May 2, 2014 12:33 pm

A naked strike against cyber sex pests

‘The post went viral because it touched an issue close to women’s hearts: getting lewd emails is a risk of being online and female’
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of a pencil drawing a face profile©Shonagh Rae

A few months ago Anna Gensler, an artist friend of mine who lives in Maryland, downloaded an online dating app called Tinder. This probably means nothing to anyone over the age of 30 (ie most Financial Times readers). But Tinder is wildly popular among young Americans and a growing international audience since it enables them to post brief dating profiles pulled from their Facebook accounts. Users then typically use these to chat and hunt for dates – usually harmlessly.

However, the app also has a seedier side: Tinder can be used to arrange sex hookups. And when she joined, Gensler was quickly bombarded by lewd messages; instead of initiating conversations with “hello”, men made contact with exceptionally graphic, misogynist, sexual comments.

So Gensler took revenge. She posted a note on her profile warning that if anyone sent offensive greetings, she would draw a nude cartoon of them based on their photos. Then, when the messages kept arriving, she duly scribbled portraits of the men, sent them back and posted these on her Instagram page alongside the men’s messages.

“When someone does something I think is rude, I always want to give them a taste of their own medicine. I’m an artist, and I try to use art as my weapon, even though that sounds so lame,” she explained to Slate magazine. “So I thought, ‘What is something I can do to make [them] feel the way that they’re making me feel?’ Obviously, I couldn’t just send them back a sexy message, because they would love that … So I just started doodling how I would imagine them naked … except sad-naked.”

Gensler, 23, never expected her subversive little joke would spread; only a few friends looked at her Instagram feed. But last week some websites stumbled on her protest and publicised it – and within a couple of days, well over a million people had clicked on her account, or viewed a second site she created on Tumblr. “It’s amazing,” she laughed, with a sense of bewilderment, as her little pictures suddenly went viral, tossed between phones and computers right around the world.

There are at least two lessons here. The first is that it shows once again the extraordinary power of the internet to create sudden cyber stampedes, when an idea, cause – or just a witty cartoon – strikes a chord. In old-fashioned journalism, to collect millions of viewers takes time; on the internet, ideas flourish and die with stunning speed. That has fascinating implications for how power can be inverted or protests spread, be that over earnest environmental issues, geopolitics – or dating sites.

The second lesson is that the internet is creating new faultlines on social interactions – and gender. The reason Gensler’s post went viral is that it touched an issue close to many women’s hearts: getting lewd emails has become an inherent risk of being online if you are female (as I know only too well). And while most women do not dare respond, many feel irritated. Little wonder, then, that the website Jezebel dubbed her a “genius woman”, or that Time announced that “this is the most glorious way to respond to creepy Tinder advances”. Indeed, the responses were so exuberant that Gensler has now created a website that offers to produce doodles for anyone else dealing with cyber sex pests (granniepants.com).

As a friend of Gensler, I am apt to applaud her. But not everyone likes this form of public shaming, particularly given the graphic nature of the pictures she draws. “What Ms Gensler is doing is gross,” wrote Jen Gerson, a Canadian commentator, who complained it was utterly unfair of her to “humiliate people who offend her” by posting her cartoons. “If receiving explicit solicitations on a Tinder application makes you feel gross, humiliated and objectified, here’s a thought – don’t use that application.”

. . .

The managers at Instagram also appear to have reservations: after she posted her graphic cartoons, her feed was closed several times, for “violating the service agreement” (Instagram bans nude images). Gensler responded by creating a second account, with the offending images blacked out. But that was suspended too, possibly because her site is called granniepants. (In another, deeply ironic twist, this name arose because when Gensler first created an Instagram account many months ago, her younger teenage sister teased her for being a “grannie”; in today’s cyberspace, 23 is considered old.)

At the time this went to press, her “instagranniepants” feed was functioning again – and attracting more hits, particularly from women. Her protest has clearly struck a chord. But perhaps the most intriguing question is how long it will take before some entrepreneur finds another “app” to plug this gap in the market – and provide a more systematic form of recourse against sex pests. Graphic cartoons might offer one solution but there is clearly a need for more debate – and entrepreneurial innovation. Women (and men) should watch this space – or perhaps send some ideas to granniepants.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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