|Being creepy and rapey is not black and white
||[Dec. 10th, 2012|07:14 pm]
I am not a rapist. I do not believe that I have ever engaged in sexual activity with someone without exercising an above-average degree of caution regarding any implicit consent and I regularly seek explicit and comprehensive consent during negotiation of potential intimate encounters. I have never engaged in sexual or intimate activity with someone who I thought was not consenting. I am aware that our culture has some really fucked up things going on regarding gender roles, rape, sex, and all sorts of other stuff. Unfortunately, trying to bring these topics up will often result in being shouted down by people who think this discussion should not be had as long as intentional rape is still happening. I am not trying to argue with or devalue any discussion of people trying to prevent intentional rape. I am, however, saying that for people who want to not be rapists, there remain just as many concerns in the opposite direction as for people who want not to be raped. As much sympathy as I feel for rape victims, and as much good as conversations about preventing people from intentionally raping other people, those conversations generally do not provide useful information to people who already want to not rape other people. That is who this post is talking about.
I am, however, a creep. A creeper. A creepy guy. I creep some people out. This is unavoidable. The mere act of being out in public, being the not-ideally-attractive person that I am, makes a few people uncomfortable. When my beard is acting out, more so. Looking at women is creepy. Starting conversations with strangers is creepy. Asking personal questions is creepy. Asking intimate questions is creepy. Voicing romantic or intimate intentions is creepy. Asking to touch people is creepy. Touching people without asking is creepy. Not being creepy isn't an option. HOW creepy to be in any given situation is a decision that I have to make, and those decisions work in the exact same fashion as "how rapey is this action" decisions. Being creepy can't be about reaction in the same way that rape can't be about regret. An action is creepy or rapey when it is committed, even if the result is positive. It is with that mindset that I have to decide whether or not to take a particular action, because over a long enough timeline, if I keep doing the same things (asking people out, complimenting people, hugging people, having sex with people, etc), every possible reaction will take place as often as its likelihood dictates.
More specifically, in a given situation, I have to ask myself some questions. For a possible course of action (doing or saying something, or not), what are the odds of it having the desired positive effect? If successful, what are the benefits, for myself, for the other party, for third parties? If unsuccessful, what are the negative effects? Given my best estimate of all of those factors, I then have to decide whether or not to go forward, based on some acceptable risk threshold. Even if two people agree on every factor above, there is then a subjective aspect of how much value is placed on all of those benefits and negative effects, and how that impacts passing or not passing the designated risk threshold. Moving the threshold for acceptable risk is effectively the same as changing the relative value of positive and negative outcomes.
A guy can walk into a bar and say "Nice boots, wanna fuck?" to every girl he meets. One out of a hundred of them is going to say yes. The other 99 (well, 49 on average) will decline, possibly violently, hence the term "99 slaps" applied to this approach. This guy is a creeper, and most people reading this post would label him as such, and yet he will be extremely successful by his own metrics and cause a relatively (compared to non-conversational offenses) low amount of harm. We have here someone who is willing to knowingly initiate many unwanted personal interactions, upsetting multiple people, to get a positive outcome for himself and perhaps one other person. That *particular* girl probably won't describe him as a creep, but what he is doing isn't any less creepy the one time out of a hundred that it has a positive outcome.
There's another guy who likes to hug. He can just hug people, without asking. He can approach slowly, and hug people who don't back away. He can wait for the other person to reciprocate the hugging motion (arms spread, etc). He can ask out loud "do you hug?". He can ask out loud "may I hug you?". In order, these are monotonically decreasing in creepiness, and in the number of people who get hugs they don't want, but mostly also will decrease the number of hugs he gets and the number of other people who want or need hugs that get them. For a given value system, where him getting hugs is worth +N, and other people who want hugs getting them is worth +M, and people getting hug-raped is worth -X, some line can be drawn here to maximize utility when attempting to hug people. But those three variables dictate where that line gets drawn, and seemingly-reasonable people in our society will assign values to them that are widely different enough that the line can get drawn all the way off either end of the spectrum.
These same sorts of situations arise around deciding who to talk to, what to say to them, who to look at, what sort of facial expressions to make, and pretty much everything else you can do that conveys any information to another person.
That brings us to the idea of Schrodinger's Rape Victim (stolen and adapted from http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/). Whenever I want to do something with/to you and am not entirely sure if you will interpret it as welcome and consensual, I have to weigh these same factors in my head. How likely are you to interpret it that way? What will happen if you don't? How bad will things get, and who will be hurt? How well will things go if you do? How certain am I of my estimates on all of those things? I have to decide what level of risk I am comfortable with. Risk of making you uncomfortable. Risk or making you unhappy. Risk of being creepy. Risk of being labeled a rapist.
The easy answer and popular answer here is "never do things if you're not entirely sure". If you've read my other writings on the subject of decision making and rules to live by, you probably see this coming... That answer is bullshit.
You can't ever be sure that a verbal approach will be welcome. I have friends to whom "nice hair" is offensive. I know someone who will have rape flashbacks if you comment on their choice of handbag. There are people who will be scared or insulted by your approach if you open with "Good work earning that medal in [sport]!". To allow interpersonal relationships to happen AT ALL, someone has to take a risk of someone else being hurt, even with some small chance of the hurt being significant. This establishes a baseline. Some level of risk must be acceptable. It cannot be unacceptable for some people to be hurt when those risks are taken. Any position that claims that that sort of risk is categorically unacceptable is untenable; implementing that position would lead to the end of relationships and the extinction of the human race (not to be too dramatic about it).
You can't ever be sure that an OFFER is intentional and honest and effective.
I know a girl who likes to show off her body and generally doesn't mind touching in social situations. She offers to let people feel her bikini top, or to motorboat her. In a group situation, she has ended up offering to let "everyone" do so, without realizing that a person she dislikes is in the group. When that person comes up to partake of her offer, she feels pressured by potential awkwardness to not rescind the offer. How is he to know that he is making her uncomfortable? Now that I've told you this story, how can YOU ever participate in such an encounter again without wondering?
I know two different girls who have been in a situation where they were alone with a guy and felt pressured by a his reputation. They expected the guys to become violent, not because of anything the guys did, but because of rumors. They pre-emptively offered sex as a way to placate and defuse the situation that they perceived, and they feigned enthusiasm during the act. He wouldn't have known that. If you told him about this having happened afterwards, would he be compelled to reject any future offers of sex because they MIGHT be a recurrence of this situation? Having read this, if you fancy yourself a sexually intimidating partner, can you ever be sure YOU aren't accidentially intimidating someone into giving you sex?
I know plenty of people who "hold their liquor well", who can be drunk enough to forget where they live but still converse eloquently and dance gracefully. When one of them hits on you, you won't know they are drunk. The next morning when they tell you they can't remember what happened, you might get scared. Scared of them telling that story to someone else. And this could be the case for anyone who ever hits on you. I'm sorry that I have to be the one to put that knowledge into your head.
And, the most widely applicable part of this post, you can't know that taking an action is welcome. I'm mostly making up the odds here as I go along, just trying to ballpark them. I might be off by an order of magnitude, but I think I convey the idea. You can be 99.999% certain, with your loving intimate sexual partner of 60 years, who you've had sex with every day, that they are going to be accepting of you having sex with them, even if you don't ask first. You can be 99.9% certain with a sober acquaintance who has said "Yes" to your asking. You can be 99% certain with a sober stranger who hasn't said "No". You can be 95% certain with a drunk partner who has said "Yes". You can be 60% certain with a drunk partner who hasn't said "No". And so on, to the other end of the spectrum, where you can be only 2% certain that your actions are welcome with a sober partner who has said "No" but doesn't physically resist. You can be 0.01% certain with a partner who has said "No" and does physically resist. Now, any given action has some potential negative outcomes, and intercourse is much riskier than a hug, all else being equal. But, given a particular action, and a particular consent scenario, we are back to having to decide what the acceptable level of risk is, in the same fashion as when trying to not be too creepy. Here you are, wanting to not be a rapist, and having to make the judgement call "how likely is this situation to be a rape?", or, from another point of view, "how rapey are the actions I'm taking in this situation?".
I expect that almost every person who reads this will agree that the 99.999% scenario is an acceptable amount of risk, and that the 0.01% scenario is an unacceptable amount of risk. I could probably maintain a pretty solid majority by setting standards regarding the the 99.9% and 2% scenarios. But that leaves the middle. Some people are going to say the 99% scenario is OK, even though that means 1 out of every 100 people in that scenario will be traumatized, because 99 people's happiness and enjoyable sexual experience is worth that one bad experience. Some people are going to say the 60% scenario is OK, because they think that 2 bad experiences are balanced out by 3 good ones. Some people are going to say that the 99% scenario, and of course the 60% scenario, are unacceptable. I don't think it's likely that I will convince a majority of my friends and acquaintances to agree on a threshold for even this specific scenario. Through my previous writings and the comments on them I have already determined that many of you will fall into the 60%-is-good-enough category, and many more of you will fall into the 99%-is-too-dangerous category, and that's a huge gap that I couldn't drag any significant number of you across. However, there's a chance that by making you think about this, I can convert some 60%-threshold people into 61%-threshold people, and some 99%-threshold people into 98%-threshold people, and if the truly most beneficial and net-positive threshold is somewhere in between 60% and 99% then the world will be a better place for it.
 odds rephrasing: In a world where every unwanted sexual encounter is reported, I think 1 in 20 sexual encounters involving a drunk person who consented would result in such a report afterwards. This includes "beer goggles", which is just another term for rape of a drunk person.
 odds rephrasing: 1 in 50 people like to play hard to get, but still want the situation to progress and will respond positively to continued action.
So, to summarize, you are Schrodinger's Rape Victim. Every interaction that I ever have with you has the potential to cause you undue distress, to offend you, to insult you, to arouse you, or to cause you irreparable mental harm. The odds of all of those increase as the nature of our interactions tend toward intimacy. The odds of them decrease as we exercise thorough and honest communication. But they are never 100%, and they are never 0%. I have to decide where my risk threshold is, but I won't ever have enough information to make that decision completely effectively. So I write this, and I talk to all of you, and I try to get feedback that will allow me to set that threshold in a place that results in a greater net benefit according to some value system more effective than my own. I hope you will think on this, and in doing so help yourself and help me work towards a culture that is at least a little less rapey.