the internet

What Men Don’t Know About Being a Woman Online

Photo: Photo: Justin SullivanJustin Sullivan/Getty Images2013 Getty Images

What do you do when you get a Facebook message from a man you don’t know who is 51 years old (which is 24 years older than you are), and it says, “You seem interesting … and a little damaged. I think I’d like that” ?

I thought I meant this question rhetorically, exasperatedly, at first, but actually I really want to know.

I have gotten a lot of creepy messages from men I don’t know during the last few years of living my life partly online/in print, but especially in the last few months. When my book came out, a few excerpts were printed online. I am very grateful for them, and mostly it was for the good. The downside was that people who didn’t read the full book and had no plans to had access to my name, my picture, and a narrow window into my romantic history, which, basically, was that I didn’t have one. And a number of THOSE people, all male, took these excerpts as invitations to email me, tweet at me, and Facebook message me to do one of a few things:

1. Ask me out (sometimes, confusingly, in other states or countries).

2. Accuse me of friend-zoning or otherwise wronging men.

3. I’m not sure what. But there’s definitely a third category, and the above message falls here. (So does the one I got the other day that was like, “Hey I read something about your book, you should check out my photo albums — I’ve traveled the world” — Congratulations on having a camera and being able to find an airport?) I guess the best name I can think of for this category is “Announcement of My Male Existence.”

Ha ha. But seriously.

I have dealt with these messages and things pretty well, I think, which is to say that I’ve almost exclusively ignored them. But, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder if I ignore them too much. Sometimes I really want to respond! I really wanted to respond to PUA McReddit up there — not because it’s that bad on this messed-up relativity scale, but just because today I felt like punching back — and I even wrote out, “cool message to send to a stranger half your age who doesn’t give a shit!” in the little reply box. But then I deleted it and reported him as spam instead.

Partly that is because responding would do nothing, and I know that even if I took the time to craft the best and cleverest of all possible wounding insults, it would do nothing. He’s nothing to me. It’s nothing.

But all together, among all the women writers I know and talk to and read about, it’s a lot! It’s not just “hate mail.” I don’t know what to call it, even. It’s just mail we get for being women. And sometimes I wonder if there should be a place to put all of it; so we could then make every man who works for or reads the internet (so, all of them) look at the log for, I don’t know, an hour a week. That seems fair to me. I just worry sometimes that men — even the ones who are kinda paying attention — have a vague idea that they understand the extent to which this happens. But they don’t, really. I mean, how could they?

Every time I get an unwelcome/harassing/mean/rude/bizarre message from a man I don’t know, I have to decide whether to be proud that I can ignore it and say nothing; or to be aggressive, and make it known somehow, and give it (and therefore him) attention. These are terrible options. I think they are both brave (because it’s brave to believe you’ll always have skin this thick, and it’s brave to believe other people will care to hear about something that seems wrong to you), but I don’t know if either feels all that good. What it feels like, at this point, is a routine.

I have a thick skin the way you must when you’re a woman with an internet presence. (Or a woman in general.) Sometimes I feel like I’m (or we’re) not supposed to acknowledge our toughness. There have been times I’ve wanted to publicize something like this and didn’t because it somehow felt like bragging. But I AM proud of it, even if it’s fucked up that it’s a skill I ever needed to develop. I guess I think vocal pride has to be part of this raw deal we were handed. If I don’t get to team-brag with other women about how tough we are, and how the mail/tweeting/messages/comments media guys consider “hateful” are, like, Edible Arrangements compared to what we deal with, then I don’t know what recourse is left.

What recourse IS left? What do you do?

(This piece originally appeared at

What Men Don’t Know About Being a Woman Online