As Creep Week draws to a close and Con Season is beginning, it’s time to talk about That Guy.
You know. The Creeper. The perv. The guy who either misses or ignores every single signal or sign or unspoken form of communication. The guy who makes people uncomfortable by his very presence. The one who seems to have no respect for the social contract. The one you just can’t get rid of. He clings to your social scene like a lovesick lamprey.
Everybody knows That Guy. There’s almost always one. If he’s not lingering on the fringes of your social circle, then someone has horror stories about him that makes everyone shudder with familiarity.
And lately, there’s been a LOT of That Guy in fandom.
He’s the creepy photographer at conventions. He’s the guy who keeps seeing just where he can put his hand on the booth babe before she says anything. He’s the guy at the comic store who gives comic fans a bad name. He’s the guy everybody tries to avoid at con parties, drink-ups or get-togethers because he makes inappropriate comments, the guy who seems to invite himself to whatever social gathering he finds out about, whether or not he’s welcome.
He’s the one whom women avoid, the one whose pattern of boundary-crossing behavior makes people feel profoundly uncomfortable. He’s the one who, when called on his behavior, steadfastly insists that he’s done nothing wrong and that people are being mean or dramatic or making too much out of nothing. Well-meaning people will explain that “he’s harmless” or “he’s just Bob being Bob”. Drama-averse people may acknowledge that yeah, he’s a little on the creepy side, but he’s really not that bad and maybe people should give him a chance because nobody really wants an ugly scene.
And in fairness: they may be right. That Guy may very well be harmless. He may not have a predatory bone in his body and could barely attack a roast-beef sandwich never mind another person. But whether or not he’s a decent person at heart, his behavior is making other people feel unsafe. Whether or not he presents an actual threat, his behavior is going to be driving people away, whether from parties, comic stores, or conventions.
And sometimes That Guy… is you.
You don’t want to be That Guy.
It’s About Boundaries and Behavior
Some creepers are very overt – they deliberately push boundaries and drag things to a sexual place; they get off on the fact that they’re making women uncomfortable. Others however, are often creepy without realizing it.
After all, very few people set out to be creepy. Most guys, especially the socially awkward or inexperienced, dread being That Guy… but the people who are creepy rarely recognize when they’re doing it.
The reason that this becomes such an issue is that the creepers aren’t processing why what they’re doing is creepy. They get held up on intent; they assume that because they didn’t mean any harm, that it should be glaringly obvious that there was nothing to be afraid of. Except men and women aren’t afraid of the same things; specifically, men don’t have the reason to fear other men the way that women do. As a result, men tend to be less aware of how their behavior will be seen by women and they end up creeping someone out without intending to.
An excellent example of this is the infamous ElevatorGate incident. Rebecca Watson, the founder of Skepchick.com, was speaking at an atheist conference in 2011. At 4 AM, after having had drinks with friends, Watson was followed into the elevator by a gentlemen who tried to strike up a conversation, inviting her to his room for coffee. This made her profoundly uncomfortable and left her more than a little unsettled, especially after having taken part on a panel where she had spoken on not treating female members of the atheist community as sex objects. Many men thought that her discomfort was a case of being overly sensitive and reading things into the interaction that weren’t there. From the male perspective, his behavior seems fairly innocuous - yes, he’s unquestionably propositioning her but he’s not threatening her, being vulgar or otherwise acting like a threat… so why should she feel so unnerved that she had to mention it specifically on her blog?
From a woman’s perspective however, the incident would read differently. She was effectively trapped in a 6′ square box with a complete stranger who was propositioning her. For all she knew, her refusal could make him angry, even violent. There was no way to safely leave the interaction; even if the door had opened, there was no guarantee that she could push past him and into the hallway, or that he couldn’t follow her to her room.
Thus the problem: the gentleman in the elevator was That Guy – he was creeping someone out, even though he (presumably) didn’t intend any harm and was just hoping for a con hookup. If he had approached Watson at 6 PM in the hotel bar, say, then in all likelihood, there would be no story, just another guy hitting on a woman who said “thanks but no thanks.” His problem is that he went about things the wrong way; by approaching her at 4 in the morning and effectively cornering her, he turned from an unwanted flirtation to a perceived potential threat.
There are reasons why women respond strongly to creepy behavior – it’s because that behavior is similar to the actions of men who are active threats, especially serial predators. Thomas at the blog Yes Means Yes has an excellent breakdown of a study that examines the modus operandi of recidivist rapists. From the paper:
In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:
• are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
• plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
• use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse
control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
• use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats – backed up by physical force and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
• use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.
It’s possible to emulate these behaviors – testing boundaries, isolating people, taking advantage of alcohol and using socialization and social coercion in order to enforce compliance – without being an actual threat. If you don’t want to be seen as creepy, then the onus is on you to avoid behaviors that can be seen as potentially threatening, rather than to expect women to magically read your intentions and realize that you mean them no harm.
It’s About Comfort
Keep in mind though: just because someone isn’t looming over a woman he’s backed into a corner doesn’t mean that he’s not being creepy. There’s more to being a creeper than presenting as a potential rapist. Creepers make people uncomfortable in myriad ways… not the least of which is by being overtly and inappropriately sexual.
To provide a personal example:
Back in the early part of 2000, I had published a graphic novel and was spending a fair amount of time marketing it on the convention circuit. I would get a table in Artist’s Alley or the Small Press section of the con and hand-sell my book. I would also take commissions from con-goers. One gentlemen – whom I would later learn was That Guy, popularly known Bondage Billy – requested that I do a fairly hardcore S&M themed illustration for him. Not really a problem for me, as I was used to drawing adult content and I was willing to charge through the nose for it. The problem came about, however, when he was very specific about what he wanted… and promptly brought out many, many graphic bondage magazines and spread them across my table for reference. Bondage Billy then began to describe the scene in great detail, explaining that this was a long-term fantasy of his, illustrating his point with specific photos from the various magazines while telling the story of all the times he had tried to make this fantasy come true.
This was profoundly uncomfortable… not just for me but for the people around me. Bondage Billy wasn’t a threat to my physical safety but hoo-boy was he creeping me the fuck out… along with my neighbors in Artist’s Alley and anyone who happened to wander by. Not only was I getting far more information than I wanted about Bondage Billy’s sex life but I was being confronted by images of edgeplay1 that frankly I never needed to see thank you very much. Bondage Billy wasn’t taking subtle hints that maybe he should just pack his things up and move along.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, nor one restricted to conventions. I have seen far too many guys who seem completely oblivious to the discomfort they’re causing others as they insist on taking every conversation in a sexual direction. They will share photos on their phones to all and sundry, without thought or care for whether or not the person they’re talking to actually wants to see them. They will make sexual jokes – even rape jokes – and take even polite, uncomfortable laughter as a sign that they should continue.
Sometimes stream of sexual commentary is the prelude to actual harassment or even assault – as in the case of the PAX Prime Penis Incident. Sometimes it’s just someone who has no internal filter and doesn’t realize that maybe people don’t want to hear all about what goes into their spank-bank.
It’s the difference between playful sexual innuendo between two people who are having fun flirting back and forth and someone making constant sexual references, even in the face of other people’s discomfort.
How To Avoid Being That Guy
Every year, there are more and more stories about creepers at conventions, whether it’s creepy behavior at ReaderCon, sexual harassment at Penny-Arcade Expo or the multitudes of individuals who harass, grope and otherwise treat cosplayers and booth attendants like pieces of meat instead of individuals.
Assholes are going to ass, but if you’re going to avoid being That Guy, here are some con-specific tips.
Don’t hit on the guests (or rage at the booth babes)
Speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of the con experience: it someone is running a booth or has a table at a con, they’re there to work. They’re trying to network, drum up word of mouth for their projects and – critically - sell their shit. They aren’t there to be your bestest friend, listen to your hour-long comic/show/movie/novel pitch or – critically – fuck you. Remember that rule about not cornering people or otherwise preventing them from having a way of leaving the conversation? This includes cornering them at their table. Even if they have an assistant or friend helping run things, they’re functionally stuck there while you’re looming over them and awkwardly flirting with them. You’re making them uncomfortable. Stop it.
This goes doubly true for booth babes. They are there to convince you to buy the product they’re paid to shill. That’s it. They’re not trying to trick you into thinking they’re “really” geeks. They’re not there to flirt with you. They’re not there to be hit on. And critically: they do not like you. Many nerds make the classic mistake of confusing professional niceness for genuine interest. Trust me when I tell you that she is smiling awkwardly and pretending to enjoy your hitting on her because it comes with the job, not because you actually stand a chance with her.
And while we’re at it: don’t take your frustrations out on the booth babes.
Yes, it’s a little insulting to assume that nerds are going to shell out money because someone with a nice rack in a low-cut t-shirt smiled at you. This is not the booth-babe’s fault; she is as much a pawn in the marketing game as you are. She’s just trying to earn a paycheck, same as everyone else. Save your ire for the companies who think you’re stupid and horny enough that your dick can convince you into buying some overpriced gewgaw.
Cosplay Does Not Equal Consent
The other frequent target for nerd rage (and anger-boners) are cosplayers. From accusations about being fake geeks who’re only in it for the attention to con creepers and pervs who treat them as though they were sex toys, cosplayers are often singled out for the crime of being a woman in costume.
Cosplayers aren’t there for you. Cosplayers aren’t there for your boner. They’re not looking for your attention. They’re not looking for a back-door into a modeling career. They’re there because that’s how they celebrate their love of fandom. Nobody spends dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars in material and labor on a costume just because they’re hoping to make nerdboys horny – they’re doing it because they love that character. Yes, they pose for pictures… because they want to show off the fruits of their effort. Translating a character design – one that often was created with a total disregard for material, comfort, practicality or the laws of goddamn physics – into an actual, wearable costume is a Herculean effort. Only someone who has a deep and abiding affection – of the character and of costume deisng – is going to put in the effort to try and embody that character.
Are the costumes frequently sexy and revealing? Yes… and that’s how they were designed by the characters’ creators. Yaya Han didn’t decide that Jessica Rabbit needed a dress that was always one deep breath away from a nip-slip, the Disney animation crew did. Juliet Starling runs around in a crop top and micro-mini cheerleader skirt because she’s a commentary on video game characters, not because Ruby Rocket decided she needed to show off her hundred sit-ups per day.
(And don’t get me started about The Huntress or the Violet Lanterns…)
Point being: being sexy and wearing a revealing costume is not an open invitation for staring at their tits, commenting about how good their ass looks in tight lycra, copping a feel, trying to snap an upskirt pic or peek down their shirts. If you don’t want to be branded a creeper, don’t hit on them. Don’t perv out on them. Don’t demand that they “prove” their geek credentials.
If you want to compliment them, compliment their costume, not the person. “That looks great!” is good. “Goddamn you’re hot” isn’t. If you’re going to take a photo with them, keep your hand to the shoulder, not the small of the back and not the ass. Don’t hover around hoping to talk to them, especially when they’re making it clear that they don’t want to keep talking to you. And for fuck’s sake, don’t try to get her number (or give her yours). She’s not there for that.
Treat the cosplayers with some respect and you’ll avoid getting hit with the Creeper label.
Photographers: Act Like Professionals
Photographers get a bad rap at cons. A handful of creepers is all it takes to make everyone with a camera suspect. I’ve been to one anime con where one creeper was making a point of taking pictures of very underage girls… and as a result, anyone who was taking photos of the cosplayers was getting the stink-eye.
If you’re planning on doing any sort of event photography – especially of the cosplayers – then you want to be as professional as possible. The best photographers - especially any who does any sort of glamour photography or artistic nudes – are known for being able to make people comfortable and relaxed… and respecting a person’s boundaries is one of the best ways to make them comfortable with you.
To this end: if you’re going to get someone’s photo, ask. Don’t try to sneak a photo from a distance; most cosplayers will happily pose for you as long as you’re not acting like a complete cock. Don’t try to separate them from their friends, especially if they’re with a group or have an assistant or significant other; even if you have the most innocent of intentions (wanting to get a shot without the crowd in the background, f’rex), you’re going to come across as though you’re trying to get her alone for nefarious purposes.
Most cosplayers will tend to have a dedicated pose or two, usually based off of an iconic image of the character. Let them pick the pose and concentrate on finding the right angle to help recreate the scene; this will help you stand out from the perverts-with-cameras who’re hoping to get more cleavage or side-boob.
Be sure to show the model your photos as soon as you’re done. Not only will they appreciate the chance to see how it looks, but it helps ensure that they will be comfortable with the photos afterwards. It also will show them that you’re serious about appreciating their work and not just hoping to catch a glimpse of nipple.
If you’re going to be sharing the images online, have cards made up that will have the address. These should be different from your business cards – you want them to be able to find the finished product, not angling for them to friend you on Facebook. If they decide that they want to work with you in the future, they’ll ask you for your contact information.
Be A Gentleman At The Con Parties
Cons don’t come to a screeching halt for the night just because the dealer’s room closed. Many cons have dances, concerts and sponsored parties – not to mention the bar at the con hotel. However, when the booze is flowing and the energy is high, it’s even more possible to end up creeping people out.
Don’t hover around the edges of a conversation, especially if your only purpose for being there is be near one specific person. If they’re people you want to talk to, great. Find an appropriate point in the conversation and join in. But by hanging around silently on the outskirts in hopes of catching your crush as she walks away, you’re going to be a lurking vision on people’s periphery and that’s going to weird them out.
Similarly, don’t jump in and attempt to take over a conversation. I’ve seen far too many people who will wedge themselves in to talk to someone, literally squeezing their way in between two people in order to talk to one of them… and blocking the other person out in the process. Not only is this disturbing but it’s just going to piss people off.
Accept that women generally don’t play hard to get. If she’s looking around the room while you’re talking, turning away, paying more attention to her phone than to you or otherwise not giving you her full and undivided attention, she’s trying to find a way to leave. Make your excuses and go. You’ll do better to find someone who wants to talk to you instead of trying to drag the conversation past it’s natural lifespan. It’s better to leave a conversation early than to try to monopolize someone’s time. If they want to keep talking to you, they’ll let you know.
Along the same lines: if you’re being given the hint that people don’t want you around, leave. If the group contracts or squeezes you out, if they avoid eye contact or don’t respond to what you’re saying or if people start to turn their backs on you, that’s a sign that it’s time to go away. There’s no point in trying to hang around where you’re not wanted and sticking around is only going to make you look like an asshole.
Avoid sexual innuendo. It’s not as funny as you think it’s going to be and it’s just going to end up disturbing people. When in doubt, let the other people set the tone and pace and base your responses off of them. It’s easier to stick within someone’s boundaries if you follow their lead.
And no rape jokes. Period.
Go easy on the drinks – the more buzzed you get, the of a filter you’re going to have, and that’s going to work against you. Don’t insist on buying drinks for women you don’t know; you’re going to come off as though you’re trying to get them drunk.
It really doesn’t take much to avoid being creepy. It’s about how you act and how much consideration you give for other people’s comfort. Be aware of your behavior and how you might be coming across to others. Respect their wishes be That Guy.
- That is, extremely hardcore bondage that goes beyond the idea of safe, sane and consensual – knife-play, piercings and choking [↩]