So a blogger popular with the Less Wrong community wrote something daft. A lot of it is just highly motivated misreading of a popular concept, but there are some genuine nuggets of interest in there, nuggets worth unearthing.
I’ve written about Nice Guys before. For the uninitiated, Nice Guys are a class of awfulness that differs in important ways from standard notions of what a misogynist or douchebag looks like. These are people who believe that their general inoffensiveness or status as moderately successful humans literally entitles them to love, emotional intimacy, and/or sex from the objects of their desire. Further, they imagine that some sort of cosmic injustice or colossal mistake is inflicted upon them when that love, emotional intimacy, and/or sex is not forthcoming. Their diagnostic errors are going from that already-absurd starting point to concluding that something is broken in the world, or in their preferred courtship targets, because said targets are not lining up to reward them for their niceness. Their most classic modus operandi is to befriend someone who catches their fancy and offer them emotional support or just-in-time aid and then get incensed that this largess is not reciprocated with unasked-for love, emotional intimacy, and/or sex. The mindset of the Nice Guy is trivially suited to turning that indignation into stalking, emotional abuse, and at its nadir, into simply taking what is not consensually given. Women and others who are regularly the targets of this maddening pattern are right to fear it.
In particular, I’ve written about one specific Nice Guy: my younger self.
I was the object of women’s fear for a long time. The ladies of my late adolescence saw the intensity I brought to bear on them and kept me at arm’s length, terrified of what I would do with it. Would I be the jealous type, constantly cajoling her friends and co-workers out of “my” territory and leaving her eventually alone but for me? Would I be the pushy type, pressuring her into sex and commitments out of sniveling insecurity, eventually trapping her in a web of finances and marriage she longed to escape? Would I be the hovering type, unable to let any aspect of her life not contain me, horning into her clubs and hobbies and family picnics until I’ve claimed her life as mine and made her dependent on me? If any of those drives were denied, would I turn (more) abusive? Would jealousy without satisfaction bring me to rage? Would I transition so seamlessly from pushing for sex to having sex over her increasingly half-hearted objections that her first rape at my hands goes unremarked all around, and will everyone she knows tell her that such is the price of being in a relationship? Would I subject her to emotional blackmail for not including me in literally everything she does, until she feels wholly responsible for my emotional well-being? “Nice” isn’t so nice when it’s the forward face of a mountain of controlling, entitled insecurity. Maybe that’s not what was behind mine, but how would they know? No one is required to put themselves in danger in the name of someone else’s entitlement to the “benefit of the doubt.”
It took years of introspection, growth, and learning about human communication before I could recognize all of that. The most important of those lessons were threefold:
It’s on you to make them see.
There are always more.
They are afraid of you.
Those are the things I had to learn: that it would never, ever be enough to simply be conscientious and caring and all those other things that people want in their partners, but all of that would have to be combined with displays of sex appeal and confidence and most of all initiative. That potential partners are abundant and therefore any effort premised on the rom-com idea that this specific one has to be wooed at all cost is utterly doomed. And, vitally, that as a man who courts women I had to never let them think I was the kind of man who wouldn’t take no for an answer, because those men do unspeakable things when they hear “no.” Someone who thinks that it’s an atrocity that their decent jobs and lack of any desire to punch their partners are not rewarded with sex is someone who is going to react badly when the people from whom they want that sex have the temerity to exercise their own discretion in the matter. And when people react badly to being denied sex from women, trans people, non-binary people, disabled people, and any of various other groups, statistics are born.
Western popular culture beats into kind-hearted young men that the reward for an adolescence or adulthood or internship or whatever well spent is an attractive young woman to claim, and sets us up to feel betrayed and angry when that reward is not forthcoming. This sentiment becomes ten times compounded when introverted, confused, awkward people like me watch seemingly far less worthy humans have no trouble accessing what everything until then had told us would be our reward for keeping our heads down, our homework complete, and our ambitions soaring. We foreswore the easy delights of a licentious adolescence for the headier, more fulfilling rewards of unwavering uprightness…or so we told ourselves. Slate Star Codex’s Scott S Alexander shows this error easily enough:
“‘I am a nice guy, how come girls don’t like me?’…It does not mean ‘I am nice in some important cosmic sense, therefore I am entitled to sex with whomever I want.’ It means: ‘I am a nicer guy than Henry.’”
Poke at that abscess long enough, and the Just World fallacy drips out.
The world does not care that you’re a nicer guy than the serial wife-beater named Henry you used as your example. You might believe in justice, I might believe in justice, but the universe does not. So awful things happen, regularly, including Henry having five abused wives to his name and you not getting a date until after some of your friends became parents. Those awful things have nothing to do with the moral value of the people to whom they happen. Remember those three lessons? How someone handles the innate, fundamental, fucked-up unfairness of human courtship comes down to whether they learned them.
Succeed, and you recognize that being “a nicer guy than Henry” means way, way less than you’d like in the grand scheme of seduction, and that’s okay. The attention of paramours is not a reward for good behavior, but something you get by convincing someone that they want to be around you and share more of themselves with you than they share with their friends. That’s its own task, with its own rules and its own challenges. You might resent that fact for a long time before you understand it, before you figure out that being “a nicer guy than Henry” does not, in fact, mean you have already done everything you need to do to earn someone else’s most intimate trust. But when you recognize that a whole slew of habits, quirks, and preoccupations are telling the objects of your desire that you would likely make them regret letting you into their worlds, no matter your virtues, you will get better.
Fail, and you start claiming that acknowledging that finding love, intimacy, and sex is only partially related to one’s status as an upstanding community member is the same thing as claiming that “No one “owes” you money just because you say you ‘work hard’, and by complaining about this you’re proving you’re not really a hard worker at all. I’ve seen a lot of Hard Workers (TM) like you, and scratch their entitled surface and you find someone who thinks just because they punched a time card once everyone needs to bow down and worship them.”
When was the last time I encountered someone insisting that the need for sexual intimacy was as much of a human rights concern as the need for a living wage? Ah, right, it was the manifesto of a Men’s Rights Activist who injured 13 and killed 7 people in Isla Vista, Californiaout of overwhelming, hateful misogyny and entitlement, followed by the manosphere coming up with all sorts of excuses why the women of the world brought this on themselves for not giving him and others like him the intimacy they craved. And people wonder why Nice Guys get such a bad rap in feminist circles.
But there’s something to think about here. Both the Isla Vista killer and the writer of Slate Star Codex point out something important. Intimacy is indeed vital for the human psyche, and most people experience great distress when they do without for long stretches. Elderly people who live alone, the homeless, prisoners, and sailors are classic examples, and the internet is laden with the more melodramatic but no less serious accounts of young people like me and Scott S Alexander. There is a case to be made for including intimacy among the self-care and preventative health measures we instruct and remind people to seek, and for regarding their availability as a public health issue. I have long held that the array of medical services not covered by most insurance and socialized healthcare schemes, including physiotherapy, dentistry, and podiatry, is unacceptably long. To that list, we can perhaps add the subset of sex workers who specialize in helping people with intimacy issues, who effectively practice very specialized psychological counseling under the sex work umbrella. Such would be enormously less frivolous than the chiropractic and homeopathy included in many insurance schemes.
The thing is, though, none of these Nice Guys, with or without capitalization, want that. That’s not what makes them Nice Guys, and it’s not what will actually address their desires. Their stated problem is the absence of whichever aspects of a conventionally-understood relationship they most want—sex, close emotional contact, an unusually tight friendship, the promise of building a combined life together thereafter—but their actual problem is the Hollywood-infused just world fallacy highlighted above. Periodically visiting a sex worker, even one who specializes in creating the kind of intimacy that tends to be assumed absent from conventional prostitution, does not address their core complaint, as Scott S Alexander himself acknowledges. Nice Guys demand that such intimacy needs to simply come to them as a consequence of their success in other areas, or else either the universe itself or the people they want it from are in dereliction of their duty. After all, only an unfair and unjust world would allow upstanding citizens to go unsexed while jerks get laid.
That is what the Nice Guy concept is supposed to convey to men: if you’re not one of the above miscreants and you are persistently lonely, figure out what you’re doing wrong. Not “being lonely is 100% exactly the same thing as being a rapist,” or any of Scott S Alexander’s other absurd, misreading-based strawmen. That Scott S Alexander can take this bloody, tragic reality and upend it to designate lonely men as the real victims and feminist efforts to characterize the phenomenon of male entitlement as driving lonely men into the arms of organized misogyny is the work of a galaxy-class black hole of unaddressed privilege.
Grow the fuck up, Slate Star Codex. I did. It worked wonders.