It’s sad but not terribly surprising that the topic of avoiding creepy behavior and the relative “fairness” of calling dudes out for being creepy are among the most controversial topics I write about on the blog. After all, guys don’t like being told that, hey, here are all the ways that you’re weirding women out. And in fairness, I can understand; nobody likes being told that they’re causing someone discomfort, especially in ways that he doesn’t process as being creepy. After all, he means well and didn’t mean to trip her Spidey-sense.
However, there are still folks out there who don’t seem to get the point. To them, it’s simply not fair that she can’t see past her own fears and expectations and malign these poor and clearly innocent men who only have the best of intentions at heart. Or else they cry “Hey, it’s only creepy if an ugly guy does it! Brad Pitt would never get called creepy!”
So once again for the cheap seats: to be a woman is to live in a world where you are at risk simply by virtue of being born a woman. I’m running out of ways to phrase the statistics, but here they are again: 78% of the victims of sexual assault or sexual violence are women. 1 in 12 women will be stalked in their lifetime. 1 out of every 6 women has been sexually assaulted or endured an attempted assault. But for every time I tell people this, I hear from the folks who insist that they are that special snowflake who may be a little socially awkward or a little inexperienced and this shouldn’t be held against them. Women, it is argued, should be willing to overlook behavior that corresponds with being a potential threat to her person.
Well, unfortunately, a few stories got posted this week that provide sterling examples of why no, they really shouldn’t.
The PAX Penis Incident
To sum up the incident: She was taking a breather from the party, sitting alone on a couch in the VIP section of the club and checking the Internet on her phone. A stranger came up, sat down next to her and started trying to strike up a conversation. In Ky’s words:
I don’t exactly know what it is about a girl sitting alone that just screams “YES I TOTALLY WANT TO BE BOTHERED BY YOU, RANDOM GUY” but it does. And I’m usually (always) too nice to say “Hey, fuck off” so when they start small talk I’ll reply, but keep trying to ignore them while looking at my phone.
So while she was willing to make token small-talk, her entire body language was saying “No, I’m not interested in you.” This gentleman2 continued to talk to her, turning the conversation to the topic of breasts… apparently specifically the breasts of fellow party-goers, since he had been snapping pics of said party boobs and then decided to show them to Ky. From there the conversation turned to penises. Specifically: his.
Again, quoting Ky’s blog:
At some point he raised a concern about being Asian and women not wanting him cause of some stereotypical view of penis size, and I was like “most women will agree size doesn’t matter” and went back to my phone.
Then he grabbed my free wrist and put it on his crotch and asked “Is this big enough?”
Oh, and he had unzipped his pants and yanked his cock out before forcing her hand onto his crotch.
She was rather understandably upset about this, and well she should be. She was sexually assaulted in a place that by all rights should have been a safe space. The security guard her friends tried to alert responded with a “So… what do you want me to do about it?” Fortunately, she apparently has awesome friends who were there to help and support her but still: she was assaulted by a guy who was exhibiting increasingly creepy behavior.
Why He Was Being Creepy
So let’s break this down and look at what this guy did, leading up to the actual assault:
Approaching a woman at a party:
Not creepy. Parties are social occasions, its generally expected that you’re going to talk to people you don’t know already. This wasn’t the problem.
Ignoring signs that she wasn’t interested:
Possibly creepy, definitely boorish. It’s one thing to talk to someone who’s showing signs of interest; it’s another to keep talking to someone whose body language and behavior says “I’m really not interested in talking to you, thanks.” And make no mistake: when the woman you’re talking to is paying more attention to her phone than to anything you’re saying, that is a very big sign that she’s tolerating your presence at best. A woman who is paying more attention to her phone and repeatedly bringing up the fact that she has a boyfriend is trying very hard to give you as socially acceptable a “fuck off” as possible without being rude. A response does not equal interest, and women are socialized not to be rude or direct – especially to men. At this point, the guy in question is showing that he is already willing to ignore her wishes and boundaries.
Taking the conversation in an unwanted sexual direction:
We are now into full-on creepy territory. It’s one thing to be making a sexual innuendo when you’re flirting with someone who’s flirting back. It’s another when you start forcing the topic towards sex with someone who is, once again, showing no signs of being interested. This, in fact, is a common tactic used by sexual harrassers, especially the predatory types who get off on humiliating and intimidating women.
Showing inappropriate photos:
Again- big time creepy. And once again, it’s a case of context. In my circle of friends, we’ll frequently find and share disturbing images amongst ourselves as a joke. I used be an illustrator and would do photography as a hobby. I shot and/or painted a fair share of artistic nudes and pin-ups and would show examples of my work to women I was flirting with… except I would tell them in advance that some of the images were racy. If they let me know they didn’t want to see them, I wouldn’t show them anyway.
These are not behaviors of someone who is good at heart, but maybe a little awkward or unused to reading social cues. These are not little things that should be ignored because it’s possible that she’s misreading things or possibly even being too suspicious of someone. This is not a case of “overreacting” or “blowing things out of proportion. These are the escalating behaviors of a predator – and make no mistake, he is a predator – who is repeatedly pushing a stranger’s boundaries leading up to an actual assault.
Oh, and hey: that progression of creepy behavior leading up to actual assault? Happens to guys too.
Crazy On The Metro
Blogger UnWinona shared a similarly disturbing story on her Tumblr about the increasingly creepy behavior that she experienced while riding on the LA Metro system.
Unwinona likes to read while on her commute, as many people do. As with most people on the Metro, she just wants to be left the hell alone; to this end, she wears a fake wedding ring and positions herself to make it as clear as possible that she is not interested in talking to anyone. Why? Well, to quote her post:
Without fail, I am aggressively approached by men on at least half of these commutes. The most common approach is to walk up to where I am sitting with body language that practically screams LEAVE ME ALONE and sit down next to me or as close to me as possible, when the train is not crowded and there are many empty rows. Sometimes an overly friendly arm is draped over the railing behind me, or they attempt to lean in close to talk to me as if we are old friends. Without fail, the man or boy in question will lean to close and ask me
What are you reading?
Is that a good book?
What’s that book about?
This serves the double purpose of getting my attention and trapping me in a conversation. If I stop reading the book I enjoy to talk to you, random stranger, you hit on me or just stay way too close to me. If I tell you to leave me alone, you get mad at me. Because I somehow, as a woman, owe you conversation.
Pay very close attention to that first point: every time she gets on the train, it’s a 50-50 chance that gets approached by people who are overly aggressive in their attention towards her. This is not a minor, occasional inconvenience; this is her day-to-day experience. Imagine, if you will, that every time you went somewhere, it was a coin-flip’s odds that you were going to have a schizoid homeless person, reeking of sweat, piss and decaying garbage cornering you, getting in your face and demanding that you talk with them.
More than that, however: this is some seriously creepy behavior. Leaning in or putting an arm behind her… these are all ways of cornering her. This alone reads as threatening, predatory behavior. Now, in the particular incident that UnWinona relates, it gets worse.
I was not on the train more than three minutes before three boys who looked eighteen sat in the row behind me and leaned over the seats into my personal space, close enough to breathe on me. The one with his arm draped over onto the back of my seat asked me—surprise— “what are you reading?” I went through my usual routine.
I told them loudly and firmly that I wanted to be left alone to read my book.
They got angry. I was told “Why are you going to be like that? I just wanted to talk!”
His friends start laughing at me and they don’t move, telling me come on! and why are you gonna be like that? until I tell them to leave me the fuck alone, stand up, and move to the front of the car near the three other people on the train, a couple and a business man in a suit.
They spend the next two stops shouting at me from the back of the car, alternating between trying to sound flirtatious and making fun of me, shouting “I bet she’s reading Stephanie Meyer! I bet she’s reading Twilight or some shit! You reading Twilight or some shit?”
Why They Were Being Creepy:
Once again, let’s break this down:
Sitting directly behind her:
Depends on circumstance and behavior. In a packed car, it’s one thing. When it’s mostly empty and a group of guys suddenly decide to sit directly behind a lone woman, it has the potential to be disturbing, depending on their behavior.
Invading her personal space:
Creepy. Unless there are specific circumstances where invading somebody’s physical space is unavoidable – standing in a packed subway car, for example – three people suddenly getting in somebody’s space is going to be read as intimidating behavior if not a direct threat.
Draping an arm behind her:
Creepy, especially when it’s combined with the previous behavior. This carries the connotation that “Hey, you’re not going anywhere. If I feel like it, I could keep you right here.”
Getting indignant at her refusal:
This has gone beyond “creepy” and fully into “dangerous” territory. At this point, the three boys are actually starting to be threatening. UnWinona now has reason to believe that she could very well in danger from these three strangers. Getting up and moving to a more populated section of the car didn’t end the harassment. In fact, the trio spent two more stops hurling abuse at her before finally getting off the train.
Once again: this isn’t a case of a misattributed sense of fear. This is a progression of behavior from innocuous to creepy to directly threatening. Once again: at what point, exactly, should UnWinona have been willing to give these people a chance during this string if increasingly disturbing behavior?
Just to drive the point home, this wasn’t the end of the evening for her:
A seemingly normal man enters the train with his bicycle. At this point I am three rows from the front of the car, another man was sitting near the back of the car, and the rest of the car is empty. Bicycle Man walks halfway down the row, and settles into the seat directly opposite me. Perfect, I think. Twice in one night.
It’s not the first time I’ve been bothered multiple times. As such, I’m still amped from the teenagers on the first train. So when this man leans across the aisle into my personal space and asks me, yes, what are you reading, I assertively but calmly tell him to please leave me alone, I am reading. The man stands up, moving to the front and muttering angrily over his shoulder that it isn’t his fault I’m pretty.
Again: creepy behavior, but not necessarily a threat. In fact, in UnWinona’s own estimation the guy was more annoying than anything else. And then:
It is at this exact moment I realize Bicycle Man is not taking it well. The seemingly annoying but normal man a moment before is now talking to himself, becoming agitated. In my years of being bothered by total strangers, I have learned how to hold a book and seem to be reading while taking in everything around me. He is glaring at me, and says out loud in an angry baby talk voice “PLEASELEAVEMEALONEI’MREADING. PLEASE LEAVE ME ALOOOONE.”
Then he’s up out of his seat and things go from bad to worse. He begins pacing back and forth in front of his bike, alternating between screaming something about his mother being dead and calling me a slut, a hoe, a bitch. I am frozen in place. There is one other person in the car, and I’m not sure if trying to change seats will draw more attention to me or less. I trust my instincts and show no fear, doing my best to appear to be calmly reading my book, never once looking up to acknowledge the abuse he’s hurling at me. There are four stops left until we reach the main downtown station where there are lights and security officers. Those four stops are virtually abandoned, and I have no guarantee that leaving to wait for another train won’t motivate him to leave the train as well, leaving us potentially alone at a metro station platform just outside of Compton. I’m frozen in place, trying to plan what I’m going to do if he decides to take all this rage directly to me. I’m ready to kick him, scream, make enough noise that he panics and flees.
At this point he’s punching the walls and doors of the train, screaming at me. He stares me full in the face and screams
SUCK MY DICK, BITCH
YOU STUPID BITCH
YOU GODDAMN HO
IF I HAD A GUN I’D SHOOT YOU
I WOULD FUCKING KILL YOU BITCH
This went on for two stops.
From creepy, threatening behavior to dangerously crazy in the span of minutes.
This is why women are on their guard around strangers. This is why men cannot expect that women should just “get over it” or “give guys the benefit of the doubt”. The creepy behavior that these men exhibited were warning signs.
Why Don’t They Scream/Laugh/Make A Scene/Call The Police/Fight Back?
This is a common question asked whenever the topic of sexual harassment and sexual assault comes up: why didn’t Person X yell/point and laugh/punch him in the dick/call the cops? Obviously it couldn’t have been too bad if they didn’t. They were just overreacting…
…all of which carries the subtle insulting hint of “hey, it’s your fault for not struggling,” that rape victims have known all too well. But the question remains: what happened? Why didn’t they react differently?
The Body Works Against You
We all like to think that we’re secret bad-asses; when confronted with danger, we’ll react with steely-eyed resolve and perfectly clear heads. We’ll punch, scream, whip out our phones… anything besides freezing up. And it’s a nice fantasy, one that lasts right up until someone punches you in the face. Or leans in and starts screaming at you from out of nowhere. Or grabs your hand and forces it down to his crotch.
Our brains can only process information so quickly; we have a minimum level of time needed to perform cognition. The more complex the task – reacting to events unfolding in a rapid fashion – requires more time to process than something simple. In times of extreme stress – such as when we suddenly find ourselves in danger – our processing resources are constricted, which causes us to freeze up. Similarly, our body starts pumping out adrenaline, stirring the classic “flight or fight” reaction. To someone who is unused to the sensation of adrenaline suddenly dumping into your system, it can be incredibly disorienting on top of an already stressful situation.
As a result: we’re slower to react than we would be under normal circumstances.
People who react best in times of stress are either people who are best able to calm themselves quickly or who have drilled reactions into muscle memory, turning what might be a complex cognative task – evaluating a potential threat, locating a viable escape route, determining the best way to fight back – into a simple one.
This is why the military and paramilitary organizations such as police spend so much time drilling their cadets. This is why martial artists spend so much time sparring and practicing strikes, blocks and kicks over and over again. This is why women’s self-defense classes have stunt “rapists” for women to react to – to help break the cognitive slowdown and turn an unfamiliar experience into one that people can respond to instinctively.
Socialization Is Hard To Overcome
I’ve said this over and over again, but women are still taught from a young age to be less assertive, less aggressive then men. They’re taught that they should be more passive and more considerate of other people’s thoughts and feelings, even at the expense of their own. They have been taught to not draw undue attention to themselves.
They have been taught, to a certain extent, to be helpless.
This level of life-long cultural socialization is incredibly difficult to overcome, even in extreme circumstances. There have been studies about the level of control social taboos have over people. In one, groups of people, men and women, segregated and mixed, were confined in an ostensibly “social” situation and denied bathroom breaks. The taboo against public urination was so strong that many participants ended up pissing themselves rather than moving over to a corner while others were in the room.
This corresponds to violence as well. We as a culture are trained to be conflict averse and to avoid fights whenever we can. Confrontations, especially for those of us of the nerdy persuasion, are things we’ve tried to avoid most of our lives. Even men have issues with it. We’re taught that displaying strong negative emotions in public is a bad thing… even when there might be call for it.
Even when one finds oneself in a stressful, threatening situation, it can be incredibly hard to break taboos and socialized lessons that have been drilled into you over the course of a lifetime.
They Don’t Want More Attention Drawn To Them
As fucked up as it might be, one of the most common emotional reactions to sexual harassment or assault is often embarrassment and self blame. It’s so out of the ordinary that it seems almost unbelievable… and the fact that it happened at all can feel humilating. Even more so when many victims will blame themselves first for somehow “causing” it.
Ky says it herself:
People tell me I should’ve called the cops or screamed or made a huge scene, but I didn’t want that type of attention and the reaction of the security guard made me feel like cops would be even more of a waste.
Its incredibly common for victims of sexual harassment or assault to want to not think about it anymore, to just put it behind them and try to forget that it ever happened… and honestly, who could blame them?
Don’t Be A Creeper
If you don’t want to be seen as being creepy, the onus is on you to develop some self-awareness and realize just why women react to certain behaviors and attitudes. Putting the responsibility on women to somehow magically divine your intentions rather than changing your own behavior is misguided and insulting.
I’m know that there are indeed assholes in the world who will deliberately mislabel otherwise innocent men as “creepy”. The fact that assholes exist does nothing to mitigate the fact that that your right to approach them does not outweigh their right to listen to their instincts.
I’ll let UnWinona have the last word:
…when people (men) want to talk about “legitimate” forms of assault, tell girls they should be nice to strangers and give men the benefit of a doubt, tell them to consider it a compliment, tell them to ignore the bad behavior of men, I want them to be forced to feel, for even one minute, what it feels like to have so much verbal hatred and physical intimidation thrown at them for nothing more than being female and not wanting to share.
- And just to make this clear: this was a private party that occured concurrently with PAX weekend, not a PAX sponsored party [↩]
- I use the term ironically [↩]