A few weeks ago, I wrote a little bit about Internet creeps, and I felt intensely guilty after.
One, because I wondered if I hadn't been a little sexist. A lot of discussion has come up about usage of the word creep, the phenomenon of Creep Shaming, and how men hate being called creeps because it makes them feel like the human-fat-vampire from the human fat vampire episode of "The X-Files." (Which was a really good one, but whatever.)
"The Worst Thing a Woman Can Call a Man" by Jeremy Paul Gordon, on the Hairpin.
"Why Guys Really Hate Being Called ‘Creepy’" by Hugo Schwyzer on Jezebel
"Why Creep Shaming is Total BS" by Jessica Wakeman on The Frisky.
There was also a Reddit thread, and several responses from that antisocial subsection of humanity that confuses gender inequality with being angry that those models who get paid to roll around on concept cars don't want to have sex with them.
Either way, I was starting to think that perhaps men to not like being called creeps. Was this the WORST THING YOU CAN CALL A GUY? One of my best friends from college was a guy named Joe Mundt, and I always thought his last name would make for a great gendered epithet, but it never really caught on.
On a personal level, I was worried that maybe, as somebody who loves men and occasionally shows her boobs on the Internet, I'd been unfair to call so many men creeps. Immediately after my profligate use of the C-word here, I got messages from several men -- some Beloved Platonic Friends, some Total Strangers With Whom I'd Exchanged Pleasant Emails, and one The Guy I've Flirted With a Bunch And Constantly Embarrass Myself in Front Of. Most of them were apologetic, worried they'd caused the skin on my heaving bosoms to crawl.
Before I address them, and you, let's get into little taxonomy. Empirically, what IS a creep? Cue NOVA theme!
I've always thought of being a creep like being a jewel thief, or an actuary, or a vegetarian. It's a behavior, and a voluntary one. Chandler Bingian misunderstandings aside, I don't think you need to worry about being a creep any more than you need to worry about being a bee keeper. If you don't want to be labeled a bee keeper, don't cultivate and maintain a hive of bees.
But on the Internet, where you can't sidle and it's hard to use a list of cues from "The Mentalist" to determine if somebody wants to sex murder you, there is a lot more room for what constitutes creepy. When I saw the sheer volume of people who thought I was talking about them, people I liked, I felt culpable. Didn't I invite strange people in just by existing on the Internet? Don't I occasionally flirt with people I've met through Twitter? Who am I to say that one suggestive Facebook message is welcome and another isn't?
Then I thought: me, motherfucker. I am.
It's MY internet. And it's yours too. Think of it like Chili's happy hour. Sure, a lot of people are there to hook up, and maybe some of them are wearing slutty clothes and shouting really loudly in a way that garners notice. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be able to enjoy their Megarita without a stranger sashaying up and remarking on their cleavage.
In bars, the polite, "No thanks" usually works, but on the Internet, it's less effective, and it's harder to "leave" (but also equally hard to post song lyrics when you're drunk in room full of corporeal friends, so, trade off, I guess). For as many sitcoms and '70s movies as I've seen, I know few women who will actually tell a guy to "buzz off" or "get bent," mostly because we don't aren't all sporting sweet naturuals and bad bitch attitudes, and because most of us are socially conditioned to be polite even when somebody is being a real turkey.
So instead, we find ourselves ignoring or politely rebuffing Internet "creeps," with mixed efficacy.
While I appreciate the way that the Internet has allowed me to befriend people in Columbus and Los Angeles and Hong Kong and has introduced me to some people I certainly would not mind having filthy spanking sex with, it also has created a new problem of perceived universal accessibility. No matter how strict or lax your privacy settings, just having a social media account means being available to a wide network of people who feel entitled to hit on you just because you're there.
Most of us have to use Internet in some capacity as a communication tool for work, but should be able to use it both privately and professionally and go unfuckwithed. The same rules ought to apply there that they do in a public place, like a bus stop or a copy room.
If you want to meet somebody online, there are a number of wonderful sites where there are strange people who are just dying for you to hit on them. They are called dating sites. I hear they are all the rage.
Many people simply do not want to be approached by strangers for romantic purposes. I don't think that merits villifying, even if said person is running www dot domeinthedumper dot com. It doesn't even matter if the approach is very nice -- most of us do not want to have drinks with somebody we've never met, and a lot of us take umbrage with the idea that a come-on should be taken as a compliment.
It comes from a nice place, I'm sure, but I write stuff on the Internet for a living. That is why I am here, on it, so kind of makes me uncomfortable. If I had a roa- side produce stand, you probably wouldn't be like, "Wow, nice produce. Look at the rich greens of this kale! Want to go out for coffee sometime?" Or worse, you wouldn't just start winking at me or talking about ejaculating inside my squash.
Cartoonist and personal hero Kate Beaton once went on a perfect Twitter tear about telling someone you want to have their babies, which is a kind of Internet commenter shorthand for saying you dig somebody's stuff, but is kind of icky upon further examination:
[D]ear internet, you are well meaning, but I’d like to make a point. when you tell a female creator you like her work so much you want to marry her and have her babies, you’re not doing anyone any favors. first of all, as cute as it sounds in your head, it’s a shitty, disrespectful ‘compliment.’ No one makes comics looking for sexual attention. secondly, by doing so you invite others to critique that person’s works based on their looks, which is uncomfortable, sexist and unfair.
Granted, most of this kind of "I love your work" flirting is meant well and is essentially harmless, and most of these guys saying they want to put sperm in Kate Beaton probably mean it in the abstract. You know, the same way when I'm at Rite Aid and the cashier goes, "Oh, this mouthwash is two for one, do you want to go get another?" and I shout "Yeah, can you hold the line real fast while I get it? Thanks so much, I want you to put your balls in my mouth" to show I appreciate how good he is at his job.
But say "Please don't hit on me, Internet strangers" and you're immediately confronted with the digital equivalent of the How Short Was Her Skirt? question.
Do you write about sex on the Internet?
Do you post bikini vacation pictures of yourself on Facebook?
Do you make jokes about sex on Twitter?
Have you used the Internet to have sex before?
There's a weird double standard between the Internet and real life -- while it's getting more taboo to say that a woman who shows cleavage is asking to be hit on (hopefully), we're much quicker to call out what we see as seeking sexual attention online. Seeking attention does not mean seeking unwanted sexual advances, whether it means wearing red lipstick in public or a Twitter avatar with visible cleavage or playing a tuba in the middle of the street.
Everybody, in some way, likes attention, and as tempting as it is to be irritated with that friend who always puts up pictures of herself making pouty faces into the mirror, it's not a cattle call for solicitations of sex from everybody who sees it. That, however, is not the world in which we live right now, and one that puts me in a kind of social media gray area, personally.
I may or may not put up a Facebook album that includes my sister and I doing our Angelina Jolie leg pose at my cousin's wedding. I'm totally fine with it if a guy who knows I've had a crush on him sends me a message that says "God damn." Maybe because I used the exact words, "I have a crush on you" once and yes, I did want to Isadora Duncan myself on the closest bus immediately after. I may giggle a little bit, hide my face from my phone like a moron nightmare idiot person, then become embarrassed by the sexy picture and immediately deleter it then burn with shame for days. I am, however, NOT fine if some relative stranger with whom I have a mutual friend messages me "nice pic."
Am I a huge hypocrite? I don't think I am, but I know a lot of people who would think of me that way.
But that first guy knew it was OK because in my extreme awkwardness I have given him the pathetically overt high sign to hit on me mannnnnnny times (ugh, kill me) and the second guy has no idea who I am or if I have a girlfriend or a husband or a machete under my bed (I have one of the three).
I've made lots of friends on the Internet, some of whom I've gone on to meet in real life, but there's always a lot of build-up and usually several mutual friends and maybe a Girl-Scouts-style phone tree. I don't trust anybody who wants to go out with me based on my Twitter feed and a couple of grainy photos of me acting like an asshole.
The easy answer to this is, of course, is "Don't write about sex on the Internet" or "Don't put sexy pictures of yourself on Facebook" or "Don't be accessible to strangers online." Something about that feels a little bit like telling women they shouldn't wear low cut tops or high heels or go to places where there are people they don't know. I hope I'm not equivocating, or downplaying the impact that somebody making you uncomfortable in physical sphere is, but I think we all have the right to pick and choose who we'd like to be inappropriate with, in whatever format, without qualification.
I get that, socially, the Internet is Deadwood. I also get that it's weird to post anything and then be freaked out when people respond to it. Whether it's about our baby's first birthday or the fact that we're getting sick of Gotye, we're essentially putting things up there for public consumption.
Melissa Petro wrote on XOJane in February about getting unwanted friend requests after writing publicly about sex work. Even her boyfriend thought she was asking for it. I'll excerpt…
My boyfriend has said that I ask for attention and then criticize the people who give it to me, and there is some truth to this (he is good for pointing out the truth -- one reason I keep him around). But equally true, and more importantly, is the counterargument that my putting myself out there, literarily or otherwise, is not an invitation for people to publish poorly researched or purposely false news reports. And it’s not an invitation to everyone on Earth to get to know me privately.
While a very, very small portion of us are affected by what Melissa and Kate describe, because the majority of us are not people who write about sex or draw brilliant historical cartoons for a living, this applies to any woman with a LinkedIn, a Facebook, a Google+ (hahahah jk nobody has those) Twitter account, et cetera.
A friend with a Regular Office Job was recently hit on by a senior co-worker from another branch, via an email he sent that referenced a photo he found of her on the Internet. She freaked out about the picture and debated telling her boss, like anybody would, but his actions still kind of blow my mind. How can anyone do a Google Image Search and go, "Whoa! She seems DTF." Beep boop boop pantomiming mashing keyboard.
I can't pretend I've never wanted to sleep with somebody because I read something of his online, or heard his band, or saw the YouTube video where she gets drunk while cooking macaroni. But I'm not going to write that person a letter like, "I really liked your Shouts and Murmurs in this month's New Yorker. Want to get pizza?" or "Maybe I can 'Shout and Murmur' into that space between your testicles and anus?" Because, come on. I have control of my stranger-humping impulses; I'm not some kind of cybernetic cartoon skunk.
The Internet affords us all new ways to connect with each other, for pen pals or mix tapes or having dirty-ass kinky phone sex. All of that's great, but it's also a place where you should also assume that people reserve the right to exist without being hassled by your needy genitals. To me, the difference between being a creep and not being a creep is leaving somebody the hell alone, and knowing when to.
Whether you have a penis or a vagina or that shimmery lump that David Bowie had in "Star Man": If you don't want somebody to call you a creep, don't be a one. Treat your email contacts and your friends with trampy pictures and the guy whose blog you like with the same courtesy you'd afford your fruit stand person. If somebody is a stranger, please don't offer to come on their squash.