Sexual Harassment on Blast: When Dating Apps and Social Media Turn Toxic

by Emma Oss

In the age of swiping and super liking, it has become quick and easy to find a date online without taking too much time away from the fast pace of modern life. While this technology has been effective in making it easier for people to connect, it has also made the dating game more impersonal, with men sending outrageous messages to random women, hoping to get at least one date or hookup from their large-cast web. Social media pages such as Fifth Year and Tinder Nightmares post pictures of these desperate messages on their feed, with most of them being seemingly harmless pick-up lines from men trying to gain attention from their classmates. While some of these messages may seem funny, the social media pages are problematic because they encourage sending lewd messages to unknown girls. While a portion of men use the apps for their intended purpose, the majority are sending derogatory messages to girls primarily to get attention from the social media pages. The social media sites which post the messages directly harm the women whose messages are posted, and they indirectly harm all women by normalizing sexual harassment. In this ever-changing world of online dating, society needs to stop giving these social media pages attention. Whether the attention the messages get is positive or negative on the platforms, it creates a vicious cycle where more and more men send women these rude messages in the hopes of getting their fifteen minutes of fame. Women need support when reporting these messages, and stopping social media pages from glorifying them is the first step. 

While these rude messages occur on the dating sites, they gain popularity and influence on the social media pages that post screenshots of them. One of these pages is called 5th Year, a platform on Instagram focusing on college life and the social woes of partying, drinking, and dating. One recurring theme on their page is screenshots of Tinder messages that college men  sent  to women attempting to find someone to hook up with. In one instance, a man matched with a woman and he wrote, underneath a screenshot of her profile picture, “You have a really nice… smile.” While this comment itself may not be explicitly derogatory, Fifth Year exacerbated the issue by writing, “Who said romance is dead,” in the caption. This rude message was furthered even more when comment threads were left on the post with people writing lewd comments such as “She has nice fake boobs, but real ones are better” (Fifth Year 2019). All of these messages normalize men  writing these messages even though they are demeaning to the unsuspecting woman  in the picture. The attention paid to these messages will make women feel less inclined to report them because it trains them to believe that this abuse happens to everyone. 

Another social media page, Tinder Nightmares, posts screenshots of horror messages women receive from men on the dating platform to its over 2 million followers on Instagram. There are thousands of posts on the site with the messages ranging in outrageousness from “there are no pictures showing your legs but I bet they are nice” to “don’t take this the wrong way but you got that super sexy trashy cute look going” (Tinder Nightmares 2019). These messages are mocked and ridiculed by commenters on the posts, but it is still a problem because they provide a platform for indecent male behavior. The types of men who send these messages are usually doing it in some part for attention, even if it is negative; therefore, public recognition encourages men to send more messages to even more unsuspecting women.

The main cause behind sending these messages, beyond the desire for attention from social media, is the fact that online dating services have made dating more impersonal. Men will feel more comfortable sending messages if they know that they will never have to physically see the consequences. Sites like Match.com and eHarmony already disconnect dating from the traditional style of meeting face-to-face, but Tinder took it a step further by making it a mobile and swiping style. This revolution made dating faster, easier, and even more removed from traditional dating. Instead of taking the time to read through an in-depth questionnaire, Tinder allows people to look at a few pictures online and the person’s first name and then decide whether they want to swipe right or left. This dissociation fosters an impersonal culture where people can chat with others without any feelings of attachment or commitment to them, which further promotes misogynistic comments. 

Another reason why men feel the need to send and publicize these kinds of messages from Tinder is to gain control over the situation when they are rejected. According to Professor Aaron Hess of Arizona State University, dating apps “limit men’s ability to control conversations, and they may feel a ‘masculine identity threat’” (Hess and Flores 1154). While not all men who use dating apps are misogynistic, the men who are sending derogatory messages to women primarily fall into this category. Social media pages promote the agendas of those feeling “masculine identity threat” because if they do not get the responses they want from women, they can send racy messages instead to try and make it onto these platforms. They are able to regain control by getting onto these sites and get the attention that they were unable to get from the original woman. This again fosters the vicious cycle where if men are not able to get the desired response on these sites, the fail-safe has become to send crazy messages to try and get on social platforms, much to the detriment of the women who have to receive them.

With the impersonal atmosphere that surrounds online dating and the entertainment factor that derogatory messages serve on social media, it serves to reason that misogynistic views would thrive under these conditions. Laura Thompson, a psychologist with a PhD in online sexual harassment, put it best when she said that online dating sites, such as Tinder, have turned modern dating into a “buyer and seller relationship” where women are offering hookups in exchange for social status, wealth, and confirmation of their sexuality. Because this idea of women exchanging sex for other goods is proliferating into society again through fast online dating, Thompson furthers that “a woman’s ‘currency’ in this sexual marketplace are sexual attractiveness and number of previous partners” (Thompson 72). In the age of #MeToo and many other movements trying to combat men using their status to take advantage of women, it is surprising that this idea is still so prevalent online. With the ability to swipe through potential dates and even narrow down the pool with preferences, much like searching for the perfect couch for the living room, these online dating sites are creating a culture where people are out to find the perfect looking person for them and emulate the “buying” process.

While women may be sending men derogatory messages on these sites as well, it has been found that in accordance with societal views, physical attractiveness is “considered more central to women’s ‘worth’ in the market than for men,” so women are exponentially more likely to be targeted on these sites (Thompson 85). Looking on these social media pages such as Barstool and 5th Year, the only Tinder profiles shown are of girls with the ideal body type in skimpy bikinis. Moreover, their #smokeshow posts of even more girls with these ideal bodies, girls are forced into these unrealistic beauty standards which can be reflected quite often in online dating. A young college woman in Indiana shared her Tinder horror story: a frat boy in February of last year decided to message her out of the blue, writing “You look like someone who has a great personality, but you look like a cow” (Johnson). This type of behavior is harmful to women because it forces  them to conform to societal beauty standards that others have tried tirelessly to break down. Aaron Hess took a deeper look into the misogynistic nature of men in their use of food pick-up lines as a way to “equate the consumption of food with the consumption of women” (Hess and Flores 1093). Lines such as, “are you gonna let me lick whipped cream off you or nah cuz if not let’s end this here,” exemplifies the demeaning language used in these food pick-up lines. These kinds of comments perpetuate the idea that women are objects, and they yet again continue the vicious cycle of impersonalization, especially when all of these messages are immortalized on social media sites for people to comment on without them being able to control any of it.

The objectification of women in these derogatory messages not only hurts their image on the societal level, but it also affects their self-esteem and increases their self-doubt. In a study conducted by Debra Oswald, a social psychologist at Marquette University, she explored how many instances of benevolent sexism college women experienced in their daily lives, specifically online. Benevolent sexism is defined as a prejudice where women are treated as a lower status group, like how a father may treat a child (Yi). It was found that over half of the women studied reported having frequently experienced benevolently sexist jokes or comments in the last year, and all age groups found the comments to be degrading to their self-esteem and increased their self-doubt. (Oswald 364). College-aged girls reported more sexist comments and an effect on their self worth than any other age group in the study. This is a serious issue because not only do women deal with comments and messages frequently in their life, but the young women on online dating sites experience it more than double the number of times than any other group does. Coupled with the frequency of this age group to use social media as a way to communicate, these messages are spread like wildfire, so women will see these messages being made light of which can decrease their self worth even more.

The damaging effects of the messages, especially with their ability to go viral in the blink of an eye, spread farther than just the woman who receives it. The horrifying part of the Oswald study was that it found college-aged women who experienced frequent sexist comments online reported the comments as less and less distressing over time, and that they were more likely to be accepting of heteronormative gender roles (Oswald 371). This further proves that the derogatory nature of these messages goes beyond affecting their self-esteem, but it also affects their beliefs because of the social media pages that post them. The messages themselves harm women by desensitizing them to the frequent abuse they receive. However, the social media pages that post them cause the most damage because they trivialize sexual harassment and make  women feel like their problem is not worth reporting.

Online dating platforms can be a great space to meet people and form new relationships, but simultaneously foster impersonal interactions that subconsciously justify  the distribution of obscene messages. With the attention that these messages receive on social media pages, whether it be negative or positive, it encourages more people to send similar messages in hopes of their  fifteen minutes of fame. Seeing these messages being made light of online is not only damaging to the woman who received the message, but it is also harmful to the women who see it on those sites because it can make them feel as though their harassment is not worth reporting. In a society focused on fast entertainment, we need to be more cognizant of what we post and give attention to, because some of it, including these messages, can be very harmful to others.

Works Cited

“5th Year (@5thyear) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, www.instagram.com/5thyear/.

Hess, Aaron, and Carlos Flores. “Simply More than Swiping Left: A Critical Analysis of Toxic Masculine Performances on Tinder Nightmares.” Sage Journals, vol. 20, no. 3, 4 Dec. 2016, pp. 1085–1102., doi:10.1177/1461444816681540.

Johnson, Paige, et al. “A Match on Tinder, a #MeToo Moment.” The HawkEye, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 15 May 2018, thehawkeyeonlinenews.wordpress.com/2018/05/15/a-match-made-on-tinder-a-metoo-moment/.

Oswald, Debra L., et al. “Experiences with Benevolent Sexism: Scale Development and Associations with Women’s Well-Being.” Sex Roles, vol. 80, no. 5-6, 2018, pp. 362–380., doi:10.1007/s11199-018-0933-5.

Thompson, Laura. “‘I Can Be Your Tinder Nightmare’: Harassment and Misogyny in the Online Sexual Marketplace.” Feminism & Psychology, vol. 28, no. 1, 8 Feb. 2018, pp. 69–89. ProQuest, doi:10.1177/0959353517720226.

“Unspirational (@Tindernightmares) • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, www.instagram.com/tindernightmares/.

Yi, Jacqueline. “The Role of Benevolent Sexism in Gender Inequality.” Applied Psychology OPUS – NYU Steinhardt, 2019, steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2015/spring/yi.