Why Men Need to Learn How to Not Be “That Guy”

Melissa McEwan over at Shakesville wrote a piece today about why she thinks that straight men shouldn’t write articles or blogs telling other men how to not be creepy. She makes some good points, though I think she also misses some key points.

Her first argument is that when men talk about creepiness, they tend to frame it as something that other men do:

I would wager that virtually all of the men who have behaved toward me in ways described as “creepy” don’t consider themselves creepy. “Creepy” is something other dudes are. If you want to have a serious talk with men about their interactions with women, you can’t use language that very few of the men who need to take this lesson believe applies to them.

There’s certainly some truth to this. A lot of men have no idea that they’re being creepy, and plenty of other men don’t care if they are or not. But I think she’s wrong about how “virtually all of the men” think about themselves.

See, here’s the thing- almost all of the messages that boys and men receive about how to approach someone for sex, how to ask for what you want, how to perform masculinity, and how to deal with rejection teach us to push someone’s boundaries. They teach us to not take no for an answer. They teach us that sexual success is measured by how often you have sex, rather than the pleasure and joy of the participants. All of these messages teach men to be creepy.

As a man who is both deeply committed to being an ally to women, and as a man who is deeply committed to crafting an honest, authentic, passionate life, I’ve struggled with these messages. I had to learn through trial and error (and unfortunately, far more error than I wish) because I didn’t have a single role model to point the way. And I find it troubling that anyone who wants to create a world of gender equality would advocate for men not stepping up and taking that on.

Many of the men who come to my workshops are really worried about being creepy. They genuinely want to learn how to flirt with women, and to be romantic and sexual with women. And they want to do it without being creepy. So unless someone offers them useful tools for how to do that and helps them see how we need to resist the patterns of sexism, sexual intrusion, and gender roles, how does Ms McEwan think that will happen?

Personally, I’m not a big fan of othering the creeps. I know that I’ve done things that were creepy, simply because I didn’t know how to not do them. I agree with Ms McEwan that nothing good comes from pretending that it’s those “other guys.” But I disagree with her that men talking about creepiness has to use that false dichotomy. The fact that it often has doesn’t mean that it must. Rather than shutting down men’s voices, I’d rather create a call to action for the guys who get it, so they can stand up and be heard.

In her second point, Ms McEwan argues that many of the writings on the topic focus on the well-intentioned and clueless men, while ignoring the existence of predators. I totally agree with that. I also agree that there are predators who will take the lessons meant for non-predatory men and use them to camouflage their intentions, just as they often pretend to be “hapless dude[s] who just didn’t know any better” when they get caught.

But I’m still not convinced that the way to deal with that is by not making room for men to teach each other how to navigate consent, communication, boundaries, expectations, and relationships. She says that “If those [well-intentioned but clueless] guys want to not harm women, they’ll learn even if you target your allyship in a way that centers accountability for any harm, irrespective of intent.” How, precisely, are men supposed to learn these things if we don’t ever talk about how to do it? After all, it’s not as if guys are discussing their relationships at the corner bar. And it’s not like most people get to watch other folks talk about their sexual desires in healthy, respectful ways. So unless there are books, workshops, or websites to learn from, how can that possibly happen?

At the same time, I 100% agree that men also need to learn that we are accountable for any harm we do, whatever the reason. As important as they are, intentions don’t matter when it’s time to make amends. And you don’t get to pull the “Golly! I had no idea that wasn’t ok.” card more than once. Men who use that excuse over and over, without taking steps to change how they act, place themselves firmly on the douchebag-rapist spectrum. But we can hold onto that AND the fact that boys and men need to teach each other how to act honorably.

Ms McEwan’s third point is that men need to make room for women to talk about these issues:

Instead, invite a woman to write a piece about consent from her perspective, then leverage your male privilege to endorse and champion it. Host it in your space. Invite other men to listen to what your female guest writer has to say. The thing about “creeps” is that they don’t respect women; they don’t listen to us; they don’t empathize with us.

If you really want men to not harm women, then find ways of encouraging them to respect, listen to, and empathize women. To see what “creepiness” looks like from our perspective.

Yes. This. A lot. But it’s also not enough. It’s not enough because cisgender women have no idea what it’s like to live as a cisgender man, to grow up being shamed into masculinity. You don’t have that lived experience, any more than I have the lived experience of being shamed into femininity. This doesn’t have to be an either/or. We can serve as allies and support women, and we can also show men what it means to “respect, listen to, and empathize [with] women.” We need to model it to each other, we need to teach each other how to do it, and we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable. One way we can do that is by writing about it. (And yes, the fact that I’m not straight makes a difference in how I approach this issue.)

Do I think that straight men teaching other straight men how to not be creepy is necessarily a good thing? Not at all. I think McEwan drops a lot of truthbombs in her post. And I’m troubled by the fact that a lot of the marketing behind the “how to not be creepy” books and articles rests on a foundation of “this is how to get laid.” Acting like an ethical, honorable person because it’ll make it easier to have sex is creepy. Fighting the cultural programming and learning to be an ethical, honorable person is not. Unfortunately, most of the writing I’ve seen on the topic is the former. I think we need to see more of the latter.

That’s why Sabrina Morgan and I started teaching “How to Not Be ‘That Guy'”, our workshop on this topic. We’ll be in San Diego on February 5 and in Oakland, CA on February 26. While these presentations are focused on the tantra/sacred sex communities, you don’t have to be part of them to attend. We also have a more general version that focuses on heterosexual men, and we teach this workshop for many different communities, including queer men, transgender men, the BDSM community, the polyamory/open relationship world, and other sex-positive circles.

We also both offer our services as sex coaches. I work with individuals and couples over Skype, and we both do in-person sessions. So when you’re ready to figure all this out, or when you need some support to improve any part of your sexual and romantic life, get in touch!

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8 Responses so far.

  1. Jan says:

    “It’s not enough because cisgender women have no idea what it’s like to live as a cisgender man, to grow up being shamed into masculinity. You don’t have that lived experience, any more than I have the lived experience of being shamed into femininity.”
     
    I don’t think not having the lived experience is the same thing as having no idea.  I think honest communication about lived experience can give cisgender men and women an enormous amount of understanding and co-feeling of what the group they don’t belong to goes through.  After all as you say a large component of it is shame and most people can empathise with that and I think they can also understand why it might both arise as a result of some situations and have a bearing on how one deals with others.  Certainly I think it’s possible for people to have enough of an idea to be able to see things very vividly from another’s perspective, at least almost as vividly as if they themselves were experiencing it.
    Excellent points though as always, Mr Glickman.

  2. ThisOtherGuy says:

    This kind of policing of male behaviour from a feminist is, I’m sorry, creepy, too, even according to her own standard: “if the point of your piece is validation rather than a meaningful conversation with men who cause harm, then you’re kind of a creep yourself.”

    And I’m not using her arbitrary definition of creepy as basically identical with “sexual predator”. Given that, in her view, pretty much everything is a proof for rape culture, I guess that’s unsurprising, but it’s still a strange way of looking at the world. Well. Good thing is that her overreaching makes it easy to not take it seriously, a lot of other feminist posts about this issue are much better at concealing their basic approach with pretend-empathy.

    “The thing about “creeps” is that they don’t respect women; they don’t listen to us; they don’t empathize with us.”
    This – not. To be honest, I think *this* is probably one of the most important misunderstandings between feminist online activists and the rest of the world. The empathy part may even be true, but in most cases of creepiness that’s not a matter of lack of gender-based lack of empathy, just a certain way of communicating. The fact that we have come to denote this as inherently *lacking* is, sadly, more about privileging and normalizing the female experience in interactions, certainly when it comes to essay based sexual politics. As for the *respect* part, I think most guys become creepy not because they do not respect women, but because they respect them *so much* they stop being themselves around them and stop treating them as people because they are so concerned with their being women. For all the feminist claims with respect to “treat women as people”, whenever feminists try to weigh in on matters of dating and gendered communication, they almost invariably reinforce stereotypes about women (and men) rather than the opposite.

    “And I’m troubled by the fact that a lot of the marketing behind the “how to not be creepy” books and articles rests on a foundation of “this is how to get laid.” Acting like an ethical, honorable person because it’ll make it easier to have sex is creepy.”

    Given that gendered interaction occurs *because* of that and that we’re apparently agreeing that “creepy” behaviour is unwanted, and not intentonal predatory – which I think is the standard definition, not McEwans made up attempt to redefine the term so it fits her point of view – then of course people want to avoid being creepy in order to get laid. I remember what Amanda Marcotte once wrote – completely stunned, apparently – after attending some kind of dating panel: she was amazed how easy it was to talk about stuff like consent when it was framed as helping people to get laid. Seriously.

  3. Skylar says:

    The dichotomy between intention and result is a false one. To me these two items does not exist on a spectrum, but instead as a 2 x 2 matrix with intention and result as dimensions:
    – Good intentions and positive behavior
    – Good intentions and negative behavior
    – Bad intentions and positive behavior
    – Bad intentions and negative behavior
    So we must strive for aligning good intentions with positive behavior.
    (I am aware that my good/bad and positive/negative terminology is very simplified – it’s just a shorthand for something that would take a lot of words to define. I hope it doesn’t subtract too much from my message)
     
    [quote]And I’m troubled by the fact that a lot of the marketing behind the “how to not be creepy” books and articles rests on a foundation of “this is how to get laid.” Acting like an ethical, honorable person because it’ll make it easier to have sex is creepy. [/quote]
    I tend to agree. But I also think that the reason why many guys tries to “plow through women’s defense”  is because they have the limiting belief that they need to. So this can be a positive change PROVIDED that it is combined with the intention to be decent men who treat women well. I also see that discussions about consent (behavior) in dating can open for wider discussion about feminist issues (i.e. also changing peoples intentions). 
    Only when intentions and behavior are aligned for the better we will be able to take a leap forward.
     

  4. ThisOtherGuy says:

    Skylar,

    “But I also think that the reason why many guys tries to “plow through women’s defense”  is because they have the limiting belief that they need to.”

    sure, partly a limiting belief. But also, I’m sorry empirical reality, and I’m not talking about the 15% token no’s when it’s about actual sex, but about the token defenses long before that. Let’s face it, this is one area where gender roles *help* people navigate a complex reality which they – everyone – find hard to navigate entirely verbally, consciously, and contractually. Consent is negotiated with every move, kiss, touch, not only with words. Women’s defenses are, in many ways, an attempt to play by the rules, just as the plowing through part is for men. Not playing by the rules is making life a lot harder for everyone: and I’m saying that as someone who is largely, and consciously, making the decision to not play by those rules and not let women get away (for lack of better words) with not stating their desires. But often they won’t, because they don’t know how to, and then they will complain to their (and usually, also, my) friends how I wasn’t man enough to give them what they thought they clearly communicated. Academic feminists are demanding this just as most other women. I’d say we’re still talking about 80%. I’d be glad for that to change, but I am not asking anyone, women or men, to sacrifice their personal happiness for some ill-defined potential future ideal of sexual politics. And I think those who do are asking too much of people. Asking for social change without giving people the appropriate tools to deal with it in their personal lives is a) a bit immoral and b) not going to happen, despite all the essays devoted to it.
     

  5. Ruby Ryder says:

    “Acting like an ethical, honorable person because it’ll make it easier to have sex is creepy.”

    Agreed. I think authenticity is one of the most important elements instead of pretense and manipulation. Be who you are, not who you think you should be so that women are will respond to what you think they want so that you can get what you want. Crazy-making! Authenticity builds intimacy, not pretense.

  6. Tony says:

     
    I agree with most of your article, but one statement troubles me – “At the same time, I 100% agree that men also need to learn that we are accountable for any harm we do, whatever the reason.”  (italics added by myself)
     
     
    I think that this is overstated.  While I may have good intentions, I can still “be creepy” and should be accountable for my “creepiness.”  Agreed.  But there comes a point where if I am well-intentioned, mindful of my behaviors, and aware of how they may be perceived from the other person’s perspective, I have done as much as I reasonably can.  I believe that that should be the accountability cutoff, not “100% regardless of anything else.”  I can certainly conceive of situations where we may trigger reactions in another person but where that responsibility lies with the other person and not ourselves.
     
     
    To explain this, let’s reverse the roles (I’m going to use the example of myself as male and the other party as female).  Let’s say that I am drinking coffee in a coffeeshop and a woman comes up to me and says something to see if I am interested in conversation or not.  Let’s suppose that her intentions are good, that she is mindful and aware of her behaviors, and has thought out how they might be perceived by men.  Let’s also say that she reminds me of a prior abusive partner, not because she’s being “creepy,” but because something about her reminds me of my ex and triggers negative feelings in me.  Something that she cannot reasonably know in advance, such as her appearance, the drink in her hand, the style of her dress, et cetera.
     
     
    In those types of cases, she’s not responsible for my suffering.  She may have triggered it, but she’s not responsible for it.  And the person responsible for dealing with that is me, not her.
     
     
    That may sound extreme or unusual, but I don’t believe that it is.  I have been in a previously abusive relationship with a woman, who took her anger out on me verbally, emotionally, and once physically, for years.  I went to therapy initially as she said that “I needed fixing.”  I went, and later we both tried couples therapy with multiple providers.  None of this worked because she was completely unwilling to change her behavior or to even consider that her words and actions might be part of the problem.  I believe that she was this way from being abused by family members as a child and never dealt with it in a healthy fashion.
     
     
    I am responsible not only for my intentions, but also for my words and actions to the point of being as much as can reasonably be expected of a man or woman.  I am not 100% responsible for any distress another person may experience when it is due to their own issues that I have no way of reasonably knowing.  I can be empathetic to their distress, and respond to it, but each of us is responsible for our own triggers.  My ex is responsible for being abusive and for the wounds she carries that drove her to be abusive.
     
     
    “If you really want men to not harm women, then find ways of encouraging them to respect, listen to, and empathize women. To see what “creepiness” looks like from our perspective.”  Agreed.
     
     
    I want to point out that I agree with almost everything you have said in this article.  Good intentions are not enough – we have to be aware of how we are likely to be perceived by others and to work on our own awareness and empathy so that we can see ourselves from the other person’s eyes.  But I don’t think we are 100% responsible for how we are perceived, because sometimes it simply isn’t about us.
     

  7. Tony says:

    As an aside on Ms. McEwan’s article, I really can’t stand articles like this – I feel like all men are demonized, and it’s that kind of black-and-white thinking that my wife used during her yelling matched at me.
    If it’s wrong for me to demonize other women because of what my abusive ex-wife did (and it is wrong), then it’s wrong for women to demonize other men because of what some men have done.

  8. Lars says:

    I’d have to disagree on this.
    Not everything is about supporting women.
    I’m truly tired of getting told that I should act according what makes a woman comfortable.
    I prefer the “how to get laid” tips, simply because they’re focused on supporting men!
    I have been “shamed” into masculinity and into supporting women the most of my life.
    And I’m truly tired of that bullshit.
    Secondly, women are “creeps” too.

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