There has been a lot of thought in the gendersphere about the word “creep.” I have a complicated position on the issue, insofar as I simultaneously agree with and disagree with everyone.

Creep is a term very often used in a kyriarchial way. In theory, it is non-gendered; in practice, it all-too-often is. Male sexuality is often viewed as predatory and degrading, which means that a man expressing his sexuality– even in a way that would be perfectly acceptable for a woman– is often viewed as “creepy” or “gross.” In addition, men are typically thought to be incapable of not wanting sex, which means that even gross invasions of boundaries by women are sometimes not recognized as creepy.

However, it’s problematic in way more ways than just gender. It’s a kinkphobic term; kinky people’s sexuality, even when safely, consensually and joyfully expressed, is often called “creepy.” It’s a classist term, because it’s often applied to people of lower or lower-middle classes who aren’t “respectable” (not to mention homeless people, who are almost universally considered creepy). It’s an ableist term, applied to people with, for example, autism and Asperger’s syndrome; strange facial tics and odd grooming habits, often considered creepy, may be a sign of a mental illness the person cannot help. Heck, I have a friend who has been called creepy for being trans, which makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever.

Nevertheless, I do support the continued existence of the word “creep.” Very simply, we do need a word to express the concept “a person who makes other people feel uncomfortable or unsafe, especially in a sexualized way.”

Western culture encourages people of both typically male and typically female socialization to not firmly enforce their boundaries. Straight women are pressured to be nice, to be polite, to give him a chance, to not make a fuss. Straight men are told that having any boundaries around physical contact with women is unmasculine, since a real man ought to want sex with every woman who wants sex with him. Eliminating use of the word “creep” entirely removes one of our only ways of saying “this behavior violates my boundaries and is seriously Not Okay” with social approval.

Admittedly, we could choose a different word, less laden with baggage, to discuss people who make other people feel uncomfortable or unsafe, especially in a sexualized way. However, I don’t think that will solve the problem. People will just use the new term to shame people in an ableist, classist, kinkphobic, sexist and kyriarchial way, because guess what? We live in an ableist, classist, kinkphobic, sexist and kyriarchal society! Changing the word is a Band-Aid solution.

Ultimately, the solution is to end the kyriarchy. For a more… short-term… solution, the thing to do is to examine your use of the term. Obviously, in the moment, “this person is creeping me out” is as far as you need to go; if you feel creeped out or afraid, leave the situation, don’t sit there examining your use of the term for traces of ableism. However, it’s a good idea to look for patterns in whom you call “creeps.” Have you called every homeless guy creepy, including the one who was sleeping on the bench and not interacting with you at all? Do you think that people with facial tics, even ones they cannot control, are creepy? Do you think the sexualities of some people, such as men or kinky people, are inherently creepy? Do you not describe women doing creepy behavior as creepy? That’s problematic.

One critique that Hugh Ristik, among others, has made of “creep” that I think is actually valid is that it is a very vague term: creepy refers to any behavior that could make a person feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Unfortunately, nearly any behavior could theoretically make a person feel uncomfortable or unsafe. A survivor of horrific rape and abuse might feel uncomfortable or unsafe whenever a strange person talks to him or her, even if that person is just asking the time. That doesn’t mean the survivor has to keep talking to the time-asking person, or that the time-asking person should ignore the survivor’s negative body language, but it also doesn’t mean that no one should ever ask the time from anyone else.

Therefore, I propose the Reasonable Person Standard of creepiness. A behavior is creepy if it would make a reasonable person with only an average amount of trauma feel uncomfortable or unsafe, especially in a sexual way. Behavior that would probably qualify as creepy under this scheme includes:

  • Continuing to talk to someone, especially a stranger or acquaintance, who has negative body language (closed up, frozen, shaking head, looking away, responding in monosyllables) or says they would not like to talk to you.
  • Hitting on a stranger in an enclosed environment (such as a moving vehicle), a deserted area or very late at night.
  • Telling a stranger how much you’d like to fuck them as your opening line.
  • Sending a person you went out on a date with thirty emails and ten phone calls.
  • Pressuring a person into physical contact (anything from a handshake to sex) they don’t want.
  • Hitting on people who are likely to feel pressured into saying yes, such as teenagers (if you are over the age of 21) or students or employees.
  • Taking someone out on something that is not a date, which you plan on turning into a date.
  • “Accidentally” turning up in the psychology class, coffeeshop or laundromat of the person you have a crush on.
  • Only talking to people you want to fuck at a party.
  • Poor social skills in general. (Have I recommended SucceedSocially enough yet?)

Et cetera.

In addition, I think there are attitudes that could probably be considered “creepy attitudes.” Viewing every conversation as a means to obtain sex. Thinking of potential romantic partners as games that if only you knew the secret code you could obtain. Being angry that you deserve sex with an attractive member of the correct gender and why is the universe not providing it. Some of these are totally natural attitudes (anger is natural when everyone around you seems to be in love and you’re still alone and lonely and if you died the only person who would notice was your cat, and that only as a food source); however, they are also not productive.

It’s important to note that this standard applies to people who are afraid of being creepy, not people who are currently creeped out. If your gut says “don’t trust this person,” don’t think “well, he hasn’t done anything on Ozy’s Creep List”; think “how can I communicate firmly to this person that I don’t want to talk to them/hug them/go home with them/get in their white van with the candy?” However, as a way to keep other people from being creeped out, I think my definition works the best.