Fun fact: I’m an admin for a feminist forum. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly - my bet remains a drunken, drug-fueled dare at a Burning Man kick-off party somewhere in Southern California that I was hundreds of miles away from - but, be that as it may, I’ve been reading quite a bit of feminist content lately and attempting to approach it evenhandedly enough to execute my duties with a modicum of professionalism. One recurring topic that pops up from time to time is this:
It’s a good question. Why are people asking it?
A common refrain among the feminist community, especially since the UCSB shooting a couple years ago (an incident I wrote about
), is that “Men fear rejection, women fear rape”:
I’ve talked to several women through the years about this idea and received near-universal agreement about the sentiment behind it. To really understand this sentiment, though, it needs to be unpacked a bit further. Most “women fear rape” the same way that soldiers in Iraq were instructed to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet
,” and for many of the same reasons. That advice was given to soldiers in Iraq because, while most Iraqis wouldn’t hurt American soldiers and were reasonably friendly and accommodating, all things considered, it only took one in a group to choose differently for everything to go sideways. It would only take one Iraqi to decide that perhaps today is a good day to die, strap some bombs to their body, and approach a convoy; one Iraqi to talk a child into stopping a convoy so that they can stage an ambush
; one Iraqi to plant a roadside bomb. It might be one Iraqi in a hundred, it might be one Iraqi in a thousand - either way, it just takes one. The soldiers can’t know in advance which
Iraqi it would be that would make that choice, so they had to assume, once they left their base, that it could be any
Iraqi, at any
time, that might make that choice - and they had to plan accordingly.
So it is with women and rape.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for women between the ages of 18 to 24 in the United States, anywhere from 6.1 to 7.6 per 1,000 are a victim of sexual assault or rape
. The vast majority of reported sexual assaults and rapes are committed by people close to the victim
- family members, friends, or acquaintances - but it’s not so vast for women to write off strangers entirely. Using some rough arithmetic and estimation, given that up to 1 in 100 are a victim of reported sexual assault and rape, and given that 1 in 5 victims of sexual assault or rape are assaulted by people unfamiliar with them, that works out to about 1 in 500 women that are a victim of sexual assault or rape by a stranger. This is about the same probability of being diagnosed with Asperger’s
, being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
, dying from a foodborne illness
, or being diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at birth if you’re Black
. In other words, it’s not common, but it’s not uncommon. Since rapes have to be committed by someone - thus far, the number of rapes by inanimate objects remains low - we can safely assume that anywhere from 1 in 500 of the men surrounding each woman (assuming each women is raped by a different stranger) to, say, 1 in 5,000 men (assuming the serial rapist model) are potential rapists. Those aren’t high odds, but, if you live in a major metropolitan area, it’s highly possible that you’ll pass 5,000 different men over the course of a year.
Note that the 1 in 5,000 number is probably a safe lower bound - there’s considerable debate about whether or not sexual assault numbers are underreported or not and by how much, with the infamous “1 in 5” surveys
taking center stage of the debate. Even at this low of a number, though, there’s a strong chance that, over the course of a year, a woman’s going to be in the same room as someone willing and capable of raping a stranger. It might be on the bus, it might be at a concert, it might be at a club, it might be in school, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later. So, how do women identify who might be capable of doing this before they are placed in danger?
Enter the creepy guy.
It’s important at this point to identify what “being creepy” is, exactly. A good definition that crossed my vision recently was this
Creepiness occurs when someone demonstrates sexual intent while undermining or disregarding the recipient’s personal autonomy or consent.
Simply put, a person who’s willing to disregard someone’s personal autonomy or consent regarding sex - which, I’d argue, is the textbook definition of someone capable of being a rapist
- is probably going to be alarmingly consistent about it. They’re going to be creepy. They’re not going to take no for an answer when they approach a woman online
. They’re not going to respect personal privacy
- maybe they’ll catcall, maybe they’ll touch someone that doesn’t want to be touched. They’ll make sexual advances against a captive audience, like someone sitting next to them on a long flight (like the person brought up in the article I pulled the definition of “creepy” from) or perhaps a long, late night elevator ride
. Chances are, someone willing to do those things and cross those boundaries is much more likely to rape or sexually assault someone than someone that isn’t willing to engage in those behaviors. Naturally, people sense this intuitively and react accordingly.
And yet, some men defend
creeps. Not all men, of course - there are quite a few outspoken critics of creep defending, like Dr. NerdLove
, and John Scalzi
- but it’s still more than a few. What’s going on?
It’s time to unpack the second half of that refrain: Men fear rejection.
To be clearer, most men don’t fear individual rejection
- they fear rejection
. Being rejected by someone that you’re attracted to isn’t fun - we’ve all been there - but being rejected by everybody
is scary. Being viewed as “unfuckable” is scary. Being viewed as unworthy of sexual desire is scary
. This is what men fear, and like anyone else, when men are facing this fear head-on - perhaps because they’ve been rejected by just about everybody they’ve approached, perhaps because they’ve talked themselves into seeing themselves as “unfuckable” - they react irrationally. If you’re afraid of spiders and you see one in the bathroom, right when you get out of the shower, you’re not going to capture it in your hand and bring it outside - you’re going to smash the shit out of it
. You might even scream while you’re at it
. Fear is the mindkiller
, especially when you’re naked and dripping.
And just about every man on the planet has felt this exact fear at some point in their lives. Including me.
This might sound kind of strange, but when some men defend creeps, they’re doing so from a position of empathy. They remember that fear and, when they see a million women agree in unison that yes, this particular man, he’s
unworthy of sexual desire - that hits a nerve. The adrenaline starts flowing, the flashbacks from failed awkward attempts at expressing desire growing up come back (remember, men are often still the ones expected to make the first approach), the laptop is right there
- to the barricades! Defend our brothers in arms!
Want to know something else I learned from being an admin of a feminist forum? Men aren’t the only ones that fear rejection, that fear complete and utter desexualization. Imagine a man writing something like this
It doesn’t help when there are, from within the feminist community, cries (often of the second wave “Male gaze!!! MALE GAZE!!!” timbre) of, “Well, why are you so obsessed with being sexy anyway? Is that all women can be? Sexy? It’s ok to be ugly! It’s ok to not be pretty!”
Yes. Yes, of course it’s ok. The problem is that terms like “pretty” and “ugly” have been dropped on us, like rigid, rubric lead weights, without our having any say in what defines them. Being pretty isn’t the best thing a person can be, nor is ugly the worst. But who gets to decide what pretty is? Who gets to decide if I’m pretty?
Isn’t pretty for me to define?
But I want people to know that sexiness is not a privilege, saved for those who earn it. Sexiness is for anyone that wants it.
This is a piece written by a woman who’s stating, clearly and concisely, that, just because a person is conventionally sexually unattractive, that doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to see themselves as sexy. Everybody has the right to see themselves as sexy, as worthy of desire by someone
- or, failing that, at least the right to see themselves as a human being. For men, being “creepy” is a big part of being seen as sexually unattractive - a big enough part, in fact, where I can't imagine a man writing that last sentence with any seriousness without an asbestos-lined monitor, a locked credit report, his cell phone number in his neighborhood SWAT team's speed dial, and frequent lodging points with his neighborhood's Witness Protection program.
Now imagine if someone responded to the article on sexual attractiveness with something similar to the following
It is unfair. It’s okay that it’s unfair. You know why? Because whether someone likes you enough to want to be your friend, to want to hug you when they see you and let you into their personal space, wants to flirt with you, or wants to joke around with you about certain topics IS a subjective decision they get to make. If Commander Logic comes up to me and puts her arm around me, that’s a friendly bit of affection from a trusted friend. If Joe or Jane New Person sees that and thinks “that’s how Jennifer likes to be greeted” and does the same thing, they’re going to get to watch me jump out of my skin because: Bad Touch! I get to set different boundaries for different people.
I feel like a lot of the people who are looking for a rubric on how to make sure they aren’t being creepy are the same people who are looking for a rubric on how to pick up dating partners. They want rules and steps that will guarantee a certain outcome, and they don’t like being told how much of it is subjective and totally out of their hands. But other people – the people you want to date, the people you want to be friends with – have their own tastes, opinions, likes, and dislikes. To imply that there is some kind of system that guarantees that other people will like you or to make it a question of fairness robs them of agency.
It’s unfair that you’re not considered pretty. It’s okay that it’s not unfair. Being seen as attractive and pretty IS a subjective decision that they get to make. Sorry.
Right about here is where every woman reading this develops a violent, sudden case of empathy. The adrenaline starts flowing, the flashbacks from not experiencing failed awkward attempts at expressing desire from that really cute guy (or girl) they were really into growing up come back (remember, women are often still the ones expected to wait for the first approach), the laptop is right there
- to the barricades! Defend our sisters in arms!
Save your breath. I’m on your side, at least as much as I’m on anyone’s. Hang tight - we’re almost done. Then
you can roast me to your heart’s content.
At this point, I want to be clear about a couple of things:
Men, it’s natural to put yourself in other people’s shoes, especially when you identify with them and their struggles, especially when you’re experiencing those struggles yourself
. I understand the fear. I understand the pain. I’ve been there. I get it. I’ve been the awkward guy. If I lived in an area full of elevators in high school, I probably would’ve tried to ask a girl out in one, too, without thinking through the logistical and emotional ramifications of that. But here’s the thing - adult creepers take advantage
of that empathy. Being a creeper isn’t the same thing as being physically unattractive, though there’s certainly a non-trivial overlap between those that are “being unattractive” and those whose behaviors are viewed as “being creepy” (to borrow from a particular SNL skit
). There's little we can do about physical attractiveness - going to the gym and wearing better clothes won't make you taller, wealthier, or funnier - but we can
do something about guys being creepy. The only way to make a creeper stop creeping is to call them out for being creepy - period, full stop. If you know what’s good for you, you will call them out on it, too.
Why? Because creeps ruin it for the rest of us.
Let’s say you’re a guy in mixed company, you see an attractive woman, and you want to get her attention. Do you think it’s going to be easier when there’s someone:
- Touching her without her consent?
- Making endless sexual innuendo the entire night?
- Following them around everywhere?
- Getting angry when she says no?
- Trying to “score” with her and her friends as soon as any of them make eye contact with him?
Of course not. Creepy guys kill vibes
. Nobody wants to be around Uncle Lou
. Nobody wants to be
Uncle Lou. If you see someone being an Uncle Lou, pull them aside and tell them to stop being an Uncle Lou. Tell
them what they’re doing that’s Uncle Lou-ish. Make it clear that, if they persist in being an Uncle Lou, you’re either going to escort them out of whatever venue you’re both sharing or you’ll find someone who will. Make it clear that, from that moment going forward, if they don’t alter their behavior, you will name names. You will take pictures. If they can’t be a good example, then they’re just going to have to be a horrible warning
. Don’t let them oppression olympics their way out of it, either - a truly neuroatypical person isn’t going to say, “Oh, sorry - I’m autistic. I can’t help it.” No, they’re going to apologize and they’re going to ask what they can do to avoid that sort of behavior in the future. If you get any other response, you’re not dealing with a neuroatypical person - you’re dealing with a manipulator.
Creepers are manipulators.
Remember that and treat them accordingly. Show no mercy. Save the empathy for those that deserve it. Do not let them manipulate your fears or your empathy to tell you otherwise.