Thursday, March 27, 2014

On Feeling, Acting or Being A Creep

Having tweeted a link to this excellent post from Dr Nerdlove: Socially Awkward isn't an Excuse, I entered into a silly circular argument with a friend. My friend expressed confusion and frustration; despite her best efforts, she was always perceived as creepy whenever she had told anyone that she found them attractive. Nobody had explicitly told her she was creepy, so quite foolishly, I entered into an argument about whether this inference was a reasonable one. I should know by now that forcing someone  to argue for their own deficiency doesn't lift anyone's mood.

But the subsequent discussion made me think about the difference between feeling, acting or being a creep.

Feeling like a Creep

There should be a term which is the opposite - the unhealthy polar opposite - to sexual entitlement. Feeling like a creep is close; regarding oneself as physically and mentally disgusting, considering one's existence as a sexual being, an imposition on the rest of the world.

Radiohead's Creep was my theme song from its release in 1993, when I was twelve years old, throughout the following decade or so. I felt that I was a creep, I was a weirdo. WTF was I doing there? I didn't belong there.

There are lots of us who approach sexual maturity in the belief that there's something wrong with our sexuality. Not necessarily wrong as in sinful - although that's often in the mix - but wrong as in damaged or damaging. Words frequently associated with homosexual desire in the media and my household included pervert and predatory. It was more or less against the law for a teacher to discuss the subject of my particular sexuality throughout my high school career.

At school I knew, for sure, how any female object of my desire or affection would feel if she knew, because we did have one out lesbian in our year group; a very tall, dramatic young women whose name wasn't Petronella Conquest but it was pretty close. The worry was, what if she fancied you? After all, girl's a lesbian, she could fancy any of us. And then what? How disgusting would that be? Not that I ever heard any rumour of this girl even flirting with anyone. The fact of her attraction - the fact of her potential attraction - was enough for cries of disgust and outrage to fill the form room. And Petronella was slimmer, more confident, more sophisticated than I and didn't have spots.

So even though I kept everything firmly under wraps, I felt like a creep, like many closeted queer kids in high school; I felt that my desire was predatory, deceptive, a betrayal of my friendships.

And before I got the chance to leave school, set out into the world and find my people, I got sick and grew to like my body an awful lot less. Believing my body to be disgusting made this ten times worse, as if I had no right to sexual pleasure, even in fantasy. In this context, I got together with my first husband, who made me feel better by tolerating me as I was (agreeing that my body was, in fact, quite gruesome), then treating me with the disgust and contempt that I thought I deserved. Until I didn't.

I don't know if straight women are often made to feel creepy - I've not really heard anyone describe that. Unwanted, unloveable or ridiculous, undoubtedly, but I don't know if straight women ever think that their attraction could, if revealed, make someone's skin crawl.  This is how I felt, and how I continued to feel - on and off - for most of my twenties, whether it was about the women or the men I was attracted to; they were all much more beautiful in body, mind and soul than I was. I was the haggard lumpen troll in the shadows, looking on with lecherous eyes.

Nobody should feel that way. It is never true, whoever you are, whatever you look like, whoever you fancy. Even if you fancy someone genuinely inappropriate - it's what you do (or please, don't do) about it that counts.

Acting or Coming Across Like a Creep.

People can come across like a creep inadvertently for three reasons; the things they say and do, the past experiences of the person they're approaching and prejudice.

Everyone - not just the socially awkard - can fluff up in small and big ways that sometimes leads to upset and awkwardness, especially when it comes to flirtation, or conversations that might be read that way. Add alcohol into the mix and things can go very wrong.

My own gaffs have never been terribly dramatic, just being needy and over-keen at times when I've been desperately lonely. But I do remember one due to abject exhaustion: When saying goodnight to a new friend at the end of an evening, I kissed her on each cheek, as the French do. No idea what possessed me -I hadn't done this since the two weeks I spent in France as a child. Then I hugged her, just for good measure. It wasn't an excuse for physical contact - it was as if the contents of my brain had been largely emptied out such that I no longer knew how people of my own culture say goodbye to one another.

However, the effects of social mistakes are usually very short-lived. They can occasionally damage relationships, but this is because of awkwardness, embarrassment, confusion and annoyance - not because someone feels threatened or intimidated in any prolonged way. If you realise you've made a mistake, you apologise (if that doesn't compound things) and try to put it right. There's no argument about what happened. Nobody's left looking over their shoulder all the way home that night.

Things get a little bit worse when others have past experiences of harassment and sexual aggression. Sometimes, an act can seem creepy because it bears some similarity to other acts of sexual aggression. For example, if a woman routinely experiences sexual harassment at the bus stop, then she may prefer that nobody ever speaks to her at the bus stop, because however friendly it may seem at first, she's seen it blow up in her face before. All men run the risk of seeming creepy talking to women they don't know well. I'd still say it's worth trying to talk to one another (well I think so, but I have never lived in a city).

However, sometimes we seem creepy just because of who we are.  Sometimes, this is about the big prejudices: homophobia, disablism, classism and racism can all make people perceive others as creepy. In movies, I have seen German, Eastern European and Russian accents, stereotypically Arab features, effeminacy in men and butchness in women, plus impairment - especially albinism, facial scars, withered hands, limps and so forth - all used to signpost that a character is sinister. Also, men who are very thin, very fat or very short are often seen this way, as if non-standard bodies render any sexual feelings they have something depraved or predatory (in fat, old and short women, sexual desire is rendered comical rather than threatening).

The little course in cognitive poetics we're doing has talked about the personification of Uriah Heap - the literary archetype of creep - but when you reread the text, the greatest part of his initial creepiness is the fact he is very pale, thin, ugly and fidgetty. He is a kiss-ass who behaves very badly, but that comes much later; at first, we hate him mostly for what he looks like.

Some adult straight men are nervous of gay men, for the same reason my classmates were nervous of Petronella. Disabled people are perhaps especially vulnerable to this because we are often seen as sexless - to assert our sexuality, even in the most gently flirtatious remark, might make us appear to be something other than what we seemed - like the cherub-faced child in the horror movie that suddenly says something knowing about tracker mortgages.

Then there are the lesser prejudices. I grew up with the idea that men in long grey raincoats are creepy, even though I've never encountered a creepy man in a long grey raincoat. Some people find goths creepy, as well as punks and geeks, horror buffs, taxidermists, antique dealers, folk who love reptiles and spiders, butchers, abattoir workers, criminologists, Daleks, undertakers, Bronies or adult Beliebers (okay, so maybe they are).

The trouble is, with all of the above, we can't ever be sure why someone else might think us creepy. We can rarely be sure that they even do. We just have to watch our behaviour, because that's the one thing we're responsible for and the one thing we can change if we mess up.

However, because we're all decent people, we accept rejection. Romantic or social rejection, whether grounded in high ideals, the lowest form of bigotry or pure whim, is not something that can be argued with. Real creeps don't get that. We do.

On Being A Creep.

Being a creep is about entitlement. It's not always entitlement to sex; it is sometimes about romantic attention or social power, but there's often a sexual element. Entitlement doesn't necessarily coincide with social confidence, but creepiness (meant here to mean that underhand, passive aggressive strain of sexual aggression) often coincides with a sort of arrogance of the underdog. Doctor Nerdlove focuses on this as an issue within geek culture, but Eleanor Brown tweeted this newspaper cutting, which demonstrates the same kind of thing elsewhere:

It reads: Rush-Hour Crush. Love (well, lust) is all around us, as is proven by the messages left by our commuter cupids.

Cappuchino One Sugar. If you're the girl I think you are, I'm often in the queue behind you at Letchworth Garden City station's coffee shop. I've tried flirting but you're too busy trying to get the attention of the guy behind the counter. I'm training to be a barrister, you're ignoring me for a barista. Please turn around so we can discuss my briefs.
Shiny Shoes, English Breakfast Tea.

This chap is a creep. He is addressing a young woman who, despite his efforts, demonstrates zero interest in him. In Shiny Shoes' universe, this is not right or fair. The girl is wrong. What she needs is:
  • To be told that she is making a ridiculous mistake.
  • To be shown he is deserving of her attention, because of the job he does/ is training for.
  • To be encouraged with a very sexual joke. The law is a rich ground for puns. He could have said, "Turn around and judge for yourself." or "Let's discuss this case." or even "You've got a lovely a posteriori." which at least keeps things to a level of outer clothing and appearance. 
Notice the lack of compliments. The guy doesn't even offer to buy her a coffee. 

Now this ad is unlikely to have deeply upset the young woman. In my mind, the woman and the barista both read it, their shared mortification brings them together and this cutting will eventually be pasted in the back of their wedding album, so they can tell the story to their kids.

However, some people act this way in the same room, when you are alone with them or in private conversation on-line, and sometimes while making physical contact with you. The message is always the same; 
My sexual, romantic or social desires are right. I am deserving of love, sexual gratification, friendship and status. People should pay attention to me. People should want to be with me, on my terms. People should laugh at my jokes and be flattered by my attentions.  
Your feelings are misguided or you're fooling yourself about how you really feel. The boundaries you've established - by drawing a line, rejecting me, or ignoring me in the coffee shop queue - are flexible. Your verbal and non-verbal communication is open to any interpretation I like. If you react badly, it is because there's something wrong with you, you stupid bitch.
Some people have argued that the use of the word creep might be regarded as the male equivalent of slut, and that calling a man a creep is shaming him for his sexuality. This is not the case at all. The big difference is that the word slut, even in its more pejorative sense, does not describe someone who is imposing her sexuality on others. She might be a corrupting influence (according to the spirit of this slur), but she doesn't coerce.

Meanwhile, women can be creepy. Women can force lingering physical contact on people who didn't ask for it - I've seen women plant themselves on men's laps without introduction, I've had women touch me far more than I'd like. Women can react very badly to rejection, become angry or simply ignore what is being said to them. Women can believe that they are magically worthy and deserving of sexual attention, love or social power. And I don't think women are any less capable than men of arguing that the people who reject them are at fault; they're shallow, prejudiced, lying about their sexuality, or are capable of handling a real woman.

Yet out in a world where men tend to have greater social capital, are more physically threatening and are often sold narratives where all good men, including the underdogs, are rewarded with female attention, the worst of this behaviour is most often committed by men.

Thanks to Lisa, Mary & The Morningstar for the discussion about this.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Poverty & Reading Books

Book shelves with books on.
I'm wanting to get back to more personal blogging, but here's a thing about books and poverty.

England divided into 'readers and watchers', BBC News:
England is suffering from a "worrying cultural divide" with poor adults much less likely to read books than their richer neighbours, a report says. The country is divided into two nations, those who read weekly or daily, and those who prefer TV and DVDs, it says. It finds key links between an individual's social background and how likely they are to read.
There are a lot of statistics in the article, few of which are very shocking. For example, rich people own more books than poor people. Who'd have thought it? Another strange phenomenon I have observed is that although richer people have only slightly more feet on average, they own considerably more shoes...
More than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds.
Around 16% of the population of England is "functionally illiterate". The chances are that almost all of these people occupy the poorest socio-economic background, for obvious reasons of both cause and effect. That entirely accounts for the difference - in fact, if the sample were big enough, it might even suggest that a slightly greater proportion of rich people who can read choose not to.
And more than six in 10 (62%) of those from the richest backgrounds said they read daily or weekly, compared with four in 10 (42%) of those from the poorest.
Okay, so on these figures, the ones that indicate the worrying cultural divide, we're talking 60:40. To be perfectly honest, I'm pleasantly surprised that the difference is so small, given the massive disparities in educational opportunities, the fact that poorer people generally have less time, less access to books, live in environments less conducive to reading in peace and are more likely to have intellectual, cognitive or sensory impairments that prevent them from reading.

That's if we assume that everyone is being honest. We know that when you ask men and women how many sexual partners they've had, you end up with a statistical difference which simply cannot be true; men feel under pressure to raise the figure, women feel under pressure to lower it. I suspect something similar here.

Among the wealthier middle classes, there is a much stronger hierarchy of the arts; middle class people frequently boast that they never watch the television that takes pride of place in their living room. Meanwhile, although to a lesser extent, working class people (especially men) sometimes feel that the world of books doesn't belong to them. They may even feel that the books they read don't count as proper books.

I suspect that some poorer respondents may have downplayed their reading and I'm absolutely certain that some richer respondents will have exaggerated theirs.
And 83% of adults from the richest group feel that reading improves their lives, compared with 72% of those from the poorest group.
Hmm, yes, well. The difference here is very slight, but here's the thing:

As well as middle class snobbery and mythos surrounding the arts (Art can save the world!), richer people have much easier lives. Thus, when they think about things that can improve their lives, they are likely to think about books, art and esoteric things rather than, you know, decent affordable housing, a living wage, having enough food to eat and everything else they take for granted but others cannot.

I believe wholeheartedly that books do improve our lives, and perhaps make the most difference to the most difficult lives, but I understand there may be a difference in the way this question is understood by richer and poorer readers.

The article concludes:
Viv Bird, chief executive of Booktrust, said: "This research indicates that frequent readers are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful in their professional lives. 
"But there is a worrying cultural divide linked to deprivation. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to social mobility, but reading plays an important role - more action is needed to support families."
 Yet there are no suggestions about what this support entails. So here are mine:
  1. Keep libraries open and promote what they do to the wider community, including the increasing stock of ebooks and audiobooks you can borrow on-line.
  2. Promote ebook, braille and audiobook formats, to broaden the spectrum of people who can access literature. Audiobooks also raise the possibility of reading as a group activity, which makes it more appealing for people low on time and energy to spend with their loved ones. (Historically, people read out loud much more, but audiobooks are the low-energy option).
  3. Relieve poverty with a living wage and decent affordable housing. However one feels about the inevitability of material inequality, we should aim towards a world where everyone at least has a chance to have a little culture in their lives. People can read in all kinds of places and situations, but having space, peace, time and the absence of immense pressure, is sure going to help.
Also, you know, sort out education so that people grow up enjoying reading, rather than seeing a book as a job of work or a task to be completed for some reward other than its own sake.