The Occasional Terror and Utter Confusion of Dating in the Digital Age


    The Occasional Terror and Utter Confusion of Dating in the Digital Age

    In 2015, Nancy Jo Sales wrote a viral story about dating apps for Vanity Fair that made Tinder so mad, the company account directed a 30-tweet rampage at her. In her new memoir, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, she talks about her own addiction to dating apps and the misogynistic dating culture she believes they’ve fostered—one rife with the dreaded dick pic.

    I got my first dick pic from a Houston tech millionaire. He didn’t look much like a millionaire; he looked like the Dude from The Big Lebowski. He was sitting on the back patio of a Houston bar where I’d gone because somebody told me there would be tech millionaires there who liked to invest in movies. There were Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked out front—not really my scene, but if I was going to get a movie made, I was going to need some money, and I had heard that schmoozing rich guys was one way you could get it.

    The tech dude was spread out on a piece of lawn furniture, drinking a cocktail and scratching his balls—foreshadowing, in a way, for the dick pic. Everybody was treating him like he was a king, although he was clearly high and quite greasy-looking. Somebody introduced me to him, and, after some pleasantries, I launched into a pitch for my film (then envisioned as a companion piece to my book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers). I told him about the girls I’d been interviewing at the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant in Houston, and how they’d told me they had lost their self-esteem through cyberbullying and having their nudes shared nonconsensually online. And now, they said, they were seeking “empowerment” through being in this beauty pageant. I told him how complicated it all was and how it made me feel sad.

    The tech dude sat back, listening with a slit-eyed expression, and said it all sounded very interesting, and how much did I think I would need to make this film?

    “I don’t know,” I said, “maybe half a million?”

    “How about a million?” he said. He gave me his number. I was elated.

    I let about a week pass, which I thought was a good amount of time to wait to contact the tech dude again. He’d told me to text him when I got back to New York, and so, early one evening on a weekday, I texted him, reminding him of who I was and of our conversation.

    “When would be a good time to call to talk?” I asked.

    And he sent me a dick pic. With a text that said: “How about we talk about this?”

    I was so confused, I just froze for a moment. What is this? I wondered. It was one of the strangest dicks I had ever seen—sort of two-toned, darker on the bottom than the top. It looked like some weird chess piece, like a slightly flaccid bishop. For a second I actually thought the tech dude was asking me for medical advice. Had his dick been injured?

    But then I realized, no, he’s sending me a dick pic. And what a strange thing that was to do. It made me feel disoriented. Kind of disgusted. Sick.

    It occurred to me then how foolish I must’ve sounded on the back patio of that bar in Houston, going on about my feminism and how I wanted to expose the sexism in the lives of girls. I realized how the tech dude must’ve been laughing at me; and now it seemed like he was slapping me in the face with his dick.

    But what was he really saying with this? I wondered. Was there some coded message in this picture of his penis I was supposed to be able to understand?

    Was he saying that if I did something with his dick I would get the million dollars? Was there some Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl–style move for me here?

    But no, I didn’t really think there was. It didn’t seem like he was offering anything to me except this picture of his dick, make of it what I would.

    Is a dick pic ever really about sex? I wondered.

    Not according to Whitney Bell, an L.A.–based artist who in 2016 did a gallery show of unsolicited dick pics she’d received. “It’s not about sex. It’s about power,” Bell said in an interview with Vice. “It’s about these guys wanting to exert control.”

    Around the same time, “John,” age 34, told Refinery29 that when he sends dick pics to women, “it’s definitely an expression of power.” But what kind of “power” could this mean? And how did it factor into what was happening with dating?

    It seemed like a new kind of flashing and yet it was still legal almost everywhere. Getting a dick pic felt like when I had been flashed, walking home from the subway station in Yokohama, back in the ’80s when I was living in Japan, where I’d gone to work as an English teacher after college. I was walking home alone, taking a shortcut down a hill, when a guy jumped out of nowhere, about 10 feet away from me, and opened up his trench coat. Yes, he had on the proverbial trench coat. As ridiculous as he looked, I felt revolted and scared, but I forced myself to laugh, pushing the “ha has” out of my throat as hard as I could, throwing my head back as if this was the funniest thing I’d ever seen—this strange man standing there, pointing his erect penis at me. He looked embarrassed and skulked away.

    Published at Thu, 06 May 2021 13:00:00 +0000

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