Sexism, Misogyny & Misandry in Geek Cultures

A certain blog post caught my eye on Google today: “Sexism and Misogyny in Geek Cultures.” I had never seen the post on Google before in my regular checks just to see what the internet thinks the top 10 results for “geek cultures” should be. I was pretty disappointed with it, though, given its exceedingly narrow definition of sexism, and complete failure to recognize what sexism looks like off the internet. It was all the more galling that I’m the one who wrote it.

I hope you’ll forgive the moment of navel-gazing, but the topic felt especially worth revisiting in light of Ben Abraham‘s recent Gamasutra article, “Games Criticism, Women Critics, and Challenging Sexism.” Shockingly (to me, anyway), some readers posted comments to that article dismissing the entire argument for not citing enough evidence that sexism exists. These are people who don’t know what sexism is. Asking for evidence of sexism is like asking for evidence of “imagination” or “politics”: it’s an abstract thing, but it’s so obvious once you understand what it is that it’s mind-boggling that anyone would refuse to believe in it.

Part of the problem, I think, is that many people have an ignorantly narrow view of “sexism” – a view I myself unwittingly espoused on my own blog three years ago:

All the actual behavior we’d think of as misogynistic or sexist in geek culture has almost exclusively been visible to me on the internet (or described by others in certain small, isolated contexts full of nerds, such as at certain conventions and CS departments). Not that there aren’t woman-hating dorks wandering around the streets or at the cons I’ve attended—just that certain anonymous or isolated social contexts make people feel they can let this side of themselves show.

A lively exchange in the comments following the post does go some way toward clarifying this. Even so, having just spent two years teaching at a women’s college – including offering a course on “Images of Women in the Media” and many assignments on sexism and misogyny – I think I’ve gotten (slightly) better about discussing these issues. I figured it was a topic worth revisiting.

It’s true that the most overt, vitriolic, and unashamed displays of misogyny I ever witnessed in the course of my research were on the internet. But to say that “all the actual behavior we’d think of as misogynistic or sexist in geek culture has almost exclusively been … on the internet” is devastatingly narrow. Really, this should have said that I only witnessed geeky men harassing and bullying geeky women on the internet, but I picked up some anecdotes of it happening in other contexts.

Sexism more broadly speaking, however, is subtle and easily missed if you don’t know how to recognize it. In geek cultures, for instance, sexism manifests as women getting less recognition and pay than men for the same work (as pointed out in Ben’s aforementioned article), being encouraged to study some subjects in school over others, being chosen as the public face for gaming and tech products only if they’re both intelligent and pretty, and not getting traditionally “masculine” products marketed to them at all because, you know, girls don’t like that stuff anyway. Sexism isn’t just men openly treating women badly, but a whole set of assumptions across our culture that quietly but significantly influence how we all live our lives.

It’s actually quite easy to remain willfully ignorant of sexism. Typically, it only requires coming up with excuses to maintain the status quo. One popular example is to explain hiring and pay disparities in tech companies as a matter of men just happening to be more “qualified.” That only holds up if you’re willing to ignore that the criteria for “qualification” are sexist themselves – either (or both) in terms of restricting access (e.g., cultures that make women feel like trespassers) or arbitrary and exclusionary prerequisites for membership (e.g., years of programming experience even before reaching college).

From my experience teaching courses on this topic to many young women, I can assure you that it’s not just men who fail to recognize sexism. “Feminism” was practically a dirty word among the students where I taught, and that was at a women’s college. One student admitted that she was so nervous about being stereotyped as man-hating that she figured she’d take what liberties she had and quit while she was ahead – yet still behind where we should be as a culture. Along those lines, consider too that many women do recognize sexism, but don’t speak up about it at every turn. After all, you can only spend so much of your time arguing the obvious to those unwilling to listen.

Men experience sexism, but not in the same way that women typically do. During the course of my geek cultures research, it always galled me whenever I read things on Slashdot tagged with “misandry” which were about calling men to task for treating women unequally. Consider, for instance, when Tim Berners-Lee called out “‘stupid’ male geek culture” for discriminating against women in engineering. (The “misandry” tag has since been replaced with “prejudice.”) This is not misandry (however offended any of us might be by inferring that this applies to “geek culture” at large). Rather, this is pointing out sexist practices against women in an industry.

What does misandry or sexism against men look like, then? It does not look like men getting shut out of jobs or getting paid less; that claim comes from those who prefer the current structure of privilege, chafing as they see inequalities very slowly eroding. Rather, sexism against men manifests as an expectation to fulfill the stereotypes of manliness: being physically strong and capable of violence when need be; not feeling allowed to cry or express emotion; happy with promiscuity and treating women as sex objects; and, perhaps most of all, not feeling allowed to be attracted to other men. These are stupid, unfair, and sexist things expected of men.

And, much like women can fail to recognize sexism against their own gender without even realizing it, men can do the same. Geeks are helping to propagate misandry every time they teabag you and call you a fag when they beat you at Halo. They’re promoting sexism – against women and men – every time they talk about one-upping jocks by stealing their girlfriends.

I’ll stand by the opinion that some male geeks bully women – and, I’ll add, each other – as a reaction to their own feelings of powerlessness and rejection. Much of the oppression geeks have felt is very real, in the form of cruel taunting, exclusion, and, sometimes, physical violence, with most harassment coming from members of their own gender. I think we see especially frequent and hateful geek misogyny online not because women cruelly refused to date male nerds, but because possessing women is the yardstick for dominance among men, and some geeks are still bitter about their treatment at the hands of jocks.

Suggesting possible origins of hateful behavior should not be seen as forgiving geeks for bullying, or as blaming the victims of geek sexism, or even as blaming men who bullied geeks when they were kids. Adults are responsible for their own actions, and this kind of behavior isn’t justifiable even if we can take some steps toward explaining it sociologically.

But bullying and harassment aren’t the end-all, be-all symptoms of sexism. Not by a long shot. Geekdom suffers from the same pervasive sexism of our society at large, which means it has a long way to go. Recognizing this and correcting it in our everyday lives is the first step toward fixing what’s stupid about our world.

The geeks who aren’t part of the problem can and should be part of the solution. I’ve met brilliant, caring, wonderful nerds and geeks from all over the spectrum of identities. While some revel in childishness and hatred, or leap to the defense whenever they feel attacked, others are sensitive to bullying and oppression because they know what these things feel like. Which kind of geek would you rather be?

10 thoughts on “Sexism, Misogyny & Misandry in Geek Cultures

  1. Also, you should read this exchange for some excellent examples of (not so) invisible sexism in the aforementioned discussion about female game critics. A couple snippets:

    As a woman, I felt that my gender somehow made me less qualified to speak about gender issues that directly affected me; that people, especially those who needed their views challenged, would be less willing to listen to a woman (yes, I see the irony). […]

    When a male writer is criticised for his work, how often do people use gender-specific terms to put him down? How often do they talk about his physical appearance or blame his masculinity for his bad writing or the ideas that he expresses?

    You know, when a woman says that sexism is a problem, and a man says that it isn’t – which is a pretty common reaction – that’s a wonderfully self-illustrating example of the problem in a nutshell.

    8/25/11 EDIT: Another illustrative post inspired by Ben’s article, about how sexism manifests as fear to speak up at all.

  2. Excellent post, Jason. I just added it to the upcoming linkspam for Geek Feminism.

    Recently I posted over there about how sexy cosplay falls under this sort of “invisible” sexism; women dress in sexy cosplays because of unstated expectations and not-quite-obvious rewards for doing so. It doesn’t necessarily manifest as bullying and harassment, so even some geek women (even geek feminists, if you look at the comments over there) have a hard time recognizing it.

  3. Thanks, Courtney. And that post on cosplaying definitely deserves a direct link. I think it’s really useful that you managed to make a distinction in it between the individual’s choice to cosplay as something sexy, and the broader trend of women cosplaying as sexualized characters (and being actively encouraged and rewarded for doing so by geek culture at large). It’s too easy for critics rebut with “but that’s not why I do it!” – it’s nice to be able to respond by pointing out that it’s unlikely to be coincidence that there are so many other people doing something that “just happens” to conform with hetero male fantasies.

  4. Finding the origin of the issues isn’t, in my mind, about excusing the problem at all: it is about forcing men to stop externalizing their problems by calling out their fears and vulnerabilities. If they can’t hide from their fear by hurting other people, perhaps they will finally deal with it and stop hurting other people (and themselves). “Your problem is not that women won’t sleep with you. If a woman, a generic, featureless, personality-less woman slept with you right now, nothing would change. Your problem is that you are isolated by the emotional repression our sexist society has forced on you, and sex is the only acceptably “masculine” outlet for twin-ship. It is no woman’s responsibility to be your object of completion, and really, can you imagine anyone wants to play that role?”

    I do think that this dynamic and fears are caused in part by the constant messages that men and women are separate, alien species, rather than two minutely different (in aggregate, with no 100% accurate determining phenotypical feature) variations of a single species. I’ve occasionally been able to get through to the “I’m so logical!” geeky types by pointing out that differentiation is expensive, evolutionary speaking, while variation is cheap (it’s why all humans have nipples, after all.) It is much easier to birth predominantly-identical infants and allow cultural conditioning to differentiate between the two (which is subject to emergent evolution just as biology is). The “War of the Sexes” leads to dehumanization of the “enemy” as surely as other wars have.

  5. Why can’t everyone just PLEASE get along!? I have the perfect cure for all you misandrists! (The female ones anyway.) Find yourself a great man and fall in love with him. The same for misogynists, find a wonderful woman and fall in love with her. I guarantee you won’t dislike the other gender so much. At least try:)

  6. I can appreciate the sentiment that “love conquers all,” but I don’t think it’s that simple. Even leaving aside that “find yourself a member of the opposite sex to fall in love with” isn’t necessarily easy or even desirable to everyone in the world, and the fact that this suggestion reinforces the stereotype that nerds’ big problem is that they just need to “get a date/get laid,” there’s a bigger picture here. The misogyny and misandry I’m talking about above are not just of the kinds that “make you” a misogynist or misandrist as a person; these are attitudes and assumptions that are deeply ingrained in our daily lives and cultural expectations. I’m not sure I can suggest the “perfect cure,” but I think that being aware of the problem itself is a step in the right direction.

  7. Wow, I never thought about it that way before. I wasn’t trying to push any negative stereotypes on anybody, I’m a huge geek myself, but I was trying to appeal to misandrists and misogynists who might be willing to rethink their views. I am definitely sorry if I offended anyone with my comment. Thanks for the feedback Jason, I never would have known if someone hadn’t of spoken up. :]

  8. I forgot to mention the other day, that being aware of the problem IS a step in the right direction.

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