As a woman utilizing the internet, I generally find myself on alert for some level of sexism-fueled shenanigans at all times. This daily reality for us operates along a wide spectrum, from being dismissed as “sweetie” in the course of a mansplaining thread, to unsolicited dick pics from strangers, to the severity and violence of GamerGate goons and career misogynists with large social media platforms who launch targeted attacks.
Somewhere along that spectrum — and rankling my hackles far too often — are men who are married (or in a seriously committed relationship) aggressively flirting with me online.
I say “aggressively” because this is not a woe is me men are flirting with me waaaaa crybaby situation because yuck. Painting in admittedly broad strokes, I’d say men flirt with us, as a whole, and the option of anonymity afforded by the internet makes it infinitely easier. Also, anyone can misunderstand someone’s intentions, particularly online, so I’m sure there have been many occurrences that were in a questionable gray area or that I was wrong about but just ignored because they weren’t severe.
I’m talking about the times when it’s clear, when someone I know offline or on, or someone I don’t even know well but who has indicated that they’re married, slides into my DMs or says wholly inappropriate things on some online platform or another.
Me saying I think “men flirt with us…” is not meant to imply some “boys will be boys” nonsense, either. It’s me acknowledging that men have systemically been groomed in this way, but that doesn’t make it OK. Like anyone interested in dismantling toxic masculinity, I strenuously push back on the idea that men (and boys) are allowed to be governed by their most base instincts. We assert that men are capable of rational thought and exercising restraint in fighting rape culture, and I also believe they can engage with us online in ways that don't indicate they're single and DTF if they're not.
That’s why I don’t brush it off as harmless or misunderstood when lines are crossed such as explicit sexual propositions, asking to meet up if we don’t know each other, or an outpouring of (ostensibly) intimate secrets or personal problems via DM. (Shoutout to the internet enabling emotional affairs like a mofo.) If you take them being married out of the equation, there are already trillions of transgressions going on in this area, with so many men just shattering the lines of propriety and social conduct when it comes to online discourse.
The married/committed part disturbs me because I personally abhor cheating and I hate A) being reminded of just how common it is, B) being informed in some cases that someone I know personally is trying, and C) that they’re trying it with me. I feel unwittingly involved in your bad behavior, and I wish it would stop.
Everyone defines their boundaries for themselves, with online/social media use, in their romantic relationships (if they have them), and especially with how those interact. Taking into account the spectrums of sexuality, gender identity, and personal definitions of "commitment," I could never claim to know what anyone else's relationship looks like, or what your boundaries are, unless I truly know you personally. Nor is it my business, unless you make it my business.
What I have a right to do is not be another woman on the internet you're giving attention or affection to that ought to be going to an actual woman in your offline life who's not getting it. If you think you have more than enough attention to go around, go for it. And I believe I can discern even naughty but ultimately harmless humor from the disingenuous or even dangerous bits.
It’s a cop-out to behave inappropriately and feign appropriate intentions when called out, like the immediate response I get from many men when I discuss street harassment: OH SO A MAN CAN'T JUST SAY HELLO TO A WOMAN ANYMORE?! Of course you can. But if I react negatively to whatever you said to me and your first response is to shout back in anger, was it really just a hello? I can tell the difference; can you?
Compliments are one thing; propositions are another. Being married doesn’t mean no longer responding positively to other women’s appearances or pictures or hanging out with them or whatever; just don’t try to fuck me. Of course for some of them, they’re not really trying to, but if you make it look like you are because you crave the attention or a sense of power or something, it’s still not harmless to me — just like when those excuses are used for street harassment.
I've also been told things like "calm down, it's just the internet" when discussing what I feel are inappropriate comments from people in serious and committed relationships. Personally, my longest and most significant relationship to date started with a DM, so you'll pardon me if I don't shrug off online flirting as totally harmless.
If a message feels off to me but I know the guy, I’ll say something like, “I think you think you’re joking, but if I were [wife’s name] I wouldn’t want you talking like that to another woman.” Even something with vulgar language gets a pass if it’s posted on a public forum and it’s clearly a joke, which I guess comes down to knowing a person’s sense of humor. Humor is subjective, but context always matters, so I might reply to a raunchy-yet-funny comment with “lol STAHP it and say hi to [wife’s name]” or something. If I joke back with you, or reply to you in any sort of positive sense (emoji included), then you are not the problem, and I appreciate the laughs.
It’s important to me to honor someone’s commitment because I never want to be a woman another woman worries about. I think people should be aware of their partner's social media use. I'm not suggesting stalking, snooping, prying, or even following if you don't want to, but I would want at least a vague awareness of accounts they have and what they're using them to say.
There are probably happy relationships out there where this is not the case, but that wouldn't be for me, so I also won't participate by being on the receiving end of what feels like inappropriate behavior. The good news for those guys is that plenty of women are happy to, just like many women don't see a wedding ring as a red light; I'm just not one of them.
If it feels harmless to you, then leave me alone and go find a digital playmate who also finds your aggressive tomfoolery "harmless." I don't find it harmless, because if I were in a long-term committed relationship with someone and I found out they were saying the things these guys say to me to someone else, I'd be horrified. But that's the key, isn't it? The finding out, and the fact that many never will.
The tangled webs of multiple accounts and fake avis and whatnot are too much for me to decode, but I do get to decide what I’ll receive blithely vs. speak out against. As with so many issues, men who may read this and think I’m talking about them are likely not the problem. Being sincerely concerned that you’ve transgressed is often a clear indicator that you haven’t. It’s the ones who get defensive and hostile who are guilty.
One time, a guy I had joked pretty regularly with on Twitter DMed me to say some pretty explicit stuff about my body parts and how he’d like to treat them with parts of his, and could we meet up. I replied that I was disgusted because I know he’s married and I won’t engage with that. He replied right away that they’re poly, and a quick scroll of his and his wife’s TLs confirmed that they are, and tweeted about it often. My bad for not really paying attention to their tweets, I guess. I said it still wasn’t for me and apologized for my harsh tone, and we had a laugh.
That was the ONE time a guy who said he was in an open relationship could actually back it up. Far more common is the guy whose social media page looks like he’s single while his wife/girlfriend’s page looks like a shrine to him.
Oh, and lest I keep this firmly within the binary confines of heteronormativity or imply that women can’t be just as cheat-y, #YesWeCan. Salute to the married lesbian who slid into my DMs last year and got the same response I’d give a man; yay feminism!
I’ve never been cheated on (that I’m aware of), but I grew up observing it from my parents, and I know many people have accepted that “all men cheat,” but I haven’t. I’m not a jealous person, though. When I see wives or girlfriends who won’t “let” the men in their lives have female friends or go through their phones, I’m appalled. I couldn’t even imagine being like that.
I know people cheat. Lots of 'em. Don’t involve me, even as just a potential prospect. When married men hit on me in person and I can tell they're married or I find out, I have only five words for them: "Go home to your wife." I guess the internet version would be: "Log off. For your wife."