Stop Blaming Consent Violations on Social Awkwardness

Content Notice for Consent Violations (including sexual assault and rape)

Consider those who share unsolicited images of their genitalia. Who sexually touch themselves and/or others in public. Who yell inappropriately-explicit comments at passersby. Who make obscene gestures. Who refuse to take “no” — whether stated a tone soft or hard, polite or angry — for an answer. Who violate consent.

They know exactly what they are doing, and they are relying on how people insist that socially-unacceptable behavior only originates with socially-awkward individuals to continue to get away with it.

Defining Social Awkwardness

What makes someone “socially awkward”? Most people will say that social awkwardness is something that they can readily recognize but cannot quite define on the fly. In short, like porn, they know it when they see it.

If you’ve not been adequately deprogrammed from your ableism yet, when you think of a person who is “socially awkward,” you might think of someone who “seems Asperger’s” or “looks autistic.” At the ableist-sexist intersection, you likely think the person is a boy or a man.

A socially-awkward person may not be acting quite how you expect them to act in a certain situation. They might make others feel uncomfortable or who seem uncomfortable themselves, giving an “off” vibe for some reason you might not be able to articulate.

Consent & Social Acceptability

The reason why people think that consent violations are committed by the socially awkward is because they believe that consent violations are socially unacceptable.

When bad behavior is out-and-out dubbed rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or otherwise an explicit violation of consent, almost no one would consider it socially acceptable. The logic, then, follows all too easily: If violating consent is socially unacceptable, then who would do so other than someone who doesn’t understand social norms, i.e. someone who is, by definition, “socially awkward”?

Except that consent violations are absolutely socially acceptable as long as society continues to adhere to impossible standards as to what is “actually” a consent violation.

When consent violations happen publicly or semi-publicly, people look the other way and ignore them at best; they do their utmost to discourage those speaking against them or even enable the offender at worst. The man on the bus who masturbated through his pants while deliberately staring at me for an extended period of time wasn’t yelled at and threatened with ejection by the bus driver, I was, for “making a fuss.”

When consent violations happen privately, people trip all over themselves to justify and explain them away. We’ve all heard the victim-blaming: Why didn’t the victim say “no” more firmly? Why was the victim seen kissing the predator? Etc.

What ends up happening is that the definition of consent violation contracts so much that it excludes nearly every real-life consent violation. The goalposts move so rapidly and to such distances that it becomes essentially impossible to meet them.

In other words, any consent violation is totally socially acceptable as long as someone finds a reason to not call the action by its name, even if an action called by that name might be considered socially unacceptable in abstract.

Bumping Up Against Boundaries

It is horrendously naive to assume that people do bad things because they don’t understand that those things are bad. People do things that fit into the overlap of the Venn diagram of “What I Want to Do” and “What I Can Get Away With.”

Street harassers don’t apologize when told that the staggering majority of women do not appreciate their casual lewdness, they try to force women to accept their behavior with their gaslighting insistence that women are obligated to enjoy it.

Flashers don’t lack an understanding of public nudity laws, they are willing to subject themselves to the consequences of those laws rather than deny themselves whatever sexual gratification they get from the act. This is because they understand that they are unlikely to be caught and prosecuted.

Rapists know that using someone else’s body for sexual gratification without their consent is not OK and they know what “no” looks and/or sounds like, but they also know how to cultivate an air of plausible deniability around their actions. With victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and predator-excusing built right into much of society, they don’t even have to work that hard to do so.

It’s not that consent violators don’t know that what they do isn’t right, it’s that they simply don’t care and no one is forcing them to care with social consequences. They keep getting away with it because their advanced understanding of social norms keeps their behavior within the bounds of socially-excusable, if not socially-acceptable. They go as far as they can without going so far that people stop excusing their behavior.

No visibly, obviously socially-awkward person could even come close to being that adept with social norms.

At the Intersection of Ableism & Sexism

Many believe consent violators to be socially awkward people, and the image in most minds of a socially-awkward person is that of an autistic man. Not only do most visibly autistic men lack in the social capital necessary to uphold the plausible deniability that predators rely on, this assessment completely overlooks how vulnerable people who are autistic but who aren’t cis men can be to predators.

Social cues aren’t just given, they are also received. Many autistic folks, due to sensory and information processing differences, are seen as too literal and too intense for general society’s tastes. Thanks to the feminine passivity enforced by binary gender roles, an autistic person seen as a girl by society (whether they are actually a girl or not) is likely to be told that their perception of social cues is off and that they need to be less stubborn and more receptive to people.

Now, what happens when you tell someone already disadvantaged in terms of their read on social situations that they need to be more charitable in the way they interpret others and to not be so sensitive and paranoid? A socially-skilled predatory man could have an absolute field day with autistic women and non-binary people.

Who Gets Away with It?

What kind of person would be best able to ensure that others would come up with excuses for their consent-violating behavior? A person seen as socially awkward, someone who everyone already mistrusts because they give an “off vibe”, a person considered inherently suspect? Or a person with social capital, who is considered well-liked, who understands the rules of social acceptability well enough to bump right up against them in just the right way and amount to test them without quite crossing them?

The justifications people extend to consent violators hold the answer. They think the predator is a nice person, or harmless, or so charming that they wouldn’t “need” to violate consent, or socially-adept enough that the person whose consent was violated must have sent some signal, however wayward. It’s not the “socially awkward” person, i.e. the object of automatic suspicion, whose behavior is seen as excusable, but that of someone with enough social skill to know how to get away with it.

One way to exhibit social skill is to don a socially-awkward mask. Some predators make a show of claiming to be socially awkward, along with acting in ways that might lead people to superficially deem them socially awkward. To behave that way is really a form of next-level social adeptness, cloaking the predator in plausible deniability.

Most people who are legitimately socially awkward, especially those on the autism spectrum, absolutely know it. We’ve been told we are constantly wrong and that we behave wrongly our whole lives. If anything, we are cowed and afraid of overstepping, not so overconfident that we feel empowered to violate consent. When we are told we have done wrong, we are likely to apologize and privately agonize over it, not repeat the behavior with a shrug-off of “Well, you know how awkward I am!” While the socially-awkward are entirely capable of violating consent just like the non-awkward are, the staggering majority of predators are repeat ones who get away with it using slick behavior.

The Dangers of Conflating Consent Violation with the Socially-Awkward

Attributing behavior you perceive to be socially unacceptable to individuals who you see as socially awkward is outright dangerous. That they did something that you see as socially unacceptable does not make the person socially awkward, especially not in the case of consent violation, which is considered very socially-acceptable in many cases.

Consent violators continue to do what they do because they understand social norms extraordinarily well, not poorly, and are so capable at social interaction that they blatantly exploit the loopholes they find in the rules. They are not “socially awkward”, no matter what they say about themselves or whatever excuses others make for them. Furthermore, calling them that throws those commonly perceived as “socially awkward” under the bus, even though people who truly fall into that category are more likely to be the victims of consent violators.

Main Photo by Laura Barberis

Stop Blaming Consent Violations on Social Awkwardness

4 thoughts on “Stop Blaming Consent Violations on Social Awkwardness

  1. 1

    “They think the predator is a nice person, or harmless, or so charming that they wouldn’t “need” to violate consent…”

    Socially awkward people– the real ones– shouldn’t even be damned in the first place.
    Why? Because of the fatal flaw in gauging social skills– how others feel about you, which is out of your control!

    Oh, but we have an ace in the hole… the “law of attraction”, or one of its many other names and incarnations. YOU, the rejected and mistrusted, did something to ATTRACT ill treatment and negative reactions. You with your deficient body language and your just-slightly-off responses to things. (love the word “slightly” in there)

    Instead of thinking, oh, hey, maybe mismatches and goofs are part of normal human interaction and the process of getting to know one another that will be ironed out in good time and in mutual respect… we hold up the success of an interaction– reciprocation of an overture, receiving love or favor– as proof of social adeptness. And why did they get those positive responses? Because they were socially adept. Nice circular logic.
    We believe that charming people don’t get rejected. That charismatic people always get consent. We don’t have a picture in our minds of “good social skills” that involves people saying no, because we think of social skills as a magical YES-getting superpower that works every time… so if somebody gets told no, they really weren’t socially skilled.
    Nowhere in there is there room for somebody saying no for their OWN reasons.

    Anybody else think that serial consent violators might, in fact, think of their boundary busting as “proving” they are socially skilled? Social skill has been currency for some time now, and people naturally want to win the competition in it… so naturally, you’d expect people to want to amass “tokens” or “merit badges” of social deftness. Like yeses– no matter how coerced and nonconsensual.

  2. 3

    My daughter is on the spectrum and calling her “socially awkward” is often an understatement, but you know what, 90% of the time that manifests as actually keeping people at a distance, not as violating their boundaries. You know, not saying hello when somebody enters, not looking at them when they say hello, and so on, and so on.
    On the other hand I just had a guy with a crush on me and he got so close it was feeling uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that me removing my hand from his is not a universally recognised appeal to take hold of it again ASAP.

  3. 4

    Huh. I’m “socially awkward”, and I’d rather just avoid people, which may well be “creepy” in its own way, but I’m not, like, imposing my weirdness on others and trampling boundaries and assaulting people or anything like that and I forgot where I was going with this… sorry.

    I’m trying to say that I agree with this post.

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