Be handsome. Be attractive. Don't be unattractive.
These are the three steps men should take to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit, according to a now-infamous 2005 Saturday Night Live sketch. More than eight years after it first aired, the YouTube video of the skit still gets cited in online discussions of sexual harassment as "evidence" that our culture is deeply hostile to socially awkward and homely men.
In the sketch, NFL quarterback Tom Brady and SNL regular Fred Armisen play office workers trying to pick up female coworkers played by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Armisen's character is shy and nerdy. Even his most tentative moves result in a charge of creepiness - and the prompt filing of a sexual harassment complaint. Brady, famously easy on the eyes, is physically aggressive, even pinching Poehler's breasts as she offers an appreciative, welcoming smile. The take-away of the spoof is obvious: What gets a man rejected by women (or slapped with a sexual harassment suit) has nothing to do with how he behaves and everything to do with what he looks like.
What SNL played for laughs, many men (and some women) took - and still take - seriously: Some men can't win with women, these people believe, no matter what they do or say. This attitude is best observed in the recent backlash against calling men "creepy." "Creep is the worst thing you can call a man," wrote Jeremy Gordon for the Hairpin, pointing out it's an impossible charge for a guy to disprove. As Gordon writes, "creepy is a vibe you can't define... you just know it."
Others argue that "creepiness" connotes something specific: male homeliness. Men's rights activist Robert Lindsay titled a post "Creepy" is Woman Speak for "An Unattractive Man Who Shows Interest In Me," while Thought Catalog's Johanna de Silentio wrote that "there are also a lot of guys who are labeled 'creepy' just because they happen to be really unattractive." I often hear something similar in my gender studies classes. (It was in a "Men and Masculinity" course years ago where an anguished young man first drew my attention to the Brady skit.) Whenever the subject of sexual harassment or "creep-shaming" comes up in class, someone--almost always a man--makes the case that SNL was right: the only way for straight men to safely express sexual interest in women is to do so while following the skit's three rules. With almost invariable bitterness, these young men complain that unless a guy has won striking good looks in the genetic lottery, he's doomed to be rejected and seen as overstepping his boundaries, no matter what he does.
It's been nearly 50 years since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 introduced the first federal laws prohibiting sexual harassment. (Just this week, the Supreme Court handed down two decisions that impose troubling new limits on when sexual harassment claims can be filed.) At the heart of the original legislation was the idea that sexual harassment was conduct that was "unwelcome" to those who were its targets. Desire mattered, Congress in essence declared. What is welcomed and enjoyed is, by definition, not harassment. (This can get complicated: there is a separate concept of third-party harassment, which declares, for example, that someone upset by witnessing sexualized banter between a boss and an employee might have grounds for a complaint, even if the employee with whom that boss was bantering welcomed his or her flirtatiousness.)
The fact that the law centers on women's subjective experience is what makes so many of my students and countless men's rights activists so indignant. (While sexual harassment law was and is intended to be applied regardless of sex, the popular perception is that these laws exist primarily to protect female employees from predatory male colleagues and supervisors.) Last year, a young man in my women's studies course criticized an article I'd written for Jezebel defending the use of the word "creep," and did so by boldly misappropriating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most famous speech. A society where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, he declared, should also be a society where men are judged "creepy" solely on the basis of their words and actions rather than their looks. He got cheers from several other guys in the classroom.
My student's mistake is an obvious one: Enjoyment can't be coerced. Congress can't pass a law requiring people to be delighted by the advances of others they find unattractive. I can get my children to eat broccoli by alternating promises of rewards and punishments, but I cannot do anything to make my daughter love vegetables as much as she loves ice cream. Similarly, no law can compel "Ashley," a barista at the local coffee shop, to feel the same way about the advances of an older co-worker whom she finds repellant as she does about those of the young hottie who joins her on the opening shift.
Until recently, however, few women could make sexual choices based primarily on physical desire and emotional attraction. In a world where few women had the opportunity to prosper without a man's protection, marriage was about survival. The more educational and economic opportunities women acquire, the more opportunity they have to choose based on what they want rather than what they need for survival. As Daniel Bergner's bestselling What Do Women Want? argues, once you level the economic playing field, women are just as likely as men to make sexual decisions based on desire alone.
The same principle works for sexual harassment: the Civil Rights Act of 1965 didn't conjure the concept out of thin air. Women had always been sexually harassed in public spaces. What the government did was give the problem a name -- and a remedy. It also formally recognized a woman's right to decide for herself what conduct was welcome and what wasn't.
Men's rage about sexual harassment regulations and "creep-shaming" may well be rooted in an unwillingness to accept these cultural changes that have given women unprecedented power to say "no" to the lecherous and the predatory. Complaints that unattractive, socially awkward men are unfairly labeled "creepy" miss the point. "Creepy" describes having "the creeps;" it's a word that centers on women's own feelings. It's no more "unfair" for Ashley the hypothetical barista to be "creeped out" by the advances of an older, unappealing co-worker than it is for her to be excited by the same approach from the man to whom she's attracted. In that sense, the SNL sketch got to an important truth: Women's subjective experiences and instincts matter.
The freedom to act on those instincts doesn't just lead to romantic fulfillment. In his indispensable 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker encourages women to rely on their own intuition to keep themselves safe from violence. There are few things more risky, de Becker argues, than overriding one's own sense of real danger ("the creeps") for the sake of preserving a relationship - or simply being "nice" to a stranger. Crucially, de Becker points out that people-pleasing and the urge to avoid causing offense put more women in danger than acting on sexual attraction. Women are more likely to be assaulted because they were too polite to someone whom they sensed was creepy than because they were too responsive to the charms of someone who turned them on.
When men complain about being "creep-shamed," or insist that the Tom Brady sketch accurately reflects reality, what they're really lamenting is a culture that is increasingly willing to honor women's right to be sexual -- and women's right to be safe.