Let’s face it – it does not take very much for a guy to look like a creep.
Women, on the other hand, really have to show you something spectacular before the word “creepy” is used to describe them. I am not saying that women cannot be creepy; I am simply pointing out that the bar is set much higher for them. Some women succeed in hurdling this bar – think of the character played by Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction, for example. However, her character was far more the exception rather than the rule. In this essay, I will explore the sexual dynamic of creepiness.
Last year, I published the first empirical study on creepiness. Before I conducted my study, I asked a lot of different people what it was about some people that made them seem creepy. I talked with men and women, people of all ages, and people from many different countries around the world. These conversations, as well as the data from my study and from another by Canadian psychologist Margo Watt and her colleagues, consistently identified men as being creepier. This makes sense. If getting creeped out is a reaction to a potential threat, men are simply more physically dangerous to men and to women alike.
However, very early in these conversations it became clear that for women, far more than for men, the creepiness of an individual was tied up with sex in some way. Women almost universally reported the feeling that the guy in question had some sort of sexual interest in them, and this was not perceived as harmless or flattering. The fact that women are simply at greater risk for sexual assault and that the costs of this are potentially greater for them means that they must be especially vigilant about sexual threats for sound evolutionary reasons, and hence, they are more likely to fear that a guy may not be just a creep, but a pervert as well.
The words "creep" and "pervert" are often used interchangeably, but I would like to make a distinction between them. Guys can be creepy for a variety of reasons that are unrelated to sexuality, but I propose that a pervert is a creep who sets off alarm bells because he poses some sort of sexual threat. In other words, a pervert has sex on his mind, and it is probably sex that is unusual, deviant, and possibly dangerous. Jeffrey Dahmer, the Wisconsin man who lured young men to his house and then raped, murdered, dismembered, cooked and ate them would be an extreme example of the kind of person I am thinking of as a “pervert.” At least part of the pervert’s creepiness may sometimes be traced to his assumption that his perverse desires are secretly shared by his potential victim.
Men are, of course, painfully aware of how easily they can come across as creepy, and the fear of looking and sounding like a creep is the source of much of the awkwardness that men display when they approach women. Most women who are at a party or a singles bar are probably interested in meeting men who are fun and interesting, but for their own well-being their creep detectors need to be functioning at full capacity in these settings. This results in the maddening irony of a man’s nervousness about being perceived as a creep creating awkwardness in his interactions with women that may lead them to think he is creepy. Consequently, a man seeking a new romance always faces the delicate balancing act of expressing interest in a woman while not crossing the creep line.
Some men are at greater risk than others in such situations. Good looking men with strong social skills can get away with a lot more than awkward guys with unusual and less attractive physical traits. Other demographic variables such as age and race may also play a role, and the trope of the “dirty old man” exists for a reason. It is no secret that as men age they retain an attraction toward much younger women, but at some point an age difference becomes so great that a romantic approach automatically tosses the man into the creep bin. In fact, Christian Rudder, the founder of the dating site “OK Cupid” and the author of Dataclysm, has developed the “Standard Creepiness Rule” to help men avoid looking like creeps. In short, the rule states that the zone of non-creepiness for relationships is “half your age plus seven.” If you ignore the standard creepiness rule, you are begging to be labeled as a creep. Data from the OK Cupid website confirms that the pattern of men’s searches for a romantic partner by age abides by this rule almost perfectly.
One popular men’s “dating advice” blog has suggested that all men go through a “creep period” in which they are learning the ropes of romantic life. During this period, men are young and inexperienced, nervous and awkward, and they simply do not know how to read feedback from the women they are approaching. In other words, it takes a period of trial-and-error learning for a man to figure out how to let a woman know that you are interested in her in a smooth, uncreepy fashion.
Apparently, some of us never figure it out.
There are a surprising number of internet resources to help men avoid creepiness. One of my favorites is a podcast by two evolutionary psychologists called The Mating Grounds. This podcast starts with the insight that “women’s deepest fear when interacting with a man is that he will kill/hurt her. A man’s deepest fear when interacting with a new woman is that she will sexually humiliate him. Understanding this can help you understand all male/female interactions.” In other words, if you are a man approaching a woman make sure that she feels safe and protected while you are trying to charm her. Some other advice offered at the Mating Grounds includes the following (verbatim):
Other male advice columns, such as Dr. Nerdlove, offer common sense advice for men who fear looking like creeps. Remember that other people will never tell you when you are being creepy and that nervousness and twitchiness on your part makes other people uncomfortable. In other words, do your best to calm down! Beware of being too aggressive and persistent in trying to contact women after you meet them (stalker!), and give them physical as well as psychological space when interacting with them in person by being cognizant of personal space and touching and not talking about sex too often or too early.