We can’t all be extraordinarily charming partygoers who regale others with delightful anecdotes and spontaneous witticisms. Some of us are awkward, offbeat bumblers on the social circuit, no matter how well-meaning. And that’s okay! There’s more than enough room for that sort of thing at a gathering, and your friends love you for who you are (I hope).
What can’t be tolerated, however, no matter how much “fun” you are, is crossing the line into creepy territory. You’d think this would go without saying, but a recent bit of advice on Reddit regarding such a creepster illuminated just how much we need to keep pointing it out.
The story involves an in-law named Bob who attends a Thanksgiving dinner and decides a woman named Wendy strikes his fancy. Never mind that Wendy is married to his brother’s son, never mind that Wendy makes it clear she is not interested in Bob. No matter what Wendy does or says, Bob is a Grade-A lech who won’t keep his grubby mitts and general creepitude off her, all while the poor woman is simply trying to put together a nice holiday meal.
Guys, during the span of 3 hours at thanksgiving dinner, I, a grown woman, was physically picked up, had my back caressed, had my pigtail pulled, was smacked on the ass with a cane, was hugged from behind while cooking when I expressly asked them not to, and was cornered and asked if I wanted to go out back to smoke because he wanted to “make me feel good.” I made sure everyone in the house knew what was going on, my husband included, and you know what they said? “Bob (not actual name) is always so creepy. You have to stay away from him.”
Justifiably enraged, Wendy offers a few tips for how not to be the creep at a party, taking a lesson from Bob’s terrible moves. The advice is solid as a rock, while also of course completely depressing that it’s needed at all.
1. If offering drugs or alcohol, do so no more than once per interaction. This should never be accompanied by the words “I want to make you feel good” and any rejection to the offer should be accepted gracefully. Any other reaction looks like a date rape attempt. Do not make this offer at consecutive interactions unless multiple people are partaking as it may be perceived that you are always trying to get them intoxicated.
2. Never physically pick someone else up off the ground. In fact, never move anyone or touch anyone without their permission.
3. Never ask someone where your hug is, force them into hugging you, etc. If they wanted to hug you, they would. How do you know whether or not someone at a social gathering wants to hug you? Watch how they hug other people. Is it full body? Is it single arm? Do they lean in? Now, when you go for a hug, do they turn most of their body away from you so you only hug a small part or their side? They don’t want to hug you. Do they stand as far away from you as physically possible and lean the 4ft distance so only shoulders touch? Stop trying to hug them. Offer a handshake.
4. Never physically block someone with your body during a conversation so that they feel unsafe, especially if you are bigger than them. For example, if Wendy is getting snacks in the kitchen at game night, and the kitchen only has one entrance, do not back Wendy into the corner of the kitchen if you have a large framed body. Wendy just wanted a snack. Suddenly Wendy is trapped in a kitchen and isn’t sure how to escape as you tell her about your bong collection, and how you’d be happy to smoke her out. Wendy is trying to decide if politely declining will do the job, or if she should risk trying to move past you, where you may “accidentally bump into her” and do that creepy a slow hair sniff you don’t think we notice. We notice. It’s disgusting.
5. Do not touch anyone without their permission. In case you’ve forgotten. Just don’t.
6. If offering to escort someone somewhere and your offer is rebuffed, do not insist, do not offer again, and definitely do not follow them.
Wendy’s excellent, no-nonsense advice can be summed up more or less as playing it like a person and reading the room. It requires respecting people’s personal boundaries, and keeping a safe distance from them so as to not make them feel trapped or hemmed in. It involves paying attention to their cues, both verbal and nonverbal, to gauge the degree to which you might be making welcome moves or unwelcome ones. It involves putting on your big-boy pants and seeing that when a woman isn’t interested, move it on out, buster. Stat.
While this advice works for anyone in every direction, man to woman, woman to man — including man or woman toward child, who should also not be forcibly squeezed or hugged or commanded to do so! — but as is the world we inhabit, these nightmarish stories are far more likely to be told by Wendys than Bobs.
What is perhaps more interesting than the advice itself is Wendy’s PSA and eventual followup. In her original post, she understandably asks the Bobs of the world to fuck right off a cliff, but also admonishes the bystanders for not stepping in at all when the Bobs of the world invade their spaces and paw at their women. Wendy writes:
Everyone else, stop leaving it up to women to protect themselves from Bob. You see that shit happening? Step in. You see Bob slap Wendy on the ass? Call him out. You see Bob making a woman uncomfortable? Tell him to stop. Step in. HELP HER.
But in an unexpected, more positive twist, Wendy follows up to the post with some good news. After she spoke to her husband about how violated she felt and upset that no one intervened, Wendy’s husband and his father (Bob’s brother) decided to make Bob persona non grata going forward at any of their homes due to his unacceptable behavior, Wendy writes. What’s more, she says, every woman that weekend had confronted her spouse about his inaction toward Bob, and they each realized it was time to take action.
“I got a text this morning stating that it’s going to be handled and that none of us should have to deal with him again,” she adds.
A commenter points out that all this work people do to let the uncle Bobs still hang around and rather than banish him, to simply warn others that he’s about to come a-creepin’, is called a “missing-stair” approach to dealing with a bad actor in any social circle.
The term, coined by a blogger going by Cliff Pervocracy in 2012, was initially meant to describe a sexual predator in the BDSM community that everyone simply worked around rather than realize it could be “fixed,” much like a house’s broken stair that never gets repaired; the residents, accustomed to walking over it, merely give you a heads-up that it’s there. The wiki points out that “missing stair” also used to describe anyone who is a weak link but ultimately tolerated (a shitty coworker who never gets fired, for instance). But it’s mostly in the service of abuser types.
It’s important to note that the missing stairs can be anyone at any level if they are such a part of the woodwork that they come with the territory. They are as much the Harvey Weinsteins of the world as they are the Uncle Bobs, and I’d venture a guess that there are far, far more Uncle Bobs plaguing social circles than Harvey Weinsteins. Either way, why do we still sidestep them?