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.

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear