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How can we identify and stop people who use their position in a group to indulge in abusive or unacceptable behaviour?
Guest Blogger Himawari is in her 30s and runs a software development company. She has a cat, she works from home and likes to play video games and cook. She likes talking to people who have stories to share and she likes to observe and learn.
The urban dictionary defines a creeper as “someone who tries hard to be part of a group, but obviously isn’t.” In the context of sexual harassment and violence against women, we can define the term as someone who uses his position within a group to encourage or indulge in abusive behaviour.
With horrible crimes and harassment against women in the news every day, it’s hard to think of any answers to what seems like an unsolvable problem. One thing that is good to remember is that men usually feel pretty safe attacking women in many ways, whether physically or anonymously online when they have enough support or they get praise and safety from consequences.
As we saw in the Steubenville rape case and in many others, behind every system there are people who are creepers, and people who enable them. One thing we can do if we want to be ethical CEOs, managers, or parents, is to look around for signs of a creeper and do what we can to curtail their support, including withholding our own. That means using better hiring practices, acknowledging certain people are not good to have as friends, and calling people out even when it’s inconvenient or scary whenever possible. Men especially should be taking up the slack here, as women have been doing this hard work for a long time and need the ones who are closest to the problem to make a real effort to solve it.
I use “he” as the default way to refer to a creeper since most are men, but there are women out there who may be creepers too.
A creeper may not be a sexual harasser, but it’s good to keep in mind that rape, sexual harassment and spousal abuse are all on the spectrum of power crimes. They are in the same realm as bullying, torture, and hate crimes. Sex is used as a weapon and a means to an end, it’s not the ultimate goal.
1) Creepers will test the waters to see if they can get support.
A lot of times when you have a creeper type join your group or team, they won’t out themselves right away. You might get a bad vibe from him but he won’t do anything you can point to as wrong, so you probably will try to convince yourself that you’re wrong, that you’re overreacting, and so on. Pay attention to your first impression. Your feelings are always valid and even if it ends up that the person is perfectly great and you just didn’t like their haircut, that is a good thing to know too, and it will help you hone your instincts.
Over time, the creeper will start playing certain social games at which he’s very good at, although he might protest that he’s socially inept or awkward as an excuse to avoid being called out. In reality, creeping is their life, and they know lots of strategies. Think I’m being paranoid or unrealistic? After several experiences with creepers on my team and in groups I belonged to, I can only tell you I wish that were true.
One of the social games creepers play is:
2) Creepers treat certain observably different people differently from the group he is trying to ingratiate himself with.
This includes things like commenting constantly on women’s appearance, or anything that has to do specifically with their gender, doing this often in front of men, and encouraging other men to do the same by making leading remarks. One common remark is “Women!” (said in a way that draws gender lines and encourages men to identify with him), then checking to see if other men agree, laugh, or join in. He will also look to see which women are laughing awkwardly or uncomfortably, because he will be looking for what he thinks are easy targets or character witnesses―women who will be willing to “testify” against other women if any issues ever come out into the open. He might use compliments to constantly draw attention to women as being different from men and to underline that he might use tactics like dismissing women’s ideas, interrupting them often, or acting like an arbiter and making heavy-handed comments that attempt to speak for everyone such as “Everyone knows that’s ridiculous” or “That’s how things are done in this business.”
As a woman, the pressure to go along with these “jokes” is intense. You know that if you speak up you will likely be accused of overreacting…
As a woman, the pressure to go along with these “jokes” is intense. You know that if you speak up you will likely be accused of overreacting, and he will use that as a tool to discredit you more and more later. Many people dislike conflict and if you are seen as creating “drama”, your friends and supporters may even distance themselves from you.
So in this case, you have to give yourself a break first and foremost. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t speaking out. Do what feels safe to you. The only thing I would ask that you do is trust yourself here. You are not crazy, you are not a bitch, and you are not overreacting. You are a smart and conscious person who sees a real enemy to your happiness and possibly safety, so take it seriously, ok? Seek out support online, or from trusted friends, or whoever will back you up. If you feel you can talk to someone at work and get results, by all means, do so, but this isn’t your problem to fix. This is a problem caused by a very practiced creeper and a lot of lazy people who are letting him do his dirty work.
As a male co-worker, you need to speak up immediately and constantly. Every time the creeper says something to try to “other” anyone, you need to counter it. Don’t laugh at his jokes. Do something to make it clear you don’t support it. That might be something subtle like rolling your eyes, or it might need a firm and clear “Cut that out, it’s not cool”. You don’t need to justify it or enter into a debate, but watch out, because that is definitely something a creeper does, and that brings us to:
3) Creepers will try to turn every conflict into an advantage for them, and a disadvantage for you instead of actually working to resolve the issue.
Often, when someone calls out a creeper, if they are lucky and possessing privilege (being male, senior at work, for example) they will shut the creeper down. Sometimes though, the creeper feels bold or safe enough to try some different tactics. One of them is to engage the person doing the calling out in a lengthy and futile debate. They will talk and talk and make a lot of points that might sound logical but are based on smoke and mirrors. What they are doing is trying to make you doubt your convictions, confuse the issue, remove your base of support through muddying the waters, and turn it into a difference of opinion between two people, where they can claim the refuge of both sides having a valid point of view, nobody having the moral high ground, and so on and so on.
Men can do a lot here by being vigilant and listening to a woman any time she tells you someone is making her uncomfortable.
It’s better to recognize it as quickly as possible and not subject yourself to it. Recognize when it’s happening to other people too, and join in with firm support, refusing to be drawn into irrelevant segues.
Men can do a lot here by being vigilant and listening to a woman any time she tells you someone is making her uncomfortable. Pay attention, ask questions and listen to the answers. Don’t assume you know better, because you are not equipped to recognize a lot of what creepers do; most of the time they are not looking to intimidate or “other” you. In fact they are trying to kiss your butt and get you on their team, so often they will act extra “nice” to you!
In one experience I had, the creeper in our group (I will call him K) ignored the women and talked almost exclusively to the men, then later began making sexual jokes that we told him repeatedly were not welcome or appropriate. This leads to:
4) Creepers will continue to behave in a way they know is wrong and will try to claim ignorance or humour or innocent intent to obfuscate the issue.
Our creeper K was told not to make sexual jokes, but he felt safe enough doing so because I was the only person really calling it out. One of the men mindlessly laughed at all of his jokes, and another of the men only told him to stop in private. There was no talk of consequences. I didn’t feel safe enough in my support to make any ultimatums. I think bringing up the topic formally, in public, would have made a big difference instead of certain people saying a half-hearted “Yuck” meant as discouragement. Forget the outcry over “public shaming” and “preserving anonymity”, because another of the creeper’s favorite tricks is:
5) Creepers try to make conflict private and personal even though it is systemic and affects the community.
Have you had anyone tell you “If you have a problem with me, come to me first”? Did you feel that you had to follow that rule? Let’s see who this particular rule benefits and why.
When someone who feels they have a lot of power behind them (for e.g. a white male vs. a woman, especially a woman of colour), they often try to turn an issue into something between the two of them, where one can try to bully and intimidate the other. Often the bully does have actual power―it might be your boss or commanding officer, or someone bigger than you and in a higher grade in school. It might be a teacher. It might be your harasser or abusive husband.
In the recent case of Adria Richards, the way she stood up for herself was intelligent and effective. She bypassed the ridiculous bully rule of making the conflict personal (between her, by herself, against two or more white men) when the conflict was in fact part of a larger system (misogyny in the tech industry and how it affects women). Instead she drew on public support from her twitter friends (a normal and very smart thing to do when challenging people who might react in unpredictable ways) and leaving a public record of what happened. Adria was not necessarily trying to shame anyone, she was protecting herself, bypassing the bully rules, and putting the so-called personal conflict into the community’s purview, which is where it belongs.
Everyone is responsible for dealing with community issues, and having men around who are making women uncomfortable for any reason is a community issue. It is NOT a personal issue. Turning it into a one-on-one interaction leaves room for intimidation, continued harassment and worse. The same tactic is used by domestic abusers and those who enable them. This means we sometimes have to make some very hard choices about who we associate with, and how we interact.
6) Creepers thrive on familial, friendly, or professional bonds that people keep out of guilt or a sense of duty.
We can’t choose our families. We often feel we can’t choose our friends, either, especially if we have had them for a long time. But we have to look with a discerning eye at our relationships and think hard about how we might be enabling creepers. This is the hardest thing of all to do for many reasons. It can tear a family apart to call out domestic abuse or molestation. If one’s son is beating his wife, what can parents do? These are hard questions. I don’t have simple answers. But abusers and harassers don’t spring fully formed from the Internet or from random places. They have a base of support and they have enablers, and they will do horrible things to other people, knowing you will keep quiet or will find excuses for them.
We have to look with a discerning eye at our relationships and think hard about how we might be enabling creepers.
If you have hired a creeper who is skilled at what they do, keep in mind that it is very likely their creeper behaviour is decreasing the productivity of many people around him. Creepers can cost a startup a lot of money, not just for sexual harassment lawsuits or messing with productivity, but also because of this very vital fact:
7) Creepers consciously create a no-feedback zone around them.
Because they are always playing group politics games and looking to marginalize others, creepers invest a lot of time and effort into only getting certain types of reactions from people. We all are socialized to respond in “polite” ways to certain things, and creepers will use our socialization against us. They might ask overly personal questions to keep us feeling unsafe and catch us off guard. They might use jokes as a cover to embarrass us or poke at our insecurities. Creepers stifle natural and open behaviour. I have seen a creeper shut down a meeting where people were exchanging ideas openly before. They feel the need to have the last word, often, and get deeply offended when contradicted.
It’s important to watch the energy of people when they interact with others. If you consistently see a dampening effect when a certain man is around, and you see women looking at him often to gauge his mood, or you see people being strangely compliant and overly solicitous around him, it’s likely you have a creeper in your community. Don’t confuse this for natural leadership or authority. A good leader inspires comfort and confidence and people in authority who are there to help will try their best to make everyone comfortable.
As a business owner, I form ideas about who to hire from experience, observation, honing my instincts and listening to my emotions. Any good CEO knows a business is only as good as the people you hire, and if you are in a position to make the world better by not enabling creepers to feel bold or brave, you are helping. If you can make it a little harder for a creeper to harass others, you make life a little easier for someone, somewhere. Try your best!
*Photo credit: Victor1558 (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
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