Flirting, sex, and lines: removing skeeze from the movement

The contents of this post represent the opinions of JT Eberhard, NOT the Secular Student Alliance

There’s a problem in the atheist movement: guys can be skeezy.  This alienates women, makes the women we haven’t alienated uncomfortable, and weakens us as a movement.  There are famous atheist dudes who are notorious for this and plenty of non-famous atheist dudes who are guilty as well.  It needs to stop.  This movement should be comfortable for women.  It must be comfortable for women.

Here’s the problem: at conferences, where skeeze is known to rear its ugly head, lots of people also like to flirt and hook up with each other.  I’m among them.  Mutual flirting is a blast.  So is sex (which we assume is also mutual).  These are not the only reason I speak to women (or women to men).  They’re not even anywhere close to the prime reasons I speak to women (or women to men).  But flirting/sex can happen, and often does happen, in the process of getting to know somebody.  And that’s ok.  But I don’t value these fun activities over the right of women to be comfortable at these events.  Neither do a lot of guys.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m talking only about these two very fun things, flirting and physicality, that are ultimately a very small aspect of getting to know somebody.  I say that because I’m trying to avoid the conversation of, “but women don’t want to feel like sex objects whose primary purpose is to be flirted with.”  I understand, and nobody is saying you should feel that way.  But sex and flirting do happen, even if it’s not the most important thing.  Many women do enjoy flirting (most, I’d wager, enjoy it when the right guy is doing it).  To say that flirting/hook ups should never happen so that every woman can feel comfortable at all times is not fair to the other women who want to flirt and hook up.  So let’s work together to find a way that all women can get the respect to which they’re entitled and the people who want to flirt and hook up can do so, ok?

Now there are guys who do view women as a means to sex and have no interest in respecting a woman’s boundaries if it means they can’t push for sex.  Those guys are a liability.  They don’t want help and I’m not writing this post to help them.  I’m talking about the men who want to create a friendly environment for women but who also want to interact with the possibility of flirting/getting laid if things go well.  Being a somewhat socially awkward guy, I can understand how some guys might cross a woman’s personal line and not even know it.

So let’s start with an example of how things could go innocently south.  I’ll use myself as an example.  I hug everybody.  I always have.  It doesn’t matter to me if you’re male or female, I freaking love hugs.  If you’ve met me at a conference you know how serious I am about hugs.  Most people, in my experience, are cool with this and give a good squeeze right back.  However, there are some people out there who don’t like hugging (or may just not like hugging me).  If I open my arms to go in for a hug and they back off, have I crossed a line?  Clearly, yes.  I’ve crossed their personal line.  There is no denying this.

So how bad is this?  I suspect it’s all in how I react.  If they back away, I immediately respect their decision, smile, and go hug someone else.  Very little harm and, I’d argue no foul.  If I get pushy and say, “Oh come on, give me a hug” once the line has been established, suggesting that I don’t care if I’m stepping over it or that I don’t trust someone to set their own lines (or, even worse, that my interests trump her comfort), then I’ve entered into skeezy territory.

So continuing once the line has been established, whether it’s for hugging, flirting, or whatever, that’s a no-no.  Of course, that’s an easy one that common sense should dictate.  But, I know plenty of brilliant people who lack common sense in social interactions, so it’s good to have it out there.

A problem comes up in determining what leeway we have to search for someone’s personal line.  After all, we need to know where it is so we can avoid crossing it.  If someone’s personal line is vague and undefined, it becomes far more likely that it will get crossed in error.  Inching toward the line is a good thing, I reckon.  Obviously (perhaps not as obviously as I would think given some of the stories I’ve heard), you don’t want to grope a woman and then say, “Oh, I guess her line is more conservative.”  Start small and, if you find yourself interested, inch toward flirtation and try and see how she responds.  If you’re going to err, err conservatively (which is probably the only time in this movement you’ll hear someone say that).

But everybody has different lines, and sometimes, I repeat sometimes, I feel like crossing any line, even a little bit, is treated as a violation worthy of social punishment.  I might catch some flack for saying this, but I don’t think that’s fair.  Sometimes personal lines will get crossed without anybody doing so intentionally, just like with me and hugging.  It’s a mistake, some might even say it’s not a mistake but just an occasional, natural consequence of the way flirting is set up in our society.  What it absolutely isn’t is a sign of disrespect.  Whether it’s flirting, hugging, or propositioning, we already know the proper reaction on the part of the line-crosser: to apologize and to acknowledge that they respect the other party’s decision and to immediately retreat into non-skeezy territory.  What we need is to figure out just how much line-crossing is acceptable/forgivable before someone’s personal line has been decreed.

And I’m going to say the answer is “not much.”  That’s why we need to inch toward the line rather than leap toward it.

But ladies, we need your help (which is why I’m writing this post).  I’m not an idiot, but I’m terrible at catching subtle hints.  Seriously, I’m awful.  Men like me need you to communicate with them.  If we’ve crossed the line and you don’t tell us, it’s very possible that we won’t even be remotely aware that the line has been crossed at all.  If you then go tell other people how terrible we are for having crossed your line, you’re creating drama instead of working toward a resolution.  We may be dying to respect your line, but if we’re unaware of its location that makes it really difficult.  Bear in mind, I’m not blaming the victim.  I’m not saying women are at fault for the privilege-assuming men who we’re not talking about in this post.  I’m saying clearer communication can help the guys who are trying their asses off and fail on occasion.

In fact, once you ascertain whether or not we’re flirting with you (which I’m told is not that hard), you may even want to communicate where that line is outright to make sure we don’t cross it out of ignorance.  You might say that we should have the awareness to know your line’s location without direct communication, but that’s not fair.  The line is different for every woman, so we can’t know where it is for you as an individual without additional information.  Plus, some of us just suck with social cues, so subtle hinting won’t always work even though we women-respecting guys want them to.  In short, we respect your line, but if you want your line to never be crossed even in error you need to help us know where it is.

Now men, if women do us the favor of communicating clearly, we need to be ready to repay that kindness by not crossing the clearly defined line.  It doesn’t matter if you think their line is prudish.  It doesn’t matter if you think they’re playing hard to get.  It doesn’t matter if her line is different for another guy.  It doesn’t matter if you think you can change their mind.  They’ve established how far you can go, and if you go further you are wrong.  Period.  That would be a crime deserving of social punishment and the offending male should not get away with it.  The man who continues once a woman has clearly established where her line is has lost all claim to innocence, and both men and women alike should chastise him for it.

If we don’t respect their space once a woman has made it clear how much of it they’re willing to share, we create an environment where it is uncomfortable for women to communicate clearly, which sucks.  It sucks for women because they deserve to be comfortable and it sucks for men because the medicine for our social ineptitude is clear communication from women.  Men, if you’re a nice guy, don’t do what sucks for women.  And don’t do what sucks for men because, well, it sucks for you.  Violating clearly defined space sucks for everybody.  But if the line has not yet been clearly defined, I think women should be prepared to either define it or be at least a little understanding if someone goes an inch over it.  If they don’t respect your line after you tell them they’re an inch over it, even if they say, “But it’s only an inch!”, then your understanding can, and should, immediately cease.  But before that, I don’t see how a little line-crossing can be interpreted as disrespectful, and if it can’t be interpreted that way I don’t think it should be treated that way.

If I am wrong here, let me know.  I’m not trying to force anything on women, but I am trying to determine what is fair.  Help me out.

Ok, so in what other ways can skeeze occur?  Again, let’s use myself as an example in that I’m a touchy, feely guy who like to hug everyone.  I wouldn’t do it, even though it’s my nature, if it generally made people uncomfortable.  Fortunately for me, it seems to make virtually everybody happier without scoring me skeeze points.  But I know some perfectly good, perfectly well-intentioned, perfectly otherwise not creepy people who could not get away with hugging everybody like I do without it being creepy.  I’m honestly not sure what contributes to this.  Maybe it’s that they haven’t set a precedent the way I have, or that they’re not as young or outgoing as I.  I’m honestly not sure, but it’s there. Maybe you ladies will have some insight into this and how we can determine how behavior that’s ok for one person is not ok for another.  I know some guys might see me hugging every person I come across and assume that opens the door for everybody to do it when, in fact, it doesn’t.

Once again, women can help the good guys who just suck at figuring out our own creep factor by being frank with us (the comments of this post are a good place to start).  We’re sorry we’re not better at it on our own, but instead of just reminding us that we suck at subtlety, please help us find a way to keep you comfortable that takes our shortcomings into account.  We want you to.  You want us to be better.  Many of us want to be better, and we want your help.  Let’s do this.

So, here’s what I have.  Bear in mind, I’m a socially slow male doing my best.  If you want better than my best, you’re shit out of luck.  But you can help me learn so that my best (and maybe the best of other men) gets better.

This list of helpful hints will need to have things added and I turn to the women in our community for this.  I don’t normally wade into the comments on posts, but I will on this one.  There may be some suggestions that I don’t think are fair and I’ll want to ask questions to better understand before I add them.

  1. Inch toward flirtation.  That way if you cross a line, you cross it by a forgivable amount.  Women, do you think it’d be unfair to ask you to be understanding if a man goes a hair too far if he immediately backs away once he knows where your line is?
  2. Don’t assume behavior acceptable for someone else is ok for you.  A woman’s personal space is not a democracy where everybody’s equal.  If you see a 20 year-old guy hugging a bunch of 20 year-old women and you’re 50, don’t assume you have a similar green light.  You have to do your own inching.  Don’t count on others to do it for you.  There may be times when it is totally not creepy for a 50 year-old to hug a 20 year-old, but it’s all dependent on her comfort level.  If she’s uncomfortable, it’s not ageist, it’s who she is and you need to go hug someone who wants your hugs.
  3. Different people have different lines, and that’s ok.  Don’t assume that one person’s line is misplaced because it’s different from someone else’s line.  There is no such thing as a wrong boundary.  If you think someone else’s boundary is misplaced, you’re wrong.
  4. Flirting guarantees nothing.  It might be an invite to inch a little closer, but if she draws the line at flirting, stay there.  Flirting is not a contract.  She is not a tease.  She is not a slut (and who cares if she is?  Responsible sex is fun).  If you leap to those conclusions because someone is casually flirting of flirting out of friendship (women, please help us realize when you are) then you have entered the skeeze zone.  You don’t want to be in the skeeze zone.
  5. Listen to women, guys.
  6. Communicate clearly with men, gals.
  7. Men, flirting is a two-way street.  If you’re flirting and she’s not flirting back (which you’ll know because women are going to communicate it with you), then you’re crossing the skeeze threshold.
  8. Location matters.  Flirtation that might be an acceptable inching approach at a social gathering might be completely out of place in a professional setting.
  9. Don’t fucking kiss and tell without permission.  There’s no shame in hooking up with different people (if done responsibly), but it’s still personal business.
  10. Slut-shaming: sex is fun.  It’s a better way to spend an evening than playing checkers (unless you really love checkers).  If you shame people for responsibly having fun, you’re an ass.
  11. If the woman says no, stop.  Retreat behind her personal line and never cross it again.  And if you find you don’t even want to talk to that person if she says no, then your priorities suck.  This is the kind of behavior that makes women think we view them as outlets to sex first, people second.  There’s absolutely zero wrong in wanting to have sex with someone.  It’s wrong when you value that over their personal comfort and value as a human being though.
  12. Not all line-crossing is a callous act of intentional violation!  Sometimes it’s innocent and, in many cases, the guy just didn’t know where the line was yet.  If the line is fuzzy, women can’t expect well-intentioned guys to never cross it.  It’s how crosses occur (inching vs. leaping) and how they are resolved that should matter.  Give credit for effort when the guy is trying to be respectful and fails.  If the guy isn’t trying to be respectful, take his balls.

Women, I know this list is incomplete.  I want it to be complete because I want to help everybody here, especially you.  Help me help you.  :P  How can guys determine their skeeze-factor?  How can we create an environment where you can communicate clearly?  What more do you need from us?

For you guys who are like me, who like flirting and like hooking up with another willing party at conferences when the stars align, but who also want to respect women and make them comfortable, what do you need from women?

Nothing is too simple or obvious here.  I don’t mind at all being treated like a moron when it comes to women – I am one.  Lots of good dudes are.

And remember, we’re not talking to the men who assume privilege and don’t give a shit about crossing lines.  I can’t help them.  The best we can do is shame them – but we don’t want the good guys shamed along with them, right?  So don’t spend your time in the comments giving a huge indictment on the bad guys – we’re not speaking to them here.  We’re in agreement on them.

Speak to the good guys.  The ones who are on your side, if only they’d have a little more information on how best to do it.


Stephanie Zvan makes a very good point.

I will note that sometimes, when you cross a line, even if everything else has been going very well, you’re going to hit a PTSD trigger. It’s going to be ugly. It may be awful. It’s going to be entirely out of proportion to what is happening at the time because it isn’t a reaction to what’s happening at the time.

It isn’t fair, but it isn’t “creating drama” either. Do not blame yourself. Do not blame the person triggered. The person you want to lash out at is almost certainly not going to be anywhere in reach, so do your damndest to stay calm, as bewildered as you are. You may well not be the person to help whomever was triggered, but you can offer, or you can offer to get help. Just try not to make it worse. And don’t demand that the person who was triggered reassure you.

Because this movement does have men who value their own sexual privilege over the comfort of women, or even a woman’s right to determine what happens to her own body, stuff like this may occur.  Men, be understanding.  Don’t convict the woman for the crimes of a skeezy, evil man.


Stephanie made another good point to me.

What you say would be much less problematic in a world in which women weren’t punished for setting boundaries. They are, however, which makes phrasing things in terms of responsibilities very tricky indeed. Hell, in cases of uncertainty, it’s even an issue sometimes to ask questions that require a person to say, “No,” in order to make things stop. Our natural inclinations when we’re uncertain are to say, “Yes,” to questions, and women are conditioned to that even more.

The responsibility wording makes me edgy. No matter how much you say there are responsibilities on both sides, some people won’t see anything but that because it’s what they want to see.

She’s right.

Women, what can men do to help make it clear that we support your boundaries and we support you saying “no” at any stage?  Men like me already jump on the skeezoids and do our best to castigate them.  For those of us who, when flirting, want to make women comfortable while putting out feelers for those who will flirt back (and even want to give you the option to refuse flirtation without punishment or guilt), what else can we do?


Physioproffe brings up another point I like.

You use your words, clearly and explicitly. This commenter on your
blogge post had it exactly correct:

“Simple, direct questions are an imperative.”

Like: “Hey, I find you very attractive? Do you want me to flirt with you?”

Obviously, this violates all the rules of “romance”, but that is
because it is based on equal agency of both parties, and not on
patriarchal misogyny.

(2) You don’t physically touch someone unless you are 100% certain
that they want to be touched. The best way to find this out is to ask
them, like “Hey. I find you attractive and I would like to put my hand
on your lower back. Would you like that?”

Personally, I like it.  I don’t think straight communication ruins anything, but I’m not sure how many people would agree, or if we should expect everybody to agree.  I’m also not sure if enough women would consider it creepy that it wouldn’t help at all.


Comments closed on this post due to people derailing the thread to the point of being useless and due to my growing annoyance at watching their derailing fill up my inbox.

Thank you to those who contributed positively which, gratefully, was most of you.  I hope the suggestions I included in the post help make things better for women in the future.

For the rest who took, “give us your insight” as defending skeezy men, you’re part of the reason men like me scarcely ever touch this issue even though we realize there are problems that need to be fixed.  If you want the help of men who want to help make this an accommodating environment for women, you may want to re-think some things.

Greg Abbott Can't Overturn True Marriage
Darrel Ray enters the world of podcasting with Secular Sexuality!
UK bans certain sex acts in porn, many aimed at female pleasure
Device to help vagina-havers do Kegels
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X