Trigger warning: sexual harassment, sexually explicit content
A few weeks ago, a video on dirty DMs captioned, “Sorry dude I decided I wasn’t going to let you ruin my day. I’m going to own the fucking day” went instantly viral on Instagram. The video, created and posted by Moose, a youth and women advocate, was a series of screenshots of the texts she received from a man and recorded her reaction to it–which was to text his friends and email his school.
Within two weeks of posting, the 30-second clip had reached 6.6 million views. While the video was entertaining in itself-with Punjabi music in the backdrop- the comments section took on a life of its own. What unfolded next was predictable, to say the least; people came out to defend the young man, described as the ‘kid’ and how the matter should have been dealt with privately instead of outing his dirty DMs to the whole world and ‘ruining his life’. She should have, the comments demanded, been more aware of the consequences of her actions and let him off with a warning.
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To these comments, her response was simple, “His mother can raise him. His school can raise him. His father can raise him. But that’s how they decided to raise him. I will not be raising other people’s children.”
Across cultures, communities and continents, women have been expected to be naturally more mature than men. Moose was required to be more mature than the man who sent her those dirty DMs. The fact that his disturbing messages could have generated mental agony in her was not even a trivial footnote as this whole episode unfolded. She was scrutinised for her overt reaction. The standard protocol, you see, is for the woman to be the perfect victim, to cringe, ignore and try to forget.
But things are changing. Moose isn’t the only girl on the internet posting screenshots of her DMs without blurring the sender’s name or sharing the messages with the sender’s internal network.
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Neither is this metaphorical taking to the streets relatively recent or limited to India. In 2014, Alexandra Tweten started an Instagram page called Bye Felipe wherein she’d post and share screenshots of the dirty DMs women received from men online.
The responses to such posts are interestingly ambiguous-while one side positions the blame on the woman who decided to share the dirty DMs she receives in her inbox, the other side applauds her bravery and affirms her decision by sharing personal anecdotes of the harassment they faced online.
Victim blaming is not always so unsubtle- it often takes different forms. Kayleigh Roberts, an editor and writer based in Los Angeles, writes about how this ranges from chiding a sexual assault victim to telling a person who got mugged what they could have done better. Psychologically speaking, this seems to bring forth feelings of relief in the blamer (for a more diplomatic outlook, read free advice giver). By pointing out all that the victim did wrong, the blamer can settle cozily into a bubble of ‘this won’t ever happen to me’. So if you have ever found yourself responding to someone in a problematic situation with what they could have done better to avoid it, you have fallen prey to the fallacy yourself.
It is important to highlight that the burden of guilt has been-unfittingly and unfairly so-thrust upon the shoulders of women to carry across communities and cultures. In fact, research suggests that ‘the main problem, according to the experts, is not that women feel a lot of guilt (which they do), but rather that many males feel “too little.”’ Even when men do show empathy, it is more often directed towards the harasser than the victim in a harassment case, according to a study.
As the writer sifted through the comments on such posts, a rather intriguing thing stood out. There was always a lingering comment or two, criticising the survivor’s response on the claims of how this will destroy the life of the man in question.
So the question emerges-Is it okay to call people out? Cancelling people online seems to be all the rage right now. This phenomenon has been the centre of many debates in the last few years. While some define this practice as minorities and vulnerable populations reclaiming power, the other side views calling people out online, condemning them and then forgetting about it as the equivalent to leaving a broken system just the way you found it. To borrow the metaphor from a psychiatrist, ‘cancelling people is like spot remover to clean up stains, but no one is deep shampooing the rug’.
Despite this, it is hard to ignore the fact that most of the ‘victims’ of the cancel culture are people operating on their privilege and most of the senders of such dirty DMs are almost always men. For instance, though the practice of sending out nudes is a common one with both women and men, women have a tendency to wait until they are asked for it, a hesitancy that men usually don’t carry. An article by David J Ley suggests that this is because men are afraid of sexual rejection and by sharing unrequested pictures of their genitalia, they are able to get ‘pre-approval’. But their psyche is not the only thing pushing them towards sending ‘creepy’ and dirty DMs to women on the Internet-the cushion of patriarchy secures their fall, if any at all, by blaming those who speak up or labelling them as begging for attention. It is easier to send such messages to a section of society that has been socialised to not speak up and stand up for themselves.
However, over the last few centuries, women have fought for suffrage, for the right over their bodies, for social and psychological freedom. So if the fourth wave of feminism is truly online, maybe this is how women begin to reclaim themselves: In the little corners of the Internet, without playing the perfect victim and airing the dirty DMs of perpetrators without guilt.
Muskan is a socio-economic researcher interested in women studies. She is working as a Research Associate at a consultancy focusing on the informal economy. She believes a better world is coming. She can be found on Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter.