Edit: Somehow I managed to leave off one of the most effective methods in the original post. To correct this on 12/31/15, I added #11: “Playing Dumb.”
People find themselves on the receiving end of behavior that sits somewhere in the creepy/annoying/scary/violent cloud on a regular basis, but we don’t seem to talk very much about ways to handle it that don’t involve violence, defensive weapons, or relying on others. Below are ten simple strategies that I’ve seen used effectively by myself or others to cut things short before such things are necessary, along with some discussion of when they work best. Some of these will work better for some people than others. It is important to note that some of them may fail even in the best-possible context, which would require a change in strategy. My hope is that readers will take what they want from this list, and dismiss what they don’t.
1. The Invisibility Wall
This strategy involves completely ignoring the antagonizer as if the person does not exist. It seems to work best when in confined spaces that one cannot leave (such as on a bus) or when the interaction is purely digital (blocking features are excellent). Some people who come off as creepy and/or annoying are really just starved for attention. Cutting off what they want can cause them lose interest and move on to other things. This may not be an effective choice in some cases, especially in open public areas where the person can follow you around. When using this method, It is important to keep the corner of your eye on the person in question to ensure that you don’t need to do something else to ensure your safety. Do not use this method if you suspect physical attack may be eminent. That will just make it harder to defend yourself.
2. The Smile and Nod
Many people don’t realize they are being creepy. Sometimes folks are actually staring off into space. Sometimes they don’t realize you could tell they were staring at you. Greeting the person with a quick smile and nod of interpersonal acknowledgement can, in these cases, put an abrupt stop to the staring. I use this method a lot when walking alone. I do not use it in closed spaces (such as on a bus) as it seems to be taken as an invitation for conversation in that context.
I have seen someone try to use this on a bus. For 25 minutes, the gracious smile and polite nod prompted more and more flirting from someone who seemed to misunderstand the terror in the other passenger’s eyes, and either didn’t notice or didn’t care that personal questions were continuously returned with empty answers. Whenever the flirting person looked away, the terror filled the smiler’s face until a grimace reversed the curve of the lips and the three nearest people shook their heads and made sad eyes in solidarity but did and said nothing. From this, we can learn a few things. Sometimes strategies simply fall flat and just don’t work. When a strategy isn’t working, pick a new one. Finally, while you are developing your personal toolkit of strategies, remember not to rely on strangers to stand up for you.
3. Serious Questioning Face
For the leering, not just staring sort of person, sometimes the smile and nod fails to put an end to the creeping. In those cases, I look directly at the person and raise my eyebrows with flattened lips. “Serious Questioning Face” has put an end to every leer I’ve used it with except two. With one, I mouthed, “what do you want?” from across the room. (Similar to “Direct Verbal Response” below.) That put an end to it. With the other, I got raised eyebrows in return to my “serious questioning face” and the person continued to follow me from room to room at the event, somehow managing to sneak up right behind me twice despite my best efforts. I altered strategies. I went and (with permission after an explanation of the situation) sat on the lap of my muscle-covered friend who also happened to have a black belt in karate. (This is a variation of “A Strong-Looking Friend” below.) The leerer continued to creep on me, so my friends and I left, made sure the creeper was not following us, and had an awesome night somewhere else. (This is “Disengage and Depart” below.) Notice that I continued to switch strategies until I found one that worked.
Side note: Notice how my friends totally had my back? Get friends like that if you don’t have them already. Be that kind of friend.
4. Direct Verbal Response
For the people who touch too much, for those who find the more subtle strategies as invitations rather than “go away” statements, and for people who are really just confusing, direct verbal response is my go-to strategy. Here are some of the things I have used effectively, chosen based on context:
- “Do you want something?”
- “I can’t understand what you’re trying to say, because you aren’t using any words.”
- “I’d like some space to be alone with my thoughts right now.”
- “Leave me alone,” or “LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE.”
- “Stop touching me,” or “STOP FUCKING TOUCHING ME.”
- “Do not touch me again,” or, “KEEP YOUR FUCKING HANDS TO YOUR GOD-DAMN SELF.”
- “That’s not okay. Stop it.”
- And my personal favorite for people who are being mean and think it’s somehow flirting, “How often does that work for you?”
The loud versions full of profanity are meant for situations where the person seems to be capable of pending violence. The loudness does two things; it draws the attention of passersby who might otherwise not stop to help, and it intimidates your potential opponent. The stares of onlookers and the profanity add to this intimidation, building up a situation where you are less likely to be attacked and more likely to have witnesses and potential help if you are. Draw yourself up with confidence even if you don’t feel it. You might be able to intimidate the idea of assaulting you right out of someone’s head (see “Intimidation” below).
Be prepared to have an actual conversation if you use the calmer lines, especially the questions. Some people find the idea of initiating a conversation with someone creeping them out to be intimidating. Personally, I find it empowering. It usually seems to catch the other person off guard, which allows me to regain control of the situation. The last one on the list above is one of my favorites because it typically prompts a short conversation which can either turn into a longer, more pleasant conversation or end the interaction altogether. It also seems to make creeps stop and think about what they’re doing. I like to think they learn from it.
5. Disengage and Depart
Sometimes the safest strategy is to simply leave the situation. Leave the party, leave the couch, leave the event, what have you. Doing so safely is important. Make up excuses if you feel the need to have one. Be careful that no one is following you. If you are leaving a party alone due to someone who seems to be stalking you there, for example, have someone walk you to your vehicle if possible. Many bars have bouncers who will walk you a short way.
6. A Strong-Looking Friend
Sometimes just hanging close to someone with muscles is enough to keep creepers away. Inviting such friends out with you when you go out to fun places where you might encounter creepers can be an effective prevention tool. It can be wise, however, to talk with these friends about this and be sure they are comfortable with it. No need to make your friends feel blindsided by the sudden presence of creepers and/or used. Besides, if you talk about it ahead of time, you can make a game plan together to be on the samge page later.
7. The Fake Cell Phone Call
Some strangers just want way too much time and attention. A phone call can be an effective shield. You can pretend to be on the phone, or call a real friend and chat about your day so someone knows where you are.
8. Calling the Cops
Threatening to call the cops can intimidate people into leaving you alone (see “Intimidation” below). Actually calling them can help when a person is clearly a danger to themselves or others, or is making verbal or nonverbal threats. When cops arrive on scene, you will have a choice. You can file a police report, or not. If you do, you will also have the option to press charges, but you can file the police report without pressing charges if that is your preference. Make whatever choice you prefer for whatever reasons you believe in.
Edit: This information about your rights with police officers is based on USA laws.
Edit the second: This information as written before I understood the dangers many people who aren’t white face when calling the police. Decide ahead of time where your line is for when you will call the police, if ever.
This is a strategy I do not use and therefore cannot personally vouch for it, but many of my friends find the following to be quite effective. Note that the first and third bullets are genuinely useless when it comes to putting a stop to come-ons in polyamorous and/or swinger communities unless you specify closed/monogamous when you fabricate your relationship partner.
- Answer, “Do you have a [boy][girl]friend?” or, “Are you married?” with, “Yes,” regardless of the truth. This can prompt some people to immediately leave you alone.
- Answer, “Come here often?” with, “No,” even if the true answer is yes if you get bad vibes. It is often wise to prevent letting strangers know what your habits are, especially if you find them to be creepy or intimidating.
- Claiming to have a romantic partner or spouse to go meet can help prevent someone from following you when you “Disengage and Depart.”
It’s easy to feel intimidated by people who are being creepy. It is surprisingly easy to turn that around. Confidence is highly intimidating, as is yelling (see “Direct Verbal Response” above). Studies have shown that most folks who want to prey on other people want an easy target. Standing strong in the face of someone who sets off alarm bells in your head can be all it takes to make them back down.
I remember a Hallowe’en party where my best friend at the time was dressed as a bumble bee and I was dressed as an early hominid. We were talking to two people, one of whom was very drunk and continued to violate my friend’s personal space as we talked. Despite my friend repeatedly saying “no” and physically dodging hands trying to reach inside that bee costume, this fellow kept at it. I am tall, yet this person was a head taller than me and probably weighed another 100 pounds in muscle. I put myself between them with a strong stance and yelled at him to “BACK THE FUCK OFF!” The big, drunk, 6’+ creeper got scared, and stumbled backwards with wide eyes. My friend and I were then able to “Disengage and Depart” (above). There was a chance that could have turned into a fight I very probably would not have won. To me, it was worth that risk to stop my friend from being violated any more than had already transpired. The “Intimidation” technique is often a bluff, but so far no one has ever called my bluff. I don’t think most people really want to deal with hand-to-hand combat when all they really want is to fondle someone’s body.
11. Playing Dumb (added on 12/31/15)
When people make indirect yet inappropriate comments, such as a stranger making a dirty joke about you without being completely blunt, playing dumb can be an effective defense tool if “Direct Verbal Response” (above) is not something you’re in to. This can be done by silently portraying confusion in your body language, or verbally. For playing dumb verbally, try something like one of the following:
- “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand.”
- “I don’t get it.”
Some people who come off as creepy are genuinely attempting to hit on people. Playing dumb can make them feel like their attempt fell flat, and they will often depart in embarrassment. Others are specifically looking for people who actually find their jokes to be funny. Regardless of the reason for the initial comment, playing dumb can often effectively utilize the other person’s social fears to disarm any intentions towards you. Sometimes, it also means that person will take you less seriously, which can give you an advantage if you need to continue manipulating the person into leaving you alone.
A Note on Gender
Gender does not dictate who is an agitator/creeper/assailant and who is a target/opponent, nor does it dictate who is capable of standing up for others. Look out for your friends, all of them, and find friends who will do the same for you if and when these strategies fail.