Sorry, We’re Closed: Consent in the Age of Social Media

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I’d originally planned to write about something else entirely, but this topic has been on my mind the past several days, so I figured I’d give it a bash.

 

I think social media is a wonderful thing. I like catching up on friends’ news, especially those who live far away – sharing their joys and tears, enjoying pictures of pets, children, and grandchildren, or moaning about the state of the world in general.  (You have to admit, some days it seems like we as a species are just circling the drain.) Being a writer is hard for a lot of reasons; the requirement that we isolate ourselves to work means that we often end up lonely.  Social media allows us to connect with others in a way that’s not always possible in today’s world.

If someone adds me as a friend on Facebook or Twitter, or I add them (don’t look for me on Instagram; I’m hardly photogenic and I take shite pictures besides) I’m assuming you will respect the boundaries that I set down. I’m not averse to chatting with people, but here’s the thing: if I’m online on a DM or in a chatroom, I’m not working. I’m not writing. I’m not doing the thing I came here to do. That’s a problem.  Like any profession, mine has certain goals for which I’m responsible: this many words a day, finish that chapter, rewrite/generate a new version of something old that’s not quite working the way I intended. Or clean out the refrigerator, do the laundry, pick up dirty socks off the floor, and play with the dog.

Recently someone added me on Twitter. And proceeded to DM the living daylights out of me until I told him politely that he had to stop. He didn’t stop. So I blocked him. If I tell you I can’t talk with you, and you continue to initiate conversation, I’m giving you the boot. It’s called respecting my right to consent, and if you’re a woman, this is a big deal. If I tell you politely that I’m not interested and you keep DMing me, you’re like that guy in a bar once, way back in the Eighties, who kept grabbing my arse and wouldn’t stop until I threatened to publicly disembowel him with a high-heeled shoe.

I shouldn’t have to do that in person, and I shouldn’t have to do that on social media either.

This same thing seems to happen on Facebook, and God love them, but some people (men, usually) just don’t get the message. If I politely tell you “I’m sorry, I don’t chat online much” and you continue to message me, you’re stepping into dangerous territory. I mean, think about it: how would you feel if I showed up in the middle of your workday, stood by your desk, and proceeded to chatter at you for God knows how long? Would you like that? Really? Tell me where you work. It can be arranged. Please note that I’m menopausal and prone to violent mood swings and public outbursts. Does that suit you?

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An anonymous user on a chat board wrote: “I keep getting guy after guy after guy that friends me on Facebook and starts sending me tons of messages […] and keep doing it after I tell them […] I’m not interested in them. ” I feel her pain. I’m no supermodel but I’ve had men do the same thing and it mystifies me why they do it. Is it like sending unsolicited pictures of your wedding tackle to some woman you’ve never met, in the hopes that she’ll be so impressed by your one-eyed trouser snake that she’ll orgasm violently on the spot?

I’ve had messages from guys that start with “Hey sexy.” I’ve had messages from guys that start with “You look amazing.” I’ve messaged them back to tell them that I’m happily married, have been for 30 years, thanks all the same and don’t let the door hit you on the arse. Still, they persist, asking personal questions like do I have kids, how many, what age are they, (I’m child-free by choice) and so forth. I’ve had guys message me in the morning asking how was my night.

How was my night? It was hot and I couldn’t sleep, and my mind wouldn’t shut down, and I had frequent hot flashes and had to run to the bathroom at least three times to pee. I’m retaining water right now so I’m fat, bloated, and sweaty. You could paint GOODYEAR on my stomach and float me over sports stadiums during away matches. Attach a gondola and you’d get terrific views of the surrounding countryside.

Is that what you wanted to know?

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I always feel that I ‘should’ be nice to people. I try to be a decent human being because, like many people living with C-PTSD or complex trauma syndrome, deep down I suspect I’m not. There are many days I run on guilt and toxic shame, which leads me to overcompensate by being nice to assholes. Tip: repeatedly messaging someone on social media who has explicitly stated they’re not interested? You’re an asshole.

But what about if you’re only trying to be friendly? Didn’t I just say, earlier in this post, that I like connecting with people online? I sure did. And I do – when I choose to, and only then.

Don’t send me direct messages flirting with me after I tell you I’m happily married. Addressing me or any woman as ‘hey sexy’ in an online forum or chatroom is the same thing as catcalling in the street. Don’t send me the first fifty chapters of your 800-page answer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, written entirely in rhyming couplets, on the assumption that I ‘won’t mind’ editing it for you.

I will mind. I will take note of who you are and write a thinly-veiled version of you into a book, and trust me: you won’t like it. Are you contacting me because I’m an author and you think I have pots of money? Boy, do I have news for you.

Don’t message me telling me how lonely you are or, like the 19 year old who tried to pick me up in Value Village, sigh mournfully and bleat “I wish I had a girlfriend”. Honey, I got underpants older than you.  Don’t assume that, because I’m polite, I will let you by with this behavior; I won’t.

Here endeth the lesson.

P.S.: Don’t get me started on the guy who emailed asking for a pair of my underpants.

The Life of the Senses

O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! (John Keats)

We have been a walk this morning, Lola and I. She was reluctant to go, for it is very warm and very humid, owing to the near-ceaseless rain we’ve had the past several days. (Hubby tells me that ‘several’ is any number between three and seven, and I believe him.)

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But this morning I was determined, so I seized her before she could crawl into any one of her numerous hidey-holes around the house (behind chairs, under the bed, behind the sofa) and thus evade me. She is twelve years old, very soon to be thirteen, and she doesn’t like either hot weather or wet – but she needs her exercise and it had been three days. You see how I’m attempting to acquit myself for what some might consider cruelty to my dear little dog.

We followed a path along by some rolling fields, a government-run ‘experimental’ farm where they do strange things with seed potatoes, wheat and barley. In early summer the fields are a brilliant, buttery yellow with thousands of dandelions and once, several years ago, I rode past on my bike and the fields were redolent with blooming canola flowers. This morning the rain was a steady dripping between the fir and spruce trees, each individual drop pattering onto the carpet of fallen needles underneath my feet. I was listening to Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night, the narrator’s voice a synaesthetic accompaniment to the scent of the forest and the falling rain. I trailed my free hand (the one not holding the leash) along the wet heads of some sweet vernal grass, the water rolling in beads down my wrist and arm.  It was a delicious sensation.

 

We came upon a field of wild lupins, purple and pink, magenta, pale cream, and white. Their scent, perhaps coaxed out by the rain, was gorgeous. I picked a huge armful as we went, bending low to break the plants close to the root. I wanted extravagant long stems that would arch out of the vase I intended to put them in. The colours were so vibrant I couldn’t stop looking at them; I wanted to drink them in, consume them. They were intoxicating in their absolute perfection.

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The natural world inspires a kind of mania in me. I must indulge my senses. I have to smell the flowers, get wet in the rain, inhale the salt sea air, ford the icy November stream in my bare feet (I’ve done this), walk into the wind, squish the mud between my fingers… I remember once when I was little, maybe six or seven, I went for a walk in the woods with my father. He showed me some small white berries growing near a snowbank; we ate them, standing underneath a fir tree dripping wet snow on our heads. They tasted of chewing gum, of wintergreen. In the summertime we went into the woods near our house and picked sun-warmed wild blueberries as big as Concord grapes and ate them walking home, savoring the rampant flavour bursting on the tongue. In November, once the frost had touched them, my mother and I picked lingonberries (here they are called partridgeberries), a kind of wild cranberry, dark burgundy and full of a fragrant, piercing juice that made our mouths pucker. lingonberry

Author Flannery O’Connor said that fiction and human perception begin at the same place. A writer’s perception of the world is conveyed to the reader through avid description: what something feels like, what it tastes like, what it sounds like. A field of wildflowers bursts upon the retina. The scent of coffee, wafting past us on a city sidewalk some humid July morning, sets in motion a creative cascade that, if allowed to flow interrupted, eventually tumbles into story. The plash of individual raindrops into a solitary puddle in the middle of an empty forest is a transformative experience. We have to stop and look. More than that, we have to train ourselves to see. These lupins that I picked this morning won’t last beyond a day or two before they wither. The memory of them will last much longer. The colour and the scent of them will infuse the things I write. I stopped and saw them. I allowed them to flood my senses.

I was locked out of my house one night because I stayed out in the garden far too long, lying on my back and looking up at the stars. Similarly, a late-night drive along a rural Mississippi road under an absolute carpet of stars is an image I will never forget. Unless I’m standing knee-deep in the flow of life, I’m missing everything. If I’m missing everything, there’s nothing to inspire me and inform my work. I cut those lupins and I took them home with me. I need them. I need to see their colours. I need to make things with them.

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