There is a rule most boys learn by the time they reach high school: Be handsome. Be attractive. Don’t be unattractive.
When it comes to attracting the opposite sex, that rule is absolute. No matter how nice, how polite, or how respectful a man or boy behaves, his level of attraction plays the biggest role in whether the woman or girl will consider him likeable or creepy.
That reality poses a problem for feminists like Hugo Schwyzer. As he explains in a recent article:
What SNL played for laughs, many men (and some women) took – and still take – seriously: Some men can’t win with women, these people believe, no matter what they do or say. This attitude is best observed in the recent backlash against calling men “creepy.” [...] Others argue that “creepiness” connotes something specific: male homeliness. [...] I often hear something similar in my gender studies classes. [...] Whenever the subject of sexual harassment or “creep-shaming” comes up in class, someone–almost always a man–makes the case that SNL was right: the only way for straight men to safely express sexual interest in women is to do so while following the skit’s three rules. With almost invariable bitterness, these young men complain that unless a guy has won striking good looks in the genetic lottery, he’s doomed to be rejected and seen as overstepping his boundaries, no matter what he does.
This eye-rolling response is nothing new for Schwyzer. He has previously expressed a disregard for men’s dating plights and condoned unfair suspicions about men by women. Schwyzer does not see this is a legitimate issue of unfairness on women’s part. Rather, he sees the “backlash” from men against being called creepy as “an unwillingness to accept [a woman's right to decide whose attention she wants that has] given women unprecedented power to say ‘no’ to the lecherous and the predatory.”
Yet he provides no examples of anyone arguing anything remotely close to that straw man. Instead, he contends:
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. In that sense, the SNL sketch got to an important truth: Women’s subjective experiences and instincts matter.
The issue is not whether it is unfair for Ashley the hyptothetical barista to be “creeped out” by the advances of someone she does not find attractive. As Schwyzer points out, “enjoyment can’t be coerced.” Women can feel creeped out by “unattractive” men for the same reason I can feel creeped out by feminists who approach me.
Yet the issue is not whether one can feel someone is creepy; it is whether it is fair to label someone person creepy solely because one does not like them. “Creep” carries a very specific connotation in our culture. It implies the person is perverted, sexually depraved and dangerous, and lacks a basic respect for other people’s boundaries.
Is it fair for me as a male survivor to find it creepy that a group of people who seem to dislike male survivors and relish mocking them would flirt with me? Absolutely. However, to label them creeps or creepy implies that they engage in a set of behaviors that they may not actually engage in. I can feel whatever I want and refuse their interest, but I do not get to tarnish their character based solely on my feelings.
That is the point that Schwyzer misses. Many of the men complaining about being labeled creeps are doing precisely what happens in the SNL skit he cites: simply approaching women who do not find them attractive. They are not hounding the women, violating their personal space, making rude comments, or trying to touch the women. Their only crime is not looking like Channing Tatum.
That is indefensible, and as much as Schwyzer tries to argue otherwise, he cannot present a coherent argument to justify his position. The best he comes up with is:
In his indispensable 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker encourages women to rely on their own intuition to keep themselves safe from violence. There are few things more risky, de Becker argues, than overriding one’s own sense of real danger (“the creeps”) for the sake of preserving a relationship – or simply being “nice” to a stranger. Crucially, de Becker points out that people-pleasing and the urge to avoid causing offense put more women in danger than acting on sexual attraction. Women are more likely to be assaulted because they were too polite to someone whom they sensed was creepy than because they were too responsive to the charms of someone who turned them on.
Firstly, Schwyzer provides no evidence for the latter claim. To my knowledge, there is no research suggesting that women who were too polite are more likely to be assaulted than those who were too responsive.
Secondly, the issue of perception is tricky. To use a current situation, if one followed Schwyzer’s logic, George Zimmerman was well within his right to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin because Zimmerman “felt” Martin was suspicious. As a result of life experiences, social norms, biases, bigotry, or some combination of the above, a person can feel they are in danger or that someone is a threat even when they are not.
Socially speaking, unattractive men are viewed as more likely to engage in lecherous behavior (presumably because their looks would prevent any woman from willingly choosing them). That cultural perception could therefore lead women to assume that men those women do not find attractive are threats even when they are not. That factor cannot be ignored, yet it is one Schwyzer seems fond of ignoring.
Schwyzer likes to view these complex social issues in a vacuum, one in which men are always wrong and women are always right. However, that is not how things work. The situations are more nuanced, and unfortunately some men who do not meet conventional beauty standards face discrimination that pretty boys like Schwyzer do not.
Schwyzer ends with:
When men complain about being “creep-shamed,” or insist that the Tom Brady sketch accurately reflects reality, what they’re really lamenting is a culture that is increasingly willing to honor women’s right to be sexual — and women’s right to be safe.
Or they could be lamenting a culture that makes it increasingly difficult for them to show their interest in potential partners by labeling any attempt at flirtation from an unattractive man “creepy.”