I realize that the answer to this question may seem incredibly simple, and in theory, it is. In practice, it can be much more complicated.
Let me walk you through a scenario or two:
1) You’re in a bar with your friends. A guy comes up to your table and starts talking. No one is interested in him, but you’re nice people, so you engage in enough small talk not to be rude, but you try to let the conversation die after a few minutes. The guy is freaking Lazarus and keeps resurrecting himself. It’s been twenty minutes, and he’s still circling the table despite your best efforts to put out an uninterested vibe. You’ve pointedly hinted at boyfriends. You’ve avoided eye contact. And yet, he parks himself dangerously close to your personal zone. He says, “Am I awkward? I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable. I don’t want to be a creep.” And you say….
2) Your next-door neighbor seems like a nice, nerdy kind of guy. You’re friendly and say hi when you run into him in the hall. No big deal. But then, you start to realize that he might be interested in you. He sends you texts for no reason and keeps trying to get you to hang out with him alone. You ignore the texts and/or decline politely, but he doesn’t stop. You start to avoid him. Then, out of the blue, he sends you an explicit text asking you to have sex with him. You are shocked and incredibly uncomfortable. You say no. He apologizes and says “I just can’t help thinking these things when you’re around. I’m sorry I’m such a creep.” And you say….
The instinct for many women who are put into the above situations is to say something along the lines of “Oh no, you’re not a creep,” because that is how nice people respond when someone puts him/herself down. Most people don’t enjoy saying negative things about other people (at least to their faces) and most people are trained to graciously accept apologies. It also is generally a terrible idea to offend someone who has six inches and forty pounds on you. And so, the creep manipulates his target into “forgiving” him, thus giving him license to stick around and creep even further. This is dumb. This sucks. This shouldn’t happen.
So, what do you say?
For starters, tell the truth. “I am uncomfortable with the way you are acting,” “I do not want to continue talking to you,” and, “Yes, you are a creep,” are all perfectly acceptable things to tell people when a) they are making you uncomfortable b) you don’t want to talk to them and c) they are being creeps. You don’t have to go into detail or make derogatory remarks, but if someone says to you “Am I being creepy?” this indicates a level of self-awareness about the creepiness of his/her own behavior that deserves an honest answer. The creeper is literally asking you to call him a creep. So do it. It might not feel good, but it’s better than sanctioning inappropriate behavior.
And if you can’t tell the truth, lie. “I have a boyfriend and I’m not interested in meeting anyone else,” is a stand-by, as is the fake engagement ring often worn by single female travelers.
A note on this: It SUCKS that sometimes you have to rely on men (imagined or not) to get rid of creepers for you. It feels anything but empowering. It is ridiculous that you, a fully formed human being with rights and agency and all that, letting someone know that you are NOT interested or, you know, not expressing interest in having sex with someone is not enough to keep said someone from harassing you. But, if you are in a situation in which you are threatened or potentially in danger (your next-door neighbor, does, after all, live right next door), it may make more sense for you to lie.
Lastly, look out for your safety, especially in ongoing situations such as harassment by a neighbor, classmate, or acquaintance. Make sure that you’re not the only one who knows what’s going on, and if you directly rejecting a creeper isn’t enough to make the creeping stop, don’t hesitate to get a third party involved.
And, very lastly, to everyone in this situation who is not a) the one being creeped upon or b) the creeper: Be sympathetic. Be helpful. Do not dismiss a friend’s concerns as oversensitivity. Do not tell someone that he should be flattered by the attention. Do not tell someone that she is responsible for what has happened because she’s too friendly or flirty or pretty or whatever. Be a not-douchebag.
To the creeper: STOP CREEPING. Stop looking for compliance and look for enthusiasm. No means no isn’t always enough- the better rule of thumb is YES MEANS YES. If someone is avoiding eye contact, stepping away from you on the dance floor, giving one-word answers/not responding to your questions, and generally not acting interested in anything you have to say, GTFO. You don’t want to make conversation and/or love with someone who doesn’t like you–you’re better than that.
P.S. I realize that this post is heteronormative/assumes that the creeper is male (there is a lot more to write on this particular subject, but I’m not doing it right now). Please feel free to replace pronouns wherever necessary in order to relate to your personal situation- I wrote based on the experiences of myself and my friends.