Is (perceived) access to sex the currency underpinning the relationship economy?
One night, I was eating dinner at my ex-boyfriend’s house. In typical Polish fashion, we had open faced sandwiches. In typical nerd fashion, we spoke passionately about topics of interest.
He was writing about Dating for Nerds, and I was researching Pick Up Artists for a Sociology Master’s degree. The conversation came around to kino escalation: a pattern of touch escalation over the course of a date.
For me, it sounded icky.
“The way you describe it sounds like entitlement,” I said.
“I have never felt entitled in my life! I don’t personally know any nerds that feel entitled to sex, in fact they feel the opposite.”
The opposite of feeling entitled is feeling ineligible, excluded.
When it comes to access to sex, I knew the feeling of being ineligible and excluded.
This is how I felt for much of my life. I spent all of my teens and my twenties on the spectrum between overweight and obese. Weight was the focal point for my bullies. That experience affects me to this day.
Do nerd boys and fat girls get similar messages of exclusion, leading to similar painful feelings? And, are they being excluded from the same thing — access to sexual expression?
Tropes about the late in life virgin nerd are ubiquitous in media and popular culture. Fat women are desexualized in media (the funny fat friend or the lonely fat woman or the tragic fat woman), or portrayed as easy (they must be desperate).
In both cases, these tropes suggest that nerd boys and fat girls fail to live up to their gender roles — they‘re not “man enough” or “feminine enough”.
Academics call this gender role stress: the experience of emotional distress as a result of violating or not adhering to traditional gender role norms. A few elements of gender role stress are particularly relevant to the pain experienced by nerd boys and fat girls.
From the Masculine Gender Role Stress Scale, three elements stand out: fear of physical inadequacy and fear of performance failure (i.e. fear of rejection), and fear of emotional expressiveness. These fears are linked to imagined consequences from other men, including themselves.
When these nerds were boys and first met their peers, they were bullied for physical inadequacy, especially if they were smaller and physically weaker than their aggressors. Bullying escalated if they were emotionally expressive by crying or showing fear.
Once established as easy targets, many of them endured years of abuse and intimidation as the playground whipping boy. At home, they decided to share their struggles with their father, they were encouraged to “Man Up!”
A childhood like that clearly links to a painful, awkward struggle with dating later in life. If you believe that you’re physically inadequate and you’ll fail when approaching a potential date, the emotions that come up are the kind that would have gotten your ass handed to you when you were younger.
The entire vulnerable process could open you to ridicule and so you don’t even try. You stay stuck.
“I mean, what is a nerd in the classic sense? He’s a guy who’s either too fat or too skinny, but definitely not athletic. He’s often hyper-intelligent, but sometimes the opposite (Martin Prince and Ralph Wiggum on The Simpsons are arguably both archetypes of “nerds”), but mainly what he is is awkward and weak, lacking confidence, charisma, and command of the room.
He is, in other words, a man who fails at being a man.” — Ravishly
From the Feminine Gender Role Stress Scale, three elements stand: fear of being (physically) unattractive, fear of unemotional relationships, and fear of being assertive.
Fat girls at school often get taunts centered around how they look. The abiding message is that no one will like you because you’re fat. They tell you fat people are lazy, stupid, smelly, etc. Attempts to stand up to the abuse are met with indifference.
This message is reinforced everywhere — from doctors who refuse to take complaints seriously when the patient is fat, to parents making comments about their daughter’s weight.
Again, growing up that way can make dating later in life painful and awkward. If you think the key to fitting in is obtaining a certain body, you launch into a cycle of dieting and self-loathing. You hate your body because you think it’s stopping you from connecting with others. You think no one wants you.
All interest is suspect — is there an ulterior motive? Maybe it’s a dare (hoggin’), impaired judgement (drunk guys with fat chicks trope), or desperation. You get stuck. You wonder if standing up for yourself is dangerous, because who else would want you?
“We exist in a lookist culture that equates a woman’s attractiveness to her worth.” — Janet Mock
Why is the gender role stress experienced by nerd boys and fat girls so painful? Why does it matter? What about this stress makes millionaires out of pick up artists and gurus promoting weight loss miracles?
It matters because conformity to masculine and feminine gender roles is the gatekeeper to who is allowed access to (heterosexual) sex.
It’s less about any sex obtained (and whether or not that sex is pleasurable) and more about the perception of access to sex, that matters.
The Labour Theory of Value says value is the “socially necessary abstract labor” embodied in a commodity. If imagine masculinity and femininity as commodities, then the abstraction is the degree of access to sex as perceived by others.
With this line of thinking, maybe that’s what nerdy boys and fat girls mean when they say they feel worthless — in this economy, they don’t have goods worth trading at the marketplace.
They are poor.
Is (perceived) access to sex the currency underpinning the relationship economy? I suspect that it very likely is.
This was one in a series of articles that was funded by my awesome Patrons. Special thanks to Lucy Rowett and Piotr Migdal for their proofreading and input — Nerdy Boys, Fat Girls, and Access to Sex wouldn’t have been the same without your feedback.