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.

6 thoughts on “Creep

  1. This is an interesting subject. I’m wondering if anyone has ever noticed these “Creep” vibes coming from a woman. The reason I ask is that my almost 5 year old son can be kinda creepy at times. He likes hugs and kisses and will attach himself to you if you let him. He invades your personal space and just… leeches himself onto you.

    I’ve been trying to remember if my daughters (They’re now 8 and 7) ever did this at that age. I’m willing to bet that they did, but because they’re girls I didn’t perceive things the same way. When one of my girls comes into my personal space, I’m okay with that. Which leads me to believe I’m projecting my own gender issues onto my son. Ugh.

    I’m trying not to. But it’s been a lot of social conditioning that says “Boys(men) are not allowed to show (or receive) the same affection that girls(women) are allowed.” I’m working on this in my brain.


  2. I think the genderedness of the word “creepy” is interesting, and I’m almost excited to realize that there’s a word that’s unfairly gendered against males in the way that so many are against women.

    The closest thing I had to a stalker was a neighbor (“T”) who would hop the fence to “hang out” if I dared to try to get any fresh air, say, throw the football with my brother. She’d invite herself along for social activities, and when I began showing an exclusive level of romantic interest in another neighbor (“E”), she pulled E aside and told her that she wasn’t allowed to do that with me, that I was T’s, which was of course, new to me.

    It never occurred to me to use the word “creepy” to describe T. “Stalker,” “clueless,” “idiot,” yes. But if a male did the same actions, he’d definitely be a creep, and outside intervention from authority figures (or even the authorities themselves) would be called for.

    I solved this problem with T by being mean. I insulted, blatantly excluded, and mocked her until she decided I was an asshole. Does a woman have this option? I think there’s a risk of inciting a man to violence with this sort of tactic, and I had no such worries. Is that, perhaps, the difference? Ginny, you skated around the R word, but maybe the fear of that is what makes creepy behavior male-centric.


  3. Interesting comments about gender from both of you. Ticia, at your son’s age, I would guess that it is a double standard. When I was teaching at the preschool, we had a very clingy (and also socially awkward) little boy who the other teachers occasionally referred to as “creepy.” I think it’s unfair to apply that label to someone so young; it might be a good time to start teaching them about personal space and boundaries, though. Ideally, we want to teach our boys as well as our girls to be tender and affectionate while still respecting people’s boundaries… a hard line to walk, I’m sure.

    Dan, I think you’re right. While men can and do get sexually assaulted by women, in our culture we perceive the threat as being one-way, so that we’re aware of the danger lurking in the background of male “creepiness” in a way that doesn’t apply when the genders are reversed. Ditto for violent, non-sexual assault, like hitting someone in anger.

    The option of being outright mean to a stalker is less available to women, both because of the fear of violence that you mention, and because social consequences of being mean are usually higher for women. The social order usually penalizes women pretty harshly for being insensitive to someone else’s feelings — while I’m guessing in your case it was only T and her best friends who thought you were an asshole, if you’d been female word would have spread and you would have gotten slapped with the “bitch” label.


  4. Ginny, well said about the wee one.

    My definition of creep is someone (guy or girl) who makes unwanted advances within 5 minutes of meeting me, such as the blind date who wanted to go back to my house upon first meeting. There was also a guy from my sophomore year of college who waited in the bushes outside of my dorm and then leapt out at me when I got home from work, a blind date that kept trying to touch my boobs within 10 minutes of meeting, and my ex’s friend who said that I was too much of a loser to be with anyone else, so I may as well shag him. The only time I ever really had trouble w/ a woman was the night before I left ATL last D*Con. I was collared by a woman who wanted me to have a threesome with her and her troll of a boyfriend, and she started calling me nasty names when I said no.

    Le creeps!


  5. I’m not so worried about socially awkward people (in the sense that you are meaning them) being labeled creep. Many socially awkward people I know also are genuinely concerned for other people’s feelings, and their errors are either endearing or pitiable. Most of the people who I’ve gotten the “creep” vibe have been disturbed on a level a little deeper than mere social cluelessness. Can anybody else corroborate?


    1. Maybe I can offer a real-life incident as an anecdote to what you mean…? It’s a late reply, but a reply none the less.

      I’ve had the misfortune of knowing someone who was a socially awkward creeper that met with no pity on my part. He was a male I met in community college who joined a club I took part in. He had this extremely bad habit of trying to give girls food they didn’t want, stand to close to them, try to touch them inappropriately, try to get them to come to events they didn’t want to go to, and still came to bother us even though the whole group told him that his behavior was unwelcome. The final straw was when he tried to follow me around at a convention asking anyone we knew where “that underage girl who was with the club president” was. We booted him from the club, told him that he had been warned about his behavior before, and that we didn’t want him around anymore. We told him (as per my club president’s insistence) we weren’t going to press sexual harassment charges, as we felt that he truly didn’t mean to do what he did (many of us did). He told us he understood.

      About two months later, we got a notification from the college. Apparently, he had said that we had kicked him out of the club because of his autism, and the college told us that we were to meet with the disciplinary committee and argue our case. We were basically told that because we (the girls of the club) did not file a report, there was no evidence of sexual harassment (despite a signed list of girls and many personal testimonies), we had to let him back in. After that, a club fell to pieces rather quickly. As of typing this, a club that used to have at least twenty members is down to only five, and I am the only girl left.

      And he still insists that he had no clue what he did wrong.

      (Also, sorry for the tl;dr, and I must say, this blog is quite fantastic.)


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