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.