Online Dating or Online Harassment?
Notes on ‘Virtual’ Loitering
I am part of a feminist movement called 'Why Loiter' in India, wherein women loiter in order to reclaim public spaces for themselves and make them safer.
However, this article takes a look at loitering of a different kind - virtual loitering. It may not have to do with physical loitering but it still deals with a woman’s experience of putting herself ‘out there’ (‘there’, in this case, being the virtual world)
The woman in this case is me and this is my account of my brief online dating experience in India.
A year ago I created my online dating profile on a popular international dating site. And one year later I’m still happily single and a lot wiser. Not to mention that I happily rid myself of the constant need to read every new message and reply to it lest I be considered rude. Excessive use of my computer and smartphone for weeks resulted in losing out on other (more) important aspects of my ‘real’ life. This is what the virtual world can do to us. If we’re not careful we can get sucked down into a rabbit hole.
The world of the internet is a Wonderland and we all are Alices from time to time.
Coming out on the other side of that rabbit hole, I wonder – in this age when everyone and everything is online, is sexual harassment following suit?
But let’s forget Alice and her Wonderland and be real here. Sexual harassment on the internet isn’t a new thing obviously, but the difference here is that this harassment is happening behind the facade of ‘online dating’! Men hiding behind a well-constructed online ‘dating’ profile on a legitimate dating website and/or app, can manage to sexually harass a woman simply by typing a few words or sentences and they can EASILY GET AWAY WITH IT, as opposed to a sexual harassment that occurs in the real world! Those words in all Caps sum up my need to write this article. If I’m harassed in real life I can take appropriate action. But what can I do in the virtual world except block the questionable profile and report it? But it’s not that difficult for the same man to make another profile for himself on the same app.
This is a very big reason that attracts the creeps, harassers and perverts of the world to the world of Online dating just like kids are attracted to a toy shop or a candy store.
As if it wasn’t enough for a woman to deal with their words and actions in her day to day life, now a well-meaning and honest woman looking for a nice guy to date has to filter out a whole lot of nonsense. In the real world these sexual abusers can be found roaming freely, and in the virtual world, well, quite a lot more freely.
But like I said, in the real world the woman can fight back or legally punish her harasser. But the virtual world is another story altogether.
Here the male harassers take a dual approach - they can keep their real identities hidden, which emboldens them greatly. And along with their identities, their true intentions can remain hidden for as long as they want it to be.
As for the intentions, it is a no brainer to figure out the intentions of these profiles:
Notforlove1986 (no picture), ‘guyinmumbai123’ (who spends a lot of time thinking about “being in bed and sleeping”) and ‘juicymanforwomen’.
While shyguysids is so shy that he neither has a picture nor a single word about himself in his profile. Which begs the question – what the hell is he doing on a dating app in the first place, then?
And that’s why so many sexual predators can be found on dating apps such as OKCupid and Tinder in India (along with the extremely shy guys of course). I don’t know about other countries as my online dating experience has so far been limited to familiar (or not so familiar) territories.
A year ago when I started dating online, I had no idea what to expect. It was tricky for me to know what to write about myself and how much information to give out. What pictures to put up? Should I approach men or wait for them to approach me? But the last dilemma took care of itself. (As soon as a woman creates an online dating profile, there is a tsunami of messages that hit her inbox)
And then gradually I came to the realization that I am falling victim to the male harrasers in a two-fold manner.
At this point, it warrants my mention that not all messages are from perverts. Some are definitely well-meaning and respectful guys looking for a genuine date. I met some of them and made friends with a few. But others are otherwise ‘good’ and ‘decent’ guys who are dating online to satisfy their ‘bad-side’. Yes, these are the men that we work with, are friends with and even proudly related to. But because they come from conservative/ traditional and religious families where the mere mention of sex or a girlfriend is taboo, they are drawn to these online dating platforms for what can only be described as an adult-chat:
“Big hug to keep you warm through the night. One from behind. Save that for whenever you roll into bed.”
“…was a freezing night here in Kuwait. Getting out of bed was a task! With you in, hugging, it would’ve been a day off.”
“Are you freezing? I have warm palms.”
“What is your fragrance? I mean your natural scent. I have been told I smell woody-ish.”
These are the ‘gentlemen’ or the ‘nice guys’ who are only looking for sex and are fairly upfront about it. They are a shade better from the crude harassers. According to me their brand of harassment is more polished and refined, masked by sweet even romantic words and a rosy picture they paint of the future with the woman, (which is mostly a false one) with the single aim – to get inside her pants. They may even share all the information about themselves readily.
One such man I met on OKC even told me the exact details of his family members down to his 2 cats, along with the exact location of his house, thereby encouraging me to share as well. It was a trap. How do I know that? Because no one tells a complete stranger (that is me) they ‘meet’ ONLY online exactly where they live!
And some women do end up giving these men a chance because he was sweet, gentle, kind, funny /witty and we had a real connection. I’m sorry, but he only wanted to connect to your body.
In the dating world jargon these guys are known to be the ones leading with sex, which means that they get sexual in the conversation pretty soon and unabashedly. A woman has only two choices - to either accept these men or to reject them. Any other approach can be disastrous.
Dating apps across the board have plenty of such men apparently. According to a US based dating coach – “men go out looking for sex and find love. Women go out looking for love and find sex.”
But there is a difference between seeking sex and treating women as mere sexual objects. And coming back to the two-fold approach of the male harasser on online dating sites and apps…
First, is that, these apps and sites are free to register and they don’t have a process whereby they can verify the so-called authenticity of all the basic details that a person chooses to provide - like their profession, marital status, education level or citizenship status or even their real name. In fact, OKCupid will even encourage you to “brag about yourself”. A lot of people choose to use a random name in place of their real one as their ‘username’.
Truly Madly or TM on the other hand asks you to provide a photo ID, phone number and references to up your ‘trust score’ and so far I haven’t been harassed on this app at all since most users I interact with have a high trust score, which means that they shared their true identities with the app so any complaint of harassment can get them in trouble.
But all that the other apps seem to care about is whether you are a human or not. Their main concern is not to allow a robot to use their app for dating. A sexual offender is welcome as long as he carefully constructs a sound profile for himself.
When I created my profile on OKC first, I realised that I could easily be an exaggerated version of myself (within reasonable parameters of course (or not)). I could be 5’10” tall, I could be a multi-millionaire and/or working for NASA. All that I need to do for the third is to put the picture of an astronaut in place of my own picture (Identity theft anyone?) My point is that if I could be anyone I wanted to be, then so can a man.
Men know that women look for certain qualities as signs of credibility of a man’s online dating profile - a series of well-lit and clear pictures taken in different locations over the years (include some females in the picture and the trust factor goes up), a graduate from a known university or college and a working man is generally considered to be a safe bet.
But all the above three things can easily be constructed; everyone or their friend has a high-quality phone camera with superior editing features. And getting some women to take a selfie with isn’t difficult at all in today’s selfie-obsessed world. It’s considered the most normal thing among colleagues and friends and casual acquaintances in a bar. And if even if all his details are authentic, it doesn’t guarantee that the man will not pose a threat to a woman’s safety and/or her sanity, which brings me to the second way that makes online dating a breeding ground for harassers. Once a man has got your attention and you have started a conversation with him he can say just about anything to you, and there’s not much that you can do about it. Some are just random messages from random guys, like:
“You look sexy/ so hot/ sooo cute, I want to kiss those lips of yours!”
“You have naughty eyes. Care for a dirty chat?”
“Do you spit or swallow?”
“I give very good massages. Do you want one?”
And many other unspeakable profanities that even include details and pictures of their genitalia which has made 'dickpic' a fairly common term. This picture received by me from Taherio on OKC is a more sober version of many such dickpics that women receive in their inbox.
In return they ask you to send your picture. And by picture they mean that they want to see you naked - a woman they have never met in person and hardly know.
What will a woman do to a strange man who walks up to her in flesh and blood and asks her in the middle of the street – “Would you like me to fuck you?”
She’ll probably slap him.
What can a woman do if a man hiding behind a dating profile verbally or sexually abuses her?
So you see, no matter what a woman does, for her to fall a victim to sexual harassment (whether it’s major or minor, online or offline it doesn’t matter) isn’t related to where she is at or at what time of the night or what was she drinking or how many boyfriends she has.
I was being sexually harassed even when I was sitting inside the four walls of my house and dressed appropriately (I promise I am. You want me to send you a picture?).
So kindly stop telling women that they get molested, groped and harassed because they step out of the house alone, wear revealing outfits and drink with boys. Yes, sexual abuse and even rape victims often have to hear these words in India.
Because neither did I have to leave home nor did I have to show my cleavage to invite sexual harassment.
And, even if she is out in the public domain (whether it is real or virtual) it is her right (as much as it is anybody else’s) and when she is there, she wants to feel safe at all cost.