Recently I’ve been intrigued by the concept of a “creep” — as in, “that guy is such a creep,” or “don’t do that, people will think you’re a creep.” I asked, on facebook, what people thought the word entailed, and the answers I got lined up with my own perceptions: it’s a particular kind of social clumsiness in a context where sexuality is implied at some level. They also agreed with my perception that “creepy” behavior is always directed at women by presumably heterosexual males. (If anyone has examples to the contrary, I’d be fascinated to hear.)
What is it about the juxtaposition of social clumsiness and sexual interest that makes us so quick to apply a “creep” label? I’m fairly sympathetic to social clumsiness, as a self-identified nerd, and I certainly don’t think it’s fair to ask someone to be asexual just because they’re socially awkward. So I’ve been thinking about the “creep” label, what it’s about and whether it’s legitimate or unfair.
Reading some excellent posts about how we communicate consent and refusal helped me clarify my thoughts. Captain Awkward has a solid analysis of a situation where a girl was approached for help in the middle of the night by a strange man. She breaks down what’s creepy about the guy’s behavior: he knocks on her window, he tells an elaborate story that makes him dependent on her help, and he asks her for a date after she walks with him to an ATM (at 3 am!) to give him some money.
This is creepy behavior. There are basically two possibilities behind the scenario: either the guy was genuinely stuck without his wallet and keys and couldn’t reach any of his friends, and he asked her out as a way to thank her (or because he thought she was cute, or both); or he contrived this situation as a means of getting close to his cute neighbor. If it’s the latter, he’s a scary manipulator who doesn’t think he can connect with women honestly, and is highly likely to coerce/cajole/manipulate unfortunate women into having sex with him or staying in a relationship with him when they don’t want to. If it’s the former, he’s merely very, very clueless about boundaries and comfort levels.
Obviously the Scary Manipulator deserves to be shunned, but what about the clueless-about-boundaries? They mean well, so why should they be punished for not knowing all the rules? There’s a great post on the Yes Means Yes blog about ways we say no in social situations. Most of the time, if someone asks us for a social interaction, we avoid saying a direct “no.” We hem and haw, we find an excuse, we say “I’d love to, but…” The socially adept understand this as a “no” and don’t probe for our reasons. Someone who’s not clued in to these norms, though, might push. If we put forth a reason why we “can’t,” they might take it literally and argue… not out of disrespect, but because they figure, if we’d be able to get together but for a particular obstacle, then figuring out a way to remove the obstacle is a helpful thing to do. This kind of response is maddening to a person who really didn’t want to get together at all, and was attempting to give a polite refusal.
There’s another class of person who will argue with an indirect refusal: someone who realizes that you’re probably being evasive, and will use your unwillingness to say “no” directly to pin you into doing something you didn’t want to do. I know people whose mothers do this: “Come to dinner next weekend!” “I can’t, because X.” “Oh, nonsense, X isn’t a problem at all.” “Well, there’s also Y.” “Y is a reason you should definitely come!” “And Z. There’s Z, and it’s really an insuperable objection–” “No, Z isn’t that important, certainly not more important than spending time with us.” (To be clear, “I know people” is not code for “my mother does this.” My mother is, if anything, too good at establishing and respecting boundaries, which I appreciate tremendously.) Such person is pretty much betting on your being too uncomfortable to give a direct refusal.
We use indirect refusals because outright rejections usually come with unwanted consequences, like hurting someone’s feelings. For all that we like to claim “Why can’t people just be honest?” most of us wouldn’t really prefer a friend to say, “I don’t want to come to your party because I was bored to tears the last time,” or prefer a potential date to say, “I just don’t find you attractive.” So we evade, we leave some room for doubt. Somebody who won’t accept an indirect refusal forces us to either deliver the blunt rejection or to go along with something we don’t want, both of which are unpleasant.
So, back to creeps. My theory on creepiness is that it mainly stems from this problem of refusal. At some level, when we see someone exhibiting sexual interest in a way that violates social boundaries, we take it as a signal that they’re likely, at some point, to force us into giving an uncomfortably blunt rejection, or worse, to allowing them privileges we’d prefer to withhold. (I’m skating around the “R” word here, but rape is obviously what happens if this goes to extremes.) From that point of view, it doesn’t matter whether they’re being clueless or deliberately manipulative; the outcome is the same. (In fact, for a tenderhearted person like me, it’s worse if they’re clueless. If they’re manipulative I can stomp on their feelings without guilt.)
So that’s my analysis of the “creep” phenomenon and why we respond so negatively to a combination of social awkwardness and sexual interest.
Incidentally, I had a situation arise quite recently where all of this moved from the theoretical to the practical. I was alone with a man who tried to push my boundaries, using a combination of neediness, negotiation, and “but I thought… because you said…” I repeated “No. Because I don’t want to. It’s not going to happen.” until he got the message. I will not be seeing that person again.