Sexual Harassment And The Problem Of Being “Creepy”

Geek culture has some problems with sexual harassment and misogyny, sadly, many of which manifest at conventions in the form of stalking and generally creepy behavior. Genevieve Valentine’s experience at Readercon is only one of the most recent and publicized examples.

As I’ve discussed previously, “creepy” may not be the best term for these kinds of behaviors. For one thing, the word itself is vague, and can mean different things to different people. For another thing, the term can be used to indicate unwanted social or sexual attraction regardless of the other person’s intentions. Some people are just naturally awkward or can’t read body language, right?

Well, yes and no. John Scalzi’s Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping does make the effort to inform people who might be naturally unaware that yes, they need to be responsible for their actions even if they’re not quite sure whether they’re coming off as creepy. In essence, everyone  has the responsibility to be aware of how they are interacting with others. It’s pretty simple, actually: don’t touch people if they don’t invite you to; don’t box people in during conversations; respect their space; and things like that.

Captain Awkward also sums up the issues quite well, addressing the “but what if someone has Asperger’s or another condition that prevents them from effectively reading social cues” question: “If you alert someone to an unwelcome behavior, and the person keeps doing that thing and/or angrily arguing that they shouldn’t have to change anything, the problem is not Asperger’s.”

Basically, if you explicitly state your boundaries or make a request, a decent person who might’ve accidentally come off as creepy will respect your wishes. If the person argues or pushes back or asks an endless stream of “whys” (why did you let that person hug you but not me? why won’t you give me your number? etc.) then you are dealing with a predator.  That person will keep pushing, however subtly, until they get what they want, regardless of your boundaries, safety, or enjoyment.

Let’s review: “creepy” is a widely recognized but not particularly useful concept, especially since it could mean one of two more or less opposite things. I’m gonna call this concept Schrodinger’s Creep. You don’t know which one it is (harmless awkward person or sexual predator) until you’ve been in a position to figure it out, which is potentially dangerous or uncomfortable for you. Since there is plenty of room for misunderstandings in the complex realm of social cues, be explicit about your comfort levels. If someone listens to you, you can move them from the “creepy” mental category to “socially awkward but otherwise okay.” If someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, then the “creepy” mental category should be replaced by flashing red lights telling you to get the hell away.

This isn’t a foolproof system, and I generally give people the benefit of the doubt more than I ought. But if I feel like someone’s not respecting my space or my wishes? That’s a sign to GTFO, and I urge people to develop their own instincts to do the same while also trying to navigate the complexity of social interactions.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.