Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, February 06, 2015

Ein Klein Whining

Yesterday Elisa Gabbert tweeted:
I basically agree with this sentiment, but I also agree with the sentiment expressed by Catherine Nichols (e.g. here) that creepiness is a word used to describe unwanted male attention, and it's just a fact of life that male attention is more likely to be unwanted when it's coming from an unattractive man.

I want to take a step back and consider the way the sexual match-making process works.  In the U.S., at present, the general expectation is that men will be the agenda-setters.  In other words, men initiate things by indicating interest in some way.  This is obviously not an absolute rule, but in general a man must take affirmative steps to get the ball rolling, and by the same token can dial things down simply by not doing anything.  A woman generally must wait for expressions of interest, and then must take affirmative steps to shut things down.  Again, I do not mean to say that this is how things should be, or how they are in every case, but I think this is the norm.

The dynamic I've described above is not great for women, obviously, but it's also a very unfortunate dynamic for socially awkward men.  I think here is (very roughly) how things play out.  Men express their interest in women with varying degrees of adroitness.  When this attention is welcome, women are happy.  (They may not express their pleasure directly—they may play hard-to-get or feign disinterest or whatever—but they certainly don't often label men "creepy" when the attention is welcome.)

When the attention is unwelcome, it puts women in an awkward position (even if it is otherwise appropriate).  Sometimes, of course, the woman can simply communicate her disinterest, and that's that.  But the less perceptive the man, the more he is apt to ignore the "easy outs" that women may be trying to provide him.  "What is needed," he may be thinking, "is more persistence!  I just haven't gotten my message through with enough vigor."  When in fact the target of his affections is trying very hard to get him to stop.

Now the unfortunate thing here is that you can see how unpleasant this is for the woman (and therefore how she might be tempted to label the man "creepy"), and yet how unfair it is to pathologize the man's behavior (assuming, again, that the behavior is appropriate but for the fact that it is unwelcome).  Both the man and the woman in this scenario are behaving in a way that is rational given the context.  (The man is being oblivious, but he is behaving reasonably given his limitations.)  The culture expects him to be aggressive; he doesn't have the option of passivity.  Or at least, not if he wants to have a decent chance of finding a sexual partner through the normal channels.

The woman, meanwhile, really wants to dissuade this kind of behavior, because it puts her in a very uncomfortable position.  It would be different if there were clear, unmistakable ways to signal lack of interest.  But there aren't.  (Remember, it's not good enough to be reasonably clear to the average person.  It needs to be a signal that is clear to a less-perceptive-than-average person who is highly motivated to err on the side of aggressiveness.)  A woman can't extricate herself from the situation simply by dropping the matter.  That is (in general) the man's prerogative.  The woman may also want to signal to other people just how little interest she has in the man (to emphasize, in other words, that she has not encouraged the attention of this loser she has on her hands).  And so she labels him "creepy."

Where I think this leaves us is in an unfortunate equilibrium, one that is very disadvantageous to awkward/unperceptive men (something I'm keenly aware of).  The word "creepy" is used to encompass both truly problematic behavior and behavior that is merely awkward or tone-deaf.  Socially awkward men, who are understandably horrified at being lumped together with predators, respond by withdrawing from the market.  Or they adopt a much more tentative approach, which often amounts to the same thing, since women respond poorly to ambiguity or signals indicating lack of confidence.  (Some of this may be biological rather than social.  In Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, the narrator is greatly aroused by what is essentially asshole behavior—what is, in fact, quite creepy behavior, except for the fact that it is welcome.  Hence my dismay, expressed in the comments section of Elisa's blog post on the book.  The narrator's reaction definitely seems to validate the idea that creepiness is almost entirely a function of attractiveness—when an attractive man says even the creepiest things, it's not creepy.)

And so a certain proportion of men are intimidated into passivity, while single women wonder where all the men are (or so I assume, what do I know?).  It's a frustrating situation all around, worsened I think by the weakening of old institutional forms of match-making.  And worsened also, I think, by the unfortunate (though understandable) tendency to use the same word to describe very different behavior.

As a kind of coda, here is another tweet from Elisa:

Indeed.  In the world we live in, the non-awkward man is king.


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