Once again, you folks are spared a horrifying discussion of the effects of scabies by something more important that came up.
I wondered what I was going to write about this week. The Wisconsin Sikh shooting? The fact that I am demonstrably not a psychopath, as I can confirm from having just read “The Psychopath Test?” But then my friend Rob posted this link and it sent me into hours of reading various blog entries about rape culture.
Here’s the article, which I’ve already posted on Facebook: http://captainawkward.com/2012/08/07/322-323-my-friend-group-has-a-case-of-the-creepy-dude-how-do-we-clear-that-up/
I think this is a fantastic article that will hit close to home for many people. How do I know that? Because it hit close to home for me.
I have friends from a lot of different groups, and they don’t always get along well with each other. I’m used to defending one friend against the suppositions of another, providing necessary context for actions or conversations, and maneuvering around potential social awkwardness when friend groups collide. Most of the time, I do believe that I am behaving in a fair manner to both parties, recognizing the legitimacy of the feeling of dislike on the one hand while clearing up misunderstandings and defending a friend on the other.
However, the impulse to jump in to defend a friend, while noble, does require context, and it can be difficult to remember that and to allow the complainer the benefit of the doubt, especially when they’re saying that someone you know and like behaved in a way that should be unacceptable.
I’ve run into this personally. Explaining that a guy friend who came off as “creepy” was just a little over-enthusiastic and meant well can be all right–sometimes people do just get really excited about meeting new people and there’s nothing sexual or untoward meant. Of course, this is much easier to defend when there’s no inappropriate physicality or language involved; when someone’s just a little bit awkward or a bit more gung-ho than others might be.
But I’ve caught myself starting to excuse behavior that’s much more suspect than that, and have had to consciously remind myself to listen and not negate what the other person is saying, and it’s tough to do. What’s more, it’s scary, because I’m someone who thinks about this stuff a lot, and I’ve almost fallen into the apologist trap.
A specific example: I was once at a birthday party. There was a nice mix of old and new friends there. I spent some significant time with a new acquaintance, a lovely, vivacious young woman. By the end of the night we were comfortable confiding with each other, and as we walked, she mentioned that she’d been creeped out by the birthday girl’s boyfriend.
“Oh, X?” I said, preparing to excuse a socially-inept friend. “Yeah, he can be kind of quiet and shy around new people, but–”
“He wasn’t being shy around me,” she said. “He kept telling me how hot I was, and as the night went on, cornered me a couple of times when his girlfriend wasn’t around to say I was sexy. I had to go find Y [the guy she was dating] and stick close so that he’d leave me alone.”
My first instinct–and this is the problem–was to think that she had misread the situation, that there was missing context. I opened my mouth to defend X. And then I closed my mouth, because what she had actually said registered with me.
My new friend wasn’t just saying that she had gotten the impression, from the way this guy looked at her, that he was attracted to her. She wasn’t interpreting friendly conversation as flirting. And she had no reason not to tell the truth. She was obviously uncomfortable with the situation, but because we had shared stories about our lives that night, she was trusting me–someone who had known X far longer than I’d known her–with an encounter that had made her feel unsafe.
Instead I said, “That’s really inappropriate.” Because it was.
Now, looking back, I wonder if I should have done anything differently. Not with her, not when she was telling this to me, but with my friend whose birthday it was. I didn’t tell her what her boyfriend had done. I didn’t think she would believe me, because she hadn’t gotten to know my new friend. I wish that weren’t an important factor, but when it comes to hearing that someone you trust has behaved poorly, it’s a lot easier to blame the judgment or honesty of someone you don’t know than to accept that the person you care about has transgressed. Basically, I decided to keep an eye out on X. Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have been a little more vocal.
I know plenty of guys who lament the power of the “creeper” label. They feel that it’s unfair, that it’s unfortunate that a misinterpretation of their actions or intent can get them blackballed (literally) in a group of women. I can sympathize with not wanting to be called something negative that you’re not, but there’s an easy way to stop being seen as creepy: Stop behaving in the way that got you labelled as such. Other people get to decide what weirds them out. If you want to continue to be around them, don’t do the thing that weirds them out, even if it’s something you think is innocent. It’s most likely not going to be much of a sacrifice.
Jumping from article to article as I read about this today, I started to realize that my own behavior when pursuing a crush hasn’t always been as respectful as I’d like it to have been. I’ve ignored polite signs of disinterest, have maneuvered myself physically closer to people than they were comfortable with, and have pestered people with amounts and frequency of conversation that they didn’t want. I’ve hoped that alcohol would provide the right social lubricant to finally connect with a crush. Has it ever worked out? Not long-term, not in the manner I’d hoped. To a certain degree, I’ve acted this way because I’ve been blinded by crush-vision, reading into tiny details and convincing myself that every interaction means more than it seems to, that the person would like to be more demonstrative but is too scared or confused to do so. I’ve also backed off. Often. But not always as soon as I wish I had.
The bottom line is that everyone has the right to determine what they want and from or with whom, and to express those feelings in an appropriate manner. That cute guy doesn’t owe you a coffee date because you think he’s attractive. Your female friend doesn’t owe you a makeout session because you were there for her when her cat died. It’s up to all of us to think about how our actions and words affect other people and to respect those people when they object. It sucks to hear that you did something that made someone else uncomfortable, but it’s better than subjecting that person to discomfort over and over again. You get to learn something, and the people you want to continue to be around will recognize your efforts and will probably not cut you off.
The flipside? If you don’t learn from it, people have the right to cut off ties with you. And this is part of why I think we as social groups need to work at expressing ourselves more clearly–it’s hard to know what you’re doing wrong if no one will tell you, and on the other hand, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to change when they get away with how they behave now.
I hope this is coherent–I’m trying to address the “creepy person” (not just “guy,” since I know I’ve been at least mildly an offender) issue from the POV of the well-meaning creeper as well as from the perspective of the friend of someone who may be behaving in this manner. Both roles get easier when people are honest about what is and is not okay. Both have room for people to learn and improve. And sometimes, both require someone on the outside blowing a whistle.
I’m going to try to be more of a whistle-blower from now on. Because speaking up doesn’t mean being rude, and someone else’s bad behavior shouldn’t be my problem to smooth over or figure out how to avoid. I don’t think that people who have behaved in this way need to be ostracized, especially if they didn’t realize the effect they were having on other people, but I also very strongly don’t believe that anyone should have to put up with a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe in order to keep up social harmony.
And I hope you’ll point out any of my inappropriate conduct to me, next time you catch me watching you brush your teeth from the bushes.