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.

An old parable for Anti-Street Harassment Week

It’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week, kicking off today. Follow here.

With the victim-blaming defenses of harassing behavior fluttering around, I’m struck again by how persistent the myth is that some women “ask for it” (harassment) because of how they dress or carry themselves. This famous image, with its appeal to the assumed male inability to resist staring at women’s exposed body, is making the rounds on social media again.

An even more famous parable.

Once, a great spiritual teacher was walking along the road with one of his young students. They were traveling for a whole day, and the young man was eager to learn one-on-one from such a renowned master. (In the best known version of the story, the two are Tibetan Buddhist monks. In others, they’re 7th-century Irish monks, or Jewish scholars in the Roman Empire.)

After an hour of walking, the two come to a river. The bridge has washed out. A beautiful, scantily-clad young woman is standing on the banks, looking dolefully across. When she sees the monks, she approaches them. “I can’t swim,” she says, “but I must get to the other side. Could one of you carry me?” She looks beseechingly at the fit younger monk, but he blanches; he’s taken a vow of celibacy that forbids him from even touching a woman. To the young man’s horror, his teacher gently volunteers to help. The young woman climbs onto the old monk’s back, wrapping her arms and legs tightly around him, and together they swim to the other side. The young monk swims alongside, confused and furious. How dare his teacher allow this beautiful young woman to touch him so intimately?

On the far shore, the old teacher bows politely to the young woman, wishes her well on her journey, and the two men continue down the road. The young monk is beside himself with confusion — is his master a fraud? Was this some sort of test, and he failed it by not volunteering himself? The image of the woman’s stunning body torments him. He can’t even speak to his teacher, instead giving into to a host of doubts and racing thoughts.

Finally, the two stop for lunch. The young monk can’t take it anymore, and questions come pouring out. “How could you let this woman touch you like that?” he asks angrily. “Didn’t you see what she was wearing? She was probably a prostitute and you carried her on your back! You… you’re unclean!”

The old man takes a sip of tea, and smiles. “I put that young woman down on the riverbank. You are the one who is still carrying her.”

In every tradition in which that story is told (there may be a Muslim version, but I only know the Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish ones) the point is the same. It’s not evidence of the old man’s special holiness that he was able to carry the beautiful young woman on his back. (In one version I’ve heard, he wades across the river with her in his arms.) It’s certainly not a sly reference to an older man’s declining libido. It’s about the obligation that all men — even young horny ones — have to treat every woman with human dignity and courtesy, regardless of what she’s wearing. The point is simple: to be distracted to the point of rudeness isn’t about what women have (or don’t have) on, it’s about how men choose — and it is a choice — to react.

Clearly, this point still needs making.

Men Speaking Up: Jen Kirkman and the MA’AM Blog

I wrote a short piece for Jezebel on Friday about comedian Jen Kirkman’s “twitter strike” in protest against misogyny. Excerpt:

In a Tumblr post last night, Kirkman explained that whenever she’s the target of hatefilled, sexist rants (she shares a smattering of examples), she hears from her male fellow comedians who “DM me or text me or email me or talk to me about how they hate it too but they never speak up.” Private support is nice, but as she makes clear, it does absolutely nothing to challenge a culture that indulges and encourages cyber-misogyny.

Kirkman is understandably frustrated by men who make comforting noises but claim that they “don’t know what to say” to sexist trolls. Men don’t need expertise in anti-sexist activism to stand up against woman-hating; plenty of male comedians openly campaigned for Obama, she notes, without having degrees in political science or public policy. Kirkman doesn’t need to spell out the obvious reason why men don’t speak out: too many “good guys” either don’t take sexist trolling seriously or they’re too afraid of becoming the targets of ridicule from those same bullies if they do step up openly.

She started a Tumblr, MA’AM; it’s doing very nicely.

The Gendering of Online Takedowns: Anita Sarkeesian and Me

If you like the look of this blog, thank Anita Sarkeesian, who designed it and helped me launch this made-over site last summer. Anita is far more than a web designer, however; she runs the indispensable Feminist Frequency, which provides intelligent, thoughtful progressive commentary on popular culture. But in the past month, Anita has been under relentless attack online.

My column this week at Role/Reboot looks at what the trolling of Anita tells us about sexism online. Both she and I have found ourselves at the center of controversy this year, albeit for different reasons. Yet the real difference is in how each of us has been treated by those who despise us most. Excerpt:

Obviously, there are also key differences between how these two take-down campaigns began. Thoughtful voices can disagree as to whether my past actions (which, many years ago—while I was drinking and using drugs—included both sexual impropriety with adult students and an attempted murder-suicide with a former girlfriend) disqualify me from writing and speaking around issues of sexual justice and body image. To a far greater degree than Anita, I was the architect of my own adversity. My critics were responding, fairly or not, to truths I shared about my own past. Anita’s trolls are attacking her for the truths she’s exposed about them and the sexist video game world they inhabit. That’s a hugely important distinction.

At the same time, a take-down is a take-down. For different reasons, lots of people want Anita and me to stop doing the kind of public work we do. (I suspect that on the fringes of the men’s rights movement, some of our faultfinders overlap.) Regardless of the merits of the criticism, being on the receiving end is painful. To have one’s livelihood threatened is terrifying; to be mocked is hurtful. It doesn’t matter if one is male or female—the first time you realize that a great many people dislike you and wish you ill is always a shock. I don’t know if anyone ever gets entirely used to it.

In one posting about Anita, a gamer critic claims that she “wants equality for women in games (but) won’t take a shot to the balls like a man.” This is the classic sexist trope that women can “dish it out” but “can’t take it.” The reality, however, is that the “shots” that women take are invariably worse than the ones men are expected to endure. Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t have testicles, but she does have a face—a face that is repeatedly bloodied and battered in the latest vicious viral attack on her work and her image. The irony is that those who literally have “balls” are the ones dishing it out without any comprehension of what it’s like to be the target of so much sexualized, violent rhetoric. No male blogger, no matter how controversial or disliked, has ever been on the receiving end of anything comparable.

Read the whole thing.

Resisting the Old Boys

Though it’s not exactly a take on the Penn State scandal, my contribution for the Good Men Project’s business ethics package is up: Resist the Old Boys. Excerpt:

In our culture, we socialize men to crave the approval of other males, particularly those in positions of authority. The pressure to “give in” and join the OBN (Old Boys Network) isn’t just from older men; for many of us, it comes from within ourselves, as it speaks to our intense, socialized desire to have our masculinity validated by powerful father figures. Sometimes, the OBN coerces us to join a club we already long to join.

Perhaps that’s why it isn’t easy to refuse OBN invitations. One key way to make it easier is to seek out mentors of both sexes. Another is to form close working relationships with women as well as men, resisting the temptation to “flee” to all-male spaces. Men and women can be friends outside of work as well as colleagues in the office. As long as we maintain the fiction that that’s too difficult or too at odds with the laws of nature, the OBN will continue to have a much easier time finding new recruits among the ranks of already privileged young men while excluding women of every age. And a new generation in the Old Boys Networks will learn to cover up for the most indefensible and horrific actions of its members.

Cougars, Silver Foxes, and the new AAUW Sexual Harassment Study

Two new posts at Good Men Project this week:

Sexual Harassment on Campus: It’s a Guy Thing looks at the powerful new AAUW report on sexualized harassment in schools (co-authored by my friend Holly Kearl.) Excerpt:

What drives sexual harassment isn’t testosterone. Boys are not born to harass. What enables and encourages so many of them to harass girls and other boys are the “rules of manhood” that prize cruelty, swagger, and aggression. Boys who are shamed out of crying and who are shamed out of forming close friendships with girls are “set up” to become bullies and harassers. They use words (and worse) to enforce a strict Guy Code among other boys. (The study found, not surprisingly, that male-on-male harassment tends to employ homophobic language.) And they harass girls to win attention and praise from other boys—and to feel the thrill of power over vulnerable young women.

And a reworking of an old post on an old theme: Why Cougars are Better than Silver Foxes. Excerpt:

I’m not saying that every older woman/younger man relationship is inherently progressive while every older man/younger woman coupling is oppressive and reactionary. A great many young women do exercise great agency in relationships with older men. But there’s no escaping that given who has power in our culture, the reality is that the potential for abuse and exploitation is likely to be much higher in an age-disparate relationship where it is the man who is the elder of the lovers. We must note, too, that we live in a world where men are seen as growing both more “visible” and more powerful as they age, while women, past a certain age, are either desexualized or mocked. “Cougar” was not coined as a compliment; “silver fox” was.

Young men in consensual relationships with older women (or older men) aren’t having sex in a culture in which they are told, over and over again, that their beauty is their number one asset. We raise men to believe that good looks are a happy and welcome bonus, not an essential component of success. While underage boys can be victims of rape by women (a point I made here), their slightly older male counterparts are culturally better equipped to enter into consensual sexual relationships with older women (or men) than are their female peers. This isn’t because boys mature faster. This is because boys aren’t raised to believe that their sexual value has a rapidly approaching sell-by date. Whatever sexual power he may have in his youth, a young man knows he’s likely to have far more of a different—and more enduring—kind of clout when he gets older. Girls, raised as they are in a culture that values youthful female beauty above all else, have no such reassurance.
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Outsourcing Intuition — a quick note on elevatorgate

The Elevatorgate scandal, which began when Rebecca Watson of SkepChick reported being sexually harassed by in an elevator by a man at an atheist conference, has been the talk of the web for nearly a month.

Celebrated skeptic Richard Dawkins weighed in and accused Watson of maligning a shy but harmless guy. A debate erupted about social awkwardness, harassment, and geek/atheist culture. See Greta Christine, Amanda Marcotte, and David Futrelle, all of whom deal with this issue of shyness and harassment in helpful ways.

Since I come so late to this discussion, I’ll just add this:

One of the myriad ways in which the myth of male weakness manifests itself in our culture is in the belief that women owe it to men to be able to discern the latter’s intent. Male social awkwardness is framed as something that lies so far beyond the capacity of men to address themselves that it becomes women’s responsibility to unerringly distinguish the sweet, shy, clumsy dude from the dude who’s a genuine threat.

The more we believe that women are more naturally intuitive than men (a “truism” peddled by pop psychologists and theologians alike), the more we outsource the job of interpreting and understanding male behavior to women. How often do we hear a man explode with rage at a woman, saying “But that’s not what I meant!” or “You’re blowing this way out of proportion”? Our myths about gender tell us that men are mysteries even to themselves, and that mothers and wives know the men they love “better than they know themselves.” That’s not just insulting to men, it’s letting them off the hook — and placing an impossible burden on to women.

It is not women’s job to understand us better than we understand ourselves. It’s not even their job to discern our intent. (Even if we’re shy and clumsy and socially inept.) It’s their job to do what all human beings have the right to do, which is assess threats and judge character based on what they perceive with their reason and their senses. And it’s our job to take responsibility for our words and our actions.

Social awkwardness can be a real affliction. I do not doubt that it can be hugely difficult for shy guys to meet women. But while they deserve our collective sympathy and perhaps our collective strategizing to offer these shy guys tools for greater success, it doesn’t mean that individual women should be expected to sympathize, understand, or look with greater forbearance upon them. Especially in an elevator at 4:00AM.

“Hey, Shorty!” A new resource for combating harassment

One of the most welcome contemporary trends is the sudden interest in resources to combat sexual harassment. The global SlutWalk and Hollaback movements have brought unprecedented attention to the problem, as has Holly Kearl’s wonderful recent book Stop Street Harassment. Without question.we’re seeing a new level of commitment in the struggle to create safe public spaces for women.

One particularly exciting new resource comes from Girls for Gender Equity. GGE and Feminist Press have released Hey Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment in Schools and on the Street. This brief, accessible, inexpensive book (and accompanying documentary film) focuses on the epidemic of sexualized harassment and violence in the New York City public school system, but its message and lessons are applicable worldwide. Hey, Shorty! tells the story of a decade-long struggle to develop programming to keep girls and women safe — programming often initiated and implemented by high school students.

Hey, Shorty documents the ubiquity and scale of sexualized harassment — and the toll it takes on young women’s lives. It’s an important reminder not only that words matter, but that solving the problem of harassment is inextricably tied up with the larger campaign to transform women’s relationship with their bodies.

The same media that foists upon us unrealistic and unattainable images of physical perfection also normalizes the sexualization of the young and the vulnerable. Women’s bodies become public property for comment, for desire, for rape and assault. We cannot hope to address the epidemic of eating disorders and body dysmorphia without also working to stop the verbal and physical harassment of women in public spaces.

Hey, Shorty! is a crucial warning about how daunting the challenge is — and a much-needed source of inspiration for how best to respond.

Third Party Harassment, Third Party Complicity

My friend Emmylou wrote me after my Jezebel post appeared last Friday, noting that we need to remember the problem of “third party harassment”: the impact that the problem can have on witnesses.

On Friday I was crossing the street when I saw a man in a large panel truck inch up in his lane so he could stop and look down at a woman in the next car. She was in the passenger seat and never looked up and to her right as far as I could tell. While walking by, I saw she was wearing a tank top with some cleavage showing and the perv staring hard…not an appreciative look at all. Once I passed them, I turned around and yelled at him. “I know what you’re doing, creep! Stop staring at her!” She didn’t react but the truck driver did. He was both shocked and angered by my calling him out on it.

She didn’t know. But I did and I was offended by it and put off. Someone might say it is none of my business since it didn’t happen to me, but I think it is. It isn’t only the recipients of this kind of behavior who get to be outraged. I think if my goddaughter or nieces had been with me. They have every right in the world to not be exposed to this kind of lecherous behavior. And so do boys.

It isn’t just the one-to-one impact. It’s the example and influence on display for everyone else to see…

Emmylou is right on the money. Street harassment teaches all who witness it lessons about men, women, and sexuality. When children witness adult men leering and catcalling, they learn a lie about male desire. They learn a truth about our collective hostility towards women, and the way in which we use harassment to display power and to slut-shame. Harassment — even if it’s only a prolonged, silent, penetrating gaze — impacts everyone close enough to see it take place.

I’m perhaps too quick to bring up the unethical aspects of my past, but I’ve got some familiarity with this concept. As I’ve often written, I slept with many students during my early years at PCC. All of these relationships, however unethical, were consensual and not in violation of college policy — because the college had no policy against profs and students engaging in “mutually desired amorous relations.” But of course, I was about as subtle as a Labrador in a flower bed, and many of the women I was with “talked.” And as I learned, this all-too-true gossip proved shattering (or at least upsetting) to many other students, who not only lost respect for me but felt as if the classroom had now been sexualized. Indeed, the only people who ever complained to the administration were not the women I was involved with — but others who “witnessed” the behavior in one way or another. Arguably, the greatest harm I did during those years was not to my student lovers, but to those “third parties” who felt unsafe and confused when they found out what was going on.

Third party harassment is widely acknowledged in law. But while it is used in litigation in corporate settings, we don’t often talk about it when it comes to something like street harassment. But we need to remember that harassment is didactic: it’s meant to teach a lesson. The woman being harassed is being reminded that she’s vulnerable, that her body is public property for men to leer at and comment upon. She may be affluent or poor, she may be in a short sundress or in sweats — it doesn’t matter. She’s being “taught a lesson”, and it’s not a complimentary one. And when we hear it or see it, we’re being taught a toxic lesson as well.

My friend Emmylou made the courageous decision to “teach a lesson back”. Not everyone can be expected to do as she did; harassers can turn violent when called out. But where we can do something, we should. This is especially vital work for male allies to do. As I always tell my students, the litmus test of a male feminist is not just how he treats women, but how willing he is to challenge other men on their words and attitudes. As we know, harassment and sexual assault thrive in a culture that normalizes and accepts that behavior. Every rapist or harasser has someone in his life who is complicit in his behavior, who gives tacit approval to his actions. And make no mistake: harassers and abusers invariably interpret the silence of their friends and family as an imprimatur for their behavior.

Without completely disregarding personal safety, we need to be aware of our opportunities to be like Emmylou this week, finding ways to challenge those who make our public — and our private — spaces unsafe.

For more on ways to fight back (whether you’ve been harassed or have observed it as a third party) check out the international Hollaback community.

Spring Skin at Jezebel

And finishing off the week, I’ve got a post up today at Jezebel in honor of this Sunday’s First Annual Anti-Street Harassment Day.

Here’s “Spring is No Excuse for Sexual Harassment”.

Excerpt:

It’s a huge mistake to blame women’s revealing clothing –- or women’s bodies — for public sexual harassment. The problem is a tenacious and ugly myth about male sexuality, one that tells us that average men simply can’t be expected to restrain their eyes, their words, or even their actions when faced with the reality of a woman’s bare skin. Because of that belief in male weakness, we outsource their missing self-control to women. And so this myth pushes women to police each other, slut-shaming or mocking those girls who are showing “too much”.

We won’t stop the problem of street harassment by asking women to cover up. As long as we cling to the lie that it is women’s bodies that are the problem, it doesn’t matter whether women wear burqas or bikinis in public –- we’ll hold them accountable for what men to say them regardless of how much skin they’re showing. There’s only one solution, and that’s to start believing that all men (not just a few decent ones) have the power to control what they say and how they act.

For more on this Sunday’s activities, check out the Facebook page for the Anti-Street Harassment campaign. Check out the Stop Street Harassment blog. Check out Holly Kearl’s marvelous Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women.

Please consider getting involved in the international Hollaback Movement to end street harassment. User-generated videos, photos, and stories are a way to fight back against harassers and the very real harm they do. There are specific sites for specific regions; click here for the Southern California site.

A trio of related posts of mine: Of Boobquakes and the Modesty Peddlers, Legal and Topless, and The Real Meaning of Modesty.