For many women, creeps are a serious, ubiquitous, pervasive problem. They seem to be everywhere. Not only do they pester us in public, but some are capable of worming their way into our social lives, poisoning our experiences.
For many men, creeps are like unicorns: they hear about them a lot but they never actually see one. Even when they do, they don’t understand what the fuss is all about.
This article aims to bridge that gap by explaining the nature of creeps, how and why they manage to infiltrate our social circles, and how we can deal with them in a safe and timely manner.
Disclaimer: this article, like many other works on the subject of creeps, has a gender bias. This isn’t because only men can be creeps, and only women can be the targets of creeps. People of all genders can be creeps or targets. However, current statistics indicate that this issue affects women more often than men. Furthermore, my experience of this issue is gendered, and I can only talk about what I know. Most of the information in this article will apply to creeps and targets of all genders, but some may not, because our gender can have an huge impact on how people treat us.
What is a “creep”?
First of all, let me clarify my terms. A quick Google search will show you that the word ‘creep’ can be used to mean very different things. For the purpose of this exercise, however, it will have a very specific meaning:
We might find plenty of people creepy, but that does not make them all creeps.
A creep is a person who consciously behaves in a manner likely to give someone an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease, specifically where there is a sexual undercurrent to that discomfort.
There are lots of reasons why we might feel uncomfortable with somebody, and many of them have nothing to do with their behavior, let alone their intentions. We may find a person creepy if they remind us of someone who behaved badly towards us in the past, regardless of how they are behaving.
Furthermore, studies have shown that certain personal characteristics have a tendency to register as “creepy” in our culture. These include a peculiar smile, unpredictable laughter, bulging eyes, long fingers, pale skin, bags under the eyes, unkempt hair, and unusual or dirty clothes.
If people are socialized differently from us, we may read their behavior as over- or under-friendly, and be creeped out by that. We might also harbor conscious or subconscious biases that make us mistrustful of a certain type of person because of their race, culture, religion, gender, sexuality, disability status, size, and so on.
Anything that makes a person seem unusual may make us feel uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that the person in question is being a creep. Unfortunately, it means that people who are different from the majority are at higher risk of being perceived as creepy just because of how they look, dress, or emote.
The bottom line is that we might find plenty of people creepy, but that does not make them all creeps. A creep is someone who consciously behaves in a way that makes people uncomfortable.
The million dollar question is: why would anyone purposefully do that? If someone has desires of a sexual nature toward us, why would they want to make us uncomfortable? Generally speaking, making someone want to run away is not a prelude to a fulfilling relationship, or even to sexytime. There are some people who are into that kind of thing, but it’s a limited market.
So why do the creeps do it?
There are two main reasons people willfully engage in creepy behavior.
Creepy behavior can be a consequence of selfishness.
Creepy behavior can be the accidental result of people putting their own sexual desires ahead of other people’s interests and comfort. I call them “negligent creeps;” they don’t creep people out on purpose, but they behave in ways that they know can creep people out on the off chance that it might get them laid.
Some modern dating advice treats relationships as a number game: a person should maximize the number of interactions they have with the people they find attractive in order to maximize their chances of finding someone willing to have sex with them. This can drive people to force interactions with anyone they find attractive, regardless of the settings. For instance, there is a wealth of advice available on how to proposition strangers who are busy exercising, reading, or at work.
The people who do so are aware that their chances of success are low, and that their chances of bothering or even scaring someone are high. However, they carry on regardless, because there is always the possibility that they might get lucky. If doing something gives them a one-in-a-million chance of getting laid, it’s worth a shot. The cost, in the form of the 999,999 people they bother in the process, doesn’t stop them. It doesn’t bother them to bother other people.
Now, this attitude may seem relatively benign – after all, these people do not want to upset anyone, let alone harm them. They just want to get laid. However, we need to consider the mentality of someone who is willing to deliberately bother people in their quest for sexual gratification. If someone genuinely believes that their needs and wants trump everyone else’s, can we trust them? If they put their needs ahead of ours in public, can we expect them to act differently in private?
These are the ‘nicer’ creeps, the ones who creep people out because of carelessness or selfishness, rather than on purpose. They know they are creeping people out, but it isn’t their goal; it’s just a byproduct of their activities.
Creepy behavior can also be deliberate.
Some people engage in certain behaviors precisely because they know that it will make their targets feel repulsed or threatened. These people are low-level sexual predators, even if they never become physical. They are doing as much as they can to get their kicks without doing anything they can be punished for. I refer to them as “malignant creeps.”
Sexual predation isn’t always physical.
Being a sexual predator is potentially risky. Some interpersonal behaviors are regulated by law, and in most countries these include non-consensual sexual activities.
For instance, if I grope someone’s genitals without their consent, in most countries I have committed a sexual assault, which is a criminal offense. Whether I will be punished and how seriously depends on a variety of factors, but the potential legal consequences are serious.
The bulk of interpersonal behavior, however, is not regulated by law, but by unspoken social conventions. For instance, local etiquette will dictate whether we shake hands or hug to say hello. If we hug, etiquette will dictate for how long, how tightly, and where we allow our hands to rest.
We don’t have laws stipulating how we say hello to people, and getting it wrong doesn’t constitute a crime. However, if we greet someone in a way that is not appropriate to the situation, the person at the receiving end of it may feel uncomfortable.
Behaviors that fall in the gray area between what is socially acceptable and what is legally actionable can make people uncomfortable, but don’t allow them to seek legal redress. Some sexual predators use that knowledge to their advantage and restrict their activities to that gray area.
For instance, they might hug even though the situation calls for a handshake. If a hug is appropriate, they might make it uncomfortable by hugging too closely, for too long, or by letting their hands stray too close to people’s private parts.
The question, again, is why: why would anyone want to make someone uncomfortable? Quite simply, some people get off on that. They are sexually gratified by making other people uncomfortable. There are predators who commit sexual assault, not because of the sex per se, but because they enjoy feeling that they have power over others. The sex may be an important aspect of the activity, but the key aspect is their feeling of powerfulness.
For malignant creeps, creeping is a way to get a small dose of that power without risking legal consequences. Doing so might not be as rewarding to them as committing an assault, but if they do it with enough subtlety, they can do it as often as they want, for as long as they want. It’s a low-reward, low-risk endeavor.
Creeps will usually only give it up if they get sick of it, which is unlikely, or if someone forces them to. Unfortunately, that is more easily said than done.
Why are creeps so common?
Most people don’t like creeps and don’t want to put up with them, yet a lot of people do it. Why is that?
Creeping works so well for several reasons. The main reason is that it can be hard to conclusively identify a creep. In order to determine that someone is creeping us out on purpose, we have to be able to exclude the possibility that they might be creeping us out accidentally. That can take a long time, because there is no set checklist for us to tick off.
There is nothing that all creeps do and there is nothing that only creeps do. However, there are three indicators that a person is definitely a creep, rather than just creepy:
- The creepy behavior is targeted. Someone who genuinely has a problem modulating certain behaviors will have that problem with everyone. For instance, someone who has a problem respecting personal space will stand too close to everybody. By contrast, someone who can respect men’s personal space but stands too close to women, or to a specific woman, doesn’t “just” have a problem with personal space. If a person can pick targets for their behavior, their behavior is not accidental.
- The creepy behavior can be turned on and off at will. Someone who genuinely has a problem modulating certain behaviors will have that problem all the time. Going back to the previous example, someone who can respect people’s personal space when authority figures are around but stands too close when they are unsupervised doesn’t “just” have a problem with personal space. If a person only engages in a misbehavior when there won’t be any repercussions, then they choose to misbehave the rest of the time.
Incidentally, this is why many men never see a creep: the creeps are scared of them. They either go creeping where it’s safer, or they turn their creeping off whenever a man is around. As a result, a creep might have a very good reputation around men, and a terrible one around women. And when those women try to discuss the problem with those men, they aren’t always believed.
- A person tells you that they are going to be creeping you out ahead of time. This isn’t the same as warning people that we have a problem so we can work out a solution together. For instance, someone who knows that they have a problem with personal space may ask you to tell them if they are too close, so they know that they need to move away. That is not the same as someone telling you that they have a problem with personal space, so you’ll just have to put up with them being too close to you. The second person is turning their “behavioral problem” into a free pass. They are grooming you into accepting a behavior they know is inappropriate.
If any of these three red flags are in play, it’s almost certain that we are dealing with a real creep, rather than with someone we find creepy. If these red flags are not present, however, it can be much harder for us to determine what exactly we are dealing with. Many of us want to have conclusive proof that we are dealing with a real creep because we do not want to accidentally accuse an innocent person.
The same focus on protecting the innocent can also cause some spaces to become creep-friendly. This can happen in any space or any group can become a creep haven, but there are four factors that make it more likely:
- Spaces where normally-inappropriate touching is allowed. For instance, at a wrestling club we can expect people to touch us in ways that would be inappropriate outside that setting. In that kind of situation, it can be hard to draw the line between what’s normally inappropriate but normal here, and what’s just all-around inappropriate. It can be even harder to get anyone to believe that there is an issue and have that issue addressed, because the differences are so minute.
- Groups who value tolerance above all. If one of the core beliefs of the group is that anyone should be accepted precisely as they are, this can bleed into the group believing that anyone has a right to do anything they want to do. Anyone who suggests that some behaviors are inappropriate, or even anyone who asks not to be exposed to those behaviors, is seen as intolerant and may be punished.
- Groups that pride themselves on being special, separate from the mainstream. These are groups that make their own rules, sometimes going against mainstream social conventions. People who try to bring “conventional” rules into play may be treated as squares or oppressors.
- Groups that pride themselves on being the kind of places where that kind of thing doesn’t happen. The classic example of this is a church. Religious people aren’t perverts, right? Hence, nobody who goes to church can be a pervert. Whistleblowers threaten the image of the entire church, so they may be disbelieved, silenced, or punished.
There are all kinds of places, both online and in real life, where one or more of these factors apply. The more of these factors are in place, the better the place is for creeps, and the riskier it is for the targets of a creep to speak up. In the worst case scenario, those who speak up will be punished, regardless of the circumstances, while the creep will continue to be protected by the group.
How can we protect ourselves from creeps?
In the wake of the #metoo movement, allegations of inappropriate behavior are taken more seriously than ever before, but this does not necessarily make it easier for people to speak up. Many of us are still too worried about the risk of accusing an innocent person, or the risk of social repercussions if we don’t have enough evidence to support our accusations.
Fortunately, this entire issue can be bypassed by shifting our focus: we don’t have to deal with a person, just with their behavior. We do not need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person is a real creep, because it ultimately does not matter: the issue is that their behavior is causing us distress.
If someone’s behavior is causing us distress and we want them to change it, the only way to resolve that is to tell them. Many people – me included – hate the thought of doing that, but there is no way around it. We can’t expect people to read our minds and behave accordingly.
Unfortunately, boundary setting is not a risk-free process, and I don’t mean solely in a physical sense. Standing up to someone who is harassing us in a secluded area may turn the harassment into an assault, which is obviously a serious issue. Even in situations when we are physically safe, however, setting boundaries puts us at risk of incurring social repercussions.
There is a tendency in modern self-defense to treat boundary setting as an activity that happens in isolation, between two individuals, but that’s not always the case. In many social settings, our ability to set boundaries is affected by our social status.
People higher up on the social ladder are perceived as having the right to make the rules. Their boundaries are likely to be perceived as a natural manifestation of their authority, which means that they will be more readily accepted by more people.
As a result, people higher up on the social ladder are less likely to have to enforce their boundaries and more likely to receive support from their group when their boundaries are violated. This isn’t because they are better at boundary setting; it’s just the result of their social position working for them.
The opposite applies to people lower on the social ladder, who are not generally perceived as having the right to make rules. When someone low on the social ladder sets a rule, a proportion of people will perceive this behavior as inappropriate, unjustified, or even oppressive; the low-status person is seen as exercising a power they have no right to.
This perception may not change even when the “rule” in question only affects what happens to the low-status person’s immediate environment, or even just to their body. As a result, the boundaries set by low-status people are less likely to be respected. As a result, low-status people are more likely to need to enforce their boundaries, and less likely to receive social support in doing so.
A low social status isn’t just a function of the role we play in the local hierarchy. For instance, employees who aren’t popular, for whatever reason, may have a lower social status than popular employees who share their position in the business hierarchy. Also, members of marginalized groups are likely to have a lower social status than their cohorts.
The more marginalized a person is, the riskier it is for them to set boundaries, and the more likely it is that they will have to enforce them. To make matters worse, when a marginalized person is forced to enforce a boundary, they might be punished for doing so, either formally or informally. And, again, this has nothing to do with how good they are at boundary-setting.
All these concerns are real and valid. Unfortunately, this doesn’t alter the fact that boundary-setting is essential when we need someone to change how they behave around us. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to reduce the risk of social repercussions.
How to set a boundary
The first step is to state our boundaries as calmly, clearly, and politely as we can. It can also be beneficial to formulate them as requests, rather than orders, and to make those request an expression of our needs.
For instance, if someone hugs us, and we don’t like that, we can say that. “I don’t feel comfortable hugging people. Please don’t hug me again.” A request like that is neither an attack nor insult. It makes the issue about us: we don’t like something, so we don’t want to do it.
Some people may still be offended by that kind of request, particularly if they see us as lacking the right to make it. Their reaction is a reflection of how they perceive our relative social status. This could cause us social difficulties, but it may help to remember that it’s not because we have done something wrong.
Some people will simply ignore our requests, regardless of how reasonable they are and how clearly we make them. While this isn’t the result we might wish for, it is a result nonetheless: it tells us that we are dealing with someone who is deliberately engaging in behaviors that make us uncomfortable. If their behavior has a sexual undercurrent, these people are creeps.
When boundaries fail
If our boundaries are reasonable, we stated them clearly, and people do not respect them, we will need to escalate our response and enforce our boundaries. How we do that will depend on our situation, so I cannot outline a specific course of action for you.
Enforcing boundaries is an even riskier endeavor than setting them; not only are the stakes are higher, but we already know that we are dealing with people who don’t respect us and don’t believe that our social group will support us. As a result, it’s advisable to think of the best way for us to escalate our response ahead of time.
Most organizations – schools, workplaces, churches, clubs, and so on – now have policies in place to deal with this kind of problem. Not all of them are good, alas, and some only work in theory, but they generally exist. In informal settings, getting a positive resolution often requires informing other members of our group of the problem, so that the group as a whole can choose a course of action. In either case, we might not get the resolution we want, and then we will have to decide whether we want to stay and endure the creeping, or quit and look for greener pastures.
All of this sounds easier said than done, and it is. However, it does get easier with practice. The more we do it, the easier it gets. And by doing so, we aren’t just helping ourselves. Creeps are ubiquitous because not enough people stand up to them. By looking out for creeping behavior and addressing it whenever it comes up, we won’t just improve our life, but potentially also that of the people around us.
If you are interested in this subject and wish to learn more, “Creepology: Self-defense for your social life” by A.R. Banks is available as an e-book, paperback, and audiobook from Amazon and Audible:
- An Introduction to Creepology: How to identify predators - January 6, 2023