’d say the truth is this: part of being human is that virtually all of us, all the time, both female and (especially?) male, is sizing up a large fraction of all the people we meet as possible romantic prospects. This is not a reflex that we can turn on and off at will, or depending on the context—and for that very reason, no blame or guilt accrues to it. Of course, what we can control—and must control, in order to remain part of civilization—is what (if anything) we do about it.

I also reject your characterization of academia as a medieval court with weird, arbitrary rules that the faculty have mastered and use to their advantage against the students. Well, maybe that describes certain postmodernism-infested humanities departments, but it doesn’t describe any department I’ve ever known. Yes, of course there’s stupid politics—no more or less, I would guess, than in any large corporation or government agency. But I’d say that the unusual feature of academic STEM departments—which they share only with certain tech startups, corporate research outfits, and a few other places in the modern world—is that a person sometimes can rise to the top in them despite being defiantly apolitical, anti-political, or incorrectly political, just because their work is impossible to ignore.

Amy, I had hoped that, by laying my life bare in a pretty unprecedented way for someone like me—by, as it were, giving you (and the rest of the world!) full access to my brain, even the “sex” parts, so that you could poke around for yourself and see the experiences that led me to think and feel as I do—I would finally lay to rest the notion that anyone who thinks in a certain way must be concealing dark and evil motives. (Ironically, what exposes such people to the charge of concealed motives is often precisely the opposite: namely, abnormal openness and honesty.)

I’d say the results of this experiment have been mixed. On the one hand, it sparked an extremely interesting discussion, which I don’t regret, especially if it provided any hope, understanding, or advice to young male or female STEM nerds. On the other hand, there remains a core of animus in you—against academia, male nerds, what you take me to represent, whatever—that I’m unable to break past however I try, and that’s led you over and over to the least charitable readings of whatever I said. Maybe you have good reasons for this animus from your life experience, though I’d still suggest that maybe it’s misdirected.

Anyway, I want you to know that I don’t feel a similar animus against you. I wish you the best in life, and I thank you and everyone else for their contributions to this discussion.

And this will really be my last comment (!). I’ll give everyone the rest of Christmas Day to share any parting thoughts they might have; then I’ll finally close down this thread.

563. Gil Says:

(#554) In the context of Dorothy and anongirl very detailed and rather bold inquiries regarding the very fine details of Amy’s story it was reasonable of Amy to politely ask if Dorothy is a women nickname used by a woman or by a man. There is nothing wrong in choosing any nickname one would wish, and there is nothing wrong about being puzzled about it. In the context of our discussion there is nothing wrong about asking about it. I think the question of what we should consider socially and legally a rape is important, and so is the question how to differentiate between cases and to treat borderline situations. But it is problematic to confront a person that tells his personal and subjective story about a rape incident. If there was anything here that could be considered as a “personal attack” at all, it is questioning Amy about her subjective perception of a sexual attack or abuse that happened to her. And if Amy did not take this as a personal attack, but rather patiently described and explained, I see no reason to consider her much more mundane questions regarding naivety and gender as personal attacks.

564. Gil Says:

Regarding professor-students relations, I also support drawing the line like done currently in most US universities and applying common sense. (So I suppose Rahul’s comment #359 pretty much described these lines.) Here at HUJI we were quite a bit behind and there were two cases a few years ago when this matter had to be considered. In one case an elderly professor initiated sexual relation with an undergraduate in his class, and then went on to brag about it in the department as to make her life quite intolerable. In another case, a professor had sexual relations and sexual attempts at several of his graduate students, and his academic interest and support was very much correlated with how the sexual relation progressed. (Of course, these details were also in dispute.) It turned out that there was no specific rule that these professors were breaking, and, I think this have led to some changes towards the US standards. At the end the first professor got away with it and the second got fired.

Regarding prostitution and pornography. I support the rather large view that the clients will bare the moral and legal blame and not the prostitute themselves. I find the Swedish attitude (banning prostitution) appealing compared e.g. to the Dutch attitude (largely allowing it), but I cannot say that I studied the matter enough. I thought what could be a good comparison to replace Scott’s MacDonald & Walmart one. Maybe you can think about a scenario where a MacDonald’s worker is promised to triple his salary for a job where he will have to smoke 500 cigarettes a day. Should it be legal (for the client/employer)? But this still misses much of the demeaning, humiliating, and damaging nature of prostitution. Regarding pornography I support having it legal and the only rule I’d apply is that encouraging or initiating an illegal activity does not make it legal just because it is documented. So making a movie where you cut somebody’s finger with an ax should be illegal if you actually cut somebody’s finger with an ax and this is illegal on its own.

Poverty – The problem of poverty is much more terrible than the problem of “richness” (which indeed is also a problem). I am certain that giving money to the poor can make a huge difference. Human suffering can be such that money cannot help but there is a huge amount of suffering caused or enhanced by poverty.

565. Vijay Says:

lucy #561: Thanks for speaking up! I, personally, didn’t experience the same internal anxiety that Scott described, but I joined the discussion because I felt a shared experience in feelings of social exclusion or isolation, lack of confidence in social contexts and a desire to trade whatever I had for some notion of “normal”. I support your proposition and would further hypothesize that the entire class of people you mention shares similar feelings of social anxiety and isolation but may have arrived in that place through different routes.

Bill Kaminsky #541, Scott #544: Thanks both for sharing. I first noticed a similar neurosis in myself when I had a huge disagreement with a coauthor about notation that we knew to be ambiguous and he couldn’t for the life of him understand what the big deal was. Participating in this discussion has been somewhat difficult too because of the internal tension between my need to add a voice (same pain, different source), the silence I usually keep about my personal life, and the feeling that I should sign with my full name.

Scott #544: That second paragraph is an insight I did not have before. Haven been taken to task for saying things in public that didn’t seem objectionable to me, and faced disbelief when I claimed whatever I said was the entirety of my opinion, that’s a helpful explanation.

566. Alien from sweden Says:

Scott, I just have to make some points that I think haven’t been mentioned or emphasized enough regarding things you said here. (Ok, first thanks for keeping this great blog, your shared very moving personal experiences and your articulateness and also for your good taste in letting this discussion proceed and all of that).
The first kind of obvious reaction I got (one which I have constantly been internally questioning during this highly productive debate, but which nevertheless conclusively stays intact) when exposed to your “nerdify the world and the women will follow”-ideas , is the following. In life everybody is born given a non negotiable set of biological and socioeconomic resources which over a lifetime is disposed in one and only one way. Nobody can expect to have everything. If the “shy and nerdy males” that you repeatedly write about (ok, an overly ambitious generalization indeed, but mathematicians are good at those things, and my guess is that we speak of more or less the same group of people here) have trouble attracting women, well so be it. Sometimes sacrifices in some aspect of your achievements in and quality of life is inevitable consequences of your dispositions w.r.t. other such aspects.

That a guy is “creepy” is a very common reaction by woman who are approached by a male whom their not attracted by, whether or not that guy (or some other guy) would characterize him as a nerd or something else. The “creepiness” doesn’t so much come from the impression that this guy would be more dangerous than any other guy per se, as the fact that guys who get rejected (especially guys who plausibly gets rejected often) have a natural tendency to be pretty stubborn and do stupid things. Guess that my main point is that who people get or don’t get physically attracted to is a highly biologically conditioned thing that is out of reach of any kind of “nerdification” imaginable. But of course non of this is mentioning the myriad of possible kinds of human relationships (romantic and sexual as well) that does not have their direct starting point in our animal reproductive instincts.

Another point I would wish to emphasize is that nobody should take you seriously when speaking of yourself as a feminist while not even acknowledge your personal privileges. Yes, I choose to use your “forbidden word”. When someone, in quite aggressive rhetorical style, condemns the word “privilege” from the vocabulary, one should be inclined to ask wether this person would not also think that other words such as [inequalities] or [racism] should “simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse (#comment 229)” (not implying that this is what I think you think). This is to neglect what I think clearly is the fundamental function of feminism within the human discourse, namely the questioning of current power structures within society.

567. dorothy Says:

Thank you again Scott for allowing this conversation.

I would like to apologise to Amy for my over detailed questioning of her personal sexual experience and to again thank her for setting out her views of the world so clearly. There were many ways I could have made the same points more sensitively.

I think we all learned a lot.

568. Barry Deutsch Says:

Amy, if you’d be interested in writing a guest post on my blog, please get in touch with me (barry.deutsch AT gmail.com).

I’ve been lurking instead of participating, but thanks to the folks here for such an interesting discussion, especially to Scott for hosting and writing, and to Amy because a civil dissenting voice is crucial for good discussions.

569. Scott Says:

Alien #567: OK, I guess just one more comment, just to answer you directly.

It’s amazing to me that it took 567 comments until someone finally stated what might be the crux of the anti-SMN case. Namely: “If SMNs have trouble with dating because of an inborn biological disposition that’s inferior in certain ways—well, so be it! That’s just the way of the world; nothing that can or should be done about it.”

There are four points that I’d like you to consider regarding this.

The first is how uneasily that answer (if it is your answer) sits with the rest of a liberal worldview. Since when do liberals point to nature red in tooth and claw, and say “that’s how it is and always will be, so suck it up and deal with it”? How much of the progress of the modern world would we need to roll back, if we applied that perspective consistently? For me, liberalism is about doing whatever we can to make the world better—fairer, less cruel, less arbitrary—consistent with still respecting individual autonomy and preferences.

Second, your answer doesn’t make a great deal of sense even biologically. In some sense Homo sapiens got started, became different from the other Homo lineages, because abstract thought became a pathway to reproductive success in a way that it had never been before. We are what we are because a few hundred thousand years ago, our nerdier ancestors started to win. (Relevant cartoon)

Third, I feel like you haven’t grappled with just how culturally-specific these things are. As I mentioned earlier, the males we’re talking about, the ones who have so much trouble in (say) 21st-century America, are the same ones who might have been the prize catches in the pre-Holocaust European shtetls—or even in the America of a few generations ago, or in many other cultures that valued a different mixture of traits than ours does, and (crucially) where courtship worked differently, with clear, well-defined, socially-accepted channels for expressing romantic interest. You can’t call something biologically innate if it’s changed that dramatically over 50 or 100 years.

Fourth, as I’ve said over and over, the main issue is not that women find shy male nerds unattractive—because often they don’t! The real miracle here is that, even given all the handicaps society puts in place, SMNs tend to do just fine, if and when they’re able to overcome the anxieties that prevent them from even expressing interest in a confident way, or taking rejection in stride. Maybe one reason is that the women SMNs are attracted to are often highly intelligent as well, and being intelligent, they’re able to look past the social packaging, and assess the quality of the product for themselves.

So I would say: if we do what we can for a given SMN—let him grow up surrounded by his intellectual peers rather than thrown in among the bullies; make it clear that he has society’s sanction and even encouragement to express polite romantic interest, etc.—and women still want nothing to do with him, then so be it! But to relentlessly bully him in school, fill him with shame, terrify him about the “microaggressions” he inflicts on innocent women with every glance—and then tell him that, however unusual his abilities, however much the modern world depends on him, women will always find him unattractive for innate biological reasons? Can one imagine a more perfect cruelty? And if one successfully faced down that cruelty, emerged happy and sane on the other side of it, does one not have a moral obligation to say something to help the next generation of nerds? As often in life, I feel like there must be something I’m missing.

570. Gil Kalai Says:

Scott, from what I heard “Math-camps” and perhaps other related activities are great to bring nerdy boys and girls together, and let them explore there their unusual abilities, socialize, and maybe also romance. Also (off-topic) just got an announcement of your lecture here in our warm and holy land. When are you getting here? And I wanted to thank Dorothy for her graceful comment (#568) and her overall contributions. Indeed we learned a lot.

571. Vijay Says:

Scott, for what it’s worth, your prose hit me in the gut.

572. Alien from sweden Says:

Dear Scott,
Apologies if I didn’t express myself clearly.
I did not mean exclusively biological disposition, but rather biological disposition combined with other types of dispositions, such as the choices of how to spend your time and make new experiences etc., with perhaps more emphasis on the latter kind of dispositions. The point was more that if you choose to spent most of your time and effort doing mathematics or some other theoretical thing rather then gaining social and perhaps sexual experience, you can’t expect to be equally successful in those areas of life, mildly speaking (this said by someone who had more of a tendency towards the first kind of activities, mildly speaking). Then what might be the underlying “biological disposition”, is not as relevant.
Ok, human biology and evolution are vast subjects which might not fit into our discussion, but what can at least be said about it is that it’s progressing way more slowly (on order of magnitude of the order of magnitudes) than our technological development, which might lead you to some plausible conclusions regarding apparent lack of biologically innate attractiveness of nerdiness, not contradicting your intuitions about evolution to much.
Of course all of this is a more or less indistinguishable mixture of “heritage and environment” etc. But my personal guess is that there actually is some distinguishable “innate” tendencies in who we get attracted to, and that for example your example with the shtetl’s in the 20-30-s might just exemplify a situation with more emphasis on the cultural influence side of the coin.

I should perhaps emphasize that I’m am completely with you that more should be done to higher the sexual status of the nerds in our society! I don’t think it’s a problem as huge as some other problems concerning sexuality and oppression, but one with perhaps some rather deep roots of cause. I certainly don’t have an answer to what should optimally be done about it, but I certainly think one has to look at some deeper structural problems in our education system, and also on the sexual agenda of our society at large (popular culture, advertisement industry, porn industry etc.) to get some clues.

573. Scott Says:

Gil #571: Indeed, mathcamps are so great that they raise the question, why is this only for the summer? Why can’t these kids have this experience the entire year? (Of course, the camps could also be broadened beyond math, and more could be done to achieve gender parity.)

Dana, Lily, and I will be arriving in Israel on Sunday the 28th.

574. Very Short Items | Not Even Wrong Says:

[…] Update: Scott Aaronson on Walter Lewin here. […]

575. Fred Says:

#570

What’s the definition of a nerd actually? (in French there is no real equivalent term and obsession with it)

– A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.
– An unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits
– A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.

By definition a nerd lacks social skills.
It doesn’t seem necessary to embellish the term with “shy” (although it’s definitely not clear to me whether an obsession with the beauty of abstract subjects is the cause or the consequence of shyness).

” No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; ”

“SMN—let him grow up surrounded by his intellectual peers rather than thrown in among the bullies;”

I find it interesting that you’re repeatedly using the terms “Neanderthals” and “bullies” as the guys on the other end of your intelligence scale. What would be your equivalent terms for a woman?

You seem to equate “nerds” with “intellectuals” and “highly intelligent”.
But isn’t a lack of social skills a clear lack of intelligence too?
What’s your opinion of non-STEM intellectuals, like artists? (artistic interests are naturally more conducive to human interactions and emotions than, say, programming)

576. Amy Says:

dorothy #569, thank you.

Scott #564, there is no global conspiracy against whomever it is you class as nerds. Nobody is busy constructing rules specifically to keep nerds — as opposed to artists, athletes, or anyone else — from dating, marrying, and finding domestic happiness. And the idea of success as a token that men get to trade for shots with women and, by extension, that others may use it but nerds are constrained…I find this frankly offensive, also (as many of my exes would tell you) counter to my own experience and behavior in every way.

The parts of my post that you removed say in no uncertain terms that these ideas are your own invention, absolutely not present in my thought or writing, and that the pain you went through as a young man is still not just deeply influencing your thought today, but taking it into some unhealthy places. And that given your position, this is something you ought to deal with. Nobody is suggesting that you have “evil motives”. But I am suggesting that this thinking — a holdover from things that happened over a decade ago, and sprung partly from a tendency to extrapolate well past the point of social plausibility — can have unfortunate effects on students who are, unwittingly, your antagonists.

Suppose a bright young woman shows up in your group, rebuffs the guys there, and takes up with a 6’2″ gym-rat finance student who spends a lot of time hollering at the Pats. They’re out there in the hallway with the PDA when he comes to pick her up, and you can see (or imagine) the pain in the other young men’s eyes — are you saying this isn’t going to trigger some very powerful emotion in you? How is this going to affect how you handle her as your advisee? Maybe she dumps Mr. Fin and calls him “gross” but still won’t date the guys in the group…and then a year later she’s going with a grad student in English, some guy with a beard.

Throughout this thread you’ve spent a lot of energy carrying a brief for the Shy Nerdy Male who suffers because he believes that the world is telling him horrible things about himself and/or the world in general. You’ve committed yourself here to defending and aiding future SNMs and painted a dystopia in which the entire world’s decided to oppress the SNM, particularly in sexual matters.

You’ve put all this stuff pretty strongly. Are you really able to separate these things from your professional life to the point where you simply don’t concern yourself with the woman’s dating life and the effects you perceive in your other advisees? Where she will not, in effect, be punished for not choosing to date a guy more like your young self? Can you bite your tongue about this for five years in front of the other advisees, and will it not influence at all how you deal with her?

I’m not asking for an answer, but I’m asking that you think seriously about these questions. This scenario is just an example; the underlying “can you separate these ideas and feelings from your professional behavior even under what you perceive as provocation” question is the important one.

Ignorantmale #563, I am responding not just to what dorothy has said but the ways in which she’s framed it, which I have seen — I think — exclusively from men online. Possible for a woman to use rhetorical constructs and arguments used so often by men, so seldom by women? Sure. Possible she’s taking the piss and that I missed it? Yep. However. If you’re going to dress online in rhetoric that’s usually men’s, press me for highly personal details as a way of grilling me, say things about girls that don’t ring true to me, and decline to reveal the broadest of broad-brush details about self, then yep, I’m going to wonder. Especially since I’m aware she’s not from the US, and who knows, maybe someplace else high school girls really are shouting, “Frigid virgin!” at each other, and it would be nice to know where — but dorothy doesn’t even want to reveal that much. Which is fine, but it does leave it a little odd, then, that she figures I’ll give sexual blow-by-blows at her request.

In other contexts it might not matter, but, as I said, since there’s a lot riding in this conversation on veracity of experience — particularly in contexts where women may see things men aren’t privy to and vice-versa — here it matters. In any case, I think it’s a minor bit in the thread as a whole.

Barry #570, I’m flattered (Barry’s got a terrific cartoon about consent that’s been making the rounds lately) and I’ll be in touch, thanks. I also like it that on this thread my first reaction was, like, what? Physics guy Barry Deutsch? But…I mean that’s great, but why? Oh! other Deutsch….

In general – I think Vijay’s remarks deserve more attention and have been steamrolled somewhat by louder voices in this thread, but I’ve been impressed by both his observations and the gentleness of their expression.

Finally, Scott, thanks for hosting this conversation. About the shtetl, and optimization: my Christmas gift (?) to you is a suggestion that you take a look, if you haven’t, at IJ (not IB) Singer’s _Yoshe Kalb_, a very good novel about a shtetl genius, men and women, sex, the edel* and the coarse, and ideas taken a very long way.

Cheers all, and Merry/Happy.

*yiddish: refined, delicate, gentle

577. Scott Says:

Fred #576: For my working definition of “nerd,” see #421. Obviously, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone who’s not a nerd is a Neanderthal or a bully! But yes, in some sense those are two opposite extremes of the human condition.

I suppose the female equivalent of a bully would be … a female bully! E.g., the popular, well-connected girl who enjoys putting down other girls over their appearance.

My “opinion of non-STEM intellectuals, like artists” is too varied to sum up in a paragraph. But yes, it would be fair to say that the problems we’ve been talking about are much less pertinent for them, maybe in part for the reason you say. Indeed, artists have even been known to get into drunken makeout sessions at wakes (see Amy’s comment #432). 😉

578. Scott Says:

Amy #577: Now that you’ve finally been explicit about your “disaster scenario”—namely, that I’ll discriminate against a female student because I find out that she’s dating a jock—I almost have to breathe a sigh of relief. It seems to me that the issue you raise has nothing to do specifically with any of the problems we’ve been talking about, but applies to any situation where a professor has strong views about anything. For example, what if a student has diametrically-opposed views to mine about the Israel/Palestinian conflict? Or (on the “other” side) if the student is president of the College Republicans? Should such students be afraid to work with me? Should an ROTC student be afraid to study linguistics with Chomsky?

Taking this to the logical conclusion, we’d arrive at the idea that academics should avoid ever expressing strong views about anything, because it might intimidate students from working with them if the students hold (or act on) opposing views. How many people are prepared to go that far?

And what else can I say except that I’m really, really good at separating out science from all the other stuff—that most of us are, that we learn to be? And also, that I’ve never once talked to a student about his or her dating life, unless the student brought it up? And that, as I said many times in this thread, I strongly affirm (as if it needed affirming) everyone’s free choice to date whomever they want?

579. GK Says:

Scott #570: Great comic — for the sake of giving a reference to the source, here’s a link to the comic hosted on the author’s page: http://abstrusegoose.com/283

580. Observer Says:

This thread never reached a consensus, and it would be rude to summarize it. I hope you close it and leave it online, as it clearly expresses some distinct views that may be alien to readers.

581. Lou Scheffer Says:

Amy #453 and Dorothy,

I’m definitely a male, raised in Neanderthal times (mine was the first year they even admitted undergrad women), though trying to do better. Dorothy has agreed 100% with all my opinions, which I found surprising. At the very least, I would be unsurprised to find Dorothy a male. I would be quite surprised to find this of Amy.

Scott #579. Asserting you are really, really good at something is not a strong argument, one you would never allow in professional life. To return to the original topic of the thread, the worst (alleged) Walter Lewin type behavior I’ve seen has been from folks that are absolutely and completely convinced what they are doing nothing wrong. Completely separating (strongly held) personal opinions from work takes a super-human self control, which most of us do not possess. The best you can do, I think, is be aware of your biases and try to minimize them.

582. Scott Says:

Lou #582: Absolutely, I can always stand to improve in recognizing my biases and correcting for them. All I meant was: the fact that someone might be more willing than most to share their opinions, doesn’t mean that they’re any less tolerant of those with different opinions than the next person down the hall. (Maybe the only people above suspicion about this are those with no strong opinions at all?) So if Amy wanted to put me on trial for biases that might, hypothetically, affect my judgment, then I’d happily agree—assuming, of course, that all the world’s other academics joined me as co-defendants.

583. Sniffnoy Says:

584. Scott Says:

One endnote: there’s a whole discussion of this thread over on Reddit. While I won’t even try to respond to everything there, there’s one insight about Andrea Dworkin, and her role in these sorts of discussions, that I found important enough that I wanted to share it here:

I think the reason Dworkin comes up in discussions like this is because her thinking is the logical endpoint of mainstream feminist theory.
It goes something like this:
1) Women are systematically oppressed by men
2) If 1 is true, how can a woman ever consent to sex or practically anything else with men? Any “consent” a woman gives will be given under duress because she is being systematically oppressed.
3) If any “consent” a woman gives is under duress (because every decision and choice a woman makes is under duress because she’s being systematically oppressed), then women can never ever give consent in any dealing with men.
Dworkin, to her credit, was so logical that she came to this conclusion and accepted it. All logical thinkers will probably come to this conclusion which is why nerds and STEM people will like and understand Dworkin. She’s logical. She makes sense.
585. Runaway rationalism and how to escape it | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst Says:

[…] Scott Aaronson writes: […]

586. Monday Miscellany: Compassion, Cameras, Charity | Gruntled & Hinged Says:

[…] Penny responds to Scott Aaronson’s comment on being an excluded nerd. (Do make sure to read Scott’s whole comment). I think the thing I like best about this is the sense of collaboration and compassion. Too often […]

587. Name and Nature Says:

[…] Scotts Aaronsen and Alexander both worry that following feminist doctrine makes geeky guys miserable and too scared […]

588. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » What I believe Says:

[…] thing I’ve ever made public—what’s now being referred to in some places as just “comment 171.”  My thinking was: I’m giving up a privacy that I won’t regain for as long as I live, […]

589. Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum | Inexorable Progress Says:

[…] December 14, 2014, MIT professor Scott Aaronson posted a lengthy comment on his blog in which he candidly narrates his painful experience feeling disenfranchised and […]

590. Thoughts on switching places | The whole sky Says:

[…] been reading with interest some of the discussion after Scott Aaronson’s comment on his very difficult youth as a shy geek with an extremely conscientious style of […]

591. The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy | Quomodocumque Says:

[…] talking about Laurie Penny’s 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 […]

592. Follow Up: Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum | Inexorable Progress Says:

[…] word vomit into something comprehensible) I’m going to look at some issues that are raised by Scott Aaronson’s blog comment, and try do it responsibly, with sensitivity, and finesse.  Let’s see how it […]

593. Some thoughts on a provoking discussion | charlesflorian Says:

[…] So I recently stumbled upon (via Izabella Laba) the discussion at Scott Aaronson’s blog that arose from the events surrounding the dismissal of Walter Lewin. […]

594. Male nerd privilege | mathbabe Says:

[…] essay by Laurie Penny (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg) about male nerd privilege. Her essay stemmed from comment 171 of Scott Aaronson’s blogpost about whether MIT professor Walter Lewin, who was found to be harassing women, should also have […]

595. Are we having fun yet? | Inexorable Progress Says:

[…] Entitlement: Aaronson speaks about being a nerdy white male and being less privileged than other white males. Because gamers and gaming is an often stigmatized […]

596. On Nerd Pain and Nerd Entitlement - iVoter.net Says:

[…] response to a vulnerable personal comment on “nerd trauma and male privilege” published by MIT professor Scott Aaronson, New Statesman […]

597. MIT Professor’s Blog Comment Sets Off Debate Over Nerds and Male Privilege – Wired Campus - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education Says:

[…] and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared as a comment on his blog in […]

598. Sorry to hear that, but let’s remember that I’m the real victim here | The Mitrailleuse Says:

[…] Slate Star Codex started the new year with a very long but very important post on the a specific expression of feminism’s contempt for nerdy men. It concerns an MIT professor, Scott Aaronson, opening up about being tormented throughout his adolescence by crippling self-hatred issues. […]

599. On nerds and “entitlement”: An open letter to The Two Scotts Says:

[…] response to this murky sexual harassment scandal involving a retired professor, Scott Aaronson penned a blog post. In his post, he expressed a desire that MIT not penalize the thousands of online students who […]

600. A valuable lesson on rejection | Hmmmjenia's Blog Says:

[…] post is inspired by Scott Aaronson’s speculation that his own teenage fears were coming from bad counseling and extreme stygma against having sexual […]

601. Open Thread and Link Farm: Invisible Giants Controlling Our Every Move Edition | Alas, a Blog Says:

[…] lot of people are discussing Scott Aaronson’s comment 171, in which he argues that the acute pain he suffered as a male nerd means he doesn’t have male […]

602. Scott Aaronson on “white male privilege” as experienced at MIT « Quotulatiousness Says:

[…] in the comments on this post, Scott Aaronson gets extremely […]

603. Feminism, Privilege, Nerds, and Relationships … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

[…] Scott Aaronson wrote a comment about his personal interactions with feminism. It’s been getting a lot of attention, and I’m going to comment on some of the replies. […]

604. Nerd justice | nothing is mere Says:

[…] a December 14 comment on his blog, Scott Aaronson confessed that the idea of male privilege feels ‘alien to his lived […]

605. Should we stop punching nerds? | nothing is mere Says:

[…] a December 14 comment on his blog, Scott Aaronson confessed that the idea of male privilege feels ‘alien to his lived […]

606. Some Light Cyber-Dystopian Reading Recommendations » brelson.com Says:

[…] Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman: triggered by, among other things, a discussion thread on Scott Aaronson’s blog, this piece looks critically at the sense of persecution often experienced by male geeks. […]

607. “Untitled” condensed and mangled » Death Is Bad Says:

[…] Scott Aaronson’s entire problem was that he was so unwilling to hurt women even unintentionally, and so unclear about what the rules were for hurting women, that he erred on the side of super-ultra-caution and tried to force himself never to have any sexual interest in women at all even to the point of trying to get himself castrated. If entitlement means “I don’t care about women’s feelings, I just care about my own need for sex”, Aaronson is the perfect one hundred eighty degree opposite of entitlement. He is just about the most unentitled (untitled?) person imaginable. […]

608. On Nerd Culture and Misogyny - The Radical Notion Says:

[…] time to reframe the conversation that’s been happening in response to Scott Aaronson’s blog comment, where he stated that as a male nerd, the concept of male privilege wasn’t a model that […]

609. Dear shy, male nerds – on nerd appreciation in the face of shaming and bullying | Kemisk Kvantemagi Says:

[…] apology by feminists who disliked his choice of clothing. And most recently we have MIT professor Scott Aaronson writing a comment in a discussion thread on his own blog about how feminist rhetoric became really poisonous for him, and we get a prominent […]

610. The unquenchable thirst. | Off This Island Says:

[…] And in this world, people who claim to be committed to the project of feminism thought it was a laudable and productive use of their time to write thousands of words lambasting an academic who dared to admit that his commitment to feminism, still profoundly held, had made him … […]

611. A Larger Perspective: In response to the response to Scott Aaronsen » Frog and Esther Jones Says:

612. A not-quite-response to Jean Yang’s response to “Comment 171″ | Occasionally Coherent Says:

[…] a colleague, although as he’s a theoretician, not one I interact with very much) wrote a thoughtful blog post about MIT’s response to the allegations of misconduct against former Physics professor Walter […]

613. Revenge of the Nerds: A Response to Comment 171 and the Oppression of Geeks | Nerdy But Flirty Says:

[…] a fairly well-known mathematician and MIT professor, left his emotions bare in the now-infamous Comment #171 regarding his opinion of feminism and the lack of privilege white male nerds actually have in […]

614. On Nerdery and Feminism, Part I | Yes this is Amy Says:

[…] those unfamiliar: the blog entry that (perhaps indirectly) spawned the current debate, is about MIT professor Walter Lewin, recently […]

615. Things I found on the internet :: Flight from perfection Says:

[…] This blog comment about nerds, privilege, and feminism, which spiraled out into a whole mess of critiques and counter-critiques. I sent some of these off to some of my feminist friends. This SlateStarCodex piece resonated with me the most. It also grabbed the back of my neck and pushed me facefirst into an ever-expanding elastic well of pop culture references, intimate anecdotes, and medical studies. In the most enjoyable way something like that can happen. […]

616. The Blog Comment That Achieved an Internet Miracle Says:

[…] nuisance controversy. A predictably exhilarated evidence ensued in a comments section. Then, 171 comments into a thread, Aaronson achieved a breakthrough: He posted a respond so personal, unprotected and comprehensive […]

617. Another Internet miracle! | Jon Udell Says:

[…] to remove his lectures from ocw.mit.edu. Searching for perspective on that decision, I landed on Scott Aronson’s blog where I found much useful discussion. One comment in particular, from Temi Remmen, had the ring of […]

618. Noli Irritare Leones » Scattered Thoughts on Nerds and Feminism Says:

[…] post, and a lot of the thread, react to a now famous “comment 171” from MIT professor Scott Aaronson, where he writes about his shy, nerdy younger days, when […]

619. Things That Are Not Empowering Part Two: On Sexuality | egalitarianjackalope Says:

[…] order to find that out. This is the effect of widespread sexual shaming, and it drives some men to self-loathing and self-harm. If it isn’t okay to tell someone they’re wrong for not being heterosexual, then it […]

620. Bullied and Badgered, Pressured and Purged | Handle's Haus Says:

[…] 09-DEC-2014: Prof. Walter Lewin, celebrated physics teacher, stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online.  He probably did some messed up stuff, who knows.  But to completely remove his unrelated and excellent content online?  That’s crazy and hurts lots of innocent people.  And it is that purifying impulse which is … disturbing.  Related thoughts from Scott Aaronson. […]

621. Evolution vs. a nerd | The imaginary audience Says:

[…] this belief must occur more often in nerds. But I’ve hardly seen it discussed at all (But see this). This condition is overshadowed by the popular stereotype of nerds: that simply by virtue of their […]

622. Blacklist | The New Blacklist Says:

[…] 09-DEC-2014: Prof. Walter Lewin, celebrated physics teacher, stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus, and all of his physics lectures removed from OpenCourseWare, because an internal investigation found that he had been sexually harassing students online.  He probably did some messed up stuff, who knows.  But to completely remove his unrelated and excellent content online?  That’s crazy and hurts lots of innocent people.  And it is that purifying impulse which is … disturbing.  Related thoughts from Scott Aaronson. […]

623. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Ordinary Words Will Do Says:

[…] for how “STEM faculty should be less contemptuous of social sciences.”  Here was the offending comment of mine, from the epic Walter Lewin thread last […]

624. The Peacock’s Tail – spottedtoad Says:

[…] is what Scott Aaronson was talking about in his infamous comment 171– not that he felt entitled to sex or a wife, but that as a young man he had no idea what to […]

625. On Expectations, Worth, and Suicide | egalitarian jackalope Says:

[…] navigate, or convinced they are undeserving of love in the first place. Many don’t remember the Scott Aaronson debacle, when a young professor at MIT was brave enough to articulate this problem (albeit through […]

626. Social PTSD – n15blog Says:

[…] I usually just check it for the entry pertaining to what I’m looking for so I missed the comment#171 post when it came out. I found it about 4 days ago. I burst into tears when I read it, it turned my […]