How To Not be Creepy – James P. Ascher

First of all, congratulations! Merely glancing at this essay shows that you are not a pathological monster, incapable of empathy, who doesn’t belong in civilized society. Even if someone else gave you the essay, it means that they think you have hope and could be potentially not-creepy. Of course, you may be utterly un-creepy already, in which case this essay may be only of clinical interest. Perhaps you have a friend who is creepy who needs your help and guidance to avoid horrifying her neighbors? Maybe you have a lover who is creepy and you’d like some practical advice? Or perhaps–like me–you hang out in sex positive communities and are baffled as to how people can be creepy in an open discussion group about fucking. If so, then this essay is for you too.

Public Domain (published in 1732 in England, digital copy provided by the Wikimedia Foundation)

The first thing about creepiness is that it’s really common and nothing to be ashamed of, much like bed wetting. World leaders, teachers, parents, postal carriers, movie stars, taxidermists, and morticians can all be deeply creepy and not bad people; they may simply need more empathy for the plight of other people or not realize that there are better ways for them to achieve the human contact they want. I’d venture to guess that we all start out as creepy infants, demanding things and giving nothing in return, as tyrants of the high-chair eyeing another cookie, plotting to throw a fit to get the larger humans to bring it to us, and it’s only through growth that we can pass beyond this. But, considering the origin of creepiness is the topic for another essay. Let us talk about process of becoming creepy first, with its complexities.

Imagine a small house with a wooden floor, warm in the cold winter night. A group of eccentrically clothed people, wearing studded leather, bright feathers, jeans, or a tee-shirt celebrating the Goddess, have gathered to discuss polyamory, relationships, love, and sex. Half are already friends and the other half are timidly looking for a community of support and nervously eyeing the door. The process-oriented group begins by going around the circle for introductions; each person gives the name they want to be called, the gender pronoun they prefer, and–if they want–why the came to the discussion group tonight. The leader gives the ground rules: be respectful, don’t touch people without permission, and try to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. Everything goes well with a few light jokes until the circle comes to Bob–not his real name–who introduces himself while staring at the youngest woman in the group then announces that he has a really nice cabin in the mountains and is looking for someone to come “hang-out” with him; he also announces that he’s going to the World-Polyamory conference next week for the first time and that this makes him a really big deal. He knows things. You should all think he is important. He finally glances around the room and smugly smiles at everyone else knowing he killed his introduction and soon all the slutty girls will be spending the weekend in his remote cabin.

This is phenomenally creepy.

But why? For a group that regularly discusses the intricacies of your girlfriend catching your boyfriend fisting your girlfriend’s boyfriend’s ex, spiraling into a tutorial on fisting, a discussion of what constitutes cheating, if cheating is a real thing, to STIs, and back to “well, it wasn’t a big deal until my parents found out,” it seems like nothing should be off-limits. Bob was fairly transparently saying he wanted to have consensual sex with an adult and even offering the attributes he brought to the table. What gives?

I argue that creepiness consists of two key elements: first, wanting something from someone else. In Bob’s case, he wanted to screw, but this isn’t creepy in itself since most people want to screw at some point. Creepiness consists of secondarily appearing not to understand the word “no.” This later one is subtle. If Bob had said, “I love sex and would love to have sex with someone; I’m hoping this group can help me think about how to do that” it would have been charming and endearing. However, rather than saying what was patently obvious, he couched his desire in a euphemism and tried to demonstrate superior value. Perhaps to a child, these strategies would not be obvious, but to people with dating experience this behavior is tantamount to someone who feels entitled and ready to convince someone using whatever is on hand, someone who doesn’t fully understand “no” waving candy out of an unmarked van.

It seems that the two-fold nature of creepiness is slightly unexpected. We’re all used to the creepy stalker seeking something he can’t have, but we welcome the advances of someone we like. Sexuality itself is not creepy. Creepiness requires both desire and drive. A truly creepy person won’t take no for an answer.

This dual nature appears historically in 18th century England. William Hogarth engraved the Harlot’s Progress in 1732 as a moral tale about the dangers of the city. In it, Moll goes into the city and becomes a prostitute, earning her living at first entertaining aristocrats, later robbers, and finally dying of quack cures for the syphilis she contracted in her work, unmourned even by her own bastard child. These engravings passed the censors, in part, because of their obvious moralizing. On the surface, they suggested that a life of dissolution lead to disaster, but they were even more critical of the corrupting power of the city. One would think that Moll would be creepy, seeking death and sex, living as there is no tomorrow, but she actually comes off as a deeply sympathetic. She is a young woman, seduced by the glitter of the city, and thrown away by its corruption.

In the first plate, we have Moll, newly arrived in the city with her carriage, fresh faced and innocent. In the background, Francis Charteris appears to masturbate under his jacket, his glare creepily focused on Moll. Even though she will be shortly selling her body and he could have her in a fair transaction, or another woman, his behavior is creepy. He demonstrates that he wants something from her and his public masturbation shows a disturbing disregard for public mores. What sort of man begins masturbating in the street when he sees a pretty woman? Someone who gets told “no” a lot and has decided to take his jollies where he can, who rejects the answer of “no.” In the masturbating rake we have the image of the city’s indifference to Moll and her ultimate downfall. He’s creepy because–like fictional London–he takes and won’t take no for an answer. He sees her as an object in his own lascivious plans and not as another human being. Martin Buber pathologized this stance as I-It as opposed to I-Thou. I-It relationships see the self as the center of the universe with everything else merely sensation for the eminence of the individual. Our rake, Charteris, demonstrates this stance by ignoring the social rules that other people rely on to feel comfortable. He objectifies Moll, rejecting the I-Thou encounter, forcing a separation which allows him to abuse his power in society.

This is key to avoid being creepy, rather than avoiding appearing creepy. One can learn to avoid behaviors that demonstrate that you have lascivious intents towards someone, but often people can see through these efforts, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making you look like you preemptively reject their right to say no by avoiding asking the question. Lust is fine, common, and natural, but treating other people as objects–even as objects deserving respect–is creepy. This is how Charteris and earlier Bob managed to creep us out with their lust, even while being painfully obvious.

Creeps need not exclusively want something sexual. The 2007 film, Funny Games, epitomizes another kind of creepiness. The serial killers, Peter and Paul, hold special horror for the audience and the family they terrorize because of their inchoate desire. They first arrive asking to borrow eggs, but break them along the way, returning and breaking more eggs. Clearly, these men want something else, but appear to be civilized and understand rejection. However, the family becomes uneasy. When the paterfamilias, George, asks the men to leave they break his legs with a golf-club and refuse to leave out of politeness. What was originally mild potential creepiness becomes full-fledged creepiness when the villains demonstrate that they desperately want something horrible from the family and won’t take no as an answer. Encouraged to just go ahead and rob the family, Peter and Paul show that they want something else entirely. The emotive power of many of their games can be seen in light of their refusal, accusing the family of impoliteness, to leave. We are not dealing with normal murders here (whatever that is), but people profoundly detached from society.

However, even after demonstrating their violent ways, George and his wife Ann still try to communicate and reason with them. Like most recipients of creepiness, they are profoundly disempowered and afraid, barely able to communicate their discomfort. When they finally strike back, shooting Peter with the shotgun, a tension is released. The response to the murderous boys is finally appropriate to their intentions and activities, already made clear by this point. However, Paul rewinds the film in a surreal moment, undoing his partner’s death, snatching the weapon away, and ultimately killing both George and Ann. Paul and Peter refuse to hear the cues of their creepy behavior–bent on murder as they are–but for the reader of this essay who wishes to avoid creepiness, this gives another technique. Carefully listening to people as they react to you. If you’re being creepy, people will tell you, but typically people who feel disempowered and afraid, so you have to listen for a quiet voice. It’s very possible to be innocently unaware of creepiness, and certainly not damnable, but listening empathetically to those around you will often show the nature of creepiness.

We see in creepiness a sort of immune-system response from communities, who are composed of individuals who want safe people who do not rape, assault, molest, or harm them. A community, thus, rejects an individual who appears to wish to do these things and not recognize the social authority to forbid certain kinds of harm. When we perceive creepiness, we empathize with the recipient of the creepy, as part of their community and respond emotionally. In Funny Games, this becomes the emotive trajectory of the film, the feeling of oppressive weight of creepy rejection, released, and then reapplied. Hogarth uses our empathy with Moll, who must therefore be a sympathetic character, to demonstrate the corruption of the city. Its creepy individual citizens are a human metonym for the corruption throughout. Bob from the discussion group was rejected socially as a creep to train him the appropriate behaviors for the discussion group. If he persisted, the group’s response would have escalated, but because he relented it was a mere small incident.

Though creepiness is a sort of response a community uses to police itself, it isn’t always sufficient. In the 18th century French epistolatory novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos provocatively shows two protagonists who are far from creepy. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont may behave in utterly disreputable ways, plotting seductions for revenge and fun, but they are both fully integrated into polite society. Even while she is rebuffing the advances of the Vicomte, Madame de Tourvel still does not think of him as a creep, just a threat to her constancy. Corruption is rampant and part of the horror is realize that the Vicomte and the Marquise want things from people: to seduce them, that is, to induce those people to want them, and neither will accept no as an answer. The Vicomte describes his persistence in seduction in letter 110:

My only means of keeping myself informed, [regarding the situation with Madame de Tourvel, his target for seduction] as you will have gathered, is to intercept this clandestine exchange of letters. I’ve already given appropriate instructions to my valet and I’m expecting him to put them into effect any day now. Until then I can only operate at random; so for the last week I’ve been vainly going over every known way, in novels or in my secret memoirs, without finding anything to fit either the circumstances of this adventure or the character of the heroine. It wouldn’t be difficult to slip into her hous, at night indeed, nor even to drug her and turn her into another Clarissa; [who was drugged and raped by Lovelace in the eponymous novel] but imagine having to resort to methods so foreign to my nature after more than two months of laborious and meticulous effort! To gain a victory without glory by following slavishly in someone else’s tracks!… No, she’s not going to enjoy the pleasures of vice and the honours of virtue. Just possessing her isn’t enough; I want her to surrender willingly. And to do that, it’s not only necessary to get into her house but for her to let me in herself; to find her alone and ready to listen to me; above all to close her eyes to any danger, for if she sees it she’ll be able to overcome it or die in the attempt. (Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Les Liaisons Dangereuses, trans Douglas Parmée (Oxford: O. U. Press, 1995): 245)

With some false nobility, he refuses to outright rape his target or to drug her but describes his toolkit of techniques for inducing Madame de Tourvel to desire him supposedly freely. Both the Vicomte and the Marquise plot and manipulate other people in I-It relationships, including each other, but until their correspondence is revealed they are–mostly–without creepiness. How can this be? We have two people who want things and won’t take no, but theirs is a meta-game. They play to make other people desire the outcome they desire. Their unethical behavior lies in their intention, well hidden from others.

The intrigue of the story comes from the secretive nature of the letters. Admitted into confidence by having full access to their correspondence, we become entangled with the Vicomte’s and the Marquise’s plotting. We perceive that their behavior is creepy in its desire and undeniability, empathizing with their victims who should perceive them as creepy. However, at the same time we can see their individual behavior as creepy to each other, though neither seems to notice until the very end. Their hidden rejection of social mores makes them sympathetic to a queer reading and their victimization to each other gives us empathy for them, so by the end their downfall is both a success and horrifying. The story vindicates us from their creepy villainy, yet they too were victims of each other and of their differing mores. Our horror is only magnified with the invisibility of the creepiness, or even non-presence.

Thus, avoiding creepiness is necessary for a certain kind of ethical behavior, but not sufficient. The very sort of anti-social behavior that creepiness emblematizes can be hidden under a veneer of sociability. Crucially, this gets back to avoiding being creepy, rather than merely not appearing to be creepy. The more innocent, perhaps, cannot manage to avoid appearing creepy when they are, but for experienced libertines like the Vicomte and the Marquise, avoiding appearances is possible for a while. Remember, no-one wants you or anyone else to be creepy, so while being straightforward and honest may be at first difficult, eventually a community will show where creepiness is. Creepiness is nothing to be ashamed of, but not learning to avoid it when you don’t want to be creepy is just sad.

James P. Ascher is Assistant Professor in the Libraries and in English where he catalogs rare books, teaches book history, and directs the ScriptaLab colloquium, faculty seminar, and lecture series. In 2008 he earned the Rare Book School: William Reese Company Fellowship in American Bibliography and the History of the Book in the Americas for his scholarship. His research explores bibliography within new media, the infrastructure of printing, and submerged histories in libraries. His published work includes bibliographical methods, issues in diplomatic transcription, processes for collection surveys, and methods training and recruiting librarians. He also serves as a lab instructor teaching descriptive bibliography at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. During 2012 he organized the 54th Annual Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference, served as the Vice-President for Publications of the American Printing History Association, and served as Treasurer for the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies.

He holds a Masters in Science in Mathematics and a Masters in Library Science as an ALSTAR Institute of Museum and Library Science fellow. In fall 2013, he will be entering as a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Virginia where he will be focusing on bibliography and 18th century English literature, particularly focusing on libertinism, censorship, and the history of obscenity.