One of the oft-recurring topics here at Paging Dr. NerdLove is the subject of creepers and creepy behavior. It’s a seemingly evergreen topic because, frankly, there’s always an example of problematic behavior to point to and say “stop doing that”.
Of course, as soon as anyone brings up the topic of creepy behavior, there’s the inevitable pushback, because why should men change – or even acknowledge – that they’re acting like creepers? Instead, it quickly becomes a referendum on how unfair it all is. One of the perennial defenses against creepy behavior is the ever classic, “If a hot guy does it, it’s not creepy!” The implication, of course, is that calling someone creepy is a way of punishing “ugly” men for daring to presume that they may stand a chance with someone who’s demonstrably out of their league. Even with the recent Hollaback street harassment video, people were quick to defend creepers by pointing out that their crime was to not be hot enough.
Now I’ve written about why being a creeper has nothing to do with how hot you are before, but I had an experience recently that highlighted why certain behavior is just creepy.
See, I was creeped on, this weekend. By a woman.
Not So Much Fun Fest…
I don’t go to concerts often these days, but there’s no way I wasn’t going to see Judas Priest, even at an outdoor venue. I got to the venue in the early evening on Friday, ready to kill some time before Rob Halford took the stage. Of course, one of the problem with seeing any band live is killing the time between the opening acts and the ones you want to see. There’s only so much time you can spend wandering the merch tent and I wasn’t going to waste a full hour in the beer line1 so it was mostly a question of finding some place to rest without dipping myself in whatever the hell I was walking in.
I’d found a perch within sufficient earshot of the stage and was browsing on my phone, paying only cursory attention to the people around me as one woman was wandering up and down, animatedly approaching the people next to me. I briefly looked up from my phone at some comment she made and made eye-contact. That was enough to inspire her to bring me into the conversation (and, incidentally, gave the couple she was talking to an opportunity to leave). “Didn’t I see you on stage earlier?” she said, hopping up next to me. She waved an arm in the general vicinity of the entire festival – apparently she meant almost any stage. As far as pick-up lines went, this was fairly original; I’d never been mistaken for a rockstar, so I was amused enough. She was cute – nice face, nice figure – and wearing a v-neck band tee from an 80s group I enjoyed – but not really my type. She was also intoxicated, wavering on the border between “happy” and “obnoxious” and not quite sure which side she was going to fall on. I was willing enough to talk, but I didn’t have much interest in the increasingly blatant signals she was throwing out at me.
Somewhere in the middle, she seemed to realize she still didn’t know who I was. “What’s your name again?” she asked?
“Harry,” I said and winced. I’d been in this position before, and I knew what I’d just opened myself up to.
Allow me to explain.
No, there is too much. Allow me to sum up:
Creeper Gonna Creep
I’ve spent a lot of time chatting up women in bars and clubs. When you’re in the bar and club scene for long enough, you start to notice certain personality types crop up more than others and see certain patterns repeat themselves. In my case, it involves my name and how I introduce myself. When I’m out at loud bars, I tend to introduce myself as “Harry”; I’m not fond of it as a nickname, but it’s easier than correcting people when they think I’ve told them my name is “Paris” or something. And hey, if it’s good enough for two wizards, it’s good enough for me, right?
However, there are some women who think it very original and flirty to say “so… are you?” And inevitably, they will decide to check, shoving their hands either up my shirt or down my collar2.
Now there are times I’m cool with this – after all, it’s a rather blatant sign they’re into me. Other times… I’m less so. It’s happened so often that I have a stock response – “Hey, if you play with mine, I’m going to play with yours”. Depending on how I deliver it, it can be flirty or a semi-subtle “back the fuck up”.
When my new “friend” at the concert shoved her hand down my shirt, I meant it as “back the fuck up.” She took it as permission to keep going. “Hey, go ahead, see if I care!” she said, stretching her shirt down and displaying her (admittedly appealing) cleavage before reaching for my neckline again. I sighed; I realized that a soft no was probably the wrong move, but a part of me had hoped that she’d take the hint and back off. The last thing I wanted was to make a scene, especially in public. Unfortunately, I’d been through this scenario before and I knew how it was going to play out.
See, there’re some women who take the less inviting “stop groping me or I’ll grope you” as a challenge. They’re often drunk and obnoxious with it. These women tend to get a much less subtle “Hey, hands off“. And every time, every single time I tell them to back off they get offended. They don’t seem to understand why a guy doesn’t some strange woman running her hands all over his chest. “Hey, don’t get mad!” they’ll say. “We’re all having a good time here,” they say. “It’s no big deal,” they say, reaching for my shirt again, trying to evade my swatting hands. Maybe other dudes were cool with it. Maybe they’re used to people letting them get away with this behavior. I don’t give a six-legged rat’s ass. Doesn’t matter if she looks like Kate Upton or Leena The Hyena; if I’m not into her, I really want her to keep her drunk-ass hands to herself.
And my new friend the octopus had no interest in hearing a soft “no”. It took no small amount of wrestling to convince my seat-mate that I wasn’t interested in playing along with her game of “find the chest-hair”. When I finally got her hands out of my shirt, she switched tactics, leaning in and rubbing her breasts on my arm as she talked to me. I edged away as much as I could – not far, considering that I was sharing a table with other strangers – trying to maintain personal space without giving up the only available seat in the park. I had better things to do than listen to her ramble while breathing in the smells of stale beer and Absolut Peppar.
It was no small relief when she moved back to the level of awkward and stilted conversation. Finally – finally – the show started and she (mercifully) disappeared into the crowd, leaving me to shake off my annoyance and enjoy Rob Halford cosplaying as Leather Daddy Heisenberg.
You Don’t Get Get To Set Someone Else’s Boundaries
When someone’s complaining that “it wouldn’t be creepy if Brad Pitt were doing it”, what they’re doing is exhibiting a toxic sense of entitlement. They believe that their desire to approach a woman – and to do so in the manner that they see fit – overrides her desire to feel safe. You see this over and over again when people complain that Schrödinger’s Rapist and The Gift of Fear makes it too hard for guys to approach women. The fact that other people might be allowed to exhibit similar behavior – the classic “You’re not a creeper if you’re hot” complaint – is seen as being inherently unfair to someone who isn’t as conventionally attractive as a popular movie star. It’s why people still toss out the Tom Brady skit from Saturday Night Live as though it were a legitimate answer – clearly the problem is that women have double-standards and it’s just not fair.
And there’s the rub: the idea that this is unfair. Because this idea relies on a very uncomfortable question: “who ever said this was supposed to be fair?”
Creepy behavior has nothing to do with objective hotness and everything to do with where somebody chooses to set their boundaries. And that’s what people seem to not understand: boundaries aren’t fixed and universal, they’re flexible. We have one set of boundaries for strangers and another one for intimates. Close friends are allowed more leeway than acquaintances or coworkers and nobody blinks twice. So why, exactly, should we be surprised that we choose to allow people we might want to get naked with to get closer and act in ways that might make us crawl out of our skin if someone else did them? Even among friends, different people have different levels of permissible contact. Some friends might have ass-slapping or boob-honking privileges; others emphatically do not. Is it “fair” to the friends who don’t have ass privileges?
Fairness doesn’t enter into the equation. We don’t define our levels of allowable intimacy by some abstract idea of fairness – especially somebody else’s.
We all have the right to set our boundaries where we choose to and to adjust them as we see fit. Complaining that a hot guy might get away with things that would get another dude called a creeper is, at its core, complaining that she’s not acceding to his sense of entitlement over her. It says that she’s obligated to “give that guy a chance”, even if she has no interest in him whatsoever because his desire is more important than hers. Having different levels of what is and isn’t appropriate is unfair because it prioritizes her comfort and safety over his.
Of course if circumstances were reversed – if it were, say, Estelle Getty doggedly hitting on him – it would be astounding how quickly their opinions change. Or perhaps if it were a man instead…
But it’s that reversal that drives the point home: it’s less about the who as the how…
The Fine Line Between Creeper And Cool Guy
Being a creeper isn’t about looks or hotness. It’s not about not being “allowed” to express yourself sexually. It’s about behavior. It’s about disregarding other people’s comfort, boundaries or consent.
Let’s go back to my encounters with the overly handsy women I’ve known. I want to reiterate: I’m not just taking a scenario and gender-flipping it to make a point; this is something I’ve experienced repeatedly. Every single time, it’s been a profoundly uncomfortable experience. I was not interested in having them grope me – even when they magnanimously offered to let me grope them back – and they refused to take my refusal at face value. As far as they were concerned, they’re perfectly entitled as women to grope me because hey, what dude doesn’t want women to grope them!
Thing is? Under different circumstances, I might have been ok with it. They may not have been my type, but there’s been more than a few nights where the last beer changed my opinion to “you know, maybe a blowjob would be nice tonight!”
But even if I were interested in them, the fact that they were blatantly ignoring my boundaries was an instant boner-kill.
The problem wasn’t whether they were “hot enough”, it was that I didn’t want them, specifically, touching me and they did so anyway. It was their trying to invalidate my lack of interest or consent that made their behavior creepy. The assumption that I would be (or should be) cool with it was insulting at best and profoundly uncomfortable at worst. Was I in any danger? Of course not. To be perfectly frank, I can count the number of women who could overpower me on the fingers of one hand. But the fact that these women don’t represent a threat to my person doesn’t make their behavior any less creepy.
People we’re attracted to get more leeway because we want them touching us. We want them to be more sexual with us. And therein lies the key… they’re doing so with our consent. And that consent can be taken away. Yeah, Brad Pitt is a pretty man…
… but the instant he starts trying to get a look down a woman’s shirt, plying her with booze, baring down on her with his breath reeking of kielbasa and cheap cigars or otherwise trying to ignore or invalidate her boundaries?
He’s a creeper too.