Why Guys Really Hate Being Called 'Creepy'

The newest cause célèbre for men's right activists (MRAs) has nothing to do with divorce law, "false rape allegations", or the dangers of "sperm-stealing" feminists. It's about the C-word. No, not the ladybusiness one. We're talking about "creep."

As Jessica Wakeman discovered last week when she wrote about a first date gone wrong, the MRAs are up in arms about "creep-shaming." "The ability to label men as ‘creepy' is just one privilege that women enjoy, and a constant source of fear of ostracizing that all men must fear in our society," says one apparently anguished man on Reddit. Creep is "the worst casual insult that can be tossed at a guy" claims Jeremy Paul Gordon at the Hairpin. "Douchebag," "asshole," and "pussy" can't compare, Gordon insists, largely because the charge of "creep" is so much more difficult to disprove. These guys argue that "creep" has a greater power to wound than any other word, and yet it's tossed around with cavalier impunity by cruel women who ought to know better. Thus the campaign (particularly big on Tumblr, apparently) to bring awareness to the ongoing tragedy of creep-shaming.

The word creep has a long history, first as a verb and only much later as a noun. Dickens gets credit for first using "the creeps" in its modern sense in 1849, but the use of the word to refer to someone disgusting or frightening is, surprisingly, less than 100 years old. (Interestingly, while the term "creeper" today is a hipper synonym for a creepy person, its use as a noun is actually much older, dating to the 17th century, when it referred to a stealthy thief.) As an adjective, it shows up regularly in headlines here on Jezebel, most recently in coverage of the dating-spreadsheet finance guy.

Wakeman isn't the only female writer to wrestle with the politics of creep-shaming. Clarisse Thorn has suggested that the use of the word "demonizes men who are honest about their sexual needs," while Amanda Marcotte argues that "creepy" is a "useful, commonly understood term for a set of behaviors that absolutely are a problem." At the Good Men Project, Lu Fong noted that while in her mind, "the weight of the word was never heavier than any other insult I'd shoot back at the boys," she accepted that men found it exponentially more hurtful.

One reason men despise the word "creep" so much more than any other insult is that it isn't rooted in misogyny. Jeremy Paul Gordon specifically compared the term to "pussy," "douchebag," and "asshole." The first two words, when directed at a man, insult him by comparing him either to a vagina or a device used to clean one; their pejorative power lies in the way they feminize the guy who gets called one of these names. "Asshole," as the historian Rictor Norton has suggested, is rooted in a derogatory term for men who allowed themselves to be anally fucked. A man who gets penetrated behaves like a woman and is labeled as feminine — a fate that we raise small American boys to fear more than almost anything else. (This is why, of course, words like "bitch" or "pussy" when used by one man to another, are so much more likelier to lead to blows than "dick" or "prick." Men are unlikely to be enraged by references to their own anatomy, only to a woman's.)

So if fear of the feminine is what gives male insults their power, why then is "creep" worse than "pussy?" The answer is that creep is the only insult that instantly centers women's perceptions. To call a man a "pussy" is to make a comment about how his behavior appears; to call him "creepy" is to name how he makes women feel. If a man wants to disprove that he's a "pussy," all he has to do is act with sufficient macho swagger or courage to make the insult obviously inappropriate. But trying to disprove "creepy" involves trying to talk a woman out of an instinctual response to a potential threat, a much more difficult thing to do. Most men recognize (or eventually learn) that the harder they try to deny their creepiness, the creepier they appear.

At the heart of the "anti-creep shaming campaign" is a concerted effort to discourage women from relying on their instincts to protect themselves from harm. Laying aside its likely etymology, calling a dude an "asshole" is a way of labeling him a jerk. Plenty of people can be jerks without being predatory. On the other hand, calling a dude "creepy" labels him as a potential threat; a creep may not be imminently violent, but there's almost always a sense that he shows consistent disregard for a woman's physical or psychological space. This is why, as Wakeman wrote, "it's a really freaking dangerous idea to twist a woman's open, honest communication about her boundaries/expectations into ‘creep shaming' that victimizes men."

Though the word may be occasionally used unfairly (for example, to describe a physically unattractive guy's genuinely respectful attempt at striking up a conversation), "creepy" serves a vital function. No other word is as effective as describing when a man has crossed a woman's boundary; no other word forces a man to reflect on how his behavior makes other people feel. A guy can disprove accusations of being weak by displaying strength (often in foolish ways.) But a guy can only disprove the charge of creepiness by fundamentally altering his behavior to be more genuinely respectful of women.

This, of course, is why some guys hate the word so much; it forces men to reflect carefully about how they make women feel. No wonder then that so many guys are campaigning against "creep-shaming." After all, the sooner the term becomes socially unacceptable, the sooner men can get back to not having to think about women's boundaries.