Here is Letter #322. It and the other letter are below the jump because it’s fucking creepy in there.
Edited to Add: It’s frankly depressing that this post has struck a chord with so many people, but I’m grateful and honored to be able to help the letter writers and to have given voice to what so many people were feeling. Unfortunately the demands of moderating this discussion have become overwhelming this week, so as of Monday, August 13th comments are locked. We’ll pick up this discussion some other time. Thank you for all of your insightful contributions and for making this one of the best commentspaces on the Web.</EDIT>
Dear Captain Awkward,
We have a creeper in our social group. He’s about 10 years older than the rest of us on average, divorced with two kids. And I know this is going to sound like every in-denial LW who ever wrote in to an advice columnist ever, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s fun to hang out with, he’s a devoted dad, he’s a loyal friend … and he’s driving away all of his female friends with his behavior.
He’s mostly been concentrating on the other women: telling them to expose themselves, telling them their skirts weren’t flying high enough while they were dancing, hitting on them when he knows they have boyfriends. (My husband tells me Creeper has also hit on me a couple times, but I haven’t noticed it.) Most of this happens when he is drunk, but even sober he has a tendency to make sexist jokes or joke about sex and then tell us we have no sense of humor when we don’t find them funny. A couple months ago he started complaining, loudly and repeatedly, that he really wanted to get laid because he hasn’t had sex since his divorce (about 2-3 years ago). Whenever there are parties, it seems like he goes with the mindset that he will meet someone there that he might be able to have sex with, rather than to have fun with his friends. A couple months ago at one of these parties, some of us went to the park after dark to hang out; Creeper approached one of my friends, asked where her boyfriend was, and when he was told that the BF was out of town he put his hands on her shoulders and told her that BF had “forfeited” her for the evening.
I’ve talked to Creeper about this last incident and tried to explain that his behavior is making every woman in our social group very uncomfortable; that approaching a woman in the dark, putting his hands on her without permission, and implying that because her boyfriend wasn’t there that she was up for grabs was Not Fucking Cool; that when two of our friends got married, and he spent the entire reception hitting on the bride’s family members (including her 16-year-old cousin) he appeared to be more focused on getting laid than celebrating the marriage of two of his friends; that when he is sober, he is not so bad, but when he gets drunk he gets really creepy and maybe he should not be going to parties and getting drunk anymore. He seemed to listen to me at the time, but now, a month later, he is whining on Facebook that people aren’t finding his sex jokes funny and calling him a creeper. “I know I’m not a creeper, and everyone else knows, but I guess I’ve made a few faux pas with friends-of-friends” pretty much sums it up. So clearly, nothing I said sank in.
I want to punch him. I’d dearly love to tell him that just because someone calls you a creeper, or creepy, doesn’t make you a bad person, but if every female friend you have is telling you that you make them uncomfortable then you are the fucking problem. Unfortunately, he clearly isn’t listening to what I’ve been telling him (and I’m the one who hasn’t been driven off – the rest of our female friends are flat-out avoiding him for their own safety and I can’t blame them one bit for it), and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m female or if it’s because I’m 10 years younger than he is. He also has a tendency to get defensive, and he’s starting to retreat into Nice Guy territory. I’ve considered asking one of the other men to talk to him, but again, I’m worried he’ll dismiss whoever goes to talk to him because he’s older than the rest of us.
Something needs to happen here, obviously, but I have no idea what. He invites people over for games a lot (being one of the few people who has a table big enough for gaming), and comes over a lot as well, and the guys in the group are mostly fine hanging out with him. (They all agree that something needs to be done about his behavior, but for them it’s not as urgent, I guess.) He also lives a block away from me, so I see him quite a bit. I know there’s no way out of this without drama and hurt feelings and awkwardness. I just don’t know what to do. Do I try to get the others to confront him? Arrange some sort of intervention? Tell my husband that Creeper’s not invited to our place anymore and avoid events where Creeper will be? I’d call him out myself, but (1) I can’t speak for my friends, especially when they’ve been affected more than I have, (2) he clearly won’t listen to me, and (3) I’m shit at confrontation and tend to get flustered and start crying. Any advice you have would be really helpful.
Creeper, No Creeping!
And here is Letter #323. You will notice certain similarities.
Dear Captain Awkward,
My boyfriend and I have been together for over two years, and it’s been a generally great relationship. However, my boyfriend’s friend (I’ll call him Ben) has become a major sore point for us. In fact, Ben has become a major sore point for our whole group of friends. Boyfriend has been friends with Ben since middle school, and I understand that there is a lot of history there, and he feels he needs to be loyal to him. However, Ben is a gigantic creep who has preyed upon every single girl in our group.
Not long after I first met Ben, we were at a party, and I got drunk/stoned and passed out. Later that night, my friend walked into the living room to find Ben cuddled up against me and stroking my leg. She freaked out at him, removed me from the living room and put me to bed, then told me what happened the next morning. She had no idea how long he’d been there, and didn’t know exactly what he did, and I was unconscious and have no memory of what happened. Needless to say, I have been very uncomfortable around him ever since. He’s also sent me weird, sexually explicit messages over facebook, and told me not to tell Boyfriend because he “wouldn’t believe [me] anyway” (Obviously, I immediately told my boyfriend, and blocked Ben not long after). Ben has also creeped on tons of other girls, including every friend I’ve brought around. Other instances of Ben’s behaviour have included:
- Offering to drive my stranded friend home from a party, then informing her that he expected sex as “payment” when he dropped her off; following her to the house after she said no
- Sending gross, inappropriate or just plain crass messages over Facebook
- Texting my friend about how he’s “jerking off” while thinking about her
- Straight-up fondling (fully awake and conscious) girls that he’s just met, or at the very least getting uncomfortably touchy-feely with them
- Attempting to have sex with his friend’s girlfriend, on more than one occasion
For what should be obvious reasons, every single girl in our group of friends completely hates Ben, and none of us want him around. However, when I tried to bring up the subject with Boyfriend and our guy friends, none of them seemed willing to admit that his behaviour was predatory or threatening, and they seemed reluctant to take a strong stance against him. They never spoke to Ben about his behaviour; in fact, they treated him as if he was a fragile child who was unable to deal with the consequences of his own actions. They also continued to include him in our activities. I was angered and baffled, and tried talking to my boyfriend about it. Boyfriend got weirdly defensive when I brought up the subject, saying that Ben is a “great guy to hang out with”, and sarcastically asking me if I wanted him to “go to Ben’s house and beat him up over something that happened a year and a half ago.” So yeah, it wasn’t a very productive conversation.
I later found out from another friend (she is the same age as Boyfriend and Ben, and went to high school with both of them) that Ben was exactly the same way back then, and there was an instance where Boyfriend had attempted to call Ben out on his behaviour. Apparently, Ben had some sort of frightening breakdown where he went on about how he’s such a horrible person, and threatened to hurt himself, or commit suicide, or something along those lines. After being told this, I started to understand why Boyfriend and everyone else had been treating Ben as if he were so “fragile”, but hearing that story made me even more angry. It became clear to me that Ben has been emotionally manipulating my boyfriend, and probably others, so he can continue his horrible behaviour without being called out.
I’ve stopped inviting friends to parties because I don’t want to subject them to Ben’s creepiness, and I spend most of my time trying to avoid him when he’s around. I don’t want to be one of those girls who tries to tell their boyfriend who he can and can’t hang out with, but I feel unsafe and afraid around Ben. I also feel completely betrayed that my boyfriend isn’t taking a strong stance against a guy who, let’s face it, tried to sexually assault me. I don’t want him to go “beat him up”, obviously, but it would be great if my boyfriend didn’t, y’know, constantly excuse and defend this jerk. So I guess my question is, how can I approach this subject with my boyfriend, and make him understand a) how serious this is, and b) that he is not responsible for Ben’s reactions, without making him feel defensive?
Creeped out and Fed Up
Dear Creeper, No Creeping! and Creeped Out:
I’m not slithering around on the floor and hissing with my forked tongue when I say that the situations described in these two letters are pretty good examples of what Rape Culture is and why it is so insidious.
Step 1: A creepy dude does creepy, entitled shit and makes women feel unsafe.
Step 2: The women speak up about it to their partners.
Step 3: It gets written off as “not a big deal” or “he probably didn’t mean it” or “he’s not a bad guy, really.” Any discussion of the bad behavior must immediately be followed by a complete audit of his better qualities or the sad things he’s suffered in the name of “fairness.” Once the camera has moved in and seen him in closeup as a real, human, suffering person, how can you (the object, always an object, as in “objectified,” as in a disembodied set of tits or orifices, or a Trapper Keeper, or a favorite coffee mug or a pet cat) be so cruel as to want to hold him accountable for his actions? Bitches, man.
Step 4: Everyone is worried about hurting creepy dude’s feelings or making it weird for creepy dude. Better yet, everyone is worried about how the other dudes in the friend group will feel if they are called out for enabling creepy dude. Women are worried that if they push the issue, that the entire friend group will side with creepy dude or that they’ll be blamed for causing “drama.” Look at how LW #323 put it: “how can I approach this subject with my boyfriend, and make him understand a) how serious this is, and b) that he is not responsible for Ben’s reactions, without making him feel defensive?”
Wouldn’t want someone who covers up for and defends a proto-rapist to have to have SADFEELS, right? (LW, it’s not your fault you’re asking the question this way, it’s just that our culture sucks about this and your boyfriend and his friends have been giving you constant messages that Ben is to be coddled while you are to be shushed in the hopes that it will all blow over).
Step 5: Creepy dude creeps on with his creepy self. He’s learned that there are no real (i.e. “disapproval & pushback from dudes and dude society”) consequences to his actions. Women feel creeped out and unsafe.Some of them decide to take a firm stand against creeping and not come to parties anymore. They slowly slide out of the friend group. Some of the woman decide to just quietly put up with it, because they’ve learned that no one will really side with them and it’s easier to go along than to lose one’s entire community. The whole group works around this missing stair.
Possible Step 6: Creepy dude rapes someone. If he does, there’s a less than 50% chance that the woman will report it. Why?
Could it be that all the people who surround her have taught her that if she speaks up nothing will really come of it anyway? Could it be that she doesn’t trust her friends and the people who love her to have her back on this? I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY. They couldn’t even kick this dude off their weekly trivia team.
Could it be that the authorities, the police, and the court system will treat her like this is something she caused to happen? Worse, will the dude’s history of being creepy come up and, instead of being used as evidence of a pattern of behavior, be used as evidence that the victim tolerated his advances in the past?
So, yeah, I wanted to be very clear that these letters are part of a larger cultural paradigm that is a direct outgrowth of male privilege. Can women be creepy? Yes, for sure. They are human and capable of anything that humans are capable of. But when they are creepy, they don’t have an entire culture backing them up and explaining why their creepiness isn’t that bad.
Onto the specific letters.
LW #322, I’ll start with your Creeper, The Creepicus Complainicus, of the genus “Saddest Panda.” His cry is “Why won’t someone just touch my wiener?” People write him off as harmless because he’s just so sad. They figure that this post-divorce pity party will eventually pass, and that he’ll stop looking at every social gathering as a place where he can bitterly fail to get laid and bitterly whine about it.
When I moved to Chicago, there were a few of these in my fledgling social group. One in particular was touchy-feely and huggy and came across as a big harmless teddy bear. He would develop a crush on every new girl in the group and constantly compliment her with weird, cutesy babytalk. Worse was the touching – hugs that last a little too long, uninvited backrubs, petting your hair, sitting down next to you and wanting to snuggle. It was all portrayed as innocent and sweet, but you could feel the boner behind it.
I was new in town and not close to people yet, so I didn’t have anyone to really talk to about this and I didn’t know how to formulate a group solution. Other women seemed to tolerate the behavior and even enjoy it, so I decided that it was probably just me. I handled it by saying some variant of “Hey, you’re making me wicked uncomfortable. I don’t like to be touched, so don’t touch me unless I touch you first. Also, I don’t want to flirt with you, so please no compliments or cutesy stuff around me, ok? I’m not into it.” It was awkward as hell, and his feelings were super-hurt, and I felt guilty and second-guessed myself a lot, and at least one person tried to explain to me that he wasn’t that bad and I didn’t need to be such a bitch about it. “Bitch Who Doesn’t Like To Be Touched” became my persona and my armor in dealing with him and with some of the other handsy fellas (like the one who “complimented” me by telling me he masturbated about me sometimes) in the friend group. They knew that any attempt to flirt would probably end with me saying “Gross,” in the rudest possible tone and walking away.
Which is not a magic solution by any means. The difference between that guy and your Creeper is that when he was called out and told directly to stop the behavior, he did. He apologized and kept his hands to himself. And over time he got more confidence and pulled himself out of his Sad Panda period, got a better job, found a specific #1 awesome lady (rather than spreading his love among All Geeky Ladies, Everywhere) and chilled the hell out. His many, many fine qualities like loyalty and smarts and a wicked sense of humor were much easier to appreciate then. If he hadn’t backed off me? And if my decision to be “Hi, I’m Jennifer-Please-Don’t-Touch-Me” had backfired? Saying goodbye to that social group would have been really, really hard and really, really sad and my life would be much poorer for it. None of this is easy.
As far as concrete steps go, I think you’ve done all the right things all the best reviews to you, congratulations. You’ve tried talking directly to the Creeper. Instead of listening to you and backing off, he’s decided to whine about it and treat it as something that the world has done to him instead of something brought on by his own behavior. That was his choice and not something you can control with being awesome and using your words. (Note: The other Saddest Pandas were eventually phased out of the social group not for treating every event like a chance to get laid, but for the endless whining. Whining about their singleness. Whining about how no one appreciates their favor-sharking behavior. Whining about how they weren’t invited to certain events. People will tolerate a fair amount of unwanted come-ons and sexual comments, but they will eventually cut you out if you won’t stop whining).
So. I think it’s time to have nothing to do with this dude. You can’t control what everyone will do – obviously he has been much-discussed if other ladies are avoiding him and you are pretty much the last one. De-friend him/hide his feed on Facebook. Do not go to any events at his house. Do not invite him to anything at yours. Make this very, very clear to your partner.
Script for Your Partner:
“Listen. I need to be done with Creeper for a good while. I’m not going to things at his house, and he is definitely not invited to our place.
I know you like him and are hopeful that he’ll change. I hope he does, too, but being around him makes me feel so angry and unsafe that I can’t really hang around and hope it gets better.
I don’t want to tell you how to handle your relationship with him, but there are two things I need from you.
1) Back me up on not inviting him anywhere I will be and definitely not inviting him here.
2) When it comes up in the friend group with other guys, have my back. Don’t make me the bitch, make me someone who brought up legitimate concerns with a friend and then who got blown off. I didn’t do this to him – he CHOSE to act like a dick and then whine about it.
If a year from now he’s drinking less and has chilled out and apologized for past behavior, I would *consider* hanging out again. But right now this decision feels pretty final.”
And don’t worry so much about smoothing everything over and making everyone feel okay. Deliver that script and let your partner feel how he feels about it. Probably he’ll feel bad and weird. The Creeper will feel bad and weird. They SHOULD feel bad and weird, because shit is bad and weird. Women are so socialized and trained to absorb other people’s badness and weirdness for them, that it’s going to be actively hard for you to NOT smooth things over. But don’t smooth things over. Let them be weird. Let them be AWFUL.
Script for Creeper (should you run into him):
“Yeah, this is really awkward. I would love to feel safe and comfortable hanging out with you again, but I told you what you needed to do to make it right and you ignored me and then whined about it. So until there is a real apology and some big, observable changes in your behavior, we are on a break.”
This isn’t something you did to the Creeper, it’s something that he did to himself by acting badly and then not accepting the sweet gift of possible self-awareness that you tried to deliver. It’s not innocent, it’s not harmless, it’s not “shy dude nerdy cluelessness.” That’s especially hard to claim after you tell someone directly what they’re doing wrong and ask them to knock off specific behaviors, right? And yet…every goddamn time it comes up that maybe it’s not his fault because he just didn’t know better. NO. GET THE CLUE, ALREADY.
Now, let’s move onto #323, Ben the Proto-Rapist.
Your boyfriend’s friend Ben is pretty much going to rape someone if he hasn’t already.
I would put the chances that he has already raped someone as high. Very high. Someone, somewhere back in college was a little too drunk to wake up in time or to fully enforce a “I appreciate the ride home, but please don’t come into my house because I don’t want to have sex with you and I told you no already.”
Everything you describe about his behavior is how serial sexual predators work. I cannot say this any better than how Thomas said it at that link:
I’m directing this to men who inhabit het-identified social spaces, and I’m not really limiting it more than that. Women are already doing what they can to prevent rape; brokering a peace with the fear is part of their lives that we can never fully understand. We’re the ones who are not doing our jobs.
Here’s what we need to do. We need to spot the rapists, and we need to shut down the social structures that give them a license to operate. They are in the population, among us. They have an average of six victims, women that they know, and therefore likely some women you know. They use force sometimes, but mostly they use intoxicants. They don’t accidentally end up in a room with a woman too drunk or high to consent or resist; they plan on getting there and that’s where they end up.
Listen. The women you know will tell you when the men they thought they could trust assaulted them; if and only if they know you won’t stonewall, deny, blame or judge. Let them tell you that they got drunk, and woke up with your buddy on top of them. Listen. Don’t defend that guy. That guy is more likely than not a recidivist. He has probably done it before. He will probably do it again.
Change the culture. To rape again and again, these men need silence. They need to know that the right combination of factors — alcohol and sex shame, mostly — will keep their victims quiet. Otherwise, they would be identified earlier and have a harder time finding victims. The women in your life need to be able to talk frankly about sexual assault. They need to be able to tell you, and they need to know that they can tell you, and not be stonewalled, denied, blamed or judged.
Listen. The men in your lives will tell you what they do. As long as the R word doesn’t get attached, rapists do self-report. The guy who says he sees a woman too drunk to know where she is as an opportunity is not joking. He’s telling you how he sees it. The guy who says, “bros before hos”, is asking you to make a pact.
The Pact. The social structure that allows the predators to hide in plain sight, to sit at the bar at the same table with everyone, take a target home, rape her, and stay in the same social circle because she can’t or won’t tell anyone, or because nobody does anything if she does. The pact to make excuses, to look for mitigation, to patch things over — to believe that what happens to our friends — what our friends do to our friends — is not (using Whoopi Goldberg’s pathetic apologetics) “rape-rape”.
Change the culture. We are not going to pull six or ten or twelve million men out of the U.S. population over any short period, so if we are going to put a dent in the prevalence of rape, we need to change the environment that the rapist operates in. Choose not to be part of a rape-supportive environment. Rape jokes are not jokes. Woman-hating jokes are not jokes. These guys are telling you what they think. When you laugh along to get their approval, you give them yours. You tell them that the social license to operate is in force; that you’ll go along with the pact to turn your eyes away from the evidence; to make excuses for them; to assume it’s a mistake, of the first time, or a confusing situation. You’re telling them that they’re at low risk.”
I’m sorry, LW #323, you don’t have a “Ben” problem, you have a boyfriend problem. And a living-in-a-society-that-supports-guys-like-Ben-over-women-like-you problem.
I can’t tell you how to bring this up without making your boyfriend defensive. He SHOULD feel bad. He SHOULD feel upset and defensive. Because his friend is a budding sexual predator who sexually assaulted his own girlfriend in her sleep, and he doesn’t want to do anything about it because the guy is “fun to hang out with.” Thinking about that and realizing how very, very out of line he is must feel pretty bad! HE should be the one writing to me, or at least, he should be the one worrying about your feelings and the potential social fallout of tolerating this guy. Not you. It shouldn’t be your job to have to come up with solutions for this.
Because you know what else feels bad? Being sexually assaulted in your sleep! Feeling sick and afraid and wondering what would have happened if your friend hadn’t interrupted things! Wondering how many other women Ben has sexually assaulted in a similar way! And then having your boyfriend tell you you’re overreacting and inviting the guy to parties at your place. That feels kind of fucking awful, right?
And while I don’t want anyone to kill themselves, getting told by a close friend that you are a sexual predator SHOULD feel bad. Really, really bad. It would certainly depress me to find that out about myself. No wonder Ben was very upset about that conversation! But being depressed or having suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean you get to molest people unimpeded for the rest of time. It means you should seek some professional help both so that you can feel better and so that you can stop touching people who don’t want your bad touches!
You can’t control what your boyfriend will do, and you certainly can’t control whether Ben gets therapy. The only thing you can try to control is how much Ben is allowed to affect you.
So here’s the script I have for you:
“Boyfriend, I want to talk to you about Ben.
I know you feel like this is old news, but it’s not. I do not feel safe around Ben. From now on, I will not be anywhere that he is. I will tell my friends not to be anywhere he is and that they should scream and call the police if he touches them. I will tell my friends what he is like and what he did to me and other women. I will not smooth things over and I will not play nice. If he asks why, I will say “Because you assaulted me in my sleep and I don’t trust you.” If I could go back in time to that night, I would call the police and let them deal with it.
I know that you two have a long history and that you care about him. I know that you are not his keeper. I don’t want to tell you how to run your relationships – you can feel however you want or do whatever you want. But I need you to do three things:
1) Back me up on my right not to be around someone who sexually assaulted me. Do not invite him here, do not bring me to a place where he will also be. This is not negotiable.
2) Do not minimize what he did to me. Do not ask me to forgive and forget or play nice.
3) If you see him or hear about him acting that way with other women, for the love of God, STEP IN AND STOP IT.
Can you agree to that?”
LW, I know you love him, and I know you don’t want to hear this, but if he can’t agree to that, he can’t be your boyfriend anymore. Someone who would put the feelings of a serial sexual predator ahead of the safety of the person they claim to love is not a good partner.
It’s really fucking sad and unfair. Welcome to our culture, where it’s always this sad and unfair whenever women’s safety is on the line.
This is how far Rape Culture skews our vision . Being sexually harassed and assaulted is seen as something that you should be cool (i.e. quiet) about. But GOD FORBID you break up the weekly games night with the temerity to be a victim of such a crime! Don’t you know that your harasser has the best table for playing Settlers of Cataan?
I don’t know how we fix it, but one step has to be to stop tolerating it when it happens to us and when it happens to people we love. Making our social circles and spaces safe means making them AWKWARD AS HELL and UNSAFE for creeps and predators. It means constantly reframing the conversation away from the dominant narrative, so when stuff like the situations in these letters comes up we can say “That’s called sexual assault and it’s a crime. So I need you to stop talking to me about his feelings and pressuring me to invite him to parties.”