Sunday, September 03, 2006

The contours of creepiness...

Over at the Houston Circle, Minneapolis has a story of how she was creeped out by an employee of her gym. To give the short version to you: he asked her out, she politely turned him down, he then resorted to the ol’ stare and lurk until she felt she had to change her exercise routine to avoid him. It’s unpleasant behavior, of course, but it’s also all too common. I imagine that pretty much every woman in the world has had a similar experience at some point in their lives. There are untold millions of creepy men: they’re in the cities and the towns, the malls and the parks, the pubs and strip clubs and church groups and drum circles. Wherever there are women, particularly young women, you can bet your ass the creepy men will show up sooner or later.

All this fascinates me, I have to admit. I have an unhealthy interest in obsessive, fetishistic, perverse and delusional behaviors and activities of all sorts. Basically, I’m creepy about creepy men. Now, mind you, I’m not a creepy man myself. I’ll cop to being weirder than a midget sailor salad, but I consider myself to be completely well-adjusted and sociable. If I’ve ever creeped anyone out—which I doubt---it was innocent and wholly unintentional. Even if I wanted to be creepy—which I don’t—I could never pull it off. I’m too much of a gentleman: I’m the kind of guy who apologizes to cats after they trip me.

But enough about me. I want to write about the creepy man. In my experience, I’ve known a dozen or so guys who I would classify as “creepy”. Because my hobby involves me sitting, usually by myself, in coffeeshops and cafes, I’ve seen dozens more in action. In addition to this, I interrogate every woman I meet for her own creepy man stories, which are then deposited in my vast mental archive of creepy male-ness. This archive is further buttressed by the countless books and articles, both scholarly and popular, I’ve read about stalkers, psychotic loners, assassins, peeping toms, and disreputable goons of all stripes. Given this, I feel that my understanding of the creepy man is pretty comprehensive. I could tell you all kinds of creepy shit. But I won’t. It would just creep you out.

What I do want to discuss, however, is the fact that there are essentially two ways someone’s behavior can be creepy: in context or in content. Let me explain.

In my experience, there are a limited number of circumstances and situations where women don’t mind strangers coming up and talking to them. If they’re out with their friends at a bar, if they’re at a concert, if they’re at work: venues, essentially, where social interaction is generally expected and comfortable. Now, somebody may be more introverted or extroverted than the average, but our culture still compartmentalizes the private and public spheres of our everyday life. The violation of this distinction is what leads to contextual creepiness. A woman walking back to her apartment alone stands a very good chance of being creeped out by some random guy who drives slowly alongside her, telling her that he likes her eyes and that he dreams of starting his own plumbing supply business one day. Likewise, a woman who is trying to study for her GREs might find a tad creepy the dude at Starbucks who won’t stop telling her that her hair makes her look like an angel.

In another situation, at a nightclub or a party, these actions might be appropriate. They become creepy by virtue of being delivered at the wrong time, in the wrong place, or by the wrong person. A young single woman, after all, might not mind someone like Jude Law, Colin Farrell, or even your humble blogger—what with his chiseled, Marlboro man visage and his sturdy musculature—offering her unsolicited compliments in Barnes and Noble, but she likely wouldn’t appreciate the same banter from some oily, drooling man in Superman Underoos.

This is the most common kind of creepiness, but it shouldn’t always be excused as a simple misunderstanding of a particular woman’s boundaries. Most creepy people are creepy on purpose. They might truly believe that the object of their affections has the most beautiful lips on the planet earth and they might truly believe that there’s no better place to bring that fact up than the sandpaper aisle at Home Depot, but it’s not their opinions that matter, it’s their intentions. Generally, they say these things with specific goals in mind. At the far end of the possibility spectrum, they might want to have sex with this woman. Failing that, they’ll usually settle for disconcerting, manipulating or provoking anxiety in her. It’s a power trip. If there’s one thing creepy people have in common, it’s a feeling of powerlessness, especially in the face of whomever they’re attracted to. They think, usually correctly, that they’ll never possess the objects of their desires. Because they're creepy, they settle on controlling them in their own sick ways. If they unnerve, annoy or frighten, they get to feel bigger for a few minutes. It’s sad, but it’s how the creepy dynamic works.

Content creepiness is more rare and, often, more out-and-out menacing. That’s when some guy you work with anonymously mails you pictures of roadkill. That’s when someone approaches you at the bar and sings you a song about all the bitches who have broken his heart before. That’s when a cab-driver threatens to slit his own wrists if you don’t get into his taxi and let him give you a free ride anywhere you want. This sort of thing is usually the province of the seriously disturbed and/or drunk, but a surprising number of women (and many men, I might add) have experienced such antics firsthand.

Content creepiness can be made even more scary when it’s mixed with contextual creepiness, as it often is. The result is creepiness beyond compare, the red-letter sort of creepiness that stands out in my archives. For instance, there was the time I witnessed a middle-aged man hassle a young barista at length over whether she thought Britney Spears was a virgin or a slut. Or the fiend who once e-mailed one of my college roommates all his poorly-spelled sex fantasies. Or there was the girl I knew in high school who got a long letter from a classmate of ours in which he confessed that his fondest desire was to remove her clothes with his teeth while the music of Air Supply played gently in the background. No kidding. Air Supply.

This is no laughing matter, of course. This is atrocious, inexcusable behavior that makes life for countless women more frightening and complicated than it should be. If social existence was as perilous for men as it is for women, it wouldn’t be tolerated. Our culture, both in how it enforces its customs and how it socializes its genders, facilitates a distressing and unnecessary amount of sexual menace towards its women. It shouldn’t. I have some thoughts and suggestions on how people can counter creepiness, but that’s another long blog post, and so I’ll have to save it for another day.