Lately, I have been hearing from a lotta impassioned guys about creepiness.
The message has been fairly consistent: “Women should speak up,” they say, “that way you can fix the guys who are only creepy on accident, because they’re really not creepy, they’re just awkward. Calmly let them know exactly what they’re doing wrong, and they’ll get better and won’t be socially awkward anymore.”
… which I keep hearing as this:
“It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become. I am the Lorax, and I speak for the creeps!”
I get it. Many of these guys who tell me this used to be unintentionally creepy, and reading about discussions of creepiness that don’t carve out special concessions for intent or suggest kid-glove treatment for accidental creepers must be massively uncomfortable. It prompts a flood, I’m guessing, of acute pain and loneliness, frustrated good intentions, remembered longing for a chance to make things right, and the desperate wish to give their past selves a road map and a way out. Sometimes I detect a sharp kick of embarrassment and shame, to boot.
Problem is, I’m not reading The Lorax. The story I see reads more like this:
“Huh, look at that. Looks like a hornet’s nest.”
“Well, it might be dead. Poke it with a stick and find out.”
“Seriously? It looks like a hornet’s nest. Can’t I just walk around it?”
“No, you should calmly go over there and poke it with a stick, just in case it’s a dead hornet’s nest.”
“Fuck that. I’ve been stung before and it was painful and shitty. No way am I poking that thing with a stick.”
“Come on! For all you know, it’s a pirate’s chest full of gold that just happens to be shaped like a hornet’s nest. If you don’t go over there you could be missing the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“But I DON’T WANT TO. Take the damn stick and go poke it yourself!”
“No way. It’s your hornet’s nest, you do it.”
I would totally take The Lorax if I had a choice. Oh, man, do I want to live in the world these guys are talking about. It’s a world that operates really differently from the one I live in.
For starters, it’s a world where I can tell the “just awkward” people from the “real” creepy people. “See,” I’m uniformly told, “the problem is that there are intentional creeps and unintentional creeps, and you need to figure out which they are.”
Well, for one: I don’t need to tell them apart. I don’t want to tell them apart. It’s not my responsibility. Any social coaching I do is a favor, same as any other surplus-to-requirements work, and I get to choose when and where I do it, with whom, and how much, and stop when I don’t want to do it anymore.
And, now that we’ve gotten the ham-fisted reminder of my own agency out of the way: I can’t tell apart the “real” creepy from accidentally creepy ahead of time. The scary is rarely right on the label. You think you have it figured out, and then you decline to make small talk about the weather with the mild-mannered middle-aged guy at the bus stop, and suddenly he’s snarling “You uppity bitches are all the same, think you’re so good, you know what you need is —” and all the strangers around you are desperately pretending that neither of you exists. Whoops! Called that one wrong.
Or: How are you supposed to read the guy who keeps talking to you at the gym when he leans over and, unasked, changes the weights on your leg press? Is that clumsy helpfulness and eagerness, or someone who already feels awfully comfortable wading into your environment and making decisions about it without bothering to consult you? Is that enough to go on, or should you wait until he starts asking about your work schedule and how frequently you come to the gym, and between what hours? And if you tell him to stop, is he going to apologize and walk away, or spend the next three minutes telling you you’re wrong, or the next half-hour pointedly giving you the death glare from the rowing machines, or do that horrible fucking thing where he follows you out to the car as you leave so he can yell at you? If you’re feeling feisty enough to handle the psycho edge case, you might speak up, but switching to the treadmill and staring intently at a magazine and speaking only in monotones starts to look awfully good.
Guys, and large groups, can’t tell the “accidental” creepers from the “real” creepers beforehand, either. Over the last ten years I’ve seen men and women generally agreed to be “just socially awkward” manage to socially awkward themselves into frightening, assaulting, raping and stalking people I cared about. It’s not like people tweak their bowties in the mirror before heading out the door and think “Welp, better look good in case I stalk someone today!” There’s no big red “C” on people’s foreheads that tells you who’s just awkward, who wants to bury you in the backyard and who’d just settle for playing chase-the-face with you as you duck away from a sudden, unwanted kiss.
I want to live in that world where challenging people is as easy as I’m told it is. “Just address the person directly,” guys tell me, “and they’ll have a chance to fix themselves. I do it myself, and it works.”
Rad! I am glad these guys are doing this. I do this myself. I address people directly all the time.
Here’s a thing: It’s easier for guys. People listen more often when guys say no.
When I address the person directly, as instructed, here’s what I get back, even when I shake my head and say it with a smile, which clearly reads as “inoffensive, well-intentioned no”:
“Aw, c’mon, gimme your number! What, you have a boyfriend? Yeah? How long have you been together? And you like him? So … you ever cheat? Here, take my number. Just take it and give me a call.” (This one’s so common I’ve started to beam giant anime-heart eyes and say “Yes, married. Six years! [happy sigh] I never thought I could be so happy! I hope someday you find the happiness I’ve found!” It awkwardly shifts the conversation to my happiness so quickly that most people skedaddle before they’re stuck with an earful about my entirely fictional co-lovebunny-in-marital-bliss.)
“Jeez, sorry, you don’t have to be so rude, I’m just trying to be nice.” (This one is generally followed by muttering and intense side-eye that occasionally boils over into yelling.)
“I was joking. Yeah, right, like I’d want your number.”
“But I promised myself I’d ask you out if I ever saw you again after that time I saw you right here a couple months ago.” (Said to me on a street I hadn’t walked in almost year.)
“No, don’t walk away! I’m not like that, I’m not making you uncomfortable.” (Said in response to “Please leave me alone, you’re making me uncomfortable.”)
“Come on, let me just walk you home. Please? Please? Come on, my friends are in the car and I made ‘em stop for you. See, I just spilled Red Bull on myself ‘cause I was running down here so fast, you gotta let me walk you home!”
And those are the easy ones, because those are the ones where I only had to say no four or five times before I was left alone.
I get incredible real-time feedback about how femininity affects the way people treat me, since I frequently take my wardrobe and hair styles and color to rapid extremes. When I’m blonde, people open doors and flirt more and explain things that I wasn’t asking about. I’ve had days where I couldn’t realize why strangers were treating me like I was far friendlier and more girly and ditzy than usual, and then I looked in the mirror and realized the only thing different from the day before was that my hair was, for lack of a better word, unusually “flippy.”
Seriously. Curse you, Meg Ryan. Occasionally people think I’m “sweet” because I forgot to brush my hair that day.
The more femme I look, the harder I have to say “no.” One “no” from me when I’m wandering around in combat boots and a hoodie carries the weight of three or four “no’s” when I’m in a skirt. I wonder about the weight it’d carry if I were male.
The other factor comes down to stats. In my experience, the case I’m sold — “The person will immediately apologize and stop being creepy” — is an edge case, not the norm. It’s a rarer edge case than the hostile, aggressive freakout. (It’s actually better than it used to be, now that I have short hair, wear big fuck-off boots, spend less time walking to transit and have gotten better at breaking out of unwanted conversations.) I think the guys telling me “Women should all speak up!” often have a really unsound idea of how the numbers break down … and an inaccurate idea of how they’d react to that kind of confrontation.
Because, seriously, if someone got in your face and went “Look, you’re doing ___ and __ and I don’t like it, please stop,” would you perfectly calmly go “OK, cool, I didn’t mean that, but you have your reasons and I respect them”? We already get weird about that kind of thing with friends, parents, coworkers and people we date, and those are people who (hopefully) trust that we’ll come around after freaking out. Just talking about hypothetical creepiness gets guys really upset; I have very little reason to believe reeling it into the domain of interpersonal relationships would somehow make it easier.
If you are the kind of person who could take that gracefully: Awesome. No, really. AWESOME. There should be more people like you, because you are massively outnumbered by jerks. (And may I suggest being angry at the jerks instead of the people who are completely freaked out by them? Not sayin’, just sayin’.)
IN (FINALLY) CONCLUSION
The maddening thing, the frustrating thing, the thing I thought was completely obvious, is that I agree with the guys telling me “these ‘accidentally creepy’ people deserve an education.” The only thing I don’t agree with is that it’s my job.
Yes, there are guys who just need a lesson. Yes, they need information. Yes, that information should get into their hands. Yes, people can totally put it there.
So, if you speak for the creepers? Do it yourselves. When you see something that gets read as “creepy,” speak up. Dish out some of that education you keep talking about.
Yeah, you’ll feel surprised, flustered, unsure of what to do, not entirely convinced you have the social leverage to say something, worried the conflict will get out of hand, worried you’ll end up making a scene, convinced you might be overreacting, or worried that people will gossip or shut you out for being a pain in the ass.
So are the women you’re telling to speak up.
Here are some ideas for everyone, not just people telling women to speak up:
Next time you’re tempted to tell someone “No, they didn’t mean it that way,” don’t. Find the misunderstood party and say “Hey, I don’t think that came across the way you meant.” Let them learn to get it right, instead of making people around them translate.
If you hear someone complaining about someone creepy, don’t leap to the possible creeper’s defense; calmly and levelly ask “Is there something specific they’re doing that’s bothering you? Do you want me to talk to them for you?” If they’re throwing the word “creepy” around really lightly without thinking about it, they’ll probably backpedal, but more likely than not, you’ll end up with a list of situations or behaviors that you can address directly with someone who you think needs some social housebreaking. You don’t even have to name names; you can tell them “Hey, I noticed ___ comes across kinda off-putting, did you know about that?” (And for chrissakes, don’t pull a “Hey, you should hear what ___ has been saying about you.” The fact I even have to say that at all should tell you how many times I’ve seen that one screwed up.)
If someone says something horrible or insulting or shitty, don’t awkwardly laugh and change the subject. It’s too easy to round up “uncomfortable silence” to “tacit agreement.” Drop your jaw and say “Wow, did you hear yourself there?” and let the silence hang for a few seconds. It’s a pretty great cue for someone who’s just put their foot in their mouth to go “Oh, wow, yeah, that’s totally not what I meant” and clear the air.
If you see a woman looking nervous or cornered, drop by. If she lights up when you approach, give her an option or excuse to get away, or find a reason to keep hanging out and engage with whoever’s talking to her; it’ll give her a chance to do something else. Invent a reason to have a moment with her, so you can ask if she’s OK and if she needs anything. Women do this all the time for each other. Guys can do it, too. If you misread her, she’ll go “naw, it’s fine,” and keep doing what she’s doing.
Remember, if you confront a creeper on someone’s behalf and then float away, odds are way better the creeper is going to retaliate against the victim than against you. Check in.
If you know women who don’t speak up the way you wish they would, ask — not interrogate, but ask — what keeps them from doing it. (Fair warning: Knowing the stats on sexual assault, there’s an off chance the answer might make you die inside a little, but it might also be something you can help with or work around.)
Do this stuff, and it’ll show people that they matter and that their voices will be heard instead of shushed and ignored. When people feel heard, they speak up.
And to ex-creeper guys, specifically: If you have a friend who complains about getting shut out, tell him why it happens. Tell him about what it was like for you, and how you got out of it. It’ll mean way more coming from you than anyone else.
Because, guys, to close with a quote from The Lorax:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.
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