Because I specialise in sex, intimacy and relationships, my social media content is often all about sex. My profile headshot is considered sexy by some because my cleavage is visible. My bios clearly state that I am a coach, a therapist, an educator, a writer, a speaker, and a media host. I listen, talk and write for a living. Despite these clear descriptions, every day I receive personal and blatantly sexual messages on all of my social media accounts. I get the most inappropriately blatant messages on LinkedIn.
The written messages are annoying. The unsolicited pictures of penises and vulvas are infuriating. I don’t know many people who like to receive genital pictures from total strangers. Not many folks enjoy getting full-body nudes from strangers when they haven’t requested the picture on social media or anywhere else. I am resilient, so the impact of these messages and photos is minor and quickly disappears. For people who are less accustomed to receiving this type of social media message, people who have been traumatised, and people who suffer from anxiety, the impact is often intense and lasts for days.
Most of these messages come from men. I have spent time thinking about why these men believe that their behaviour is appropriate and what they are trying to achieve. When I am feeling charitable, I think they simply have forgotten their basic manners or their impulse control has temporarily failed. After all, when people are on the internet or on social media, they can be anonymous, and when anonymous believe that there are no consequences for their behaviour. They can also feel safe behind a computer, pad or phone screen. If there is a negative reaction to what they send or post, they simply disappear. They don’t have to engage with the person they are intruding upon.
When I am feeling less charitable, I see these men as bullies. They are seeking to shock, upset, degrade and objectify. They don’t care about consent, have no boundaries and have no empathy. They want their needs met, and they want them met now, on their terms and without any reference to the needs of anyone else. These are the same people who regularly gaslight others. If confronted about their behaviour, they tell the recipient that it was just a joke or that it is no big deal and that they should relax.
Women also engage in this type of behaviour but in my experience less often. It may be that men on the receiving end of pictures of a stranger’s vulva or tits in their social media inboxes are not offended. I suspect it doesn’t feel like objectifying or bullying. In my clinical work, the complaints made by men and women who are targeted by women are usually about stalking behaviour including multiple messages, following on all social media accounts and anywhere else they can find the person. The action is different, but it still violates consent and boundaries.
Here are a few choice examples of social media private messages sent to me on LinkedIn:
This one was sent out of the blue with no previous introduction when I accepted a connection (friend) request.
‘Good Morning in (name of country) now Dr Lori Beth, thank you for accepting my invitation. Personally, I Love Fingered my arse, then Fornicate my Arse Deep & Hard! I plan to marry a Transsexual!’
What’s wrong with that approach? To start, I have not consented to hear about his desires at all, let alone in detail. He is not my client. He is not a friend. He is not even an acquaintance. Even on a dating app, this would be considered a lack of consent. He assumes that by being on any social media platform, being a sex & intimacy coach, writing about sex & relationships, I am consenting to hear about the details of anyone’s sex life. It also illustrates an entire lack of boundaries. He is either unable or unwilling to consider what it is appropriate to say to someone on a social media platform devoted to business and work relationships. Honestly, this would be inappropriate on any social media platforms and dating apps, but it is even more inappropriate on LinkedIn.
This one was sent after I accepted a connection request – I have had many of this type.
‘Hello, you are a sexy lady. How are you?’
And this one, again when I accepted a connection request:
Both of these illustrate a common assumption that women enjoy being flattered by random strangers. In some ways, it is akin to construction workers whistling at a woman as she is walking down the street. Many women don’t mind that type of flattery. It doesn’t intrude much because the men are at a distance. These social media messages and images are far more intrusive. On a social media platform where a woman is showcasing her professional skills and expects to be interacting with professional peers, the objectification inherent in this approach is even more apparent and either annoying or upsetting or both.
Then there is this type of message: After telling me he needs some help:
‘Will you show me how to make an orgasm? You are so sexy.’
Since I describe how I help people regularly on social media, I don’t see these messages as misunderstandings about how I work. These people lack boundaries and have poor impulse control.
And finally, I get lots of messages from men who want ‘to get to know me. These aren’t blatantly sexual, but they have nothing to do with seeking help, peer relationships or business of any kind. They are purely social messages from strangers who have connected to me solely for social reasons. They speak about wanting to form friendships. In some of these messages, it is clear that they want to create some sort of romantic or sexual connection. These men have enough impulse control to be cautious in their approach. These are not people who I have been talking to in a group or who I interacted with in public on LinkedIn. These are men who request a connection and then when it is accepted attempt to start a social or romantic relationship immediately.
I am sure that there are some women who do not mind this type of advance on LinkedIn or other social media; however most of the women I have spoken with find this extremely irritating. We are not on LinkedIn to find partners, date or find husbands or wives. We are on LinkedIn for our businesses or to find a new job or to keep up with work-related topics in our fields. These messages and requests take time precious time away from our days, even if we are only deleting them.
How should you approach someone on social media if you are interested in them?
If you are on LinkedIn, don’t. That isn’t what people are there for. If you think this person is your soul mate, follow them on other social media and talk with them in public until you get to know them better.
Always start by talking in public and watch the tone of your conversation. Don’t make assumptions based on the person’s images or their social media bios that they will welcome connection with anyone they don’t already know. Flirtatious banter is fine when you have already made a connection with someone, but blatantly sexual banter is rarely appropriate with someone you barely know. If you have never had a private conversation, making sexual suggestions is beyond rude and intrusive – in public or in private.
Don’t overshare. Most people don’t want to know the details of your sexual desires unless they are your lovers (or you and they have agreed to compare desires to see if you might be compatible). I guarantee you that sex therapists, sex & intimacy coaches, relationship therapists, and clinical sexologists don’t want to know the details of your proclivities if you are not in a professional consultation (which means you have to book an appointment and expect to pay for the meeting).
Don’t make assumptions. Jerry Belson coined the phrase ‘Never ASSUME because when you ASSUME you make an ASS out of U and ME’ in 1973 in a script for the Odd Couple (season 3, ‘My Strife in Court’). This remains true. Don’t make assumptions period. No matter how open and familiar someone is in their posts, this does not mean they want to be free and familiar with you. An open style in posting is not an invitation for you to contact a professional for social reasons.
If you don’t know how to set and keep healthy boundaries, learn them. Boundaries are the lines we draw in our relationships with others that let them know what we are willing to share with them (information, affection, parts of ourselves, intimacy). Boundaries also let others know what kind of behaviour is acceptable. When we say that someone doesn’t have good boundaries, we often mean that they are not able to make sound judgements about what they should keep to themselves (information or behaviour) in each situation. This type of boundary is a self-boundary. When we talk about setting boundaries, we mean drawing that line in the relationship with another.
Why are boundaries important? Boundaries allow us to feel safe to have relationships with others. They allow us to feel comfortable in our interactions that our feelings won’t be trampled upon, that we can be ourselves without fear of judgement, that someone won’t act without our consent. Dr Meg-John Barker, in an interview with Allure Magazine, says this ‘Most of us were brought up in families where we were made to eat food we didn’t like, to receive hugs and kisses we didn’t want, to pretend to enjoy presents or entertainments that didn’t feel good to us. Most of us went to schools where the expectation was that we would learn what we were taught was important rather than what we enjoyed….. We were also probably taught to mistrust and/or hide certain important emotional responses like anger, sadness and fear: that we shouldn’t feel those things or that we should pretend we didn’t’. As a result, we have not learned to identify our wants, needs, feelings and responses and value them enough to set boundaries in keeping with these. Love Uncommon writes on self-consent, which is a great place to start learning boundaries as an adult (thank you to Dr Meg-John Barker for the suggestion).
Pretend that you are meeting someone in person instead of on the internet or social media. Ask yourself if you would introduce yourself or start a conversation in this way if you met the person face to face in real life before you send that message, picture or make that comment. In case this isn’t clear: Would you flash your penis or your breasts at a random attractive person in the street?
Apply the relative test before you send or post. How would you feel if your sister, mother, wife, best friend – any person of any gender you love receives what you are about to send? Do you think they would be happy about receiving a comment, question, or request like this? Would they enjoy receiving a picture of a stranger’s penis? If you answer honestly, you won’t take that approach.
If you only take away one thought from this article, please make it this: Unsolicited non-consensual sexual requests, messages, innuendo and images make you look like a wanker. Don’t be a wanker.