Thoughts on Internet Dating; Or, a Series of Unfortunate Cultural Narratives

by Shaker and Shakesville Moderator Aphra_Behn

(Please note that in this analysis, I only speak to my experiences with male-identified people seeking me out as a female-identified person. It should also be noted that Internet dating sites are bastions of various sorts of privilege: classism, sizeism, ableism, heterocentricism, racism, and more.)

On this Valentine's Day, as the media's message turns to a variety of craptastic narratives about love and romance, I find myself casting my mind back to a dark and stormy night not too long ago. That tempestuous evening, I received a message from a Gentleman Emailer, in response to my posting on Popular Internet Dating Site.

This, my first and only message from said GE, consisted of:

1. SUBJECT: Greeting! Assertion of our inevitable romantic destiny!
2. Revelation of previous disastrous romantic fate online.
3. Wish to be in love with me!
4. Expression of love for my [body part]!
5. Phone number, with conditional instructions to call it.
6. New assertion of our inevitable romantic destiny!
7. Proverbial saying about love.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Gentleman Emailer expected to inspire romance via this missive. Yet, curiously, "feeling romanced" was not my reaction.

My reaction was more along the lines of: hide! under covers! on the fainting couch! for about the next century.

Reader, I would like to tell you that this was a singular occurrence. It was not.

Overall, my exchanges with Gentleman Emailers have been enjoyable. Our periods of correspondence frequently turn into tea-palace excursions or evenings waltzing at the dance hall. I have made a number of friends, and in general, quite enjoy dating. But if we lay aside those pleasant emails that result in actual conversations, and speak to emails in the "first and only" category, some remarkably similar patterns emerge.

I have come to the conclusion that some men on Popular Internet Dating Site are tragic victims of A Series of Unfortunate Cultural Narratives. Found in romantic comedies, popular music, advertising, and just about every other media of modern life, these Unfortunate Cultural Narratives consistently prove themselves to be remarkably poor guides in real life.

(Note: Among their other garbage, these Unfortunate Cultural Narratives assume that all humans are straight, sexual, and cisgendered. That is rubbish. With said detritus duly noted, let us sally forth.)

Unfortunate Cultural Narrative # 1: Women exist primarily (or solely) as potentially pleasing bodies, and men cannot control their responses to those bodies.

Sample Email Expression: Your [body part] is so [overwhelmingly positive adjective!] I don't think I can stop myself from [action]!

Reaction: This has landed in my inbox so often that I checked to make sure my profile hadn't been haxXx0red by ancient Greek Sirens, whose magically delicious songs were enticing brawny, bronzed sailors to jump into my shimmering Inbox, only to drown in my winsome charms.

Dear Reader, it was not so.

These Gentleman Emailers are conflating activities they would like to undertake with actions they must take. Such repeated, enthusiastic expressions give me the impression that the Gentleman Emailer doesn't much care about my personality, interests, boundaries, or any of the other points in my (time-consumingly written) profile. And so: I touch that button known as "Delete," and *plonk* goes the epistle.

Unfortunate Cultural Narrative #2: Women will be flattered when informed that they are not like other women.

Email Example: I can tell you are not like [description of All the Women Who Done Him Wrong].

Reaction: I have sometimes wondered if these particular Gentleman Emailers would open a job interview at General Motors by saying "ALL CAR MANUFACTURERS ARE LIKE MUCUS. GATHERED FROM ROTTING SNAILS. IN THE SARLAAC'S PIT OUTSIDE JABBA'S PALACE. (pause) Except for you guys. You're awesome!"

I think not.

Many of us humans on Popular Internet Dating Site have had our hearts broken. But making immediate assertions about those other people in your life signals to me that you are blaming problems in said past relationships on woman-ness, rather trying to figure out what went wrong and each case and taking responsibility for your own actions. It does not inspire confidence that you see me as an individual. I'm not the Woman to Do You Right; I'm just the Woman Who Hasn't Done You Wrong...Yet.

*Plonk* we go.

Unfortunate Cultural Narrative #3: Women wish to be swept off their feet! Immediately! With Bold! Romantic! Gestures!

Email Example: Oh my god you are just [extreme superlative]. I already know I love you. Call me so we can [offline activity].

Reaction: I confess, dear reader, that when I had just begun this Internet dating thing, I accepted one of these invitations from a first email, against my better judgment. (Ah, better judgment! How I have learned to love you.)

The date went something like this:

Me: [Query about current event]
Gentleman Emailer: [Sneering Republican Sentiment]
Me: [Mildly Liberal Position, with Obama-esque Statement of Common Ground]
GE: [Guffaw, with accompanying Fox News Quote]
Me: [Something Canadian]
GE: [Repeat of Sneering Republican Sentiment, with Added Canadian Insult]
Me: [Somewhat Frosty, Muted Reply]
GE: [Further Canadian Slur]
Me: [Increasingly Frosty WASP Reply]
GE: [Yet more slurs! Assurance of Joking State.]
Me: [*is basically Queen Elizabeth now*]

In every way, his behavior on the date confirmed that he had no interest in my personality, interests, or boundaries. The pressure to go out wasn't romantic. It was bullying.

Reader, I *plonked* him.

Unfortunate Cultural Narrative #4: All women want a man to rescue her from her drab existence.

Email Example: Hey, [highly familiar endearment] are you ready to be spoiled? Because I want to [remove you from your current condition].

Reaction: I have a fantasy, dear Reader. In my fantasy, Captain Jack Harkness swoops by one eve to whisk me away for a life of well-dressed swashbuckling weirdness, punctuated by lots and lots of seriously sweaty snugglebunnies with said Captain Jack. Occasionally, Captain Mal joins in the sweaty snugglebunnies, whilst Captain Picard reads erotic passages of the Kama Sutra to us in his plummy, yummy, voice.

Reader, that is a fantasy.

In reality, if a dude swoops down from the sky—or Internet—to announce that he wants to take me to Tahiti and spend his fortune keeping me in Fabergè eggs and unicorn farts, it does not make me want to accompany him to the corner gas station, let alone any destination requiring a passport.

It makes me wonder what he expects in exchange for this cozy arrangement. It makes me wonder what he saw in my profile that suggests I am unhappy with my current life. It makes me reach quickly for my trusty friend, Delete.

Sweet, sweet *plonk* of life.

Unfortunate Cultural Narrative #5: Women do not know what they want, and are therefore charmed when men tell them what it is they actually want.

Email Example: oh, I know you stated your [boundaries] were [range], but I am [significant outlier] and I know we are PERFECT!

Reaction: Some of my Gentleman Emailers seem convinced that all women are imported to the planet Earth from another dimension, where communication is conducted solely though bee-like dances and antennae-waving. Therefore, they may rightfully ignore any so-called "words" that I "type."

For example, a Gentleman Emailer who currently serves in the clergy of [Deity redacted—let's say Cthulhu] sent me an introductory message telling me that he just knew I would make a wonderful partner in [Cthulhu] and that he had begged [Cthulhu] to send him a [multi-tentacled Handmaiden of the Great Old Ones] and he just knew it was me! He would show me the glory of [Cthulhu]! Oh, how he wanted to meet and talk about [Cthulhu]! And, babies.

This, in response to a profile that describes religion as a private matter and specifically forbids conversion attempts.

(Reader, I fear you know his fate. It begins with "p" and ends with "k", and a shoggoth lies in between.)

As I ponder these Unfortunate Cultural Narratives, and these emails, I contrast them with the Positive Principles of Productive Emails. The ones that make me actually want to meet said Gentleman Emailer for canasta and croquet, or to further discuss my extensive collection of Mad Max-themed tea cozies.

What's the different between "productive" and *plonk*?

Individuality, Boundaries, and Respect.

Positive Principle 1: Individuality!
All the above-referenced narratives assume that "women" are a certain way. But women are individual humans. Some humans like video games, some like needlepoint, some like books, some like golf. Some like Fabio, some like Brucio, some like Juicy-O. Some humans like men. Some like women. Some both, neither, or a totally differently-defined subset of human. Some people might LOVE any or all of the approaches described above. I did not, and a fairly simple read of my profile should have communicated this. If you're looking for that special someone, that implies paying attention to who the person says zie actually is. Emails that mention my interests and self-descriptions tend to be received positively.

Positive Principle 2: Boundaries!
Everyone has boundaries about what they want to do when and how. Boundaries about who they wish to date. Boundaries about how they wish to date. Boundaries about a whooooole lot of things. In my profile, some boundaries are right there in the open. Not everyone communicates boundaries easily, so the best thing is to ask if in doubt. But when zie has clearly stated boundaries, you don't get to decide that some are optional. Emails from those who observe the boundaries I've stated are usually productive.

Positive Principle 3: Respect!
Respect is the verb that makes Individuality and Boundaries complete. Respecting a fellow human means treating that person as inherently valuable and real. The Lady Emailer at the other end is a breathing, thinking being, not a two-dimensional fantasy or disembodied voice. It's not assuming anything beyond the information one has; it's about demonstrating that, whether or not the Lady Emailer turns out to be your True Love, zie is still human with the right to self-determination. Emails from GE who follow this principle...well, I think you are getting the idea.

And so, dear Reader, I leave you with my (highly subjective) experiences, and wish you the best always in any Romantic Adventures you may pursue. May your heart be full of Positive Principles, and your email free of pesky *plonks*.

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