My Instagram direct message requests folder is currently full of men who think they’re on Tinder. Every single day for a few weeks now, I’ve been blocking a steady stream of unwelcome messages. It’s like having a dripping tap: it may not seem like a great inconvenience, but it adds up. You could tune it out if you’re wired that way, but it’s constant nonetheless. Drip, drip, drip. Heart emoji, “hai so hot”, unsolicited dick pic. Probably. Instagram has one security feature – blurring out the sent image – but even if was a floral “Good Morning” a la Whatsapp groups, I’m not about to give anyone the benefit of the doubt so quickly. If there’s a way to turn off DMs from people you don’t follow, I’d love to know it.
What makes me feel bad is that all this unwelcome attention came after I posted a photo against the sexual objectification of women, using a particular hashtag. Body positivity, empowerment, style as a form of identity, freedom of expression: clearly, none of these matter to the hundreds of men who began following and messaging me. They didn’t even read the caption.
Even in the best case scenario, they saw photos of a woman they found attractive, and decided she would appreciate and respond to their interest. They’re foolish enough to think that a woman they don’t know will say thank you, privately – if not more. And I’m only talking about the more polite, non-explicit ones here. I’ll go so far as to say that many of these strangers must think they are complimenting me. But that’s not how this attention has made me feel.
I’m also aware that among these strangers must be a few really contemptible people who are perfectly cognisant of the effect their messages have on the recipient. I’ve encountered plenty of men like that: ones who take pleasure from provoking women, desperate to register their presence to her even in the most annoying of ways, if that’s all they can do. Then there are those who feel that if a woman shows her face or her shoulder or her cleavage or her toes on camera, she is duty-bound to receive their responses to the same. They cannot imagine, even though it is gospel truth, that her photograph has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them.
When I started to write this piece, I wanted to explore how – hypothetically speaking – a man could express his attraction to a woman he doesn’t know, whom he has seen online in a non-dating app context. He can’t, really. Because her inbox is too full of unsolicited sexual attention. And her hackles have only been getting sharper and sharper.
So let me reverse the gaze and tell you what I’d do. I’d do nothing. I’d engage with his work if I found it interesting. I’d enjoy my crush on my own time. I would never think I was entitled to his attention just because I gave him mine. And the funny thing is: this has worked out for me once or twice. And once or twice, I’ve noticed someone doing just the same, and said hi.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 26th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.