How Not to Talk to Women Who Write About Sex on the Internet

Toward an understanding of the politics of online intimacy

Instagram and privacy
Online, intimacy can be complicated. Privacy is not.

Last week, I wrote an essay about why I take nudes, about the role they played in helping me reclaim my sexuality after a chronic illness diagnosis, about the enjoyment I get out of sharing them with my partners, and about other women I know who’ve had similarly empowering experiences. Next week I have an assignment that addresses the opposite end of the spectrum: receiving nudes — namely, male nudes, dick pics and the like — why I actually enjoy solicited photos of that nature, and why I often ask for them from partners.

But before I grace you all with that insight, we need to talk.

After my article on nudes came out, I started noticing a few random requests from men I didn’t know on my private Instagram. What started as a trickle turned into more than 100 requests in just over a day from complete strangers. I have a public twitter; I keep my Instagram private, accepting only requests from friends and people I know well because I share pictures from my life — of my family, of places I frequent, etc. — that I wouldn’t want strangers on the internet to have access to. It probably has about 300 followers, and last week it got to the point where I had to put a disclaimer on my account that if we didn’t know each other personally, to just find me on Twitter. Still the requests came in. 

I’ve been publicly slutty online for probably just over a year now, but I’ve always shared sexy pics on my Instagram — both to gas up my close friends, and also to celebrate a body that long felt hard to love. But this past March I posed nude for Bitch Magazine to accompany a spread I wrote about the transformative power of orgasms amid chronic pain. The spread featured a full-frontal centerfold, as well as closeups of my breasts and butt. I was and remain incredibly proud of the article, the photos that accompany it, and the decision to pose nude. After that article came out, I started to share sexy pictures to my Twitter more liberally; the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, so why not? Plus, I was further coming to terms with the fact that my public persona — whatever the fuck that actually means — was truly mine to define. I didn’t need to separate my presence on Twitter, where I often tweet about reproductive rights and the disbelief of female pain in medicine, from my being someone who enjoys taking nudes and being slutty. 

Being a woman on the internet means putting up with a constant stream of men demanding access to you. After posting more intimate content on Twitter, I started to receive DMs from men telling me they were jerking off to me; some even took to the contact page on my website to send long detailed messages about how they had scoured Twitter for all my nudes and how they wanted me to know that, as I was reading their email, they were masturbating to me. They sent graphic descriptions of how they imagined fucking me and implored me to interact with them. I’ve received messages from men with wives and children; I’ve had men tweet at me publicly to proposition me. Well-liked men with blue check marks reply to my tweets with come-ons and inappropriate and prodding questions about my body and my work. Sometimes they explicitly ask me to keep the messages they send private, an absolutely absurd request after perpetrating an act of sexual harassment. Sometimes they use their personal accounts and sometimes they set up dummy emails to contact me through my website. The breadth of resources and effort these men put into being predatory and creepy while simultaneously giving no thought at all to whether what they’re doing is remotely acceptable is honestly breathtaking.

When this kind of attention started to kick up, I felt guilty, like I was somehow egging it on or asking for it. I felt like I didn’t have a right to complain, because I was, after all, putting myself out there in a sexualized way. (I’ll never forget the time I tweeted a picture wearing a new full-length jumpsuit and a man tweeted back “you post stuff like this and then get mad when people sexualize you”). But here’s the thing: just because I post nudes doesn’t give you permission to demand access to me. Just because I’m publicly slutty doesn’t mean you get to define my boundaries — those, like my body, like my nudes, like my online presence, are still unequivocally mine. And what I know from talking to friends of mine — both those who share nudes and those who don’t — is that men will sexualize you no matter what. I have friends who have never posted anything more lurid than a bathing suit selfie who still receive depraved messages from men on the internet. None of us are asking for it; none of us are more deserving of it than others. Unluckily for us, it seems, harassment from men online is an equal opportunity endeavor. 

And here’s the other thing: this kind of message is always futile. I never, ever respond to them. The most engagement you can expect from me is that I’ll screenshot them, share them to shame you, and then block you. I doubt many of these men engage in this predatory behavior expecting to get something in return. Maybe some — the naive ones — are expecting that I’ll be so enthralled with the idea of some random man on the internet jerking off to me that I’ll leave it all behind to be their personal sex doll. But I think the majority send these degrading and graphic messages because they get off on the invasion itself, on knowing that they’re forcing me to read about their onanistic habits or the size of their dicks. They are, to put it plainly, the written version of the unsolicited dick pic. You should also know that I’ll never forget if you send one of these messages or tweet one of these replies. Last year, a prominent legal writer responded to one of my tweets about my nude shoot with a sleazy remark before quickly deleting it,  and to this day I won’t interact with his comments or DMs, however innocuous they are. 

This is not to say that sliding into someone’s DMs is never appropriate. I’ve responded to DM slides and I’ve slid myself! In all honesty, what makes a DM slide successful is really not that much different than what makes an in-person introduction successful: if someone’s message is appropriate and I’m attracted to them, I’ll respond. You wouldn’t (shouldn’t!) walk up to a woman at a bar and show her your dick or tell her you’re masturbating to her, so don’t do that online. It’s that simple.

If a woman doesn’t reply to your first message, or if she “likes” it without commenting, she’s not interested. Move on. Sometimes, women will offer some kind of engagement to let you know they might be interested. For example, if you reply to a couple of my tweets and I don’t engage, or if you follow me and I don’t follow you back, I probably am not interested. If I’m liking your content and engaging with it regularly, give it a shot — politely. But this also isn’t a perfect test. Sometimes engagement with someone’s content is wholly platonic, so don’t be an asshole if a woman turns you down or ignores you; even if she follows you or likes your shit, you’re still not owed anything from her.

Finally, one of my biggest pet peeves has to be the incessant reply guy or Instagram request from the anonymous account. If you want access to me — how I look, who I am — show yourself. If you want your privacy, respect mine. 

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