Wherein a Cat Becomes a Dog

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The most common logical fallacy I seem to run into nowadays is the false equivalence. It’s the argument that because A is similar to B, then they must be the similar in all respects. For example, the statement, “cats and dogs are both furry, fuzzy creatures, so they must be interchangeable,” is an obvious false equivalent. This becomes a lot harder once the issues get more complicated, however. Some recent examples of false equivalence are, say, Mark Driscoll’s defenders who say that Driscoll’s critics are being just like Driscoll in  being mean and “tearing him down.” However, this is a demonstrably false equivalence because, often, Driscoll’s critics are not pastors with a congregation that numbers in the thousands. When Driscoll makes a negative statement about someone, thousands hear it and believe – because it is coming from a pastor – that it is somehow God breathed. This is not the same thing as a blogger who gets maybe 3,000 new views a month pointing out that something Driscoll said is harmful.

That’s a false equivalence. The audience, purpose, and context are different.

I came across another one today that I think needs expounding, considering it’s the third time I’ve heard that.

Frequently feminists will point out the double standard in how we discuss sex between men and women, in that women can be labeled as a “slut” but there is no equivalent word for men. The response, I’ve discovered, from some weird corners of the internet, is to point out that “creepy” or "creeper" is the male equivalent of the word “slut.” The argument goes that a man labeled “creepy” faces the same social stigma and ostracizing that a woman who is labeled as a “slut” does.

In the recent comments on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, a man labeled “Oak Park Dave” helpfully demonstrated this false equivalence:

I would disagree that there is no male equivalent slur for "slut." I think there is a functional equivalent in the word "creepy." This term is often applied to low status men without cause in an attempt to control who they should desire and how they should act.

See the false equivalence? No? Let me explain.

“Creepy” is a label that responds to action that is taken within the public sphere. Instances in which a man may be labeled creepy include, but are not limited to:

  1. Looking at a person for longer than is comfortable or socially acceptable (eg, a person staring at another on public transit).
  2. Attempted closeness that ignores the nature of the relationship (eg, a lab partner who shows up at your house with take out when he was not invited).
  3. Behavior that transgresses certain personal space boundaries (anything from unwanted touching to picking up someone’s mail for them unasked, etc).
  4. “Just happening” to show up where a particular person is going to be, possibly repeatedly.
  5. Offering personal information unsolicited and out of proportion to the relationship in question (eg, the man who would corner me at the desk when I worked at a library and tell me all about how he got discharged from the military after he got hit by a van).
  6. Developing a nickname or pet name when they have not been given permission to do so or in a way that is out of proportion to the relationship (ie, a woman calling a man she’s been on two dates with “babe” or “honey”).

And so on.

What’s something you noticed here? “Creepy” behaviors tend to be gender neutral. Do men tend to get labeled as "creepy" more than women? Undoubtedly. Does this mean that a woman cannot be labeled "creepy"? No, no it doesn’t.

So there’s the first part of the false equivalence – the idea that “creepy” is an exclusively male term.

Here’s the second: “Creepy” has nothing to do with sex. “Slut” has everything to with sex.

“Creepy” is not a commentary on the private sexual behavior of an individual. It is not a comment on the decisions one makes about who he or she does or does not sleep with. It is, instead, a commentary on how one behaves in public.

“Slut” is a term that determines one’s worth based on one’s private behavior in a private realm – the bedroom. “Creepy” is a response to behavior perpetrated in the public realm – a classroom, public transit, one’s workplace, etc. What’s more, “creepy” is the imposing of oneself upon another person, and is therefore an incident in which a person can inform another to back off, or to return to socially acceptable norms. It is not unlike when John Watson tells Sherlock that what he’s done is “not good” – he’s informing him that his behavior has transgressed particular social boundaries.

“Slut” does not act in the same way. A woman who chooses to have and enjoy sex is labeled as a slut not because she made someone else uncomfortable, and certainly not because she made someone else feel unsafe in their own skin (which is often the result of ‘creepy’ behavior). The only “social boundary” that she is transgressing is one that is arbitrarily imposed upon her, not one that is a part of a social contract.

The social contract is the realm of acceptable public and relational behavior that we all enter into when we enter into a public sphere. For example, a professor who hugs their student on the first day of class could rightly be labeled creepy (but a professor who gives a student they have been working with for years a hug at graduation is not creepy – the relationship has changed enough to be socially acceptable – see the difference?). Or, in another instance, a person who meets a person and then starts calling and texting that person every day – that’s creepy. I’m a woman, and I have been on the receiving end of that behavior – from other women. They would, rightly, still be considered creepers, despite the presence of the va-jay-jay.

“Slut” does not function in the same manner. A woman does not have to do anything to be labeled a slut. I have witnessed virgins being labeled “slut” simply for being willing to go on a date alone with a guy. I have seen women who chose to have sex before marriage labeled as slut, even though they later married this partner and never had sex with anyone else. Slut is a term that is designed to make people fall back in line, yes, but it incorrectly labels private behavior as a public social transgression. What a woman chooses to do or not do in the bedroom is open for public comment, and labeling her a “slut” is a judgment upon her character that affects all parts of her social life.

“Creepy,” while it can carry a social stigma, does not carry the same level of stigma that “slut” does. Because “slut” is an insult based on private acts, there’s not much a woman can do to rid herself of the label. “Creepy” men or women can develop and change their creepy behaviors and disprove that social stigma – mainly because “creepy” occurs in the public realm.

So this, friends, is a prime example of false equivalence. Can we stop pretending that it’s not a double standard, already?