Easy, Sparky. If you’re reading this in an effort to piece together why you keep coming off as creepy all the time, I’m not saying you’re intentions aren’t good. In fact, if you’re reading this blog at all, chances are you’re just somebody who’s trying to work on his social skills. Chances are you would be horrified at the idea of anyone being uncomfortable or frightened in your presence, especially if that fear or discomfort has so much as vaguely to do with the possibility of rape. If you’ve been called creepy, I understand your outrage. Unlike some other bloggers, in this instance I’m going to assume you know rape is wrong because frankly that assertion has been done to death in the discussion of why certain things are creepy. You, dear reader, probably wouldn’t dream of raping anybody, and I get that.
The assumption I’m about to challenge in this post however, is the belief that good intentions are all that is necessary to make any and all concerns of creepery go away. Sure, they’re pretty damned important in terms of qualifying as a decent human being but they don’t safeguard against misunderstandings. Those will happen. My aim here is to show you how to prevent those misunderstandings and how to properly correct them when they do happen.
First of all, intent isn’t magic. If you do something that really makes someone uncomfortable, you need to apologize and not do it again and realize that even that doesn’t guarantee they’ll stick around. Also, just because you have good intentions doesn’t mean that something bad happening can’t possibly be your fault. That’s like saying that because you don’t intend to hit any pedestrians this also means you never have to watch out for them while driving and that nobody should be mad at you if you hit one. If you run over someone with your car by accident, the fact that you didn’t mean to doesn’t mean that the person under your tires is really just fine and no harm was done. Just because negligence isn’t exactly murder doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be upset about.
That’s clear enough and most people who’ve addressed this issue do that point justice. However, all to often, the exchange between creepy guys and feminist bloggers on the subject of intentions starts off a little something like this:
Creepy Guy: But my intentions were perfectly good! Shouldn’t that be enough to prove I’m not a creep?
Feminist: Well you see, Creepy Guy, statistics show that a disturbing number of men are actually rapists and women have to be on alert all the time. Here’s a link to Schrodinger’s Rapist to help you understand.
Creepy Guy: HEY! I wasn’t planning on raping anybody!
The first problem with this exchange and with the rhetoric around the issue of creepage and creep shaming in general is that in defining what is creepy, most people jump to the most frightening and upsetting extreme: potential for violence and rape. It ignores all the rest of the spectrum of potential unwanted things creepiness points to such as stalking, harassment, obtrusive neediness, getting way too friendly too fast and just plain ol’ being annoying. It raises the discussion to the most emotionally distressing tone possible and makes it so that neither side can state their case without dismissing the other side as presenting something dangerously flippant and negligent. It also further encourages the mistaken assumption that if someone calls you creepy it means they were convinced you were specifically intending to rape them.
Creepy Guy: So you’re saying all men are rapists until proven otherwise?
Feminist: No, but…
Creepy Guy: THAT’S LIKE RACISM! I’M GONNA GET SHOT LIKE TRAYVON MARTIN!
Feminist: *throws out more statistics and a complicated jargon-filled term paper on sociological power structures to ineffectively show the difference*
Creepy Guy: I don’t know what any of that means but why is it not okay to shoot innocent black people when you’re shooting innocent men dead!
Feminist: That’s not what I…
Creepy Guy: I’m just never going to talk to women EVER AGAIN! IT’S TOO DANGEROUS! *ragequits*
The core of this assumption among creepy guys is the idea that when they have good intentions, their intentions should always be apparent to others or at least assumed. This is not always the case. Here is an example:
One day I was telling my friend about this girl I had just met. I told him she seemed pretty cool so far and was interested in some pretty neat stuff. So based on this, my friend decided he’d search for her first name in my Facebook friends list, (It wasn’t a common one so it was pretty easy.) add her on Facebook and start liking and commenting on a bunch of her posts despite the fact that she’d neither met nor heard of him. While indeed he was just trying to be friendly, this doesn’t change the fact that the visible parts of what he was doing were consistent with the beginnings of cyber-stalking. Needless to say, she was a little creeped but fortunately, I was there to explain that he was just an awkward friend of mine and was harmless. She didn’t have to believe me. She didn’t even have to assume I wasn’t just covering up for him and find ME creepy too. After all, we’d only recently met and she didn’t know a whole lot about me either.
Which is the point. Most often people who are found to be creepy are relative strangers. That is, the person who is creeped out knows nothing or close-to-nothing about them. With that in mind, with my friend and with others who complain to me about being labelled creepy I often ask “What makes it obvious that your intentions were good?”. This is because most innocent creepy guys have created a situation where they did something weird with no pretext and left people to make guesses at their intentions much like my friend did. I do not ask “Why should she believe your intentions were good?” because that puts the focus on the other person’s mindset and assumptions and not the creeper’s actions which are the murky part. That question also brings up all kinds of ideas about prejudice.
This is why the creep label is not like racism. I am not white. There have been a few white people I’ve encountered in my time who have avoided me for this reason. What I don’t do in response is insist that they get over their prejudices —just for me— right fucking now and demand that they be my friend. This is because that doesn’t work and I have better people to go talk to. Just because they’re wrong for being racist doesn’t mean I get to demand a second chance to be friends with them, so why then if creepage is just a case of bigotry where the uncomfortable person is in the wrong, do Creepy Guys often demand second chances to be friends with a person who apparently did something really shitty and unfriendly? The truth is, when a person is afraid of you because of who you are or what you look like, that’s on them. Move on. But when a person is afraid of you because you are doing things that scare them, that’s on you. Thinking that someone failing to see your good intent in your actions —no matter what those actions are— is the same as being a bigot, is absurd and insulting.
Some of you might not be fully getting it just yet but hear me out. If you’re convinced your intentions should be obviously good, you probably are also under the impression that you’re just doing things every other guy does and gets away with. This may be partially due to the same perception gap as my friend from earlier in the post. Liking and commenting on Facebook is a friendly gesture when it’s done by someone you at least know of. That guy sitting silently in the presence of that girl and her friends who is not really adding much to the conversation but is also not creating discomfort? Perhaps he’s another one of her friends who doesn’t really talk very much but is fun to be around anyway. That guy standing there talking to the girl working at the mobile phone kiosk at the mall? Maybe she’s actually really creeped out by him too and you just didn’t see her complain about it. Just because you saw some other guy do it, doesn’t mean you have the green light to do it and expect the same results or else a grave injustice has occurred. It just means you have a different relationship than they do (or no relationship at all) to the person in question and need to act accordingly.
When you are seen as creepy, what this means is that you are doing something consistent with what dangerous, unpleasant or annoying people do without a clear alternative explanation. (Assuming you have the immediate go ahead to do exactly what other people in her social circle do despite the fact that you’re a stranger counts as unpleasant and annoying and sometimes dangerous.) Having no investment and having built no trust the safest thing for the creeped out to do is to avoid further contact and not wait for confirmation as to whether you’re dangerous, unpleasant or annoying. Besides, you never really know for sure that a person is going to rape, stalk or harass you until they try it. Expecting people to always assume on some kind of moral principle that sketchily behaved strangers have good intentions therefore makes no sense and isn’t very safe.
So the answer to this? Be aware of context and develop self-awareness. Being a good person does not waive your requirement to be aware of what you’re doing. Blanket permission not to worry about it because they’re good and special seems to be what many creepy guys want when they ask why they’re creepy. They often want hard and fast lists of rules and lists of things that concretely are and aren’t creepy for everyone to do when the truth is, social interactions are too complicated for that to work. What’s okay for a best friend to do is not always okay for a stranger. What’s just fine in a public place at noon isn’t always a good idea in an elevator at 4am. Believing that because you’re a good person on the inside, you shouldn’t be subject to the same scrutiny every other stranger receives, or be asked to prove it isn’t going to help all that goodness come across to people. It’s not up to others to dig for it when you won’t put out the effort to show it.