Why We — More than Ever — Need the Word “Creepy”

My latest at The Atlantic takes another look at a topic I’ve addressed before: “A Defense of the Word ‘Creep'”. Here’s an excerpt:

Congress can’t pass a law requiring people to be delighted by the advances of others they find unattractive. I can get my children to eat broccoli by alternating promises of rewards and punishments, but I cannot do anything to make my daughter love vegetables as much as she loves ice cream. Similarly, no law can compel “Ashley,” a barista at the local coffee shop, to feel the same way about the advances of an older co-worker whom she finds repellant as she does about those of the young hottie who joins her on the opening shift.

Until recently, however, few women could make sexual choices based primarily on physical desire and emotional attraction. In a world where few women had the opportunity to prosper without a man’s protection, marriage was about survival. The more educational and economic opportunities women acquire, the more opportunity they have to choose based on what they want rather than what they need for survival. As Daniel Bergner’s bestselling What Do Women Want? argues, once you level the economic playing field, women are just as likely as men to make sexual decisions based on desire alone.

The same principle works for sexual harassment: the Civil Rights Act of 1965 didn’t conjure the concept out of thin air. Women had always been sexually harassed in public spaces. What the government did was give the problem a name — and a remedy. It also formally recognized a woman’s right to decide for herself what conduct was welcome and what wasn’t.

Men’s rage about sexual harassment regulations and “creep-shaming” may well be rooted in an unwillingness to accept these cultural changes that have given women unprecedented power to say “no” to the lecherous and the predatory. Complaints that unattractive, socially awkward men are unfairly labeled “creepy” miss the point. “Creepy” describes having “the creeps;” it’s a word that centers on women’s own feelings. It’s no more “unfair” for Ashley the hypothetical barista to be “creeped out” by the advances of an older, unappealing co-worker than it is for her to be excited by the same approach from the man to whom she’s attracted.

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