Nerdy Boys, Fat Girls, and Access to Sex
Is (perceived) access to sex the currency underpinning the relationship economy?
One night, I was eating dinner at my boyfriend’s house. In typical Polish fashion, we were eating open faced sandwiches. In typical nerd fashion, we were speaking in depth and passionately about topics of interest to us.
It’s a convenient dovetail of sorts — he’s writing a blog series about Dating for Nerds, and I’m researching Pick Up Artists for a Sociology Master’s Degree. The conversation came around to our projects, and in particular to kino escalation.
Kino escalation is a pattern of touch escalation espoused by Pick Up Artists. 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, disqualified, banned, excluded.
And when it comes to access to sex, I knew very well the feeling of being ineligible, disqualified, banned, and excluded. This is how I felt for a large portion of my life when I was, well — large. I spent 20+ years, including all of my teens and my twenties, at different points on the spectrum varying between overweight and morbidly obese. My weight was the focal point for abuse by bullies, and the wounds I received around it run deep and affect me to this day.
Do nerd boys and fat girls receive similar messages of exclusion, leading to similar painful feelings? And, are they both 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 often desexualized in media (the funny fat friend or the lonely fat woman or the tragic fat woman), or alternately portrayed as easy (with the subtext that they must be desperate). In both cases, what these tropes expose is that nerd boys and fat girls are failing to live up to their assigned gender roles — they fail to reach the social standard of “man enough”, of “feminine enough”.
The name for the pain associated with this sense of failure is gender role stress — the experience of emotional distress as a result of violating or not adhering to traditional gender role norms. Both Masculine and Feminine Gender Role Stress are measured on gender-specific 5 point scales used by researchers, and there are a few elements of gender role stress that are, I think, particularly relevant to the pain experienced by nerd boys and fat girls.
From the Masculine Gender Role Stress Scale, two elements stand out when I reflect on the stories I have heard from nerds: fear of physical inadequacy and fear of performance failure (i.e. fear of rejection), with the potential for performance failure often linked to a 3rd measure — fear of emotional expressiveness. Often, these fears are linked to perceived consequences that will be faced at the hands of other men, often (subconsciously) including themselves.
When these nerds were boys and first met their peers, the bullying they received typically centered around physical inadequacy (especially if they were smaller and physically weaker than their aggressors, though not exclusively so) and escalated if emotional expressiveness came into the picture — crying or showing signs of fear. Once established as easy targets, many of them endured years of abuse and intimidation as the playground whipping boy. At home, if a boy chooses to share their struggles with their father, the may be met with not sympathy and compassion but rather encouragement to “Man Up!”
There’s a clear link between a story like that, and a painful and awkward struggle with self and others in dating later in life. If you believe that you’re physically inadequate and therefore you might fail in approaching a potential dating partner, the disappointed emotions that can arise from that are precisely the kind that would have gotten your ass handed to you when you were younger. The entire process could open you to ridicule (think the famous quote about men being afraid that women will laugh at them) 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, again two elements stand out which, while different, wind up having similar painful effects on fat girls: fear of being (physically) unattractive and fear of unemotional relationships (often linked with a third element — fear of being assertive).
Fat girls, when they first meet their peers at school, will often meet with taunts and cruelty centered around how they look. The abiding message of these taunts is that no one will ever like you because you are fat — fat people are lazy, stupid, smelly, etc. Attempts to stand up in the face of this abuse will often be met with indifference. This message is often reinforced everywhere — from doctors who refuse to take complaints seriously when the patient is fat, to parents making (often well-intentioned) comments about their daughter’s weight.
Again, there’s a link between a story like that, and a painful and awkward struggle with dating later in life. If you’re told that the key to acceptability lies in obtaining an acceptable body, you launch into a cycle of dieting and self-loathing. You start to hate your body because you believe it is what blocks you from connecting with others. You believe that no one wants you and that if someone claims interest, there’s an ulterior motive. It could be a dare (i.e.hoggin’), impaired judgement (drunk guys with fat chicks trope), or desperation, but cruelty is expected. You can get stuck. Even if you do get into a relationship, you can believe that 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
So what is it that makes this form of gender role stress experienced by nerd boys and fat girls so painful? Why does it matter? What is it about this stress that 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 societal gatekeeper to who is allowed access to (heterosexual) sex. This is the unit of value underpinning the capitalist relationship economy. And, to an extent, it is less about any sex obtained (and whether or not that sex is pleasurable), and more about the perception by others of access to sex, that matters.
The Labour Theory of Value holds that value is the “socially necessary abstract labor” embodied in a commodity. If the commodities here are masculinity and femininity, then the abstraction that gives them their value is the amount of access to sex as perceived by others that they confer. If we go with this line of thinking, then this is what is meant when nerdy boys and fat girls say that 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.
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