So, I really love to argue. I think y’all know that by now. This is the first persuasive piece I’ve posted here that is only tangentially related to fashion, but I was pretty damn proud of it, and I think it’s an important message. It’s long, but take a look anyway.
Backstory: this article really ground my gears.
It has long seemed to me that “creepy” is the male equivalent of “slutty”. Both terms, though occasionally valid, are just ill-defined enough to negatively mark a person without any proof required. Make no mistake: I wholeheartedly understand that “creepy”, when used with precision, is often an extremely useful signifier. I am criticizing here not the word itself but the privileges and prejudices that often inform its use.
There are legitimate reasons to designate someone as “creepy”. Repeated violations of physical space and overly personal remarks or questions spring to mind. I pride myself on my ability to nope the fuck out of a situation when it takes a turn I’m displeased with, and I have never hesitated to extricate myself from the presence of anyone, male or female, who seems to be ignoring my humanity and autonomy. This is not an apologia for intrusive bullshit of any kind, and I sincerely hope no one reads it as such.
There exist fundamental differences between behaviors and traits. The difference most applicable to this situation, I think, is (from Dictionary.com) that a behavior is “anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation”, while a trait is “a distinguishing characteristic or quality, esp. of one’s personal nature”. Simply put, a behavior concerns one’s relationship to and interaction with others, while a trait is a statement of one’s personal tastes. I will argue that in designating a person as “creepy” (and “slutty” too, but that’s a story for a different sermon), designators often equate behaviors and traits, thus revealing their personal prejudices under the guise of preaching caution.
You’ve probably heard of “Schrodinger’s rapist”. While the term is accurate on a purely semantic level (technically speaking, any given man [or woman!] could prove to be a sexual predator, and you never know until the moment of sexual assault), its application, and the subjective nature thereof, proves highly flawed. When you get into the nitty-gritty of analyzing what might make someone a potential rapist, the potential for unexamined prejudices and unpacked privileges to slip into the mix skyrockets.
From “Schrodinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced” on kateharding.net:
…you must be aware of what signals you are sending by your appearance and the environment. We are going to be paying close attention to your appearance and behavior and matching those signs to our idea of a threat.
This means that some men should never approach strange women in public. Specifically, if you have truly unusual standards of personal cleanliness, if you are the prophet of your own religion, or if you have tattoos of gang symbols or Technicolor cockroaches all over your face and neck, you are just never going to get a good response approaching a woman cold. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of solitude, but I suggest you start with internet dating, where you can put your unusual traits out there and find a woman who will appreciate them.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until the cows come home: being offended by someone’s fashion sense, personal hygiene, or facial expression will never be a good reason to shun, berate, or otherwise humiliate them. I’m hardly suggesting that you have to flirt back, or even offer more than a polite nod and smile. But explain to me why a man with Technicolor cockroach tattoos is even slightly more likely than a well-dressed lawyer with a dashing smile to rape a strange woman in the grocery store. For that matter, explain to me why the poorly washed and likely indigent fellow is inherently more dangerous than someone of a higher social standing. Go on; I’m waiting.
Forgive me the infamous slippery-slope rhetoric, but I think it applies here. What if we refused the time of day to everyone whose traits (not behaviors – that’s a different issue) made us uncomfortable? What if a nebulous, often arbitrary “bad vibe” trumped the basic obligation toward human decency? As commenter snarkysmachine pointed out on kateharding.net, “[o]ften these conversations have a weird tinge of class, race, ability and gender identity discrimination. People feel comfortable having certain prejudices which are not allowed to be questioned because it’s about THEIR SAFETY.” If we excuse the snubbing of unconventional men because of a woman’s potential discomfort, should we also excuse bigots’ pearl-clutching in the presence of people of color? The hostile treatment of Muslims in airports? Feeling threatened is not the same as being so. If your stomach lurches upon seeing a black man or a woman in hijab, that is your prejudice to examine, and your cross, not theirs, to bear.
It hits home because, fuck, my whole aesthetic is about making people uncomfortable. I would not deliberately trigger or otherwise psychologically harm an individual, but I do craft my looks with an eye toward provocation. I wear many things considered obscene by the sartorially conservative and downright sacrilegious by the faithful. I date a guy who wears top hats and pirate boots as a matter of everyday life. I have trans friends and cross-dresser friends and uber-goth friends. All of us would make someone, somewhere, some kind of uncomfortable. All of us would, somewhere on the planet, run serious risk of physical assault based on perceived threat. I refuse to continue that tradition, even in the name of combating rape culture. I consider the right of an individual, no matter how aesthetically unconventional, to be received with an open mind and considered innocent until proven guilty paramount to the quashing of an imagined threat.
Shaming and denigrating a person based on appearance alone is abhorrent despite the gender of the victim. I’ve noticed that many of the people willing to brush off facial tattoos or poor hygiene as “creepy” will also argue ‘til they’re blue in the face for a woman’s right to be taken seriously no matter how short her skirt or dramatic her cleavage. I am all for the cessation of slut-shaming, so it’s only fair for me to take a stand in the other direction too. My desire to cherry-pick the sights that pass before my delicate eyes does not trump the right of others to express themselves aesthetically while still being treated like humans. We cannot call for men to be aware of the “signals [they] are sending by [their] appearance” without confronting the ugly side of that particular coin: the notion that a woman’s attire makes her responsible for any negative attention she may garner. “Look at that neckbeard – I bet he still lives in his parents’ basement.” “Come on, you know that skirt is asking for it.”
Let me emphasize once again that I am not condoning creepy behavior. By all means holler back at that construction worker; by all means slap that hand away from your ass. But deciding who is creepy based on looks alone is so many kinds of wrong. More than that, it leaves you reeling when a threat pops up outside your projected suspicions. Who’s to say that well-dressed lawyer wasn’t a serial rapist in his college days? Who’s to say the tattooed biker isn’t the kindest soul you’ll ever meet? Ultimately, I think it’s important to strike a balance between reasonable caution and empathetic tolerance.