Rise of the Feminist Tinder-Creep-Busting Web Vigilante
Many women say they've received harassing or offensive messages on online-dating sites. Will airing the obscene exchanges publicly help?
One day recently, Alexandra Tweten was browsing Facebook when a woman she knew posted a screenshot of a recent exchange she’d had on OkCupid.
“I want to message you, but I’m afraid,” the man said. The woman didn't respond for 12 hours, after which the man followed up with one word:
As these things often do, the missive prompted a piling on of similar tales of inscrutably weird or profoundly rude dating messages. Tweten posted an aggressive note she had recently received from a man who had sent her the same OkCupid line three times in the course of a month, asking her if she’d like to chat. After ignoring it repeatedly, Tweten finally wrote back, “No.”
His response: “WHY THE FUCK NOT? If you weren’t interested, you shouldn’t have fucking replied at all! WTF!”
“We can't win,” Tweten told me recently. “If we don't respond, they come back and say, ‘you're a whore.’ If we do respond, we get yelled at and called names. I hate that men think they can talk to women like that. They should be publicly shamed.”
Other women on the Facebook thread agreed, saying they had similar experiences and wanted to see the perpetrators punished in some way, like through a public Instagram account.
Tweten said, “I’ll do it!”
That Instagram account became Bye Felipe, Tweten’s crowdsourced menagerie of mankind’s worst specimens. The name is a play on “Bye Felicia,” a meme used to signify that someone has left a party, and they won’t be missed. Since creating it Monday of last week, Tweten has received more than two dozen submissions.
Tweten, who is 27 and works for an entertainment company in Los Angeles, has been on and off OkCupid since 2010. She acknowledges that these types of messages come from a relatively small number of users. She’s had mostly good experiences with online dating, and she met her last serious boyfriend on OkCupid.
Still, the crude, unsolicited messages are a kind of a bitter aftertaste to what is usually a fun, if sometimes fatiguing, process. “What in society makes them think that it's okay to message someone like that?” she said. “At the same time, it's funny. You can see the desperation.”
Tweten is part of an growing contingent of women who are dedicated to exposing the shady, hostile, and crass entreaties they get from their digital suitors. There’s Straight White Boys Texting, which is exactly what it sounds like: (“You should come eat this dick for desert.” [sic]) Minority women seem to have it especially rough; there are a number of sites devoted to exposing the uniquely disgusting bile that seems to spew forth when certain white men attempt to woo Asian women.
Or, for more run-of-the-mill indignities, check out Dudes of Tinder, a Tumblr collecting a combination of outlandish profile photos and gross messages (“Wanna meet up for some chicken? Maybe some sex?”).
In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, "You are too hasty, sir."
Online dating is just like regular dating—if it had been sprinkled with radioactive dust and left out in the sun to get bigger, louder, and warped.
Traditional courting norms, in which men usually do the asking and women usually do the selecting, are escalated online. Rather than ask out the one cute girl laying out on the quad, however, the man can ask 50.
And why bother to ask them out in all different ways? One “hey cutie what you doin?” fits all.
Bombarded by all these "admirers," many women feel overwhelmed and leave scores of messages unreturned. One blogger recently ran an OkCupid experiment for which he set up five fake male and five fake female profiles. After a week, all of the women had received at least one message, the most attractive women had received hundreds, but several of the men remained un-contacted. This kind of rejection, day after day, can foment a kind of deep resentment among the male daters.
“They're trying to make us feel bad about making them feel bad,” Tweten said. “They're just trying to strike at whatever our insecurities are. You were just interested a second ago, and now you're saying, ‘you have a fat ugly nose.’”
To this, add the anonymity of online communication and the ambiguity that results when two strangers try to kindle a romantic connection through a medium that can't convey sarcasm, body language, or even a smile.
One friend recently relayed her own online-dating saga to me:
I was messaging with a guy recently and he was kind of aggressive—messaging frequently and whatnot. Eventually we exchanged numbers and he started texting incessantly. If I didn't answer him within an hour, he would text more: “Why haven't you answered me? What are you doing?" It put me off quite a bit, but as I hadn't even met him yet, I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Then on the day we set a date, he got really strange. We had made plans to go to one of my favorite spots downtown at 6 p.m. I never promised dates before then because it's so hard to get away from my job. Then he texted and said, "See you tonight at 5:30." I corrected him by saying that I thought we'd set the time for 6. He said,“are you really giving me a hard time about this? I have a flight tonight at 9:15.” I said, “Well I didn't say I could meet before 6 for a reason, but I will do my best to get there early.”
He then said, "Bring black man hair dye when you come."
I had no idea what he meant by that! Number one, it felt a little racist, and number two, why on earth would I run errands for someone I haven't even met yet? So I sent him, "This just got too weird for me, so I'm calling it off. Hope you have a safe flight." At which point he texted me five times about how it was just a stupid joke about how I was turning his hair white because I was giving him such a hard time. He texted again yesterday to see if he "had permission" to continue texting me.
Men, too, have grumbled online about the fact that all their hours spent browsing photos, writing love notes, and hitting send aren’t “paying off.” Maybe some think they have to send outlandish messages in order to get noticed at all.
“Who wants to expend all of that emotional energy only to get kicked in the metaphorical nuts by that empty inbox every time you log in?” wrote a Texas “dating coach” named Harris O’Malley. “Why the hell won’t people write back?”
Earlier this year, a male Reddit user tried setting up a fake, female OkCupid profile using a picture of a friend (with permission). Seconds after he created his username, he received his first message. He finished uploading the photo and figured he’d check back in about a day. But before he could close the tab, he got another message. And another.
He replied, but “then I got another message that opened with a line that while not wholly vulgar, kind of came off a little strange. I ignored it and went back to send the message to person three now,” he wrote.
“Before I could send it, I got a followup message from Mr. 4 which was needlessly sexual in nature. I continued to ignore him and finished. I then began to have some small talk with some guys (remember this is like minute 20 of having the profile up) and all of the conversations kind of get weird. One of the guys becomes super aggressive saying he is competitive and he will treat me right, the other is asking for my phone number telling me he is lying in bed and the conversation (without me steering it) is turning increasingly sexual in nature though I tell him I'm not comfortable with it.”
“As more and more messages came (either replies or new ones I had about 10 different guys message me within two hours) the nature of them continued to get more and more irritating. Guys were full-on spamming my inbox with multiple messages before I could reply to even one asking why I wasn't responding and what was wrong. Guys would become hostile when I told them I wasn't interested in NSA sex, or guys that had started normal and nice quickly turned the conversation into something explicitly sexual in nature. Seemingly nice dudes in quite esteemed careers asking to hook up in 24 hours and sending them naked pics of myself despite multiple times telling them that I didn't want to.”
He deleted his profile after two hours.
“I’m sick of hearing that women have it so much better online,” said Holly Wood (her real name), a Harvard sociology Ph.D. working on a dissertation about modern dating.
She's also been on online-dating platforms for about three years. “My guy friends were saying, ‘You don’t have it hard. You’re an attractive girl.'"
"So I said, ‘Do you want to see the crap that I deal with online?'”
Wood also serves as a moderator for OkCupid, a footsoldier in the volunteer army that sorts through messages that have been “flagged” by users for being inappropriate. If Wood or another moderator deem a message too crass, offensive, or hostile, the user who sent it can be banned.
It’s worth noting that, at least relative to online gaming sites or comment boards, harassment in online dating seems to be relatively rare. In a recent Pew survey about online harassment, most people said online dating sites were equally welcoming to both men and women, and only 6 percent of people reported having been harassed on an online dating site.
On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that, when it does happen, can be chilling. If men did this in public, we'd want them arrested. It would be ridiculous if a stranger showed you his penis in a bar and didn't suffer repercussions. So why, these women ask, are online daters allowed to assail each other with impunity?
Wood curates a Facebook album of the nastier messages she comes across in her moderating role. Hearing them read them to me aloud over the phone, it wasn’t so much shocking as it was clinical and kind of funny, like listening to a read-through of a Mamet play. But I could see how, if I was logged into a site where I was trying to find love, or sex, or at least a fun person to eat sushi with, repeatedly being called a "whore" or a "bitch" by perfect strangers would be draining, if not downright scary.
“Hi Isabel ... would you be up for a nice toe sucking foot worship," Wood read. “You know your beauty deserves a five and your mouth deserves a ! so I granted you a three which is ... for fat women who wear makeup.” “Is your hole clean or do I need body armor to make entry?” “You ever watch a guy jack off before?” ... and so on.
Wood argues that the fact that so many women are subjected to so much filth on dating sites amounts to systemized sexual harassment. Women aren’t prepared to deal with the deluge, and OkCupid’s moderators, she argues, can only do so much.
And in this day and age, it’s not like online dating is a fringe activity that women can simply recuse themselves from, she says.
“You can’t go up to people anymore and just flirt with them,” she said. If you’re single, “online dating becomes your only recourse. But it’s sexually hostile, and the predator-prey dynamic seems to be really on fire.”
It’s unclear whether these online expose projects are truly shaming boorish Tinder users or simply providing catharsis for the women involved. On Bye Felipe, the names of the men aren’t visible, but some of their photos are. Tweten doesn’t crop or alter the messages—they’re all screenshots she’s been sent. Her position is that if a guy chooses to say this kind of thing to a woman, the woman can choose to share it with the world.
It’s a kind of doxing, and the reason it’s so unusual is because dating has traditionally been a private act. But if a man relentlessly spams dozens of women to say he wants to put his penis in their mouths, has he already broken the barrier between private and public conduct?
When Anna Gensler joined tinder, some of the first messages she received were things like, “8==D I love anal.” So she began drawing nude pictures of the senders and posting them to Instagram alongside the content of their messages. In most of the drawings, the men have small, flaccid penises, perhaps to better contrast with the measurements they boast in their messages to Gensler.
She told Slate that some of the men got mad, claiming that she didn’t create an attractive-enough rendering: “Why am I so fat? My facial hair doesn’t really look like that. My nipples are smaller than that!”
A handful responded thoughtfully. Others blocked her. When she created an OkCupid account and threatened, in her profile, to draw anyone who sent her obscene messages, a few men took her up on the offer, writing, “Can you please draw me naked?”
OkCupid’s moderator guidelines state that messages are considered out of bounds if they contain “threats or harassment, hate speech, crude or overt sexual remarks, or commercial solicitations.” Wood thinks the site should go beyond deleting the profiles of offending users, potentially by adding a filtering system so that women don’t get the hurtful messages in the first place. (OkCupid and Tinder’s parent company, IAC, did not return a request for comment.)
In the meantime, Wood says she has managed to reduce the number of offensive messages she receives by honing her profile to ward off creeps. Putting “feminist” in her bio, for example, is a kind of dog whistle that she thinks suggests she’s not one to reckon with.
“Put the buzzwords out there that will kill their joyride,” she said. “But that’s a skill we don’t tell women about when they join the website.”