I try to remind myself that no one ever said online dating would be a wholly pleasant experience. There is an inherent awkwardness that comes with entering the world of swipes and algorithms, and it’s simply unavoidable.
I grew up and into an era during which the Internet has basically informed much of my identity and sparked many of my most important relationships — I’ve met some of my closest friends via sites like LiveJournal and Tumblr. And today, there’s no twentysomething I know who hasn’t met a bae or a jump off via some app or online service. So there's no real sense of the taboo when it comes to dating online.
I created my first online profile in 2013 on OkCupid, a tiny baby step into unfamiliar territory with no real set goal in mind. All I knew was that as someone painfully shy around men, dating in the real world, in New York City, felt downright impossible. If anything, this was a way for me to gauge my own interest, and to date in a way that felt a bit more intentional, a bit more on my own terms.
And because I had girlfriends who told me about their escapades on the site, the good and the bad, the inevitable creeps and trolls, I felt relatively prepared for an imperfect if interesting experience.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the horror story that is online dating as a black woman.
Recently, OkCupid released data on race and attraction amongst its users, which revealed messed up but unsurprising realities about how people navigated the site.
Compiled by the site’s cofounder Christian Rudder, the data showed that black people and Asian men were least likely to get a date on the site. Black women specifically, the research showed, were at the very bottom of the barrel, receiving the fewest messages and likes from all races of men, and the least amount of responses to outgoing messages. Latina and Asian women, overwhelmingly, got the most likes and responses.
Rudder’s take on the data was pretty vague. “Beauty is a cultural idea as much as a physical one, and the standard is of course set by the dominant culture,” he said. “I believe that’s what you see in the data here.”
The narrative about black women and dating, about our lack of desirability and dateability, has been one I’ve actively tried to unlearn, despite a constant, nagging feeling that the reason I couldn’t get a date was because of the so-called stigma. But in my first major foray into the world of online dating, what struck me wasn’t so much this idea of not being wanted, but the kind of men who apparently wanted me.
A few creeps and trolls I could handle just fine. But from day one, I got tons of messages, many of them one or two word lines like, “Hey sexy,” and a larger majority of them reading, “Hey chocolate.” These weren’t worth the energy it took to respond.
The chocolate thing, though, kept coming up. Gradually, I began to notice a theme — the majority of the messages I received, mostly from white men, fetishized my appearance and sexualized me based solely on my race.
There have been so many ridiculous and offensive messages, too many to count or read. Many I’m not even comfortable sharing in this essay.
“Do you taste like chocolate?”
“Is it true what they say about black girls?”
“I’d love to slap dat big juicy booty.”
Once a guy was good enough to message me just to tell me that I look like “something you find in the zoo.” Another man, after luring me into a false sense of security by opening with a pleasant enough conversation about one of my favorite TV shows abruptly changed the subject to pose the question: “Do you act black?”
I asked him what exactly he meant by that.
He replied, “I like black women minus the attitude. Why is that wrong to ask? Haha.”
In the three years I’ve been on OkCupid, I’ve only met up with a handful of people, mostly because it’s been impossible to meet anyone who doesn’t open or end conversations with offensive, racist, sexually aggressive language. A brief sojourn into Tinder world marked the worst of it — some neckbeard called me the n-word when I said I didn’t want to meet with him. I automatically deleted the app and haven’t been there since.
I know that I don’t represent every black girl’s time spent in the online dating world. I have black girlfriends who’ve had relatively decent, pleasant interactions, which is wonderful. But I also know my experiences aren’t unique. I do still wonder who else out there has put up with this kind of unwanted attention. The OkCupid data suggested Latinas and Asian women get the most attention on the site, but I can only imagine what kind of attention they’re getting — creepy fetishizing, no doubt.
It hasn’t all been bad, of course. In the past year I’ve met a few guys online who have been fun to hang out with, and a couple whom I’ve actually really liked. But I’m taking an indefinite break from the online dating world. Partly because I want to experience different forms of dating, but mostly because the energy of weeding through hundreds of gross and racist messages from strangers is, to me, the very opposite of self-care.
Last year, some important conversations were sparked surrounding the kind of street harassment women face on a daily basis. There needs to be, I think, a similar conversation about online harassment. Because it’s not just the dating sites where women are subjected to this kind of behavior.
On my Tumblr blog I’ve gotten creepy messages, and had my personal photos posted on ebony fetish blogs. Some might say that the solution to avoiding this kind behavior is to delete my blog or my profile, to block the guys I don’t like and focus on the ones I do.
I say that I shouldn’t have to do that to begin with.