by Anya Josephs
There is nowhere you can go on the internet as a woman without being sexually harassed.
Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration. More accurately: I, personally, have never existed online in any space where I am identifiably female without receiving unsolicited dick pics, demands for nude pictures of myself, or extremely personal questions about my sex life.
Case in point: I recently started working for an online tutoring site. It’s pretty good work—easy, I can pick up a little extra money, and I can do it on my busy student schedule. I’ve been doing this for two weeks. I have a picture of myself up on my profile, because I figured I might attract more students if they could attach my name to a human face.
I wasn’t surprised when I immediately started getting some inappropriate messages. Within two hours—before I had my first real student—I had someone message me and ask for me to send him a naked photograph. All credit to my employer, it was very easy to block the user.
A few days after that, I got another message from someone who claimed to want tutoring, but that he didn’t have a credit card to pay with. I explained to him how to set up a free trial on the website.
“Okay,” he said, “but can’t you just help me? I love you.”
“No, I can’t help you over message. And that’s not really appropriate. Please only contact me again if you’d like to set up a tutoring appointment.”
“Okay. I am so sorry. Please, I love you.”
He sounded like he was trying to convince me not to leave him at the altar or something, not score free French tutoring. I blocked him.
I got one more love confession and one kid who was irate that I wouldn’t help him “real quick for free” since I looked “like such a nice and pretty girl” in the intervening week.
And then today happened.
Today is the day I did what we all know we’re not supposed to do—I replied.
The conversation went like this:
Me: Hello, can I help you with something?
My finger flew to the block button. But I wasn’t just annoyed this time—I’d been online all afternoon, trying to get some work, and I was actually pretty angry that the only lead I’d gotten was just another guy who wanted a sexting buddy. So, even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good, I replied.
Me: absolutely not.
Student: send me a pic of u.
Keep in mind that we were already online. If this kid couldn’t figure out how to type “boobies” into the google searchbar instead of a message box, maybe he really could have used some tutoring.
Me: Literally why would I do that.
Student: Fine. Leave me alone.
Why am I even writing about this? It was annoying, yes, but it’s hardly the clumsiest way I’ve ever been solicited. I get worse catcalls walking down the street all the time, which is much scarier than some faceless internet entity doing it.
I think what bothered me so much about this encounter was the entitlement. The way that, by visibly existing as a woman online, I was immediately viewed as a sexual commodity. There are few spaces less conceivably sexual than an online tutoring website. Students only ever see that one profile picture. Conversations are usually limited to a few minutes of pleasanteries and then work on essay editing or French grammar. The only information this guy knows about me is what I look like from the neck up, my SAT scores and GPA, and what subjects I offer tutoring in. He doesn’t know my age, my body type, if that picture is really of me, my relationship status, or even where I live. I really doubt any of those things mattered to him—the fact that I’m female was enough for this guy.
The futility of it bothered me too. I really doubt there’s any woman out there, sitting at her computer trying to get some tutoring business, who is going to reply to that message positively. Besides, it’s a worldwide site. Should I have inexplicably decided I wanted to go for it, I could have been in Australia or Berlin or the computer on the international space station.
So why? Why bother sending the message at all? To frustrate me? To anger me? To get a reaction?
The fact that it could be any of these things—that there is some entertainment or erotic value in ruining a strange woman’s day—is profoundly disturbing to me. It should be disturbing to all of us.
This is far from an isolated incident—not just one weird, misguided dude. From my own other experiences getting bothered by unsolicited pickup attempts across social networks, up to the threats Emma Watson has received to have nude pictures published because she’s spoken out for feminism, this is a pervasive problem. Harassment obviously exists in other contexts as well, but online it seems to be particularly constant and unapologetic.
We need to challenge this culture, both on and offline. This isn’t a matter we can keep dealing with individually—I will block him, I could change my profile picture (perhaps to a studious stock image of an elderly librarian?), but in the end this is such an irrational thing—such a tiny, but frustrating symptom of a larger cultural ill—that we will need to question the root cause to stamp out every little incident like this.