Content Note: descriptions of abusers’ tactics/behaviour. Rape myths/figures. Also, TERF myths
So I’ve been mulling over for a while now ideas about how it can be hard for someone who has been powerless to recognise that they now have attained (relative) power and are harming others with it. [EDIT TO ADD cos I forgot to include it earlier] Over at The F-Word Blog, Sheena Vasani has a fascinating post that touches on this topic: she opens with two descriptions of herself, one that emphasises her privilege and one that emphasises her exclusion or lack of privilege. The conversation she describes in that post with a guy whose privilege/lack of was split differently, serves as a starting point for this post (although my thoughts have been floating around for a while now) and is well worth checking out in its own right.
This dynamic of missing one’s own power or privilege with respect to others, unfortunately, seems to occur far too often in social justice circles. I suspect it’s also an issue underlying a lot of rape apologism, especially the rhetoric about “false rape”.
It’s also a way that abusers camouflage themselves. I suspect it is a general rule that any situation where there is a person with a legitimate claim to be hurt by a rule, there is also an abuser making the same claim in order to perpetuate his (or her) abuse. Sometimes the potential abuser is used as a means to describe the legitimate person as also an abuser, or otherwise to deny that person access (for instance, it is possible that there are abusers who are trans, or who disguise themselves as trans; nevertheless, it is not legitimate for TERFs to use that possibility to exclude trans* women in general, especially as trans* women are more likely to be victims of cis women than vice versa; probably there are more cis & lesbian abusers of cis women anyway).
I believe that this is the dynamic when it comes to discussions about the “creepy” label, and about “false rape”. Whenever discussions arise about rape culture, the “not every man is a threat, but any man could be” problem faced by women in public spaces, there seems to be some visceral response pleading not to be falsely accused (typically by saying, “not all men”). When it comes to discussing figures about rape accusations and what to do about the low number of convictions, the same thing occurs. The concept of the “creepy guy” also produces a slew of men pleading not to be “unfairly labelled”.
The surface-level fear that we see expressed is one of enforced celibacy: “once I have been (falsely) labelled this way, no one will ever want me ever again” (often coupled with a barely-veiled entitlement narrative – although for the moment I’m going to extend benefit of doubt to include “entitled to a chance of having” rather than “entitled to have”; subtle distinction!).
But this is less of a thing with being accused of rape. The bigger fear here is being sent to prison; and such is the perverseness of the penal system, that carries fears of becoming someone else’s rape victim. It’s often expressed in terms of women punishing men, but that’s not what really happens. For a start, in the UK around 6% of rape accusations lead to a conviction; the rest are either dropped before they reach court (usually because the process is so demanding that the victim/witness backs out) or are acquitted. So it’s unlikely to get punished in that way. Furthermore, social dynamics being what they are, the stigma of having been accused of rape is often not as great as generally feared: in many high-profile cases, people have rallied around to diminish the effects as much as possible, even when there’s incontrovertible evidence (e.g. video evidence of the crime taking place) that the accused did commit rape. In Europe, with the “right to be forgotten” ruling, after a while you can get Google to hide your connection to a false accusation anyway if someone searches your name.
But even when a punishment is delivered, it is typically men who punish men. If that stigma does stick, it is the actions of men who make it so, and who are the biggest threat.
Let’s feed that idea back into the “creepy guy” complaints. My suspicion is that a deeper fear when a guy complains about being labelled “creepy” is not the effect this has on women, but the effect it has on other men.
Masculinity is largely performative. The way Patriarchy constructs it, we are told that men who perform it well will get good things, and have the right to fuck whom they want; men who perform it badly do not have the right to have sex or other nice things but must be punished until they learn to perform it better, and must be punished if they try to take what they are denied. (This is also a key element in homophobia and transmisogyny.)
Think of the US High School Drama complex: The classic trope is “football captain dates cheerleading captain”. This develops such that, if romantic developments occur between the nerd and the cheerleading captain, then this is the nerd aspiring to something forbidden and violence towards the nerd ensues. Alternatively, the nerd acts creepily towards the hot girls and gets punished for it. See where this is going?
That is obviously the fictional world but it presents a social norm or ideal. In the real world, there is always the “guy who gets picked last at sports” (I was actually the one who got picked second-last, but you know, it was the same social status – just one person lower on the ladder than me). If as a male (or at least male-identified-by-others – is MIBO a commonly used term?) you happen to be that nerdy, bad at sports, slightly weird kid who’s grown up as the target of bullying (or “physical, emotional and/or financial abuse by other children”) or who has acted out of fear of being the target, then you have a different perspective than if you were the one who went along with it or was part of it, and enjoyed social privilege as a result.
The social narrative that the “nerd” or “outsider” grows up with is one of being punished for desires, whereas the others grow up feeling entitled to them. The first thing to push back at is the idea of being punished for desires, to make desiring seem legitimate.
The consequence is that these are often the people who fear they are being described as “creepy”. They are used to being powerless and the victims of more powerful individuals, but now found themselves being cast by others as the powerful and threatening ones, which runs counter to their internal narrative of themselves.
It also reproduces the narrative of being punished for wanting the girl. I suspect that underneath it there is a visceral fear that when a woman calls him creepy, this guy expects a bigger, more muscular, more aggressive guy to loom out of the darkness and beat him up. The usual claim is that creepiness is a problem because on average, a woman is less likely to be able to overpower a man than vice versa, but I think the person afraid of the accusation expects that to be reversed when the “real man” turns up. The trope of “manly-man as protector of woman’s virtue (and thereby being rewarded with it)” coupled with the personal narrative of “I’m the victim of bigger boys” leads to this fear of being perceived to be encroaching.
Ironically, one of the commonest descriptions of “creepy” behaviour is of “testing what you can get away with”, which gives the impression of wanting far more than you’re really admitting to (literally, the appearance of creeping up on someone to get close to them – metaphorically, think of a big cat prowling through the grass to pounce on a buffalo calf or something). The counter-advice on how not to be creepy is generally to be more direct about your intentions, make each action deliberate and purposeful (with a clear end-point), and basically avoid equivocation in word and deed. And if you get a “no”, respect it and back the fuck off. (For example, here’s Dr NerdLove.)
The expectation in one person of being punished for overstepping an invisible line (DNL is big on learning to see the line through better social calibration) produces the impression in the other that the first person is going to overstep a far more important line. Or, a fear of being called creepy makes one behave in a creepy fashion.
The reality is that the “bigger boy protector” doesn’t happen very often; and if someone does step in as the White Knight, it’s more about front than actual violence: you have the opportunity to back off and hide. Hurts the self-esteem, maybe, but not much else. And it’s possible for the smaller, nerdy guy to make a point about it, too. (That story is all about front; also, the creepy guy there is not the fearful type I’ve discussed, but the other sort.)
None of which says it’s okay to be creepy. It is not okay. DNL’s piece is a good place to understand that whatever the source of creepy behaviour, learning not to be creepy is the solution, rather than demanding people not comment on it. Regardless of how powerless you feel, recognising that you have power relative to this other person, who has a right to be wary of you as a result, is the first step to making oneself less of a threat (perceived or actual).
I know that the feeling of fear and powerlessness is not going to go away. Let’s just accept that it exists for the moment, and instead look at what can be done about it. Some people cling to it: only by being ever-vigilant and striking down any who seem threatening can they feel secure. except you don’t feel secure because you are constantly wary of the next assault on your protected domain. Thus, for example, we get TERFs who imagine trans folk as a threat to them, rather than the other way around. Others don’t acknowledge their fear but conceal it while still letting it govern their actions (the apologists for creepiness). But it is possible to feel the fear and acknowledge it, but also to recognise at the intellectual level that it is irrational or that it is not universally valid.
For instance, I am a bulky lardarse bloke who nevertheless exercises regularly and by any measure am pretty strong and fit for my size. It is not rational for me to be as fearful as I am about other people. It is rational for others (especially women) to see me and perhaps be wary. The rational conclusions do not fit with my internal self-narrative: despite the evidence to the contrary, inside I am still a small and timid little tomboy (that is, boyish girl – hence my comfort with being male-bodied) who nevertheless wants to be wooed. My physical presence in the world does not reflect how I see myself, and therefore the way others perceive me is different. Therefore, I have to put aside my fearful, timid inner self and understand that I can also be feared.
Of course, this isn’t always successful. At the moment, I feel as though when I try to follow dating/pick-up advice (note: everyone, including DNL above, say to smile and laugh. Everyone), it goes something like this:
(Note the “protector guy” narrative in that scene, btw)
Which is to say, not that it actually does go like that but that my self-perception is that I appear the way Dale does. Again, that’s my issue to work on.
Anyway, I was explaining that it’s possible to recognise the fear that comes from seeing oneself as powerless, or a victim, while understanding that to others, you are the one in power; and thereby to accept intellectually the concept of oneself as feared, and not merely fearing. This understanding can be used to temper one’s reactions, to see not every criticism is an assault, and to recognise others’ boundaries and the reasons for them. Acknowledge your own fear, and each others’ fears.