An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping

The last couple of months have been a really interesting time for geekdom, as its had its face rubbed in the fact that there are a lot of creepy assbags among its number, and that geekdom is not always the most welcoming of places for women. Along that line, this e-mail from a con-going guy popped into my queue a few days ago:

Any tips on how not to be a creeper? I try not to be, but I don’t know that I’m the best judge of that.

Let’s define our terms here. Let’s say that for this particular conversation, a “creeper” is someone whose behavior towards someone else makes that other person uncomfortable at least and may possibly make them feel unsafe. A creeper may be of any gender and may creep on any gender, but let’s acknowledge that a whole lot of the time it’s guys creeping on women. Creeping can happen any place and in any community or grouping of people, but in geekdom we see a lot of it at conventions and other large gatherings.

Let me also note that the reason I stress this is an incomplete guide is because a) there’s no way to cover every contingency and b) I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who doesn’t get creeped on very much (it almost never happens to me) and when it does happen I am usually in a position, by way of my gender, age, personal temperament and contextual notability, to do something about it. Other people who are creeped on — particularly women — aren’t necessarily in the same position. So the advice I give you here is informed by my point of view, not theirs, and as such is almost certainly incomplete (but hopefully not wrong). This is just a start, in other words, and others will have different and probably better perspectives on the subject.

That said, these are the rules that I use when I meet people, particularly women, for the first time and/or to whom I find myself attracted in one way or another. Because, yeah, I do meet a lot of people and/or I do find many of the people I know in a casual way to be attractive in one way or another. The very last thing I want is for them to feel that I am a creepy assbag. These are the things I do to avoid coming across as one.

Bear in mind that following these recommendations will not make you a good guy. They will just hopefully make you be not so much of a creeper. These are preventative measures, in other words, and should be viewed as such.

Fair enough? Okay, then. Let’s start with some biggies.

1. Acknowledge that you are responsible for your own actions. You are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. You probably are able to do all sorts of things on your own — things which require the use of personal judgement. Among those things: How you relate to, and interact with, other human beings, including those who you have some interest in or desire for. Now, it’s possible you may also be socially awkward, or have trouble reading other people’s emotions or intentions, or whatever. This is your own problem to solve, not anyone else’s. It is not an excuse or justification to creep on other people. If you or other people use it that way, you’ve failed basic human decency.

2. Acknowledge that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Which is to say that you may be trying your hardest to be interesting and engaging and fun to be around — and still come off as a creeper to someone else. Yes, that sucks for you. But you know what? It sucks for them even harder, because you’re creeping them out and making them profoundly unhappy and uncomfortable. It may not seem fair that “creep” is their assessment of you, but: Surprise! It doesn’t matter, and if you try to argue with them (or anyone else) that you’re in fact not being a creep and the problem is with them not you, then you go from “creep” to “complete assbag.” Sometimes people aren’t going to like you or want to be near you. It’s just the way it is.

3. Acknowledge that no one’s required to inform you that you’re creeping (or help you to not be a creeper). It’s nice when people let you know when you’re going wrong and how. But you know what? That’s not their job. It’s especially not their job at a convention or some other social gathering, where the reason they are there is to hang out with friends and have fun, and not to give some dude an intensive course in how not to make other people intensely uncomfortable with his presence. If you are creeping on other people, they have a perfect right to ignore you, avoid you and shut you out — and not tell you why. Again: you are (probably) a fully-functioning adult. This is something you need to be able to handle on your own.

Shorter version of above: It’s on you not to be a creeper and to be aware of how other people respond to you.

Also extremely important:

4. Acknowledge that other people do not exist just for your amusement/interest/desire/use. Yes, I know. You know that. But oddly enough, there’s a difference between knowing it, and actually believing it — or understanding what it means in a larger social context. People go to conventions and social gatherings to meet other people, but not necessarily (or even remotely likely) for the purpose of meeting you. The woman who is wearing a steampunky corset to a convention is almost certainly wearing it in part to enjoy being seen in it and to have people enjoy seeing her in it — but she’s also almost certainly not wearing it for you. You are not the person she has been waiting for, the reason she’s there, or the purpose for her attendance. When you act like you are, or that she has (or should have) nothing else to do than be the object of your amusement/interest/desire/use, the likelihood that you will come across a complete creeper rises exponentially. It’s not an insult for someone else not to want to play that role for you. It’s not what they’re there for.

So those are some overarching things to incorporate into your thinking. Here are some practical things.

5. Don’t touch. Seriously, man. You’re not eight, with the need to run your fingers over everything, nor do you lack voluntary control of your muscles. Keep your hands, arms, legs and everything else to yourself. This is not actually difficult. Here’s an idea: That person you want to touch? Put them in charge of the whole touch experience. That is, let them initiate any physical contact and let them set the pace of that contact when or if they do — and accept that that there’s a very excellent chance no touch is forthcoming. Do that when you meet them for the first time. Do that after you’ve met them 25 times. Do it just as a general rule. Also, friendly tip: If you do touch someone and they say “don’t touch me,” or otherwise make it clear that touching was not something you should have done, the correct response is: “I apologize. I am sorry I made you uncomfortable.” Then back the hell off, possibly to the next state over.

6. Give them space. Hey: Hold your arm straight out in front of your body. Where your fingertips are? That’s a nice minimum distance for someone you’re meeting or don’t know particularly well (it’s also not a bad distance for people you do know). Getting inside that space generally makes people uncomfortable, and why make people uncomfortable? That’s creepy. Also creepy: Sneaking up behind people and getting in close to them, or otherwise getting into their personal space without them being aware of it. If you’re in a crowded room and you need to scrunch in, back up when the option becomes available; don’t take it as an opportunity to linger inside that personal zone. Speaking of which:

7. Don’t box people in. Trapping people in a corner or making it difficult for them to leave without you having the option to block them makes you an assbag. Here’s a hint: If you are actually interesting to other people, you don’t need to box them into a corner.

8. That amusing sexual innuendo? So not amusing. If you can’t make a conversation without trying to shoehorn suggestive or sexually-related topics into the mix, then you know what? You can’t make conversation. Consider also the possibility the playing the sexual innuendo card early and often signals to others in big flashing neon letters that you’re likely a tiresome person who brings nothing else to table. This is another time where an excellent strategy is to let the other person be in charge of bringing sexual innuendo to the conversational table, and managing the frequency of its appearance therein.

9. Someone wants to leave? Don’t go with them. Which is to say, if they bow out of a conversation with you, say goodbye and let them go. If they leave the room, don’t take that as your cue to follow them from a distance and show up wherever it is they are as if it just happens you are showing up in the same place. Related to this, if you spend any amount of time positioning yourself to be where that person you are interested in will be, or will walk by, for the purpose of “just happening” to be there when they are, you’re probably being creepy as hell. Likewise, if you attach yourself to a group just to be near that person. Dude, it’s obvious, and it’s squicky.

10. Someone doesn’t want you around? Go away. Here are some subtle hints: When you come by they don’t make eye contact with you. When they are in a group the group contracts or turns away from you. If you interject in the conversation people avoid following up on what you’ve said. One of the friends of the person you are interested in interposes themselves between you and that person. And so on. When stuff like that happens, guess what? You’re not wanted. When that happens, here’s what you do: Go away. Grumble to yourself (and only to yourself) all you like about their discourteousness or whatever. Do it away from them. Remember that you don’t get to define other people’s comfort level with you. Remember that they’re not obliged to inform you about why they don’t want you around. Although, for God’s sake, if they do tell you they don’t want you around, listen to them.

Again: Not a complete instruction set on how not to be a creeper. But a reasonable start, I think.

Update, 8/10: A tangential personal note.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Kari Sperring

A list of books on a wall led author Kari Sperring on a literary adventure that took her from 17th century French satire to the world of her latest novel, The Grass King’s Concubine. How did she get from one to the other? Read on.


About ten years ago, my partner and I spent a weekend in the Belgian city of Antwerp. And one of the places we visited while we were there was the Plantin Moretus Museum, which is devoted to the history of printing and includes the original premises of Plantin Press, which remains in its original 17th century state.

Posted on the wall in the shop part of the business is a list of books that have been banned officially, in this instance by the Christian church. These were books that it was illegal to print, to sell, to distribute, to own. The banned works included science, philosophy, satire, theology, memoirs.

I knew about these lists but I’d never seen an original one before. It was neat and unshowy, in black and white on the bookshop wall. There was nothing dramatic or violent or imposing to it. It was miles away from the book-burning images of Fahrenheit 451 or BBC dramas about Galileo. It was just there, a fact of seventeenth century daily life.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was commissioned to write a book about the background and history to Alexandre Dumas’ famous The Three Musketeers. One of Dumas’ sources for that book was Mémoirs de M. d’Artagnan, a pseudo-autobiography by one Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras. I knew the book: I’d picked up a copy as an undergraduate, and I knew that Courtilz de Sandras was a professional satirist of the late 17th century, but I’d never done any research into him or the wider context of French pseudo-memoirs, court satires and secular banned books. I read Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, and I remembered that list on the wall of the Plantin Press. In the back of my head, in the mulch where my writing lives, something went click (or, possibly, squelch). I knew a lot about why governments and religious bodies, kings and school boards, took it upon themselves to ban books. I knew where I stood on that issue, too – the idea of banning a book on ideological, moral, religious or just plain crazy grounds struck me then and still strikes me as deeply wrong. But I knew far less about the writers behind these books.

Courtilz de Sandras was no Galileo or Rousseau. He had no breakthroughs to share, no strong political, social or religious views to promote. He was a professional: he wrote what would sell, and satires on court life, dressed up as eye-witness accounts, sold well. They were risky: he spent long periods in the Bastille, having offended the king and the court, but they paid, and he went on writing. (He had a lot in common with Dumas, in fact, though Dumas never managed to get himself arrested, and the Bastille was long gone.) I found I kept thinking about him, and the whole issue of banned and proscribed books long after my research was done. There was something here I wanted to explore.

That mulch at the back of my brain produced a character named Marcellan. He’s a traveller, an explorer, a jobbing printer and, above all, a writer. His driving force is his need to learn knew things and make them available to as many others as possible. His actions and their consequences set up the plot of  The Grass King’s Concubine: his hunger for knowledge reshapes one world and is creating conflict in another. One half of the book follows him in WorldBelow, a realm of non-human creatures ruled by the titular Grass King, whose very shape and way of life were partially created by one of his works. Captured by the Grass King’s bodyguard, the Cadre, he teaches one of them first about printing and then about ways of measuring time. The outcome is… messy. And when two of the Grass King’s subjects, the ferret-sisters Yelena and Julana, try and practice a kind of magic to help Marcellan, the trouble spreads both in WorldBelow and the human world (WorldAbove).

In WorldAbove, Marcellan’s books cause a young woman, Aude, to start questioning her society, its inequities and her place in things. She sets out in search of the origins of her family’s wealth and status. When she too finds herself in WorldBelow, she has to discover what Marcellan has done and find a solution for at least some of the consequences.

My thinking about banned books and their authors took me to some very strange places. It was important to me, throughout, that I stayed positive about that core idea about shared knowledge, and the positive effects of books. And yet my reading showed me that books could have some very strange effects on societies, as new knowledge emerged. We could all name books that have been revolutionary, from the Principia Mathematica to Das Kapital. But not every revolutionary book has a positive effect in every circumstance. Marcellan’s political works influence Aude into thinking critically about the assumptions she makes about class and power and money. But his knowledge of water clocks has negative effects on WorldBelow. Sometimes things are used inappropriately.

These are big themes for a midlist author. I often felt, writing Grass King, that the book was too big for me and that I should go away and write about something easier, like toast. But I wanted to write it, I wanted to talk about what books can do. Have I succeeded? I don’t know. I hope I’ve done the best I can with the skills I have. And I got to write about ferrets and water clocks, underworld portals and carnivorous mud. I read a lot of very very good books along the way. I learned a lot. (I can now bore for Britain on those water clocks.) In the end, the book took me about nine years to get into shape.

It started with a four-hundred-year-old list on a wall in Antwerp.


The Grass King’s Concubine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

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