Show Hide image

Laurie Penn on sexism and misogyny in online dating

A note on the Nice Guys of OkCupid.

"I always think about why women are superficial and disgusting."

As pick-up lines go, it could use some work. This, however, is OkCupid, the vast, weird pink-and-blue toned jungle of the id masquerading as a dating site, where rare birds of modern romance flutter amongst the night-terrors of human loneliness and despair and the suspicious skin irritants of late-night hook-uppery.

The man who has written this on his profile appears to be in his early thirties. He has an unflattering haircut and what looks like a miniature kettle in one corner of his dating profile photo. He describes himself as a "pretty decent guy" who doesn't want to play "your stupid friend zone game".

Miniature-Kettle Man is one of many unfortunates who has had his insecurities and latent sexism exposed to a world of giggling women on the website "Nice Guys of OK Cupid". This is a Tumblr set up to collect images of all the many, many self-professed "nice guys" out there whose publicly listed beliefs about women appear to prove them anything but. “Stupid women, satanic women enticing men to fall into perilous friendzone,” says one prince charming, who appears to be speedballing in his photo.

It's a dispiriting catalogue of desperation and misogynist entitlement. Wherever he is, Miniature-Kettle Man probably thinks his worst nightmares have come true: all over the world, ladies who don't even know him are laughing at him. The Hive Vagina has passed judgement on Miniature-Kettle Man. One can only hope he is making a tiny cup of tea to cheer himself up with.

Because yes, it's hard not to laugh. It's hard to suppress a horrified snigger at the unexamined hypocrisy, at the sheer number of men out there who seem to believe, for example, that stating publicly that "a no is just a yes that needs a little convincing" is morally or logically consistent with being "a nice guy" who women would be clamouring to date if we weren’t such shallow sluts. Anticipation of that laughter is probably what prompted so many men to screech abuse at the Tumblr's author over the internet - “enjoy life as an abject, hated feminazi bitch,” writes one ‘nice guy.’ “You don’t realise that by being who you are, you are disgracing the entire human race, ha, it’s no wonder genocide happens.” What a charmer. I wonder if he’s still single?

The site is compelling, in a gross sort of way. Reading it fills you with a righteous rage that quickly starts feeling icky when you realise a few of the chaps on there haven't actually said anything overtly sexist - they're just a bit overweight and ungroomed and feeling sorry for themselves and wondering why 'women' (by which they mean 'women they fancy') won't consider having sex with 'nice guys' (by which they mean 'men very much like me', by which they mean ‘me’).

For a lot of these ‘nice guys’ who can’t get dates, it looks like nothing a shave and a bit of positive self-talk couldn't cure. Unfortunately for those of us who believe in the basic decency of the species, many of these chaps seem instead to have translated their fear of rejection, their loneliness and humiliation, into active misogyny, a savage self-pitying resentment which must make perfect sense at 4am on a lonely weeknight whilst flicking between OkCupid and RedTube.com but which makes rather less when exposed to the cold pixel glare of internet disapprobation.

The most chilling theme is the frequency with which these 'nice guys' have answered some of the dating site's more suspicious stock questions - 'do you feel there are any circumstances in which a person is obligated to have sex with you?' 'is abortion an option in the case of unwanted pregnancy?’ - in ways that are at best terrible attempts at humour and at worst howling klaxons of unexamined sexism.

The truly frightening thing is that you can see where the internal logic comes from. A lot of these guys must occasionally feel like at least one woman, somewhere, must be obliged to have sex with them, and I’m prepared to bet that those occasions coincide quite neatly with ‘times when one is most likely to be writing an online dating profile’. And that’s how you end up with your best love-me face on a public-humiliation site telling the whole world you think no doesn’t always mean no, feeling like an utter prick and rightly so.

Reading 'Nice Guys of OK Cupid' reminded me that for men, as well as for women, the political is personal. Deeply, often painfully personal. Observing the ugly logic whereby these so-called 'nice guys' have twisted their private fear of rejection into gender-loaded loathing and self-justfication of rape culture did not improve my day one little bit, but it did make me think again about how personal sexism like this really gets, and why.

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Something that happens when the word ‘feminist’ is attached to your work and life in any manner is that men want to talk to you about sex. This initially came as a surprise to me, but it’s true: for every chap who suddenly remembers a vital appointment across town when you mention that you’ve written a book about sexism and anti-capitalism, there’s another who just wants to know, in confidence, if this particular little fetish he has, whatever it is, makes him a bad person*. Or who wants to know if it’s alright to watch porn (it’s complicated, but yes), or if he still has to pay the whole of a bill when taking a lady out to dinner (it’s complicated, but no). Or who wants to know whether sadomasochism is sexist**. For straight men who are starting to think about gender and sexism and considering the notion that, contrary to what they may have grown up learning, women might well be full human beings with dreams and desires just like them, the personal is political.

Yes, it’s about who and how you fuck. Yes, it affects your sense of self, your conception of your own masculinity - particularly if you’ve previously built your gender identity on the idea of ‘winning’ women, and particularly if that gender identity is knotted up with feeling lonely, rejected and hurt when life doesn’t reward you with a hot girlfriend. It’s not surprising at all that it’s here, on a dating site, that these men’s deepest prejudices are written in clear, fist-gnawing Verdana typescript.

And - here’s the thing - there has to be an answer to these guys that isn’t just pointing and laughing. Calling out rapists and online predators is a more than legitimate strategy for dealing with abuse. But how are we supposed to handle common-or-garden sexist dickwaddery when it puts photos on the internet and asks to be loved, or at least to enter what one heavily-photoshopped smiler refers to hopefully as “the bone zone”?

Are we obligated to be understanding when men write spurious bullshit about sluts over their ‘looking for’ lists? Are we ever going to be able to have a conversation about consent, about respect, about fucking, and maybe even about love, that doesn’t descend into bullying and invective? Oh, internet. I ask so little of you, and you always shoot me down. Maybe I should stop being such a Nice Girl.

****

*There was also the one bloke who told me that successfully dating a feminist author would be “like defeating a third-level boss”, but we won’t go into that right now.

**This is one of the questions I get most often. For a partial answer, this piece might be helpful.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories