Lynn Beisner warns all women to always trust their gut, but sometimes the guys we label as “creepy” aren’t sexual predators, they’re just insecure. In her experience, it’s the charming, popular guys who can be the most dangerous.
The recent discussion about creeps has been both encouraging and concerning for me. I am encouraged because I believe that we as women should give ourselves permission to avoid any person or situation for no reason other than that it feels wrong. I also am of the strong opinion that we as women have a duty to warn each other about potentially dangerous situations, which is what we are trying to do when we label a man as a creep. But using the label of creep as a way of warning our fellow women also causes me concern. I worry that we are confusing or conflating creeps with sexual predators. They are two very different creatures and what protects us from one does not protect us from the other.
I can explain the difference best by telling you about two men I have dated. Let me start by telling you about the sexual predator; I call him Mr. Popularity because he was one of the most well-liked men that I have ever known. We worked in the same office high-rise, and it seemed like anywhere on those 32 floors that we went, people knew and liked Mr. Popularity.
When we started dating, I became instantly and bizarrely more popular; it was as if my geekiness was cancelled out by my association with Mr. Popularity. Women suddenly wanted to talk to me—mostly about Mr. Popularity. He had dated other women in our building, and some of them struck up conversations, telling me how much fun they had with Mr. Popularity. One comment that was repeated by every woman was how much he had expanded their sexual boundaries. I suddenly seemed to show up on men’s radar as well once I started dating Mr. Popularity. Many would tell me something along the lines of: “You’ll have a lot of fun dating Mr. Popularity. He is a great guy. But you know that he never gets serious about anyone, right?” Then they would give me their phone numbers for when Mr. Popularity and I stopped dating.
They were right: Mr. Popularity was a lot of fun. He made me laugh, made me feel special, and took joy in introducing me to new things—new music, new food, and new ways of having sex. He had a tried-and-true method for getting me to agree to something new. First, he would tell me how much he loved a certain activity. He would mention several times, seemingly in passing, how hot he thought it was. Then he would demonstrate how much it aroused him by showing me his physical response as he told me a fantasy of him and I doing whatever it was that he wanted. If I was still disinclined, he would let it drop for a couple of days. When he brought it up again, he would tell me a story about one of his previous lovers who had been similarly resistant. He would tell me about how he had helped her “get over her hang-ups” or “let go of her fear.” He would end the story by telling me how much she had enjoyed the experience.
During one of these campaigns, I happened to run into one of Mr. Popularity’s ex-girlfriends in the restroom. It was just the two of us, and she asked how things were going. So I asked her if Mr. Popularity had ever tried to convince her to do something adventurous. She sort of half-laughed before telling me that convincing her to do ever-more adventurous things had defined their relationship and caused it to end. One incident she described was an eerie match to a story he had told me just weeks before. That is when it dawned on me that the stories he told of convincing women to have types of sex that they were uncomfortable with were not just stories he had ripped off from “Letters to Penthouse.” These were things he had actually done.
So I had every reason to believe that he was telling me the truth when a few weeks later he casually confessed to having anally raped his 14-year-old niece. Of course, he didn’t use the word rape. His story followed the normal arc of his persuasive narratives: She had been resistant, he had coerced her, and she had enjoyed it so much she even had an orgasm. That was when the truth hit me like the proverbial bolt of lightning: I was dating a sexual predator. He wasn’t interested in the women he dated, or even in “scoring” consensual sex—he was into coercion. He was targeting women, coercing them as far as he thought he could get away with, and then moving on to the next victim.
The problem is that Mr. Popularity was not a creep. And that is something we need to remember: sexual predators—the truly dangerous kinds—are rarely creeps. They are sociopaths, and are therefore socially skilled, incapable of feeling shame and completely unlikely to set off the average woman’s alarm bells.
Conversely, creeps are rarely sexual predators. To put it bluntly, their social ineptness means that they don’t have the opportunity to develop the skill and cunning of a true predator. That was the case with Mr. Creep, probably the least popular man that I have ever known, and certainly the most socially inept person I have ever dated. What I still find fascinating is that dating Mr. Creep had an equally strong but inverse impact on my social status. I instantly became a pariah when I was with Mr. Creep.
Mr. Creep had severe anxiety and had been a life-long victim of bullying. He was desperate for companionship and sex, and he hated himself for his inability to get these needs met. As the self-loathing and un-met needs mounted, he came to despise himself for the needs themselves. In other words, he had come to the place where he judged sexual need as humbling personal failing. He reminded me of a shelter dog that a friend of mine had adopted. The dog, who had been beaten and starved by his previous owners, was used to having to be sneaky to get his basic needs met. The dog skulked rather than walked, he waited for my friend to turn her back so he could steal the food she had put in his bowl. It took years before the poor pooch came to understand that he did not need to sneak and skulk, that he was cared for and that his basic needs would be met. Mr. Creep skulked around women the same way that my friend’s dog had around food. There was this sense of furtiveness he exuded around women, especially those whom he found attractive. Above all, he oozed shame, coating even our incredibly wholesome and consensual sexual encounters with a smarmy slime that made me feel ashamed along with him.
During the months we dated, I tried to convince him that women and people in general would no longer respond to him as they did in high school. He did not need to skulk, sneak, or be ashamed. But eventually, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand feeling pity-fueled remorse when I declined one of his furtive offers for sex and contaminated by his shame when I consented. Sadly, the shame I contracted from him colored my memories of our time together, and that negative interpretation of our relationship was reinforced by friends who were convinced that he was a sexual predator based on the alarm bells that he set off in them.
Based on my time with Mr. Creep, I came to believe that what we call creepiness is likely a variant of an anxiety disorder. Hopefully, mental health professionals will be able to diagnose and treat the disorder some day. But for now, it seems important to realize the reason creeps set off our alarm bells is that they are surrounded by an aura of shame and sneakiness that is as visible and omnipresent as the cloud of dust that followed Pig-Pen in the Peanuts comic strips. It makes them unattractive and generally an unhealthy choice as a partner. It might predispose them to harassment, misogyny, or stalking. But it makes them unlikely to be sexual predators.
If we cast creeps as boogey men, we run two risks: The first is exacerbating and stigmatizing what is likely a psychobiological condition and turning potential allies into men’s right’s advocates. The second and vastly more important risk is that if we follow our instincts and teach younger women to do the same, we may focus on creeps and leave ourselves and them vulnerable to the far greater danger posed by ruthless, savage sexual predators who look and act nothing like them.
Lynn Biesner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi.
This article originally appeared on Role/Reboot and is cross-posted with permission.