A middle-aged man walks by a Wilson girl in the Safeway parking garage. As he walks by her, he looks her up and down a few times. His eyes are feasting on her. She notices, but keeps walking straight, never looking back even when he does a double take and starts walking back toward her. She can still feel his eyes on him, but she keeps going. “If I can just get up to the store with all the people, everything will be fine,” she thinks to herself.
While there’s no doubt that that was a creepy and potentially dangerous situation, was it more than that? Was the man sexually harassing her, or was he just being extremely creepy?
From the #MeToo movement, to women’s rights marches, to anti-discrimination laws, sexual harassment and assault have been prevalent in the news, the courtrooms, and on the streets for the past few years. But with rising media attention discussing the severity of sexual assault in our nation, how do we classify sexually questionable experiences? The line between sexual assault and creepy situations is becoming increasingly blurry, and it can be difficult to find the line between inappropriate behaviors and ones that are just uncomfortable.
We all know that one guy that stands way to close or won’t break eye contact with you on the bus. Your muscles tense up, you begin to assume the worst, and you start to look for the fastest way out of the situation. This feeling is all too common, whether it’s a homeless person on the sidewalk oogling as you walk by, or a peer sitting a little too close in class, where’s the line between creepiness and sexual harassment?
A Wilson student, who chose to remain nameless and didn’t want to be quoted, shared her stories about creepy guys and being sexually harassed.
She was at a party on a Friday night just a few weeks ago. Others were drinking; she and her friend weren’t. They were standing in the corner alone, watching their slightly tipsy friends bumble around to the music when an unknown guy a few years older than them started talking to them out of the blue. She noticed his gaze fall a few inches south of her face–already making her uncomfortable–before he nonchalantly got closer to her. He wasn’t standing close enough for her to say anything or push him away, but he was too close for comfort. While he talked drunkenly at them, the girls tried to find an inconspicuous way to get away from him. He’d done nothing explicitly wrong except put them on edge, so the girls weren’t bold enough to just cut off the conversation. Then he put his hand on the girl’s shoulder and lingered there.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” According to the American Association of University Women, it can also include gender harassment and harassment based on someone’s nonconformity to gender or sexual norms, and “can take place in person or through electronic means such as text messages and social media.” In a school setting, it’s defined by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as “unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s right to receive an equal education.” In contrast, creepy behavior is characterized as “a response to the ambiguity of threat,” according to “On the nature of creepiness,” a study by Francis McAndrews and Sara Koehnke.
Unfortunately, these definitions are incredibly ambiguous; the wording is both broad and specific at the same time. And using phrases such as “nonverbal conduct of a sexual nature” provides even more confusion–nonverbal sexual cues are incredibly common, and so easily misread. This leaves the question of whether an experience is sexual harassment or not even more difficult to answer.
The easiest way to differentiate creepiness and sexual harassment is this: sexual harassment occurs when there are clearly unwanted and inappropriate remarks, actions, or advances of a sexual nature; creepiness is when there may be some uncertainty or ambiguity about a possible threat due to someone’s actions or remarks. In other words, with sexual harassment, there is clearly a problem (though it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain just what the issue is), but with creepiness, there is the potential of a problem or threat, but the possibility is unclear.
It can be difficult to tell in the moment if someone around you is being creepy or if they’re sexually harassing you. That ambiguity makes it challenging to decipher whether an uncomfortable feeling or action is truly sexual harassment. The distinction is important to make; the consequences of sexual harassment are severe, and even just the accusation of it can have serious ramifications.
The best thing to do if you’re unsure about whether someone is being creepy or sexually harassing you, leave the situation as quickly as possible and ask for advice from someone you trust. Counselors, parents, teachers, and friends are all great resources to talk to. Getting another person’s perspective can help determine whether it was creepiness or sexual harassment, and it can be very helpful and therapeutic to talk about uncomfortable or inappropriate events.