Several months ago, a representative from the hookup app Pure told me about an internal experiment the company conducted to see how men react to being sexualized on dating apps. They found that when a woman greeted men with lewd messages, they shut down, even though Pure is geared toward casual sex, marketing itself as "all about real fun right now," featuring only photos on its users' profiles, and forcing them to meet within an hour before chat lines close. They wanted to see if I could replicate these results.
The motive of the experiment was to rebut a defense guys often use when they harass women on dating apps or sites: that they're simply thinking "do unto others" and treating women the way they would want to be treated. According to Pure's finding — that guys usually stopped talking to women who brought up sex right away — men don't in fact want to be treated this way because it's just not respectful.
In hopes of debunking the "do unto others" defense, I entered the app and started accepting matches. I wanted to send messages that mimicked some of the inappropriate ways men to talk women on dating apps but wouldn't leave anyone traumatized, so I settled on "How big are you?" and "Do you have pics?" And yes, I feel pretty bad about doing this in the first place — I'll get to that later.
Here's How A Normal Conversation Goes
First, I tried just saying "hello" to see how conversations on the app normally went. Despite Pure's reputation, it looks like people still start off with cordial small talk. Nobody tried to bring up anything sexual right away.
Here's how some of the guys on the app reacted to my messages.
1. They Don't Reply
One person didn't reply at all, and one unmatched me, but only after stating that he had pics, suggesting that the unmatching was only due to the delay in my subsequent response.
2. They Get Confused
Someone asked if by "size" I meant his height, which was kind of adorable and made me feel pretty bad. Another send me some cute family photos, which made me sad to break it to him that I was seeking a different kind of picture (though he complied). It doesn't feel good to objectify someone, y'all.
3. They Comply
This was the most common reaction: people willingly volunteered their penis measurements and several even sent photos without my solicitation.
What Do We Make Of This?
I did not conduct this experiment to prove that men react differently than women to being sexualized on dating apps. My hope was that they would react negatively so that I could prove once and for all that sending sexual messages on dating sites without consent is wrong. I'm a firm believer that we need to apply the same standards of consent to everyone.
What, then, do I make of the fact that most of these men reacted differently than I would in the same situation? When someone sends me sexual messages on a dating site without any indication that I'd want them, I find it presumptuous and violating. Why would it be otherwise when a woman sends them?
"The simple truth is that your messages, even if problematic, were wholly different than those that women on dating sites have to constantly endure simply because we as men cannot understand fully the ways in which women are sexualized and assaulted by men in our society. So the 'turn the tables' experiment inevitably falls short, as it doesn't exist in any sort of context that would make it comparable to what women have to experience," Sexual Violence Prevention Educator Jamie Utt tells Bustle. "Men are not constantly under threat of sexualized violence from women, and our bodies are not commodified in media and in daily interactions with people of other genders in ways that support such violence."
Utt also had another important point that had actually begun to occur to me during the experiment: "Opening a conversation by asking someone about their genitalia is harassment." I harassed these men.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter that they responded positively. They may have felt like they had to. "We've been taught that we're supposed to be ever-ready for sex and that any advance from a woman we find attractive must be met," Utt explained. "Thus, I do think some men legitimately like the attention that we so rarely get from women (in the form of overt sexual advances), but even if we don't like that attention, I think it's hard for men to express that discomfort when we've been socialized to always want those advances."
Looking back, I did get the sense that the guy who originally sent me family photos may have been uncomfortable when I asked for photos of another variety. I feel bad about it. And even if the guys I spoke to were totally cool with revealing information about their genitals, that's not the point. The point is that I didn't know whether or not they would be cool with it before I sent the messages.
I'm always saying how consent is gender-blind, but I didn't practice what I preach with this experiment. I spoke to other people in ways that would have made me uncomfortable. Yes, these advances do not solicit the same reactions when directed toward people who aren't constantly objectified, but that doesn't make them harmless. I made a mistake.
While it may be tempting to say that I was just giving them a taste of their own medicine, (and I hate to pull a #notallmen, but) not all men would even consider harassing a woman online. And even if they would, two wrongs don't make a right.
It's extremely frustrating for women to be sexually harassed and told it's a compliment or we're overreacting if we don't welcome it. It's tempting to try to show men what it's really like. But we can't. Men don't have the same context of societal misogyny that we do. Furthermore, we shouldn't — because it's harassment regardless of context.
What I Learned
Harassment is harassment regardless of the person's reaction. Even if someone ends up liking it, that doesn't change the fact that you didn't know they would like it in advance — which is why you need to ask for consent.
Rather than turning the tables on men, women would be better off educating men on why sexual harassment is harmful, especially to those who are already constantly sexualized. Revenge tactics not only fail to make the point we're trying to make but also perpetuate the very behaviors we're trying to combat.
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Images: Fotolia; Suzannah Weiss/Pure