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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 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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.