Over the last week, more reports about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault, harassment and coercion have dominated headlines in the news and conversations on Twitter. One of those conversations happened to revolve around the Buzzfeed article “What To Do With ‘Shitty Media Men’?” which discussed an anonymous Google spreadsheet being shared that named men working in the media who had reportedly acted inappropriately towards women. The allegations – which a disclaimer on the document noted were unsubstantiated and based on primarily on gossip and hearsay – ranged from “weird lunch dates” to “flirting” to sexual assault and physical violence.
Needless to say, this rocketed around the Internet and media sites in record time as dozens upon dozens of people checked out the list – some out of curiosity, some to see if people who harassed them were listed and some to search for their own names.
While the accuracy – and the ethics – of such a list were and are debated, the document is functionally not that different from the whisper networks that exist across communities from tech to comics to game development to the media. Because the powers that be in these industries tend to look the other way or downplay the severity of the actions of creeps and predators, women share names amongst themselves: who’s safe, who’s ok unless they’ve been drinking, who they should never be alone in a room with.
Men, on the other hand, had a different reaction. Many men worried about “witch hunts”. Others posited a world where men might get hit with lawsuits for winking. From commenting on the unfairness of anonymous accusations without the ability to defend themselves to just being afraid of ending up on the list through innocent mistakes, many men seemed to take issue with the existence of the list itself. And, well…
The issue isn’t about people misunderstanding innocent flirtations or good guys getting caught up by oversensitive women. It’s about a culture of predation and harassment that’s endemic in multiple industries. However, there are lots of men – good, well-intentioned men – who are worried about tripping over the line. And there are others who worry that they themselves may end up on a similar list or having their name bandied about simply because they’re shy or awkward.
And so for them, I want to talk about what it means to not be The Creep at work, at the conference or in class.
Why “I Just Avoid Women” Is A Stupid Idea
Whenever the topic of shitty and predatory behavior from men comes up, there are inevitably people who will chime in with “I avoid this by never interacting with women… ever.” Sometimes it’s sarcastic and other times it’s extremely serious. In fact, in some circles this is held up as “The Pence Rule” – after Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to be alone with any woman who isn’t his wife.
But this approach is… well, frankly, a giant pile of bullshit on multiple levels.
First of all, when guys say this about flirting with or socializing with women, they’re saying “I’m aware that I don’t know how to find the line and I can’t be bothered to learn.” Which, let’s be real, isn’t a good look on you, my dude.
But the other issue is how this puts the blame on harassment and assault squarely on women. Because hey… men are fuckin’ animals amirite? It’s part and parcel of the same toxic masculinity tropes that says men are barely more than chimpanzees. In this outlook, men’s sexual self-control held in check by only the thinnest of margins. If a man and a woman are alone together for any reason then sex will inevitably come up. If sex comes up, then it’s a matter of time until the monster’s loose. And since men can’t control themselves, it’s on women to make sure that they’re never in a position to tempt a good man into slipping his leash.
Not only is this victim-blaming horse shittery, it also defines “being a man” as “being a sexual predator”. Frankly, one would think men would find profoundly offensive.
Just as importantly, however, is the effect that this can have on a professional level. The aphorism “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a cliche for a reason and that’s never more true than when we’re talking about jobs and careers. Networking is an incredibly important part of your professional life. Once you’ve found a job and are trying to turn that into a career, then mentors can be incredibly important. They’re the ones who will help you build the network you need, groom you for new responsibilities and put you in contact with people who can take you further. You may want to find sponsors who can help boost your career to the next level. But much of this involves a lot of personal involvement. This means meetings and meals and one-on-one discussions.
After all, many business decisions aren’t made around the conference table so much as the dining room table. Trying to avoid being That Guy by simply never interacting with women on your own means cutting off women’s professional development in the name of “protecting” them.
(And just between you, me and everyone else reading this: we can admit you’re just protecting yourself, bro.)
You would do far better to be the mentor or sponsor to women at your job than to avoid them entirely. Being the advocate and ally at work is one of the best ways to support your female coworkers. All avoiding contact does is ensure the massive power differential between professional men and women never changes. That, in turn, helps empower the men who live to exploit that power differential.
And that’s important.
The Difference Between Being Awkward, Being A Creep, Dogs and Predators
Among the many discussions surrounding the existence of The List, The Nation writer Collier Meyerson tweeted:
In the coming days, as aggregated lists of men are created, it’s important to distinguish who are dogs and who are sexual assaulters.
— collier meyerson (@collier) October 11, 2017
While this can sound dismissive, she makes an important point. Distinguishing between the malefactors, the clueless and the teachable can be crucial. Not only can shitty behavior and poor socialization be corrected for, but creeps and predators use awkwardness and sexual forwardness for camouflage. You may not be the most socially skilled. You might model yourself after a Beatty or a Clooney. But the more above board you can be, the less cover you inadvertently give to the predators.
One of the ongoing topics on this site has been distinguishing oneself between someone who’s well-meaning but awkward and the creepers. After all, “he doesn’t know any better, he’s just socially awkward” is frequently the defense used to explain away the bad behavior of various men. It can become a heated topic rather quickly.
An awkward guy may make people feel uncomfortable because they don’t know better. They may lack the socialization to realize that there’s a line. Others lack the ability to read social cues and blunder on without realizing they’ve fucked up. Still other times they have anxiety or issues that make it harder to navigate social settings. Their behavior makes people uncomfortable because it’s incongruous. Others have wanted to define the line between awkward and creepy as intention, to help absolve the awkward of faux pas.
But the issue isn’t about awkwardness in and of itself. The issue is about boundaries and how you make people feel. Just as importantly though, is how someone responds when they realize they’ve touched that boundary.
Trying to, say, insist that creepiness has to be intentional just puts the onus on the victim. It’s telling someone that they need to justify their right to feel a certain way. If they can’t “prove” intent, then really they shouldn’t be complaining being creeped out.
But while it may be well-intentioned, this belief does far more harm than good. It becomes yet another cudgel used to silence people complaining about bad behavior, especially behavior that straddles the line of plausible ambiguity. Sure he fucked up but are you sure it was intentional? Are you absolutely sure that you’re not overreacting?
Here’s the thing: awkwardly brushing up against someone’s boundaries can be disturbing… but most awkward people live in fear of doing just that. Once they realize they’ve made a mistake, they feel awful. They almost always want to make it better, and dread making it worse by doing so. Awkward people want to learn and do better.
Creepers, on the other hand don’t care. They’ll deflect blame and duck responsibility. They’re the first to argue that maybe those boundaries shouldn’t be there. It’s not their fault. Really can’t you take a joke? Can’t you tell he’s not serious? It’s just ironic, man. Stop being so uptight.
Similarly, there are people who have flirty personalities or who are sexually forward. They are the self-proclaimed ladies men and incurable flirts. Some of these men are the type to try to let a sort of “mission creep” occur during otherwise platonic get-togethers. Just because you may be getting together for a networking session doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with testing for chemistry. Sure, you’re having a meeting at lunch to discuss work-related matters, but what’s wrong with a glass of wine and maybe talking about more fun topics? And if they happen to be interested… well, yahtzee.
Of course the blurring of borders between “professional” and “personal” is problematic in and of itself. This can be especially true when they run into someone who really isn’t into what they’re offering. Many dogs are well-meaning but too careless and this frequently bites them in the ass.
On the other side of the equation, you have serial harassers and predators – people for whom power, humiliation and dominance are as desirable as the sex-acts they demand. Many of them, however, will present themselves a dogs. They’re not creeps, they’re just hot-blooded men. Former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, for example, liked to talk about how “sleeping with people you work with is inevitable” and that it was unreasonable to change his behavior around his employees. He was also, however, famous for doing things like masturbating (twice!) in front of female reporters and hit with five sexual harassment suits. Harvey Weinstein lured women to hotel rooms under the pretense of a professional meeting, only to demand sexual favors. President Trump bragged about barging into the changing rooms of Miss Universe and Miss Teen USA contestants.
In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with being flirty, just as there’s nothing wrong with being awkward. There’s even room for being charmingly roguish in a professional environment – within limits. But if you are a dog, then you can’t be surprised when some folks don’t like dogs – especially with the number of predators who try to disguise themselves as charming lotharios. If you’re going to be a dog – especially in a professional setting – then you need to be the fluffiest, best behaved dog there is.
Whether you’re awkward or just an incurable flirt, you want to avoid being That Guy. And regardless of where you fall on the social skill spectrum, these rules will help guide you to being a good, trustworthy man.
No More Blurred Lines, Just Clear Boundaries
One of the first avoid being That Guy is to keep sharp and distinct boundaries between the personal and professional.
It’s significant that several of the offenses on the spreadsheet were things like “weird lunch date”. While this may seem innocuous to a man, to women it’s a warning. It’s telling others that while nothing overt happened, there was enough bad behavior to set their Spidey-sense tingling. And more often than not, what it means is that the lines between “professional event” and “date” were getting blurred.
Many creepers and predators use a professional or platonic get-together as the pretext to draw in a potential victim. It’s predator 101: find a reason for the victim to come to you and isolate themselves. Harvey Weinstein was famous for inviting starlets to private parties and “meetings” in order to draw them in. Many models, cosplayers and actresses have had the experience of being invited for a photoshoot or life-drawing session only to have the artist nudge the line towards impropriety (or occasionally leaping straight over it into harassment and assault).
But while trying to blur the lines may be a predator move, even people with otherwise good intentions have been known to use “the plausible excuse” as a way to get someone to be in a place where he could hit on them. Whether it was letting flirtatiousness creep into an interview, trying to make a photoshoot more sexually charged or just letting the booze flow a little too freely, blurring the lines between the professional and personal is a go-to move for many a dog and would-be seducer.
I should know. It was something I learned and used during my PUA days. At the time, it seemed like part of the dance; nobody wanted to admit that they were up for sex, so give a reason to be in a place where seduction “just happened”. Now it’s something I recognize as being uber-creepy and something I really, really regret doing.
Other times, the lines don’t blur so much as vanish. When a journalist swings from interviewer to “hey, want some dick?” or a professional contact slides into one’s DMs to offer his “vienna sausage”, it can feel like emotional whiplash. What the fuck has just happened and what’s going to happen if she calls them out on it? If she brings it up, is she going to get blamed for it? Will anyone believe her in the first place?
To make matters worse, those blurred lines are often taken as just how things are. “Well, you two were at dinner and having drinks. Are you surprised that he hit on you?” “Imagine it from his side; he’s alone with an attractive, enthusiastic woman…” Even if it’s someone with a good – if roguish – heart, blurring those lines is part of why women feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work. Playing fast and loose with boundaries is how men end up on lists, not because of frenzied “witch hunts”.
This is why, if you want to be a good man, then you want to make a clear distinction between your professional self and your personal self. If you’re there to work, then you are there to work. Even if there is a flirty vibe and you’re sure they’re into you, it can wait until after the job is done. And even then, you’ll want to make absolutely damn sure that it’s there and that this is a good time to act on it. Your boner isn’t a mandate. Not every attraction needs to be pursued. You can let opportunities pass. It’s better to wait for ones that are less potentially problematic than to leap on the wrong one.
Now this isn’t to say that there is no room for flirting amongst co-workers who’re into it, or that sex within the business is completely forbidden. In fact, it’s surprisingly common. 15% of people met their spouses at work. But even outside of committed relationships, sex creeps in everywhere. Even in the most buttoned up environments, there are times when the hair comes down, collars get loosened and the party begins. Business conferences, for example, are notorious for turning into occasions for some inter-office nookie.
Work isn’t necessarily the best place to find a hook up, but it does happen. You can be an active player on the job without creeping on them or being predatory. But to do so in a way that lets everyone feel comfortable and safe, you have to keep a solid line between professional and personal matters.
This means paying attention to your coworker’s preferences. “Flirting” was listed on the Google doc, not because flirting is de facto bad but because some people just do not want to be hit on at work. The Office Creeper will always be the one who just keeps pushing things and making those comments, no matter how uncomfortable Carol in software development feels. If they’re ok with it, great. But if they aren’t? Then you can put your libido back in your pants and be a goddamn professional.
Similarly, it means not letting any “mission creep” overtake a professional or platonic event. If you are having a breakfast meeting, then you are there to do work, period. Did you invite a classmate to study with you? Then you’re there to study. If you are networking, working late with someone or otherwise in a position of being alone with a person you’re into, then you are there to be strictly professional.
It doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly. But it does mean that you’re not there to flirt, get a date or otherwise pursue things that don’t relate immediately to work. One of the more obnoxious things you can do is to agree to a meet-up and then try to upgrade it into something more personal.
You don’t make any suggestive comments. You don’t offer to “be a little bad” by getting in an extra drink or two. No lingering casual touches. No turning the topic to sexual or romantic matters. If you’re at a professional or platonic get-together and feel like there’s a connection, wait until after it’s over and then ask “Hey, now that we’re done, would you like go out and get a drink with me?” You will draw a firm and visible line so that people know exactly where they stand with you and what they can expect from you.
Speaking of which…
No More Ambiguity
One of the reasons why women feel creeped out by men is the sense of not being able to get a read on them or the situation. Not knowing what to expect from a man can be incredibly uncomfortable. Did he ask you for drinks after work as a friend, or something more? Is he friendly or is he flirting? Should she be watching for him to try to make a move on her, or is she just being paranoid? And if he does… what will he do if she turns him down?
This is, frankly, an exhausting state to be in, regardless of your gender. But for many women navigating professional or social circles, it’s necessary. Many women have been shocked and hurt to find out that what they thought was a friendly get-together was, in actuality, a date. Or rather, a “date”. Many, many guys will use “Schrodinger’s Date” – where you are both on a date and not – in order to try to get someone to go out with them. It sounds innocuous at first. But once she’s there, hey, guess what, it’s a date now.
This often goes hand in hand with those dubious “lunch dates” that leave people feeling uncomfortable. The uncertainty of the situation often leaves women feeling unsettled and preyed upon. If he’s going to try to turn a business lunch into a date, is it a one-off mistake, or is he going to try again? Is he going to accept “no” as an answer? Is he going to be the guy who gets one drink too many and becomes Captain Kiss-y? Or worse?
That ambiguity, and the people who try to take advantage of it, is why so many women are less likely trust or feel comfortable around men. Is this dinner meeting after the conference a planning session or is he going to try to bring you back to his hotel room? Is his mentioning that he’ll be in your area him angling for a date or restaurant recommendations? Will any response lead to his dick in your DMs?
On the other hand, some men have trouble reading the intentions of the women around them. Does that after-work drink invitation mean that she’s interested in you, or is it a friends-getting-together situation? She laughs at your jokes and seems to enjoy your company… is it time to make your move? How about if you just suggest something innocuous and see where it goes? Is it better to leave things up in the air in case it doesn’t go well?
It becomes a circular issue. Women are cautious around men because they feel they can’t trust them. Men feel like they can’t get a read and don’t want risk getting shot down or making people feel uncomfortable. And so everyone lives in a cloud of discomfort and uncertainty.
The clear boundaries between the professional and the personal is one step to solving this issue. If women can feel confident that a professional meeting will stay professional, they can feel more comfortable in your presence.
But the other step is to cut the ambiguity. While I know there’s cultural resistance to being blunt, dropping pretence and being up front about your intentions makes everything far simpler. Being clear about what you want gets rid of of the awkward question of “How do I respond to this? What am I agreeing to here?” When everybody knows exactly what’s being asked of them, everyone feels more at ease and secure. Even if they’re going to say “no”, there’s a comfort in understanding what they’re saying no to. Clarity gives guidance. It tells you what to expect. And it means there aren’t any unpleasant surprises if you assume incorrectly.
So rather than hoping to collapse the waveform of Schrodinger’s Date in your favor, make it clear that you’re asking them out for a date. Whether it’s a coworker, a classmate or someone you’ve met at the con, make it abundantly clear that meeting for breakfast, drinks or what-have-you is meant to be a date.
Of course, part of this means taking the answer you’re given at face value. One of the more obnoxious things you can do is to agree to a meet-up and then try to upgrade it into something more personal. If you’re at a professional or platonic get-together and feel like there’s a connection, wait until after it’s over and then ask “Hey, now that we’re done, would you like go out and get a drink with me?”
Similarly, if you’re unsure about how to read a situation, then use your words. This may mean asking “hey, just checking but is this a friend thing? Because I feel like I’m catching a vibe.” Or you may ask “Just to be sure: are you asking me out on a date?” Alternately, you may want to double check with how they feel: “I’m not always great at picking up signs, but you seem uncomfortable. Is this OK?”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to double check and be clear on things if you’re unsure. Benefits of everyone being on the same page outweigh the potential discomfort of having to ask in the first place.
And speaking about asking…
Enthusiastic Consent Is Mandatory
One of the surest ways to make sure that you’re not yet another predatory creep is to adopt the standard of enthusiastic consent when it comes to flirting and dating. That is: ensuring that the people you may want to flirt with, date or hook up with also want to flirt, date and hook up with you. And that means that they actually want the same thing, and aren’t going along just to get along. A cornerstone of what made people like Weinstein or Charney or the multitude of other predators despicable is how they leveraged their power over their victims to coerce compliance from their victims. Sometimes it was direct and overt – do this or you get fired. Do that and here’s what I will do for you.
Other times it was indirect, relying on social pressure to make someone agree – putting them in a situation where they feel like they have to say yes because that’s what’s expected of them. And still other times, predators put their victims in a position of feeling like not giving in could be worse. Sure, they didn’t say “do this or else…” but, y’know…
One of Weinstein’s go-to moves – whipping his penis out and just starting to masturbate – is an example of this. In fact, it’s a move that’d been advocated by a number of PUA gurus if they ran into what they charmingly called “anti-slut defenses”: pull out your erection, say “look what you did to me, are you going to just leave me hanging?” and then jerking it. Women in this position often find themselves frozen, unsure how to react. The situation is too unreal, too absurd to be believed. But at the same time, there’s an air of menace. They’re trapped with this person. If they make a fuss, will things escalate? Or is it better to just try to wait it out and hope they can get away? That hesitation is often used as evidence of consent. If they didn’t want to be there, they could have left.
But not resisting isn’t the same as consent. Looking for enthusiastic consent makes sure that everyone wants and expects the same things. It eliminates the question of “well, is she actually into this or is she just going along,” because you look for a free and enthusiastic “yes”. If you’re not sure, then you ask. You ask whether you’re confirming they’re interested in a date, a kiss or going to bed with you.
Even when you’re simply trying to make sure you’re reading the room properly, consent is important. Some people are ok with off-color jokes and flirtatious teasing at work. Many are not. And the ones who aren’t are usually really not interested. This is why it’s a good idea to check in advance instead of just trying your luck. Even people who are socially well-calibrated can make mistakes. And what people may be into can be granular. Some people are ok with a little flirting and teasing at times and not at others.
You may have a good read on the room, but confirmation is never a bad idea. “May I flirt with you?” may be awkward, yes. But awkward and welcome is far better than smooth and not.
However, just as important as asking for a “yes” is respecting a “no”. Part of what makes advances unwelcome at work is that many men take “no, thank you” badly. They may be pouty and petulant. Their friendship and support may disappear into thin air. Still others become actively toxic and hostile. Someone who can accept a refusal with good grace, on the other hand, makes for a more pleasant working environment. It’s far easier to work with someone who can still be polite, professional and friendly. There might be some awkwardness at first, but awkwardness can be overcome.
Someone who overreacts, who immediately cuts all contact or who simply can’t be a professional makes the atmosphere toxic. If you can’t accept a “no” without losing your shit, you have no business asking people out in the first place.
It’s understandable that men may feel anxious as more and more women are standing up and pushing back against creepy and predatory behavior in society. But being a good man isn’t that hard. There isn’t an Inquisition looking to root out male sexuality. There is no “witch hunt”. Not being a creeper is very easy if you pay attention. Understanding why women get creeped out isn’t that hard. Keep things clear and aboveboard and you’ll be fine.
If you don’t want to be on those lists, then don’t be that guy.
Oh, And One More Thing
Part of being someone trustworthy and safe at work – whether you’re a playboy or not – is listening to women. Be the person who’s willing to hear them out and believe them. Be their support and their advocate. In an ocean of creeps and predators, be the guy who treats them with respect and as equals. That’s going to be far more important in the long run than worrying about someone overreacting to innocent flirting.