BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
"Maybe you should try online dating."
Twenty years ago, that was something you never wanted to hear. Now, partaking in online dating is no big deal. These days, most people have a Tinder and OKCupid account, and talk about it as easily as recalling their morning routine. And in some ways, swiping through Tinder is part of many people's morning routines. It's simply another way people socialize; the internet has forever changed the way we interact. The world is no longer the one our parents dated and fucked and made love in. Welcome to online dating, the place where you can say anything, where your fetish will be considered sexy, not weird.
Anonymity was the main reason I was attracted to online dating. I could meet people outside of my social circle and go on dates without the gossip. I used to dread questions like "how did it go?" or "do you think they'll call?" If the date was truly awful, it was embarrassing to rehash--if the date went extraordinarily well, I wouldn't want to spoil it by talking about it to death. I wanted my life to be my own, not someone else's to live vicariously through, to judge my choices.
In the past, joining an online dating site meant you were desperate, that you ran out of options. Like Fight Club, the cardinal rule of online dating was that you never to talked about it. Kind of like when you had a Livejournal--you just didn't talk about it (despite the fact that you had a whole slew of 'online friends.') You simply pretended you met your partner "IRL"--at a bar or through a friend.
OkCupid and Tinder are particularly complicated, because they're free. Unlike Match.com, a paid service, anyone can join. In this way, it's become a hotspot for hookups. Let me say this, hookups are totally fine--so are relationships, so is polyamory, so is your weird foot fetish. Really, whatever works for you is cool with me. Yet, the longer I used OkCupid, the more clear it became that it was just another big college campus: full of people I couldn't connect with. They were either titillated by my bisexuality and fetishized it unnecessarily, or just sent dick pics that I didn't want (and never asked for).
Don't get me wrong, the years I was on OKCupid were empowering in a lot of ways. It meant a broke poet like me could use the web as an opportunity to broaden my social circle. When some dates didn't go the romantic route, I was able to forge friendships that I still consider strong. Since it doesn't cost money, more young people are using the site, especially in New York City where you're only a subway ride away. Online dating makes sense--most millennials grew up with instant messaging, where interacting with a person in a screen is second nature.
As a woman, I found internet dating to be empowering, especially after my sexual assault. Instead of waiting for someone to approach me, I was allowing myself to connect to other people--on my terms. I was in control. I was able to schedule dates for any day of the week, meet as many or as little people as possible, decide who I wanted to be with, not feel guilty for pursuing my sexuality, not feel pressured by friends. Most of all, I could protect my privacy. I finally had agency. Using the site made it easier for me to be bold, to go up to people at parties or bars without feeling stung by potential rejection. And just letting myself meet people, friends or otherwise. There wasn't pressure that it "had to work out."
However, there is also a serious problem attached to online dating--one that may be changing the way humans interact; it's not making people more straightforward, but bold about their sexuality in ways that becomes thoughtless to the comfort zones of others. Which has nothing to do with fetish, but only about desire--the kind of desire that perpetuates self-centeredness, the kind that perpetuates lack of freedom, which can result in non-consensual situations.
In some ways, the chat features (which is also true of texting/sexting in general) enables people to say outrageously inappropriate comments they wouldn't otherwise--or send pictures without asking. There are no filters because people are desensitized by the lack of a physical reaction. There is no way to spill a glass of water in someone's face through a screen, after all. Yes, you can say "no" or express discomfort, but the repercussion is ghosting. And it's easy to move on to someone else, only to redo the same behavior.
It wasn't just me, either--most women I've spoken with have admitted to receiving offensive, unwanted comments and pictures on sites. While it may be expected to receive some bizarre messages, joining a dating site is not consent for verbal harassment. For example, I've received messages where men have asked to see my breasts without even meeting me, pestered me for threesomes without even talking to me, ridiculed me for having short hair, sending dick pics without so much as a real message being exchanged. One man even offered to pay me to watch him masturbate--which is fine if that's your thing, but it wasn't even established to be mine.
Let me just say this: it's hard to weird me out. I don't care if you have crazy sexual fetishes--it's certainly not wrong, and I'm not in the business of demoralizing sexual behavior as long as it's consensual. Along with the internet (specifically AIM, before online dating was even cool) came cyber-sex. In the late 90s and early 2000s, cybersex was subversive, quiet, and dangerous in some way. And maybe it’s because it’s the closest thing you can get to having sex with a robot. But it meant you could also have safe, stranger sex. It lets you be comfortable with your body, because your body is ethereal. It’s not real. Your partner may not even be real. Even then, about 30% of adults engaged in cybersex.
In 2008, an article published in The Village Voice describes this very phenomenon: cybersex is safer, thus more appealing. And because of the lack of actual human contact, it allows people to become more bold. On one hand, this allows us to explore our sexuality within our comfort zones (which is especially positive for sexual assault victims, or those who may identify as queer but can't come out to their community), but can also lead to predatory behavior as well. Always a double-edged sword.
For me personally, this has always been true. As a kid who grew up with the early versions of AIM and online journal communities, and who was entirely awkward in real life (because let's be real, buying The Cure's Pornography at age 11 means you aren't in the popular crowd), I was the perfect candidate. I became friends with other people online (some of which I'm still friends with to this day). For the most part, I was smart--I never met anyone when I was underage, so I kept myself safe. But I let myself explore new worlds, let myself be OK with my queerness.
Being raised in a religious household meant I couldn't talk about my queer identity (and I still haven't "come out" to my family), meant I could never outwardly date girls (even though I went to an all-girl school for high school). So in many ways, the internet served as my outlet. It's amusing for me to think my sexual awakening happened on a family computer with low speed internet and a dial-up modem. I'm eternally grateful for my online journal rants, and the friends who made me feel accepted as an awkward teen.
But the flip side was also ugly and terribly destructive, as much as it was beautiful and enlightening. OKCupid was how I met my rapist. We exchanged a few messages while I was in college, met up at a wine bar in Manhattan, and ended up dating for a short amount of time. It was long enough that I felt "comfortable," but short enough that it was all a whirlwind, illustrating that I was essentially dating a stranger.
It was at a time in my life where I was still insecure about my body, my 'otherness' as a social outsider, and still sexually inexperienced. Before him, I hadn't had sex with many people yet, having been a young college student fresh out of an all-girl religious high school. I didn't know what I wanted--everything felt like the ocean. And I was just a girl drowning.
And really, I just wanted to be loved. I just didn't know how to find it, how to let myself rise above my insecurities about not being "good enough." Letting myself realize I deserved more than abuse. When I was first raped, I didn't want to believe it was rape. I didn't want to think I "let it happen." I blamed myself for being careless, for meeting someone I didn't know. Of course, these initial thoughts of blame are common for many victims, and I eventually learned (which is a never ending process) and realized I wasn't to blame. No victim is.
I'm not blaming online dating for my rape. I don't think a victim can ever be blamed for their rape, regardless of how or when it happened. Online communities can be empowering, but it can also be difficult to traverse the strange nuances and power plays. There is a pressure for women to please or act "chill" about everything (AKA: being the cool girl), especially if the participants are young and inexperienced. Consent, and how to ask for it, isn't exactly taught in schools. The submissive/dominant dynamics that naturally arise because of the nuance of online sexting and dating make it even murkier, because there are no official "rules," because there's no "body." Of course, we also must ask ourselves: Why is it different? Somehow, a faceless screen makes us act in ways that warps our very humanity.
Wanting sex is part of being human--we all deserve good sex. We all deserve to make connections, sexual or not. But breaking down all barriers by immediately forcing someone into cyber-sex via screen shots of your genitals is not. Because that's not consensual. When you meet someone at a party, you don't shake hands with your penis, do you? Unless I'm mistaken, that's called assault. The same rules should apply to the internet. In many ways, as 'complicated' as it is, It doesn't seem that hard to me.
Or, you know, just wait for the zombie apocalypse:
Editor's Note: A version of this article appeared on our old site.