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Modern Love

I. Microcosms

She’s antiabortion, and a photographer. He thinks flag burning is more offensive than book burning, but he would never date a law enforcement officer. He says jealousy is healthy in relationships. He ‘don’t got good pix right now’ and he’s just here for some casual sex. She’s got a warm smile and says she’ll fill this out ‘real soon.’ He writes that he’s caretaking a friend’s pot farm, and oh, by the way, do you have a car? He’s very horny. Always. She likes salsa dance and karoake.

I don’t know why I feel myself compelled, pulled back to these tiny, carefully-structured narratives day after day, fascinated by them. They are little biographies of the ordinary and the hungry, people looking for something many of them will never find, because it exists only in their minds. Sometimes I think about messaging them.

‘Why are you okay with book burning?’ I want to ask. ‘Can you explain the logic behind thinking that a girl having sex with more than 100 people is not okay, but it’s fine if it’s a guy?’ ‘Why do you think there are circumstances in which someone would be obligated to have sex with you?’

My hand hovers over the keyboard, but I wisely move away.

II. History

I knew OKCupid way back when it was The Spark, which goes to tell you something, though I’m not sure what. That I’ve been on the Internet a while? That I belong in the Hipsters of OKCupid category because I knew it before it was cool? That I used to spend a lot of time wandering across Internet humour sites, looking for some kind of answer to questions I didn’t even know I had and couldn’t even really define? That I, like a lot of other people of a certain age, filled out a gazillion personality quizzes and shared them with my classmates in a pre-Facebook era?

I’m still in touch with people I met on the original OKCupid, under user names long-gone.

At one of their weddings, a friend asks how I got to know the groom.

‘We, uh, met on OKCupid,’ he says.

Everyone laughs, but they don’t really know the whole story.

III. Crafting

As a dating site, OKCupid has become a sort of cultural touchstone, complete with its own special algorithm competing with every other dating site out there, and of course its famous blog based on stats from real users. Want to figure out how to craft the perfect dating profile? See what kinds of people are hooking up on OKCupid? The blog lays it all out, complete with charts, graphs, and more.

In a way it’s a perfect distillation of those microcosms, aggregating them into some more functional compilation of data that makes them understandable. In another, it’s like a cheater’s guide to creating the profile you want, rather than the profile of who you are, how to curate your appearance to attract the ‘right kind’ of people. It reminds me of media management, the artfully-constructed profiles people create and maintain on social media to project a certain image, a particular ideal.

Yet, OKCupid allows for cracks in the facade. While people can painstakingly select the best photos and write up the best descriptions for their profiles, it’s in the lengthy interview questions that they slip up, revealing bits and pieces of their true selves, conveniently sortable by acceptability, compatibility, and type. An entire contact, a relationship that could have been, may hinge upon the answer to a single question, or on the clarification of that answer.

IV. Worst-of

This, then, turns OKCupid into kind of a game, a worst-of with sinister real-world consequences as people track down the most revolting questions and their answers; Nice Guys of OKCupid, hastily removed from the Internet after outcry, chronicled some of the more outrageous offenders, but it wasn’t the only one. Chasing the worst of the worst throughout the Internet becomes almost a sport, but one with serious consequences: look, here, this is what rape culture looks like, this is what nice guys look like, this is why society is so fucked up and bullshit, these people, right here.

There’s even a browser app that will helpfully flag OKCupid user accounts (thanks for the link, D) for you if they’ve answered questions in rapey ways. A user safety measure, but also a stunt, a commentary, an act of rebellion. These questions are there for precisely this purpose, in a way, to let you get to know people, to let you screen out the ones who answer questions in ways you find repugnant or threatening (‘Do you ever get violent when angry?’), but do they tell the whole story?

The media have the vapors over the Craigslist killer but the OKCupid questions and the furore over them, in a way, act to conceal the predators amongst us, the people lurking on the site who are more cool and calculated in the way they answer these questions. What rapist seeking contacts on an online dating site is going to list ‘rape’ among his hobbies? When online dating is all about crafting and presenting the best version of yourself, hoping to capture the interest of another user just long enough, how many of these questions are answered with authenticity?

While they may reveal the extent of casual rape culture in terms of the scope of men who feel quite comfortable answering ‘yes’ to rapey questions and other sexist entries (‘Do women have an obligation to shave their legs?’), at the same time, they conceal the depths of this culture; we are seeing the tip of the iceberg, and while it is covered in dirty snow, it is what lies beneath the waterline that I fear.

V. Rape culture

There’s a lot of talk about rape culture, what it is, how to stop it, where it comes from. Rape comes most commonly from the people we know and the people we trust, not the people we meet online, though obviously predators are using online dating sites, like OKCupid, to identify their targets. The attention to online dating in the context of rape culture and prevention, though, misses a larger picture.

We are both on and offline. There are no predator alerts for people in the environment around us, save deeply flawed sex offender registries. You are not required to register as a sex offender if you’re not convicted of a crime, and people don’t walk around with shimmering bubbles over their heads.

‘Warning, this man may want to rape you.’

For lack of such helpful measures, we are forced to assume that everyone is a potential rapist, a fact which seems to bother some people when they are confronted with it. Yes, this is what society is: a place where rapists do not wear warning labels, where for our own safety, we must assess every person for the potential for violence. Where we know, too, that speaking out could put us in danger of censure.

What the OKCupid questions highlight is not just the prevalence of potential rapists on online dating sites, but the fact that many of these people may be in your life, as well. You may be surprised and horrified by the number of people you know who would say they’ve coerced someone into sex or been coerced, but they won’t call it rape. They might call it bad sex, or a bad idea, but not rape. The repeat offenders among them won’t consider it a systemic problem, evidence of something deeper and more complex going on.

What do we talk about when we talk about rape culture? We talk about these overt expressions of sexism, about the treatment of women as objects to be used and discarded at will, but what about the covert? What about the silence? What about what lies behind bedroom doors and in backseats of cars? The overt may support the covert, but when the covert is never discussed, it is tacitly condoned.

The representations of sexuality we see around us don’t take us into that grey area, the murky waters that so many people inhabit or have inhabited. Rape culture is not just the comedian on stage in front of a large audience. It is also the woman sitting in her office right who wonders if her boyfriend will be forcing her to have sex tonight.

3 Comments

  1. Sara wrote:

    This hits hard. Back when I was on OKC, I used to check the match questions in this same way–looking for a narrative, finding the fissures.
    “We have 90% compatibility for sex! :) ” wrote one married-but-it’s-okay-with-the-wife user. I looked at his responses and saw that he didn’t think that gay marriage or abortion should be legal, but he did think there were some circumstances under which a person is obligated to have sex.

    I responded that we had 0% compatibility, and then blocked him.

    Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Bruna wrote:

    I’m an OKC user, and the first thing I check on everyone’s profile is the answers to both “obligated to have sex” and “no means no?” questions. And I’m terrified with the amount of “sometimes a no is a yes in desguise” around there.

    Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  3. Sam wrote:

    Thank you for his post. As I learn more about sexism and my perceptiveness widens I am amazed and appalled by how pervasive rape culture is, it is terrifying. As a survivor I do assume most men have the potential to be rapists, especially since my trauma was perpetuated by people I was supposed to be able to trust. Those people were never prosecuted because for years I thought what happened I was obligated to do, what I thought was sex was really sex abuse. I think this is an important piece of examining & dismantling rape culture, that what is portrayed as sex in our society is at best unhealthy sex and at worst sex abuse. These scripts are SO harmful and it makes me angry how they cause so much ignorance & suffering!! I do my best to never be complicit, even when comments are covert, to use my voice, not only for my own healing but to hopefully change just one persons point of view and prevent others from being harmed.

    Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink