I quit Facebook about a year ago. I’ve never looked back: the interactions I had with most of my 300+ friends was becoming shallow and superficial. Most of the time, when I did post something that I wanted others to engage with, my words would go out into the void, echo and bounce around the walls around a bit, before fading out and sitting there lonely and unheard. It got a bit tedious talking to myself when I was seeking meaningful connection. Ah, the lure of social media to the isolated introvert! Facebook sucked me in and wasted many an hour — nay, years — of my life.
I also didn’t like that people I barely knew (or hadn’t met) had access to my photos, relationship information, and my documented history. As an early adopter of Facebook in Australia, there was a lot of history on my profile. I was reluctant to delete it, or go through the laborious task of setting up privacy filters on every single thing I did (or every album) just to prevent people I barely knew from seeing and reading about my life. Facebook makes it very difficult to set these restrictions up easily.
On Facebook I made friends with people for a variety of reasons, as we all do. Some of these connections were real friendships or family relationships, while other connections came through shared interests or were for networking purposes. I never really got into accepting requests from complete strangers – there was always a tenuous connection to the people I allowed in, nevertheless, at the end of my time on Facebook a lot of these connections felt bizarre to me. Too many (unknown) people had access to too much of my life, which made me feel deeply uneasy. As someone who had existed for a long time in the pre-digital, pre-internet era, I found exposing myself to all and sundry disturbing and not at all reflective of real-life socialising.
One of the things I liked least about Facebook was that these more distant kinds of Facebook “friends” (the online acquaintances) were able to message me whatever they liked. This was a real problem when it came to men at times: in particular men who seemed to have developed a bit of a crush on me, as happened occasionally. Combine that romantic interest with a bit of mansplaining, unsolicited advice, and alcohol, and we have a “winning” combination. I’ve come back to the archive of my Facebook messages in recent months to have a look at some of the messages I received during those ten years on Facebook, and I’m re-examining what they mean in the #metoo era. It’s even more alarming to me now (than it was then) to notice how entitled some men feel to barge on in to one’s personal space with little emotional regulation, offering themselves and their sexist “advice” in equal measure.
One of the least welcome messages I received on Facebook was a gooey love declaration from a man I’d had an abusive relationship with back in the early 90s. This man had subjected me to two years of consistent sexual abuse, coercion, emotional abuse and rape. I had not actually heard from him in about 18 years when he messaged me out of the blue. We were not Facebook friends. The last time I’d actually seen him was about 15 years earlier, when I spotted him driving round my new neighbourhood in circles, car window down and staring at me intensely as he went round and round. It was several years after I’d left him and it frightened me that he now knew where I lived. It also worried me that he was obsessed enough to drive around repeatedly like that, watching me but saying nothing.
Back to his Facebook message. One day, out of nowhere, just before Christmas in 2010, I received a romantic, delusional message from this man. The actual words he wrote are irrelevant. The gist of it is that he was cracking on to me and wanted to see if I’d take the bait and have him back. What really galled me is that he had the nerve to send me anything at all, after all he had subjected me to. What also annoyed me is that he suggested I’d broken his heart. Bless his ignorant soul: he honestly didn’t seem to realise there was bad blood between us or that he’d abused me in any way, shape or form. Having (obviously) not locked down my Facebook account enough to prevent messages of this kind, I swiftly told him his message was unwelcome, went into full shut-down mode, and blocked him. But before I did so, I discovered from his profile that he now had a wife and two sons. By all appearances he was playing happy families while sneaking around behind the scenes, contacting an old girlfriend and professing his love to her (me). He hadn’t changed one bit: back in the day he had cheated on me repeatedly, lying about his indiscretion while leaving me susceptible to every STD under the sun.
As I mentioned above, when I quit Facebook I kept an archive of my account, including the messages I had received and sent. I must have been an irresistible crazy-magnet back in 2010, for a month or so before receiving the love declaration from my ex-boyfriend, I had received the following message from a friend-of-a-friend. This man was someone I’d never met in real life, but he seemed interesting and we shared some interests. I trusted him enough to befriend him, given he was an old friend of someone I knew well. After a bit of innocuous, platonic introductory messaging and following each other for a couple of months, this gem landed in my inbox one day, completely unbidden and out of left field. This is what he wrote:
Looking at your photos – you always were a “looker” – and have become more beautiful as you have matured. So WTF is up? Get over it, whatever. Get out there and get whatever it is you want. I’ve had the good fortune of being with beautiful women in my life and I know it is a double edged thing. But do you want to be sitting there in 20 years and perhaps lacking the beauty you now have, going Duh, doigh and stuffing donuts in your gob? And look I could be completely wrong! But whatever is in your heart to do, do it now, while you can! You are still of breedable age and lovingly into you replacement animaux thing, so DO THAT and don’t be dissuaded by others’ interests. Flute players, as you know, are thick on the ground – even utterly fantastic ones, and you may be one of those, as far as I know. It is sad to see you flounder and grind out loud on FB. Just a few thoughts. Bon journée.
I don’t quite know where to start with this, but I’ll try. What I object to here is a man I don’t know acting way too familiar, blatantly objectifying me, equating me solely with my looks, implying that I am only of use as a breeder and that I’d better hurry up and do it, criticising me for expressing my emotions on Facebook (this was the year my Dad died), implying I will lose my beauty and get fat, suggesting that the instrument I play is common and that I may (or may not) be a good musician, and telling me I am embarrassing myself publicly.
Dumbfounded and thoroughly insulted by this man’s blatant sexism and uninvited rudeness, I closed Facebook for the day and had a good think about how to respond. The following morning, this pathetic morsel from him arrived in my inbox:
Okay look. I was a bit drunk the other night on FB (that is almost always fatal, I am told) was pretty brash and obnoxious. Just try to ignore it, okay?
Just try to ignore it, okay? There was no apology, no humility and no sign that this man had any insight about what he’d done wrong. Instead? That laconic, casual, overly familiar tone of voice that certain men feel they are entitled to adopt when they speak (down) to women. Reader, I blocked him.
I found his behaviour so vile that it didn’t warrant a response at the time, or much consideration at all, until now, post #metoo, when I find myself revisiting and revising such incidents, analysing the part they play in our culture. Big incidents, small incidents, the way we speak, can all point to problematic behaviour, assumptions and beliefs about women that form part of the fabric of misogynistic society and rape culture. The way certain men feel they can behave towards women and talk down to them. The way this near-stranger thought he knew so much about me and my life that he could offer blunt advice on how I should live it, his advice tinged with sexist assumptions and restrictions and wildly imagined conceptions of who I am and what might be best for me. There was no room for me to be an autonomous being in this man’s conception of me: rather, I was to be an automaton, acting out his wishes and fantasies of what a woman should be and do. Don’t talk too much, certainly don’t publicly emote, stay beautiful, have babies, don’t flounder, don’t get fat, do give up on your career. Be a breeder, be a breeder, be a breeder. Don’t waste your beauty, use it to breed while you still can. Hurry!
I was disgusted by his message then and I’m even more disgusted by it now. It’s the first time in many years I’ve allowed myself to engage with his words and really feel enraged about them. If I have a message of my own in response to his, it is this: men, please treat women as if they are equal, autonomous beings. Please don’t assume that you know us or that you know what is best for us. This kind of behaviour is horribly patronising, horribly diminishing and horribly sexist. It crosses into women’s personal space in a way that is incredibly demoralising and invasive. It says “I know you better than you know yourself” and that is the kind of vile, controlling, infantilising arrogance that needs to stop. This is the same kind of boundary crossing, know-it-all thinking and controlling behaviour that leads to sexual coercion, domestic violence and rape. When men presume to think that they know what women want rather than asking, particularly in intimate situations, sexual assault occurs. Rape culture is pervasive and its ideology is deeply woven into the way we speak to and communicate with women and in the gendered assumptions we make and enforce. It is all part of the same sorry picture. If we don’t start changing these things collectively, we will never move beyond #metoo and rape culture. We must all examine the assumptions we make about gender roles and the ways we communicate with each other if we are to progress beyond rape culture to a place where women are able to speak and act freely, be autonomous, and above all, safe.