In my spare time I’m stupid. I’m fat. I’m worthless. I’m ugly. I’m a bitch. What I mean to say, sorry, is that I’m a woman on the internet.

When you hear terms like ‘cyber bullying’ you might picture teens being cruel to their school friends on Facebook. When you hear people talk about ‘online harassment’ you might recall a few news articles about stalkers on Twitter, but the reality for a lot of women online is something much bigger than that.

The first time I encountered online harassment, so bad that I wanted to actually speak up about it, was when I moved to a new city about seven years ago. I thought I’d give online dating a try. I expected it to be a good way to meet new people. What I didn’t expect was an inbox filled with a mix of adoration, hate and sexually explicit content. 

I was easily getting 50 messages a day. A good portion of those would be from nice, normal sounding people who just wanted to get to know me. Unfortunately, another good portion of those would be from men detailing all the things they’d like to do to me, making demands of my time, offering me money in return for favours, or getting abusive if they didn’t get the response they were looking for – or even a response at all.

I knew that this experience couldn’t be unique to me – 'someone has to be documenting this, someone has to be doing something' – I remember thinking. That was when I decided to start blogging about my experiences. It gave me a channel to vent, but more importantly it allowed me to talk to other people going through what I was going through.

After a few years of using my blog as a way to showcase the awful messages I was getting, I grew a bit jaded. Nothing shocked me anymore. The abuse kept on coming, but I had such a thick skin to it that it didn’t even feel worth posting about anymore. The community I’d built felt much the same way. We agreed it was bad, but it just became an accepted part of online dating. 

“If you hate those messages so much, why don’t you just stop going on dating sites?” I’d get asked that question a lot. “That’s just what online dating is like. You should meet people in real life.” Really? That’s just ‘how it is’ and we shouldn’t strive for better? I didn’t want to accept it, but I came close.  “Just block them. Stop giving them your time.”

Because when someone was cruel to you at school and you got told to ‘just ignore them’, it made everything better, right? Just block out all that awful behaviour and it’ll go away. Or, more likely it will just eventually get directed at someone else.

I was bored with it all. The same excuses protecting these idiots and the onus being on me to change my behaviour, not on the creeps who were sending me this stuff in the first place. Besides, I was actually meeting new people through dating sites and I was enjoying it. Why should I stop because of a vocal minority?

I decided to do something for me. Sometimes, when I got a horrible message, I’d use humour to deflect it. I’m not the funniest person in the world, but I found it amusing using their words against them. Sometimes I’d just play ignorant. One of my favourite exchanges included someone asking me if I was ‘More dom or sub?’ to which I replied that I preferred Domino’s pizza over Subway sandwiches. When I shared these funny posts rather than shocking ones, something different happened – people laughed with me. 

People started sharing what I’d written not just on their Facebook timelines. My conversations were getting picked up by content distributors like Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and LADBible. National publications and press like Cosmopolitan Magazine and The Metro were reaching out to me for interviews and talk about my approach. YouTube Channels were making videos of celebrities reading out my conversations.

The best thing that came out of all of this was that people came to me for advice. People were telling me that the messages they got used to make them feel like quitting, but now they were able to shrug it off like nothing had happened or find the humour in the situation.

It’s not that creepy or abusive behaviour online has gone away. Maybe it never will. But to me it feels that there has been a recent shift in culture regarding online dating. Women aren’t just expected to deal with it. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs and communities online now dedicated to ridiculing creepy behaviour. Even dating websites are starting to do more to counter online harassment and bullying by bringing in new reporting methods as opposed to just suggesting a ‘block’ as a solution. 

The New Year is always a popular time to try online dating and if it’s something you’ve been considering yourself or you know someone who does, please don’t be put off by my own shenanigans. I’ve met some wonderful people through online dating and it’s a fantastic way to broaden your social circle. If you’d like to read some of my conversations you can find them all over on my blog or follow me over on Twitter

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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