Hello there, Entire Internet! Thank you for stopping by.
Edited to Add: As of Monday, 8/13 I’ve locked commenting on this post. The moderation demands are overwhelming. Thanks for your constructive contributions! We’ll pick this discussion back up another time.</EDIT>
Right now I’m fielding a lot of emails and comments from guys who are worried they might be creepy or outraged at having been unfairly called creepy and wanting everyone to stop using that unfair word because it is mean and unfair.
I’ve been wanting to write a follow-up post to #322 & #323 (The Case of the Creepy Dudes) about what people can do to be less creepy, but John Scalzi beat me to it, adding to the excellent work of Dr. Nerdlove and Cliff Pervocracy on this subject. If you wrote to me (or commented at length) looking for steps on how not to be creepy or unsure what creepy means, go read all of those links in their entirety and hopefully you’ll figure something out.
I’m noticing some interesting common assumptions and patterns among the responses I’m seeing, and I’d like to write about them here.
First, if you’ve been called creepy, I have no absolution for you. Maybe you were creepy. Maybe you weren’t and the person just didn’t like you for some reason. We have no magic wand to remove the stain of creepiness from you. Arguing that because you are not creepy or because you had good intentions when you did the possibly creepy things, NO ONE is creepy or should ever be called creepy? Not helping your case.
Assumption #1: “Creepy” is what ugly/shy/awkward guys get called for doing the same thing more attractive/confident guys get away with. Therefore it is unfair.
It is unfair. It’s okay that it’s unfair. You know why? Because whether someone likes you enough to want to be your friend, to want to hug you when they see you and let you into their personal space, wants to flirt with you, or wants to joke around with you about certain topics IS a subjective decision they get to make. If Commander Logic comes up to me and puts her arm around me, that’s a friendly bit of affection from a trusted friend. If Joe or Jane New Person sees that and thinks “that’s how Jennifer likes to be greeted” and does the same thing, they’re going to get to watch me jump out of my skin because: Bad Touch! I get to set different boundaries for different people.
I feel like a lot of the people who are looking for a rubric on how to make sure they aren’t being creepy are the same people who are looking for a rubric on how to pick up dating partners. They want rules and steps that will guarantee a certain outcome, and they don’t like being told how much of it is subjective and totally out of their hands. But other people – the people you want to date, the people you want to be friends with – have their own tastes, opinions, likes, and dislikes. To imply that there is some kind of system that guarantees that other people will like you or to make it a question of fairness robs them of agency.
Quick, close your eyes and picture someone from you daily life you don’t like. Got someone in mind?
For some people, that disliked person is YOU. Or me! It hurts to realize that someone doesn’t like you, especially when you’re being kind and doing your best and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it. It feels unfair. But feelings aren’t fair. You can’t logic your way into someone’s inner circle.
So, if someone calls you creepy, instead of sending me 2500-word emails about how that isn’t even really a thing, here are some constructive steps I suggest:
- In the moment, say “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be.” Then stop whatever it is you were doing, and don’t do it again. Resist the urge to demonize the person who called you out. That person is doing you a favor. S/he is respecting you by being direct and asking you to change your ways. S/he is telling you that you are valuable within the group – if s/he didn’t care, you’d just find yourself dumped without any explanation.
- Read those links from Scalzi, Cliff, and Nerdlove.
- Take a look at your behavior. Run it by trusted friend or two.
- If several people are calling your behavior creepy, you’re really doing something very wrong. Reevaluate your entire approach.
- If one person is calling your behavior creepy, and you honestly can’t think of what you’ve done wrong, all your friends back you up, and your relationships with others in the social circle seem to be fine, make a decision in your head: “X doesn’t feel comfortable around me. That’s sad, but not everyone likes everyone else, and I can deal with it.” Then back off from engaging with X in the future. Don’t do the thing that they asked you not to do. Don’t get drawn into discussions with them. Don’t hang about trying to get them to like you. Just pull away and put your effort into other people in the group.
And if fear of being perceived as creepy is making you feel paralyzed and unhappy and is getting in the way of your ability to socialize, please seek professional help. Social anxiety is a real, treatable condition.
Assumption #2: When people use the word “creepy,” they are being able-ist and unfairly marginalizing people with Asperger’s Syndrome, etc.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome, etc. might have a delay or a difficulty in reading social cues. However, they are pretty great at and hungry for explicit verbal communication.
“Hey, you’re standing a little bit too close. Could you take a few steps back?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, thanks for saying something.”
If you alert someone to an unwelcome behavior, and the person keeps doing that thing and/or angrily arguing that they shouldn’t have to change anything, the problem is not Asperger’s. Even if they do have Asperger’s. People with Asperger’s can knowingly or unknowingly violate someone’s boundaries. They can also have their boundaries violated! A lot of people who are Very Worried About The Aspies do not themselves have Asperger’s and are using this as a straw man to derail the conversation away from their own behaviors. They’re also insulting people with Asperger’s by assuming that even close to a statistically significant portion of creepy behavior can be blamed on them. Who’s able-ist now?
Edited to Add: I’m throwing in this comment from the Metafilter thread that linked to the #322/#323 discussion because it is just. so. good.
“For those who are attempting to excuse creepy behaviour as being simple social awkwardness, I thought this post by Hershele Ostropoler here sums up that problem:
‘If you step on my foot, you need to get off my foot.
If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot.
If you step on my foot without realizing it, you need to get off my foot.
If everyone in your culture steps on feet, your culture is horrible, and you need to get off my foot.
If you have foot-stepping disease, and it makes you unaware you’re stepping on feet, you need to get off my foot. If an event has rules designed to keep people from stepping on feet, you need to follow them. If you think that even with the rules, you won’t be able to avoid stepping on people’s feet, absent yourself from the event until you work something out.
If you’re a serial foot-stepper, and you feel you’re entitled to step on people’s feet because you’re just that awesome and they’re not really people anyway, you’re a bad person and you don’t get to use any of those excuses, limited as they are. And moreover, you need to get off my foot.
See, that’s why I don’t get the focus on classifying harassers and figuring out their motives. The victims are just as harassed either way.'”
Focus on behaviors, not possible diagnoses. </End of Edit>
Assumption #3: Why are the letter writers blaming this on their boyfriends and guy friends? Stop hiding behind them! If women would just be braver/louder/clearer/more explicit/explain it better this whole problem would go away. Grow a pair, ladies!
FYI, I deleted every comment that asked women to “man up” or “grow a pair” even if the overall substance was good because: BIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY. Okay, sure, it’s a metaphor. But balls are squishy and really vulnerable! They don’t impart strength. Bad metaphor, no biscuit.
Okay. There is a point to which I agree that speaking up and being more explicit in the moment is helpful.
I’ve written a lot about the ways that women are socialized to smooth things over and to say “no” in indirect ways, so I understand why we have such trouble with it. I understand that sometimes it is legitimately frightening to speak up. I understand why people freeze, especially people who have a history of trauma. There are many barriers to speaking up, not the least of which being the (legitimate) fear that everyone will side with the creeper against you if you do! So – it’s not a requirement. I totally get it if you can’t or don’t or don’t want to, and there have been many times where I could not speak up until I’d had a ton of time to process or was in a safe place with safe people. So let’s accept as a given that you’re the expert on your own life. You’re the one best-equipped to judge the situation you’re in. You 100% don’t have to speak up in the moment or else forever accept that everything that happened was all your fault, and if anyone tries to convince you that it was they are WRONG and it is BULLSHIT.
Still. If you can find the words and the courage, saying “Hey, I don’t like that. Please stop” as soon after unwelcome behavior as possible, it will be enormously helpful even if it doesn’t work right away. And even if it feels scary and awkward.
It will be helpful to YOU. Because you will become a person who, against all social conditioning, speaks up for yourself when someone crosses your boundaries. “I don’t like that.” “Please don’t touch me.” “Don’t make comments about my body.” “Don’t tell racist or sexist jokes, please.” Think of speaking up as the first step to being your own superhero.
Speaking up will help people around you who might have been afraid to speak up before now. You can be the first pebble in the avalanche. And you can figure out who will have your back.
Speaking up will help you identify people who are basically well-intentioned but who are awkward or people who took a joke too far or made an honest mistake. Speaking up to them directly, even if it’s uncomfortable, is actually the most respectful way you could treat them. Well-meaning people will go “OMG, I am so sorry” and stop doing the thing to the best of their ability. If they mess up and do the thing again, they will catch themselves and apologize. If they keep doing the bad thing, they’re not so well-intentioned.
Which leads me to: Speaking up will help you identify the unsafe people sooner, because they will laugh at you or say something mean and they will keep doing whatever it was. Unsafe bystanders will jump in to defend the creeper and tell you that you’re overreacting and ruining everyone’s fun. By speaking up and saying no, you have removed the plausible deniability that they use to keep doing the creepy, unsafe shit they do. You position yourself to say “I asked you not to do that, and you kept doing it, so now one of us will be leaving this party. I nominate you.” If you need to seek additional backup (for example, if this is going down at work and you need to involve your boss or HR, or you need to appeal to others in the friend group), being able to show that you asked directly for the behavior to stop will help your case.
If you can’t or don’t feel comfortable speaking up right then in the moment, what about an email or Facebook message the next day? “I was too taken aback to really say anything last night, but the thing you did upset me and I’d like you to apologize and then not do that anymore. Thanks.” You don’t lose the right to do this by not being quick on your feet or by needing a little time to think about how you feel and what you want to say.
One of the things I explicitly want to do with this blog is to give people tools for saying “Hey, knock it off.” Defending your boundaries and speaking up for yourself is a habit that can be learned. You get more aware of where your boundaries are. You second-guess yourself less. It gets easier with time and practice. So, if you can, practice! Your voice might shake. But “no” is power.
There is power in not asking for permission to stand up for yourself. There is power in acting as if you expect to be believed and respected. But it’s not a perfect power. Rape culture is real. Predators are real. So the assumption that it’s women’s job to speak up totally falls apart as victim-blaming as soon as you start talking about predators and unsafe bystanders who are determined to get their way.
The reason the letter writers in #322 & #323 are going to their male friends in the first place is that they told Creepy McCreeperson to knock it off directly and they kept going. So they thought, he’s not listening to me, and he seems to be a big old misogynist who doesn’t respect my opinion, so maybe it will work better if it came from a dude? Sometimes you speak up and the person willfully refuses to hear you.
Second, other people are not required to be your life coaches and gently guide you toward what is socially acceptable in a way that always makes you feel 100% great about yourself. As Scalzi says:
“3. Acknowledge that no one’s required to inform you that you’re creeping (or help you to not be a creeper). It’s nice when people let you know when you’re going wrong and how. But you know what? That’s not their job. It’s especially not their job at a convention or some other social gathering, where the reason they are there is to hang out with friends and have fun, and not to give some dude an intensive course in how not to make other people intensely uncomfortable with his presence. If you are creeping on other people, they have a perfect right to ignore you, avoid you and shut you out — and not tell you why. Again: you are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. This is something you need to be able to handle on your own.”
Third, when men come forward to complain that they would totally act right if women would just say no “correctly,” they are lying. The idea that you could somehow make your harassment less gropey and upsetting or your rape less rapey, if you would stop being so inscrutable and just explain to the poor clueless dear in terms that he’ll understaaaaaaaaaaand is beyond. fucked. up.
This sets up a world where men can do whatever they want until they hear a “no” that they choose to interpret as being “real,” and sets up any damage done up until that point as being the victim’s fault. The victim is not controlling the interaction, the harasser is choosing to harass. What possible advantage is there in making it the victim’s responsibility to convince their harasser “Oh no, kind sir, please stop?” or they must have deserved what they got? If you’re really invested in the “why are women such cowards who don’t say no clearly enough” narrative, ask yourself, why are you so interested in maintaining a shield of plausible deniability for sketchy people doing sketchy things to women?
Fourth, with a tiny, tiny, tiny number of exceptions, people who claim that they can’t read any verbal or nonverbal communication or signals or clues and shouldn’t even have to try and that it’s all such a huge mystery and that’s why they can’t stop themselves from “accidentally” harassing women are lying. A small number of people have legitimate trouble with reading social cues. They find ways to work around it and definitely do not do most of the creeping in the world! Most people can tell when a cat or dog doesn’t want to be petted, but it’s suddenly impossible when it’s a lady you want to fuck? This preposterous argument that it’s just so haaaaaaaard gets trotted out over and over again by people who could tell…if they wanted to.
But, if you are in that tiny minority who thinks that you genuinely don’t know any social signals for “I don’t want to talk to you or be around you or be touched by you,” I have good news for you! Read John Scalzi’s post.There are a lot of very basic instructions there. Like, if someone leaves a conversation with you, don’t follow them. Now you know one more nonverbal cue than you did before! Collect them all! Stop claiming that you don’t know! GET THE CLUE, ALREADY.
So. I would like to see a world where women can speak up directly when they don’t want to do something. They will be more likely to speak up if they have a reasonable assumption that they’ll be believed and not punished. One way men can make this world more possible is to take women seriously and stop telling women they are overreacting when they do speak up. Mocking someone for being a Humorless Bitch Who Spoils Everyone’s Fun is a silencing tactic and makes you part of the problem. Reading about or witnessing someone’s experience of harassment and looking for the ways it’s all the victim’s fault and probably didn’t really happen anyway makes you part of the problem. Making bad things that happen to other people – real, true bad things, like sexual assault – about your own feelings of hurt about getting called creepy that one time by a girl you liked…makes you part of the problem.
I mean, couldn’t you put all that energy you put into denying and apologizing for creepy behavior or coming in to only to belittle and correct our word choices into believing us and helping us put an end to harassment and sexual assault when it affects women you care about? Couldn’t we try that out for a change? Couldn’t you sit down with your female friends and ask them what’s up and if things are ok for them in the social group and if there’s anything they’d like you to help out with?
Because when you claim that you don’t know any better and can’t learn and get angry at anyone suggesting that you try to do better (where better = NOT HARASSING WOMEN + making the world safer for your friends, your wives, your girlfriends, your sisters, and your daughters by listening to them and treating them like people and not coddling people who mistreat them), when you call discussions about harassment “utter nonsense” and blame women for their own victimization because they didn’t use the one true special fictional code that magically stops all harassment and sexual assault, you’re communicating that you don’t want to know because it’s much more comfortable to do whatever you want whenever you want without thinking about the consequences. Congratulations – you’re officially creepy.