|The Fourth Meditation On Creepiness
||[Sep. 13th, 2012|03:18 pm]
In the First and Second Meditations on Privilege, I agreed women had a very reasonable worry - they don't want to be harassed and afraid all the time. In the Third Meditation I argued men also had a very reasonable worry - they want to be able to ask women out without being terrified that it will, as my mother puts it, Become A Federal Case. An obvious solution is to agree on a set of standards to use when asking someone out. Men who follow the standards can rest assured that no one will blow up at them, and women whose suitors follow the standards can rest assured that they won't feel threatened.
This post is about the current version of those standards and why they don't work.
Let's boil down all the various rules into the two important ones I hear over and over again. First, don't proposition total strangers. Second, ask consent before any touching or anything that presumes familiarity.
Rule One: Don't Ask Out Total Strangers
(Or: "Hey I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's my ... *SLAP*")
Start with the first one. siodine put it pretty well in their comment to the last post:
The problem is the level of concern (of being raped) that you're imposing on the other person. If the [man] had been your friend for a while, and you were confident that he was a good person, then you wouldn't feel much concern in denying his proposal.
This is utterly reasonable and obviously correct. It's also never been a problem I've had with women. The idea of going up to a woman I don't even know and making any kind of proposal to her, even one as innocuous as asking to go out for coffee, is utterly foreign to my mentality. With the exception of some very casual online dating I don't think I've ever asked a woman out before I've known her for a few months at least.
Then I learned that this makes me a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM).
And before you accuse me of straw-manning, a female friend of mine once said exactly this. We'd been close friends for about a year, but she made it very clear she wasn't looking for a relationship and even though I was very attracted to her I assumed she wasn't interested. After a year or so and a few things I very optimstically misinterpreted as hints, I decided it would be harmless to just mention I was attracted and if she was interested in taking our relationship to the next level I would be totally on board. She decided this was sufficient justification to stop talking to me forever, send me angry notes whenever I tried to get in contact with her, finally break her radio silence to demand I promise never to talk to her, and vaguebook some posts about how much she hated creeps who pretend to be friendly but are really just Nice Guys (TM) trying to get into her pants.
Actually, I just thought she was an awesome person, and awesome people make great girlfriends but also pretty good friends as well.
I remember reading about Ladder Theory on Reddit a few years ago. Ladder Theory says that guys have one ladder, People I Like. If you're at the bottom of the ladder, I hate you. If you're at the middle of the ladder, you are my friend. If you're at the top of the ladder, you're my best friend and if you're female I probably want you as my girlfriend - barring family relationship or unspeakable hideousness.
Ladder Theory then says that women have two ladders, Friends and Potential Boyfriends. I could be way at the top of a girl's Friend Ladder, so that I'm her best friend and her favorite person ever in the entire world, but she could still have zero interest in dating me.
(now I wonder if there are gender-specific differences in the halo effect. Someone get a grant and study this, please)
The first time I read this it sounded kind of sexist and like sour grapes so I ignored it. But every time women talk about Nice Guys (TM) I struggle to understand the concept any other way. They always use this phrasing like "Man, I thought he liked me as a person and enjoyed spending time with me. But then he said he wanted to date me! What a dirty rotten liar!"
It sounds for all the world like not only are there two ladders, but that women can't even conceive of the idea of having a single ladder where liking someone and wanting to date them are correlated.
But enough with my unresolved five-year-old personal hangups. Here's my problem.
Suppose there is a woman I don't know very well whom I would like to date. Maybe I just saw her and found her stunningly beautiful. Maybe, like alicorn24, I don't even know what she looks like but I have read things she has written and she seems intelligent and fascinating. I seem to have two choices.
I can not get to know her and immediately ask for a date while we are still strangers. This makes me a Creep.
Or I can spend a while getting to know her without mentioning dating, and then after we're comfortable with each other I can bring up romance. That makes me a Nice Guy (TM), and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM).
Someone is going to bring up a third alternative, which is to only date people I already know and whom I have formed non-romantic relationships with. This is exactly what I tried with my former friend. It still got me dubbed a Nice Guy (TM), and I lost one of my closest friends over it.
(It also means life sucks for men who don't happen to coincidentally have close single female friends at the particular time they feel like dating.)
I guess a fourth possibility is that there is a certain window in which it is acceptable to ask women out in which you are neither quite a stranger nor quite their friend. If this is true, please for the love of Truth and Beauty just tell me what this window is. If you can only ask people on dates between 14 and 21 days after you meet them, that's fine, just make sure someone passes around a piece of paper with those numbers on it in every middle school sex ed class in the country.
But absent such a window, I guess my angry rant is this: you can demonize men who ask women out without getting to know them first. You can demonize men who ask women out when they do get to know them first. If you demonize both at the same time, you just end up with learned helplessness and men are going to shrug and do whatever they would have done anyway, since there's equal demonization either way.
Rule Two: Ask First
The problem with the first rule wasn't that it wasn't a great rule that everyone should follow, it was that I felt more demonized when I did follow it than when I didn't. This turns out to be pretty much the same problem with the second rule.
Part of the reason I keep harping about the point that creepiness comes from "male weakness" rather than "male privilege" is that (generalizing from one example) the main reason a guy might not ask is that he is terrified of reaching a point of no return. This is really hard to explain to someone who's never worried about it, so let me try a metaphor.
Imagine two Soviet spies in the Cold War US who have to get in contact with one another. The KGB forgot to give them a silly code phrase like "the wombat feeds at midnight" so they've got to figure it out on their own. The Americans know these two spies are trying to get in contact, so if one were to just ask random people "Are you a Soviet spy?" the Americans could quickly guess that the asker was a spy and arrest him.
You are one of the two spies, and you spot someone who you're about 50% sure is your colleague. How do you confirm they are also a spy with the lowest possible risk of getting arrested?
I bet there's some fancy cryptographic solution here, but my intuitive strategy would be as follows:
Me: Excuse me, sir, do you know any good borscht restaurants around here?
Other Spy: Ah, borscht. I love borscht!
Me: I hear Russian borscht is the best. Have you ever had any?
Other Spy: Yes, I was in Moscow once many years ago, before the war.
Me: Really? Have you ever been to [street the KGB headquarters is on?]
Other Spy: All the time! That's my favorite street! I used to talk to [name of KGB head] a lot.
Me: I am a Soviet spy. Are you one too?
Other Spy: Yes.
You would be immediately under suspicion if you asked patriotic Americans "Are you a Soviet spy?", since they would then know you were probably the other spy yourself. So instead you lead up with a question that seems innocuous to an American who's not thinking about spying, but to a Soviet who is specifically looking for another spy is sorta kinda suggestive of Russia. The other spy can't just say "Ah, I understand your code, I too am a spy" because then he might blow his cover to an American who was just looking for some good borscht. So he says something that slightly escalates the Russianness. You can't just blow your cover now, because you're still not sure he's not just an American who appreciates a good plate of borscht himself, so you escalate the Russianness slightly further. In other words, you start off with a conversation that could happen by coincidence, decrease the chance of coincidence a little bit at each exchange only once you get the signal from the other, and eventually the conversation becomes one that couldn't possibly happen by coincidence and you know he's the other spy.
When I was much younger and more terrified of women, this was exactly the route I would take. I didn't want to know if she was my fellow spy, I wanted to know if she liked me. I can't just ask, or I might end up as the next Julius Rosenberg. So instead - maybe we're sitting next to each other, so I move a little closer to her. If she moves a little closer to me, or does anything that could be interpreted in my feverishly optimistic brain as resembling this, then maybe I touch my leg against hers. If she touches her leg against me, maybe I rest my arm against her shoulder. If she rests her arm against my shoulder, I smile at her. If she smiles at me, then I ask for her hand in marriage.
One can also do this verbally. It would pain me to even type out the conversation, but I assure you it's still pretty awkward.
And when this doesn't work, sometimes if the other person just looks super Russian it's tempting to worry you've miscalibrated your subtlety ("Man, what if this guy just really hates borscht? Maybe I should call him Comrade and see what happens?) and try something else.
And okay, this is all super creepy, and I know that now, and I'm sorry for doing it, and I won't do it again.
(by the way, the one time this worked I was so flabbergasted and confused I completely forgot to ask for her hand in marriage. In case you haven't figured it out from this latest series of blog posts, I'm kind of an idiot.)
But let me try to explain (not justify, mind you) why this might seem like a thing someone should do.
I had a friend a few years ago, let's call her Alice. I asked Alice out on a date. She said she wanted to keep being friends. This went well. No, really. It actually went well.
Alice moved to another state, and a little while afterwards I went to visit her for a week. I worried if it might be creepy if I asked her to cuddle after she had said she wanted to be friends, but eventually I asked her anyway, and she said that was great and she loved cuddling and had been pretty desperate for someone to cuddle with.
We cuddled all week, but I was super super careful not to touch her breasts or any other part of her body that might be interpreted as outside the spirit of friendly platonic cuddling. On the last day she basically grabbed my hands and put them on her breasts and told me that she really liked having her breasts touched and obviously I was never going to get around to asking her of my own initiative.
And, being male, I thought Darnit, I could have been doing that the last six days!
And on the train home I was thinking about this, and I tried to figure out if there was something I could have done differently, and I decided that there is literally no non-creepy way to say "Excuse me, do you mind if I place my hands on your breasts?" Try it. I dare you to construct a non-creepy version of that sentence.
(as an aside, the existence of the non-threatening and socially acceptable word "cuddle" is super helpful. Before I learned that word I just never cuddled anyone, there is no non-creepy way to say "Excuse me, do you mind if I touch and stroke your body?")
Putting your hands on someone's breasts without asking them is a much worse offense than asking "Excuse me, do you mind if I place my hands on your breasts?". But, someone who actually puts their hands on someone else's breasts without asking them is likely to get swatted away and get a "Go away, creep!" and then the issue will probably never be spoken of again. If there were a rumor at my high school that some guy had put his hands on some girl's breasts, it would die down in a week, two weeks tops. On the other hand, someone who goes up to a girl and asks "Excuse me, do you mind if I place my hands on your breasts?" becomes a creepiness legend. If there were a rumor at my high school that some guy had asked a girl for permission to put his hands on her breasts, then that rumor would pass down from upperclassmen to lowerclassmen through the generations, and a thousand years from now when the high school exists only in cyberspace the disembodied transhuman freshmen would still be giggling to one another about it.
The same is true of the creepy Soviet-spy escalating thing. Is it creepy and horrible? Yes. Is it so utterly non-juicy that it would never make a good rumor? Also yes. So the more terrified a guy is of asking "Would you like to go out?" or "Would you like to cuddle?" or even "May I put my hands on your breasts?", the more likely he is to try creepiness instead. On the other hand, the day you can ask consent without any fear of reprisal or shaming is the day that men give a huge sigh of relief and just ask out the women they like without going through the whole creepiness rigamarole which honestly is pretty stressful for us too.
This is why I keep stressing that creepiness comes from male weakness rather than male privilege. If there were no risk of getting arrested, then the Soviet spy wouldn't ask silly questions about borscht. If there were no risk of being pilloried as a horrible creepy person for asking out a person "above your station", then creepy high school me wouldn't have sat uncomfortably close to girls in the hopes that this would prompt them to spontaneously show interest.
(I am not saying that the women who write blogs on gender issues are the same women who demonize men for asking consent, although empirically some of them sometimes are and this is bad. I am just saying that for the rest of them, convincing women not to demonize men who ask for consent would be a very valuable project.)
I think the two rules above are absolutely great rules and necessary. But they only work if people don't make a pet project out of punishing men for following them.
If the rule is "Don't ask out women before you build trust with them", then don't demonize guys who try to build trust with women before asking them out.
If the rule is "Always ask before you presume anything," then don't demonize guys who ask things.
I know it's more complicated than that, and I know the women who are doing this have good reasons, but once it becomes too complicated it becomes impossible for well-intentioned people to follow and then we just do the whole learned helplessness thing and resign ourselves to being demonized. And that doesn't help anyone of any gender.