So, apparently the world of geekdom is afire with the never-ending conflict between the genders and the nerve-wracking prospect of mating. I sat down and thought about all of the mitigating factors to this situation and it was long. So rather than go through them all in detail, I will just lay out my theses for each topic. We can get into more detail if it is desired, but there are a few key points I feel need to be said up front:
This is not a simple situation. This is not just about knowing boundaries, or lack of clear communication. There is not an easy answer like “respect people’s boundaries” or “be nice to awkward people.”
This is not a case of extremes. Not every guy who touches a woman’s shoulder is testing boundaries for a future date rape. Not every woman who rejects your advances is a cold meanie who has no care for the feelings of sensitive dudes. Extremes do exist, but that are such a small part of the population in question as to be straw men.
While the situation is complex, it is never okay to not respect other people. This goes for everyone. Hurting other people, either through carelessness, miscommunication, or aggression is wrong. More than ‘wrong’, it makes the situation worse, for everyone. It is not pragmatic.
If you think I am taking the side of your enemies, you are wrong. My approach is based on my experiences, but I see things everyone does to make it worse and no one has the moral high ground (including me). My thought process is based on being an applied academic (I am an anthropologist with some experience teaching and researching gender), convention volunteer/director (more than a decade with Origins, plus helping to run a few smaller conventions), religious person (I will let you guess what religion, though I am not sure it is relevant), geek/nerd/dweeb (I think most people reading this know my cred), former behavioral health professional (special needs kids and adults), and ‘successful’ mater (9 years married with rugrats). I am still probably wrong, but that’s where I am coming from.
So, without further ado, my theses on some of the issues involved in the situation:
Gender roles and women’s empowerment: Gender roles are changing, and have been since the early feminist movements. It is becoming (slowly) more acceptable for women in our culture to be aggressive and less so for men to be. This means everyone is trying to figure out where they stand, have a little patience.
Labels like “Creeper” and “Bitch”: Labels serve no one. When you label someone, you give them three choices: Embrace it (“Okay, I am a creeper, that means I can do whatever I want”), Deny it (“I am just awkward, cut me some slack.”), or Fight it (“Well, you are a bitch, so I guess we are even.”). The fact is, both of these labels have drifted into very broad categories of behavior ranging from “Asks you out and you don’t find him attractive” and “Says no, thank you.” All the way to “rufies and windowless vans” and “publically humiliates you, crushes your testicles, and then hires thugs to beat your to death with your bouquet of roses.” A vast majority of people are neither end, remember that.
“Proper behavior for approaching women”: There is no handbook. Men have three sources: trial and error, pop culture (Stalking is romantic if it works, thanks Hollywood), and other males. We use them all to varying degrees, and each has advantages and drawbacks.
Social status, wealth, attractiveness, and confidence: These all matter, women. It doesn’t make you shallow, but it is important to realize that men rarely have high marks in all of them, and you *do* judge them based on it. Geeks are particularly challenged in this area, often through no fault of their own.
Communication: Subtle hints and flirting are great. “Soft No” and indirect propositions are great… but you accept the risk that they may be ignored, misinterpreted or missed altogether. Ambiguity is risk, accept that.
Rights, privileges, and entitlement: Arguably, people have more of a right to speak than you have not to be spoken to. There is no “right to be left alone while you read” just like there is no “right to sexual favors when you ask.” Heck, you do not have a right to be treated respectfully, but you do have a responsibility to do so. Regardless of what they do. If you have expectations of how other people should act, you are asking to be frustrated. Again, this is pragmatic, not cultural.
Vulnerability and Power: The biggest fear I see from women in these cases is a sense of vulnerability. Many fear for their safety, and feel that trumps all other considerations. It does. Kind of. Just be aware that men fear for their safety as well. No, they are not worrying that you will kill or rape them, but men are exposing themselves to harm because in our culture they have to. One of the biggest causes for violence is a feeling of powerlessness. No, it is not fair. But be aware.
Rape, harassment, and unwanted advances: Implying (or in many cases I have seen, outright stating), that a man is a “creeper” is basically calling that guy a potential, failed, or successful rapist. Think about that. On the other hand, men, in our culture we don’t touch women without their permission. Period. Yes, it can be awkward when women are not clear if it is okay, but until it is resolved on a cultural level, don’t assume. Finally, unwanted advances. Seriously? Someone finds you attractive, approaches you, and you don’t reciprocate. That is fine. But unless there is a real threat, be gracious, be flattered, be clear.
Social Awkwardness, Psychopathologies, and Conditioned Behavior: On both sides, every action we take makes a similar action more likely in the future. Everyone, when you assault (verbally or physically) a person on either side of the attempted proposition, you are affecting their behavior for life. Men, upsetting women makes it harder for you to be successful in the future and harder for other men like you to be successful. Choose your pick up lines carefully. Women, upsetting men will make it *less* likely they will be able to appropriately approach other women. You are increasing the likelihood that they will make other women (and you, if the man tries again) feel unsafe.
Conventions, bars, and other ‘sexualized public spaces’: Conventions are a particularly sticky issue (I should probably pick a better word, but I won’t). Cosplay, distance from home (and consequences), anonymity, crowds, alcohol, sexualized advertising, high geek proportions (again, probably should pick a better word) all lead to people taking risks they would not normally take. Men, the fact that you are anonymous and drunk and that makes you feel free from consequences does not mean women agree. Women, understand the context, and understand that *all* conventions are seen as meat markets (even the elementary school teacher’s convention I went to). Both sides, stick to groups. Unless you have negotiated ‘alone time’ while sober and well-rested, don’t make assumptions later.
Pop culture, stalking and romance: I mentioned this before, but seriously, how we see mating rituals is pretty weird. Men are told that unrelenting attention is romantic. It isn’t, guys. Women are told that men should be confident, remember that when Mr. Geek waddles his way over to ask you out. Men and women are told that attractive people have all the power. Men, this means you cannot resent women who are attractive and have all the power. Women, this means that your attractiveness is a source of power and you should be compassionate. (This goes the other way for attractive men, but that is somewhat outside the scope of this discussion.)
Negotiating social distance: Americans believe in a physical distance of about two to three feet. Men, this is your marker. If you wish to see if that distance has shortened between you and a female, extend a hand halfway and see if they reciprocate. Unless you are pushing her out of the way of a runaway Amish buggy, there is *nowhere* on her body you can touch platonically. Women, be aware that men touch for more than sexual attraction. Men touch to ‘play’ with each other. This is why football players can play grab ass on the field and not have to worry about sleeping on their stomachs. When a man wants to communicate to a woman that they are not a sexual interest, they will touch you in various ways. It’s stupid, but it’s how we communicate. Both, be aware that “comfort zones” are completely cultural and are not uniform even within the same culture. Err on the side of caution. As much as it seems like people “should just know” the right way to respond to these situations, cultures are in flux and we are constantly negotiating how this is supposed to work.
Responsibility and Projection: Ultimately, we are responsible for our behavior. If what you are doing is making someone uncomfortable, stop. If you are being made uncomfortable, clearly communicate that. If you are trying to communicate with someone, and this is important… IF YOU WANT THE OTHER PERSON TO ACT A CERTAIN WAY YOU HAVE TO CARE WHAT THEY THINK. Not just because it’s the humane thing to do, but because if you don’t you are trying to act without all the variables, and that doesn’t work.
This isn’t even about morality, compassion, or forgiveness (though they should all be involved). This is about being pragmatic. It is about trying to reduce the awkwardness, fear, and humiliation so that they don’t happen anymore. It is about trying to avoid triggers, expectations and assumptions that make it worse. It is about finding solutions that work, you can apply whatever moral, legal, or ethical framework you want, but I think discussion is an early step to finding solutions. It’s all about communication (until my psychic empathy gene therapy patent comes through, then it will be all about public water supplies).