Have men just found a way to be even creepier online?

It’s no secret that toxic men will go to extraordinary lengths to berate, bore and belittle women on the internet. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked to find one man taking things to another level

Victoria Richards
Friday 27 October 2023 12:07 BST
Man walks across Tube station tracks to harass woman

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Ask any woman if she’s been the recipient of unwanted, unsolicited contact from men, and you’ll get, I would hazard, a universal “yes”.

From d*** pics on the Tube and the sinister viral video of the man who crossed railway tracks to hassle a woman, to the average man who “just” wants to know your name and what you’re reading (past tense: since he interrupted, nobody is reading any more), male-to-female harassment comes in many murky, misogynistic forms, particularly on social media. But ladies: brace yourselves. There’s a new one in town...

Last night, I received an unsolicited message from a man – on eBay.

Yes, you heard right: the online shopping portal. The one you might (ahem) find yourself trawling at midnight on a Tuesday, doom-scrolling to distract yourself from the dread of the 9 to 5, when you are suddenly struck by the desperate desire for a three-piece vintage suit – or enquiring after the shipping costs of buying red-panda plushies in bulk because they’re just so goddamn cute and would make such good Christmas presents for all the kids you know (look them up if you don’t believe me).

What could the man who tracked me down on eBay hope to find out about me? Is it my penchant for mismatched china, all the better to pour Hendrick’s gin from, at ill-advised Sunday afternoon tea parties? Perhaps it’s my obsession with the exact shade of lipstick favoured by Sylvia Plath?

What he was actually doing, in fact, was going out of his way to contact me to tell me how wrong and how stupid I was; how I “don’t understand capitalism”. So incensed was this stranger, by a tongue-in-cheek piece I’d written sympathising with a Gen Z TikToker who went viral for crying about her first job after graduation, that he went all out to track me down. Email – easy enough to find out – wasn’t enough for him. A “message request” on Twitter/X (which I would have righteously ignored, for who wants unsolicited abuse?) would’ve been eye-rollingly predictable.

But eBay? I’ll admit: I didn’t see that coming. Is the man who contacted me – the one who signed off his lengthy, ranty, intrusive missive with “regrettably yours” – really interested in the sofa I sold in 2005?

I’ll tell you what’s regrettable: men invading women’s personal spaces, as happens at just about any bar, pub, workplace or park bench (and even on Tinder). The strangers who tell you to “Smile, darlin’” or to “Cheer up, love, it might never happen”; the ones who motion for you to remove your headphones in the park, when you’re quite content listening to Taylor Swift, thank you very much, and the lyrics to “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” have never felt quite so apt.

And when you do remove your headphones, when you are jolted out of simply minding your own business, the man in question thinks he has a right to know what you are listening to. What he really wants to know, it seems to me, is what on earth you think you are doing there – a woman, alone – on a bench. How very dare you! The audacity of solitude! It is offensive to men like this.

And when you tell them that actually, you’re fine thanks, and you’d like to be left alone, nine times out of 10 they become aggressive. Call you a “bitch”, act hurt and wounded because why wouldn’t you want their attention? How could you possibly prefer to be so lonely and unaccompanied, so adrift in damselhood, so achingly, eye-wateringly solitary? What is a quiet park jaunt without the interjection of a penis?

If you are wondering why we might seem hostile, consider this: men’s intrusions into women’s lives aren’t always so harmless (examples like the one above are irritating, certainly, but not dangerous). I have friends who have been date-raped and sexually assaulted (and have even experienced that myself).

I’ve spent far too many evenings feeling forced to “play nice” with strange men in bars who wander over when I’m with my female friends because they can’t abide seeing women having perfectly nice evenings without them. I have bitten my tongue during inane conversations, and humoured transparent attempts to “neg” us.

Why don’t we tell men like this to f*** off? Simple: because they might turn nasty. And when you’re a woman, you always have one eye out for men turning nasty (Margaret Atwood was right). And to the predictable hordes who will say, “But this was just one man! We don’t all contact women online!” I will say this: it’s never “just” one man. Never. To deny our reality makes you complicit.

Women are tired of your harassment. We want you (on the whole) to leave us alone. And we definitely don’t want you “sliding into our DMs” while we’re doing some secret late-night shopping.

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