I once had a young, female assistant professor come to me with a question. One of her young, male graduate students had asked an undergraduate female student in his class some questions about her dating life. The questions made the female student uncomfortable, so she talked to my colleague about it. My colleague then asked me, “Should I talk to him about it?”
My advice was “Absolutely,” because I immediately sensed something. He had crossed what I call the “Creep Line.” What is a creep and what is a creep line? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) won’t help you here, since not one of their definitions captures how we use the word “creep” today. That usage is better understood by this academic journal title that discusses violence toward women with intellectual disabilities, “Put bluntly, they are targeted by the worst creeps society has to offer.”
Similar to that article’s conceptualization, I’m using the term to refer to a male or female who gives women uncomfortable feelings regarding their relational (esp. sexual) intentions. Although women creeps exist, this post will be directed toward men since that is what I know, and they are most often described as creeps.
The important thing to notice is that women’s feelings or intuitions define the creep line, creepiness, and thus who is a creep. Of course, every woman has a way of identifying creeps and has their own creep line. It’s different for different women and sometimes their feelings and thoughts are not always an accurate guide of what a group of fellow females might think (especially if they have been sexually taken advantage of by creeps). I contend that out of respect to and love for our sisters, we want to show an abundance of sensitivity, since we do not know every woman’s story and creep line. Men must realize that they do not control those two things and even Title IX leaders may have different ideas about the creep line.
Despite these definitional challenges, I find my relationships with female colleagues and students (especially female students I interview alone in a room for confidentiality reasons) helped by a simple rule I keep in my head—don’t be a creep. Now, why do I start this series of posts with this rule instead of a positive vision for created and reconciled gender relationships (which I will cover in parts II and III)? As I tell my students in ethics class, rules are for beginners. Just like you start coaching by teaching kids the rules of a sport, it helps to start with rules in this area.
Of course, you must start with not wanting to be a creep. That sounds easy, but I find most young male professors and professionals are too cavalier about the subject. They feel far from creeps since their song and movie references are still understood by students, professional female colleagues, their congregation, etc. Of course, no one ever perceives themselves as a creep. Thus, it helps to identify one key quality.
One of the major creep characteristics is what I call “beauty privilege”—when a (typically) young, male professor or professional shows (often unconscious) favoritism toward beautiful women by showing them inordinate attention (although everyone else sees it). Of course, God made us to be attracted to beauty. Not surprisingly then, there are plenty of studies that chronicle the reality of beauty privilege (and scripture recognizes that Christ did not use this power when describing the uniqueness of the Messiah: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” Isaiah 53:2b NIV). Young Christian men in academia or ministry should first learn to avoid practicing beauty privilege by remembering they encounter the image of God in every colleague, student, or parishioner.
Practicing beauty privilege as a young man often gets dismissed because of age similarity, but if such a practice goes unchecked it will become firmly ensconced by the time that same professor gets grey hair, wrinkles, and a punched belly. At that point practices are hard to change and beauty privilege will absolutely cross the creep line.
Second, in light of what I mentioned about the creep line, young men need to do one important thing to discern the creep line—talk to women about it. Do not guess. Talk about it. Ask, what does your girlfriend/wife think is creepy. I have often seen this practice neglected when teaching ethics courses. For example, in two decades of teaching students about Laurence Kohlberg’s famous Heinz dilemma, where a husband is faced with the moral decision of whether or not to steal a drug to help his wife, I can count on two fingers the number of students who said, “Well, shouldn’t he ask his wife about her preference?”
Over a decade ago, my wife had expressed discomfort about me meeting “alone” with a certain female colleague for lunch (in a crowded residential cafeteria). As a result, I stopped doing it and brought along a graduate student when this female asked me to lunch. Yet, my own Baylor University Title IX training recently implied that if I was not willing to have lunch alone with a young female colleague, I was somehow violating the letter of Title IX. The training failed to recognize what my wife knew. There are men and women who are creeps.
Obviously, not all women are creeps or a danger. I can think of only two times my wife voiced distrust of a particular female colleague or neighbor. She told me, and I trusted her instincts and wisdom instead of either my institution’s Title IX training or the blanket Billy Graham rule (don’t be alone in a room with a woman) that makes all women the same level of trust or danger.
What if you don’t have a wife or girlfriend? Well, ask other women. Of course, the reality is that women will be more sensitive to the creep line around you due to your status. In that case, it’s always best to follow the positive advice given to single Timothy when undertaking ministry as a single man: treat “older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (I Tim. 5:2). Even though its trendy to critique evangelical purity culture these days, men should never dismiss the need to practice the virtue of purity. In fact, it’s the positive version of my admonition, “Don’t be a creep” (more on this verse tomorrow).
Third, it would help to listen what other wise men say—especially your close Christian friends. Sometimes your wife, girlfriend or other women will be okay with someone or some action, but your wise male friends or older mentors know you’re playing with fire. Indeed, I have changed views about some of my wife and my unwise past actions. Early in our marriage my wife and I sometimes invited struggling couples or a struggling wife to live with us. In one case, the husband was often out of town and the other wife, and I would be at home together while my wife was still at work. It was, to say the least, a situation produced by being young, feeling spiritually invincible and caring, and being foolish. I would never advise that now—again the reason is not that all women are the same level of danger—but having deep conversations alone with a woman in a struggling marriage demonstrates a lack of prudence.
Not surprisingly, a few years later a nationally famous man with whom I worked had an affair due to a similar “inviting another couple to live with them” scenario. You need older, wiser friends who are not fools to ask hard questions about some of your decisions. If you are a charismatic person, have authoritarian tendencies, or enjoy leading people you especially need these people. You’re likely almost always emotionally needy.
This last reality relates to my fourth suggestion. You must also consider your own situation. How emotionally or sexually needy are you? I’ve known and talked to men in the church whose wives have denied sex to them for a year or more. Obviously, there are deeper issues going on in these cases, but these men may need to follow the Billy Graham rule due to their own neediness while seeking counseling in their marriage. In addition, there are often stages in life when a man is emotionally and sexually needy. Following a breakup is one of those times. Another would be during marital struggles when you’re mad at your wife and/or often thinking negatively about her, her habits, and her treatment of you (and every marriage has periods of those). Times your wife is sick or having extended health issues (e.g., my wife was in bed for a year for health reasons). These are times you need to be on guard.
Also, if things are not going well with the kids at home and you find yourself talking to your female colleague and not your wife about those issues or other matters that are also emotionally-charged, that’s probably a sign you’re getting close to the creep line. For most men, emotional vulnerability with a young woman to whom they are not related or married is the fastest way to a romantic connection.
The faculty and staff on every campus know who the dirty old men (and some women) are. Creeps have a hard time hiding it—especially after a drink or two at an academic conference. You don’t want to be one of those. Ask your wife, friends, and mentors for wisdom. Understand your own weaknesses and tendencies. And most of all, don’t be a creep.
Editor’s Note: I will move beyond rules (what I deem to be mere “fall control”) to a more positive theological vision for professional male-female relationships in Parts 2 and 3.