Normally I save letters from my readers for Ask Dr. NerdLove on Wednesdays, but occasionally I’ll get one that merits a full-blown article. Then every once in a while, I’ll get one that merits more than just one article. In this case, it’s a return to the ever-popular subject of how to handle creepers.
A reader – Concerned Cosplayer – asked specifically how to handle a creeper in the outer-edges of her social group. Now normally I would just save this for Wednesday, but one question she asked stands out: how does one reform a creeper?
And the short answer is: one doesn’t.
The longer answer is that creepers have to reform themselves.
Part of the reason why creepers remain an ongoing topic is because, frankly, many people refuse to acknowledge that they’re being creepy in the first place. Until they do, there’s no change to be had.
This is especially pernicious when you deal with issues of sexual shaming and male privilege; many guys don’t recognize that what may seem like innocent behavior to them can cause women to feel profoundly uncomfortable. Because they see themselves as having done nothing wrong, they attempt to shift the blame to women, calling them “overly sensitive” or insisting that they “need to get over it”.
The men that do recognize the problem and want to change often find themselves paralyzed in trying to fix things – frozen by their anxiety of being “creepy” in the first place and thus unable to do the necessary work in the first place.
So this week, we’re going to do something differently. We’re having Creep Week, all about creepers, how to handle them when you’re dealing with them and how to stop being creepy, and how to avoid being That Guy at popular nerd venues like conventions, comic stores and other geek gatherings.
Today we’re going to talk about what it takes for someone to become an ex-creeper. And I’ll tell you now: it’s not easy.
Step One: Understand What Makes A Creeper Creepy
One of the issues that comes up again and again when discussing the topic of Creepers is the idea of simple ignorance: that is, many guys are unaware of just what is considered “creepy” in the first place. Some guys literally paralyze themselves with social anxiety, worrying that the most innocent and innocuous of gestures will be seen as being “creepy” and unwelcome. Others refuse to acknowledge that their behavior plays any part at all in causing a woman discomfort, putting the onus on her to not be disturbed by these theoretically well-meaning but socially inexperienced and awkward types.
Of course, it’s easy to say “give the creepy guy a chance” when you’re not the one who has to gauge every social situation by the potential danger it may or may not present. To quote from Gavin DeBecker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear: “Most men fear getting laughed at or humiliated by a romantic prospect while most women fear rape and death.”
Now, there have been many useful guides that are meant to help bring awareness to creepy behavior, including John Scalzi’s and the excellent Captain Awkward. Perhaps the most well-known guide is Schrodinger’s Rapist, which explicitly points out just why women are unlikely to give a creeper a chance.
Unfortunately, many people take the wrong messages from these and assume that the take-away is that men should not talk to strange women ever for fear of being given the Scarlet C and being exiled from feminine company forever. This isn’t the point. The point is to make men aware of their behavior – that things that many men take for granted as “unthreatening” or even “complimentary” will come across entirely differently to a relative stranger. You may think that you’re being clever or flirtatious or even sweet… but you can come across another way entirely.
The other popular counter-argument, of course, is that it’s not a matter of behavior but looks; that it’s only “ugly” men who are “creepy” and that handsome guys are never called creepy.
The infamous “Just Be Attractive” Saturday Night Live sketch gets bandied about as though it were some truth handed down from on high rather than a comedy skit intended for a quick laugh before segueing to Weekend Update and the musical guest.
This ignores the fundamental truth about creepy behavior: at it’s core it’s an issue of a violation of boundaries. Some people are able to get away with behavior that others are not – being sexually direct, making inappropriate jokes, standing well within an individual’s personal space – because boundaries are elastic. We are more willing to accept certain behavior from some people than others; people we know well are able to “get away” with more as it were. People who are socially well-calibrated are given more opportunities than a random stranger. We allow them greater leeway than others because they demonstrate through their behavior and actions that they understand where the line is – and this is important – how to step back from it when they get too close.
This does not mean that someone who isn’t a social butterfly can’t approach an unfamiliar woman and attempt to strike up a conversation, just that he needs to be very aware of how his behavior can come across to others, whether he intends it to or not.
The short-hand version of the various guides is actually very simple at it’s core.
Understand the social contract and how it can change depending on circumstance, location and time of day; approaching a woman walking down the street during the day is going to have a different feel than approaching her at night, for example.
Maintain your distance – generally about foot and a half for most Western cultures – and be careful not to back someone into a corner or otherwise prevent them from leaving the interaction.
Don’t be inappropriately sexual, especially early on in the interaction.
Be aware of the other person’s discomfort. When in doubt, apply the concepts of enthusiastic consent to the conversation and look for an explicit “yes, please continue” rather than not getting a direct “no, go away”.
It’s not nearly as hard as others may make it out to be. Most women’s signals are not as subtle and inscrutable as people make them out to be.
Step Two: Accept That You Aren’t Owed Anything
One thing I hear frequently from guys who don’t want to be creepy is how confusing it all is and how much they wish that women would teach them how to not be creepy. In fact, I’ve seen far too many men who imply – or even state outright – that it’s not fair that women establish these seemingly arbitrary rules and refuse to educate men on what they are.
So I want to emphasize this cold hard truth: nobody owes you a damn thing. You aren’t owed sex, a second chance, a first chance or so much as a smile just because you demanded it.
A woman doesn’t owe you an explanation of why or how you creeped her out. She isn’t obligated to tell you how to not be creepy. It isn’t her duty to teach you how to pick her up or to give you a chance to start over and try again. It doesn’t matter if she was giggling and enjoying some other person’s dirty jokes and blatant sexual come-ons. It doesn’t matter if she’s been receptive to your friend, the guy who came up before you or after you or to any other random dude that night – she isn’t obligated to be social to everybody who approach. Consenting to a particular type of interaction with one specific individual does not mean that she has de facto consented to having that type of interaction with all and sundry.
Every woman out there is allowed to set her standards for who she does and does not want to talk to, even if it makes no logical sense. If she decides that she isn’t going to talk to you because you’re a ginger and she believes that red hair is the sign of the devil, that’s her business.
There is no debate to be had. You don’t get to argue her into changing her standards, and it won’t help to try. You don’t get to protest or look to some higher authority for an appeal because ultimately it comes down to this simple fact: her right to not be approached should she choose outweighs your desire to approach her.
You may think you have reasons. That’s nice. Your excuses really don’t matter. I’ve heard them all… you’re from a different culture, socially awkward or even having Aspergers or falling on the autism spectrum. 99% of the people you’ve creeped out aren’t going to care about why you did it, nor are they obligated to listen or to forgive you.
(And as a side-note: I’ve known many people with Asperger’s Syndrome – as in, diagnosed by a medical professional, not by a test on OKCupid – and they go out of their way to avoid being creepy by accident. Their response to accidentally offending or weirding someone out isn’t “hey, you can’t get upset at me, because reasons,” it’s “Oh man, I’m so sorry….”)
You may feel that you’re being unfairly misunderstood. Misunderstandings happen. This doesn’t mean that you get a free pass on whatever you did to creep them out. It means that you can apologize and hope you get a chance to try again. No, it’s not “fair”. Fairness doesn’t enter into the equation at all. Women aren’t video games or computer programs that follow a rigid and unchanging set of rules that are applied equally to everybody. Trying to treat them otherwise is only going to make your creep level go from “potential creeper” to “definitely creepy”.
Other people do not exist for your pleasure and you don’t get to tell them that they don’t have a right to whatever arbitrary standards she has chosen. You have to be willing to accept “no” for an answer and walk away – to do otherwise is to tell her that you prioritize your desires over hers and this is an explicit indication that you are willing to ignore her boundaries.
Moreover, arguing why you weren’t really creepy is counterproductive to your goal: learning how to not be a creeper. You have to want to change and that means accepting that other folks are finding you creepy for a reason. If you want to stop being called creepy, you have to learn not to give them that reason, not try to argue her standards down.
To misquote the zen koan: true change comes from within.
The sooner that you can accept this, the less likely you will be creepy by accident.
Step Three: Develop Your Sense of Self-Awareness
Since women aren’t obligated to help you on your journey of self-improvement, what’s a contrite creeper supposed to do?
He’s supposed to develop his sense of self-awareness, that’s what.
Part of learning how to not be creepy is that you have to learn to be aware of your behavior and how others are perceiving it.
Notice very carefully how I said “How others perceive it.” This is important. What’s acceptable to one person can be unbelievably rude or creepy to another… and it’s on you to learn how to gauge the difference.
This is ultimately a matter of social experience; you can’t just learn the theory and expect that to get you through every social interaction… especially if you’re looking for a relationship. You only get the ability to gauge people’s reactions through, well, going out and getting those reactions.
It can seem counter-intuitive to have to practice interacting with other people because it seems like something we should be able to do instinctually. This misses a critical truth: being social and understanding basic human interaction is a learned skill; it doesn’t seem like one because we’ve (theoretically) been practicing it since birth. As a result: we mistake a lifetime of learning for natural-born instinct.
Now I’ll be the first to tell you: it takes a lot of work to be self-aware and dispassionately critical about yourself, especially when you’re trying to unlearn bad habits and adapt to new sets of behavior. It’s tempting to read what we expect to see in the reactions of others, whether it’s what we want (“She wants me!”) or what we fear (“Oh god I offended her!”).
This is one reason why I recommend journalling everything about your interactions when you’re trying to get better at dating. It can be hard to pick up on patterns and cycles while you’re in the moment. Being able to take a step back and look at things with a calmer, more detached eye afterwards can make recurring issues stand out. Watch for specific triggers – certain “compliments” (especially sexual ones), poorly received jokes, attempts to prolong the conversation past it’s natural end… these are all common areas where guys fall down when trying to avoid being creepy.
Yes, you are going to make mistakes. This is part of the process and it’s important to accept that you’re still learning. Being able to handle those mistakes is just as important as avoiding them in the first place… more on this in a minute.
Sometimes it can help to have a friend who’s willing to help you out (keeping in mind my previous rule: nobody, especially women who have already rejected you, have an obligation to teach you) and provide feedback. An extra set of eyes – especially someone who is willing to be bluntly honest with you instead of reinforcing your ego by insisting that bitches be trippin’ – can be a valuable resource.
Ultimately, however, you need to be able to monitor your own behavior and the reactions of others. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
Yes, this is going to be hard to keep all in mind and maintain a natural conversation with people. It’s not different from trying to learn how to hit a baseball or shoot a basket or perform a katta; you’re trying to gauge distance, trajectory, speed, balance, position and muscle control all at once… but eventually it all becomes one smooth movement that you can perform without thinking.
As with any skill, mindfulness and self-awareness takes practice and repetition. With time and experience, you can turn it from a conscious process into the mental equivalent of muscle memory.
Step Four: Accept That You’re Going To Fuck Up Sometimes
So after all of the beating about the head and shoulders with the clue-by-four I want to remind guys of something: being creepy by accident isn’t the end of the world. It’s not necessarily even the end of the interaction with that particular person.
This is something that trips up a lot of well-meaning-but-otherwise-awkward guys: they let the fear of being a creeper overwhelm them. They may freak out and over-compensate by fearing to approach anyone while some become so obsessed with not making any mistakes that they fall back on pre-scripted routines and can’t handle any interaction that doesn’t go 100% smoothly. Many become convinced that women are actively looking for reasons to refuse them and come into every interaction with the assumption that they’ve been rejected in advance.
Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be perfect in order to succeed at dating. You can fuck up pretty badly and still recover from it… as long as you know how to handle the aftermath.
Are you ready for my wisdom? Brace yourself, ‘cuz it’s pretty heavy.
You apologize. And then you try to not repeat your fuck-up.
Pretty simple, huh?
When you trip up, the best thing you can do is get up, dust yourself off and – this is the important part – learn from it. The whole point is to learn how to not to screw up the same way twice.
If you tell a creepy joke – something with sexual innuendo, say, that your social circle wouldn’t blink twice at – and the person you’re talking to doesn’t like it? Apologize, make a mental note not to tell that joke again and just move forward. You don’t dwell on the moment and reinforce that it happend. You shrug your shoulders, make your apologies and move on.
Approached a woman who wasn’t in the mood to be hit on? Apologize, move on. Went for the kiss with your date when she wasn’t feeling it? Apologize for misreading the signals. Accidentally back someone into a corner while talking to them? Apologize, take a couple steps back and to the side. Someone isn’t comfortable with your being touchy-feely? Apologize and keep your hands to yourself. Realize that you’re keeping someone in the conversation longer than she actually wants to be? Apologize, say it was nice talking to her and let her go.
Never underestimate the power of a sincere apology to diffuse the creeper vibe.
This can be hard to comprehend at times – we’ve been sold the idea that dating is supposed to be a smooth and effortless process that goes off with military precision that we forget that we’re only human and sometimes we screw up. But when you can handle the fuck-up with class, you actually become more attractive than someone who gets flustered or angry. It’s an important part of learning to develop your self-awareness – being able to handle the times when you screw up without going to pieces.
Like I said earlier: creepy behavior intrudes on somebody else’s boundaries. Being willing and able to recognize that the intrusion happened and showing that you honestly didn’t mean to is a sign that you respect her boundaries and limits. It’s the mark of an emotionally mature, socially intelligent man to be able to say “Oops, my bad” and not continue acting like a dick.
This is why it’s important to not try to argue or debate whether or not you were being creepy. You may think that you’re being wrongly misunderstood and trying to explain… but all she’s going to hear is “You don’t have the right to feel threatened by me because my desire to fuck you outweighs your right to feel safe,” and this has never gotten anyone laid ever.
Even the best seducers and ladies men have their moments where they trip over their own dicks. The point is not that you have to avoid all mistakes upon pain of death; it’s how you handle things when you do fuck up.
It’s all part of the learning experience. You’re going to take some lumps. It’s going to suck. But when you stick to it and make the effort to learn how to avoid creeper behavior, you will find that people will start responding the way you hope they will.
And you won’t be a creeper any longer. You’ll be that cool guy that people like to get to know.
Now go and creep no more.