For women in the online dating world, messages from suitors can quickly turn from innocent introductions to a minefield of insults, body shaming, untoward propositions and NSFW photos. But Instagram accounts like Bye Felipe have become Public Shaming 2.0—giving women a chance to fight back.
Even in a digital world, rejection and love are two sides of the same bitcoin.
According to Pew Research Center, one in five adults aged 25 to 34 has used an online dating site. And as our internet habit has grown mobile, every chime of the phone may signal the start of a new connection, a new lover, a new relationship. Or, as Alexandra Tweten, 28, of Los Angeles has learned, it may signal an unwelcome barrage of demeaning insults and dick pics.
Such an experience inspired Tweten to start Bye Felipe, an Instagram account that features screenshots of seedy messages that men have sent to women who have rejected them via online dating platforms such as Tinder and OkCupid. By publicly branding these messages, which are at once funny and terrifying, with the hashtag #byefelipe, the account aims a giant shame spotlight on men who feel the need to lash out at the women who turned them down.
Just over a year old, the account has 370,000 followers and has been featured in major national media outlets. Tweten, who has used online dating sites on and off since 2010, is also working on a book proposal based on her experiences managing the Bye Felipe account. She talked with AWT about rejection, male privilege and the consequences of Internet anonymity.
AWT: To start, I would love to learn a little more about the Bye Felipe account and why you created it.
Alexandra Tweten: I started it in October of last year. I was having a conversation on Facebook in this secret girls group in LA, and a girl posted a screenshot of a mean message she had gotten on OkCupid. I had received a similarly terrible message a few days prior, so I posted mine too. Then a bunch of other people started posting their own received messages. We thought they were hilarious and really disturbing, and so I was like, let’s just put them all together and make fun of these guys. I created the Instagram account on a whim that night. Just from the Facebook group, it had a few hundred followers. Then, I don’t know how, but a writer at the Atlantic found it. After the article came out, it kind of just blew up.
AWT: I saw that article in the Atlantic plus ones in the New York Times, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. As your feed gains traction, what type of feedback have you gotten?
AT: I’ve gotten a really positive response. When I first started it, I got a few mean messages to my personal Facebook account from men trolling me, but since then I haven’t gotten any bad feedback. Everyone I’ve talked to, and all the people who send submissions are so thankful. They are like, “Thank you so much for starting this and giving women a voice.” And, “I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets these types of messages.”
AWT: What I think is really interesting about your account is that these men are trying to take away the power of the women who rejected them, but the account is giving them a platform to get it back. Can you talk about these power dynamics?
AT: After I started it, I realized it was this great platform for turning these absolutely horrible responses that women have been getting from men on their heads. It lets us make fun of the guy. We can make fun of him trying to make fun of her and trying to make her feel bad. The number one thing you see in the submissions is the guy attacking her looks because that, in our society, is seen as the thing that gives women power, or the only thing that’s valuable. I wanted to take that power away from them. When any woman is criticized like that she tries not to take it personally, tries not to let it get her down, but obviously sometimes it does. This allows us to take the power back from men’s words.
AWT: Why do you think some men can handle rejection from women, while others lash out?
AT: I think it comes down to being secure in yourself. The guys who are not as secure are probably the ones lashing out. Whereas people who are secure in their self-esteem are fine. They just move on. They don’t take it personally.
AWT: As seen in some of your posts, the rage from some of these men is almost instantaneous, like, “You haven’t texted me back in 15 minutes, therefore you’re a bitch.”
AT: Right. And I do understand that online dating is so frustrating. These guys are probably sending a ton of messages out and just not getting any response. Maybe they feel like no one is listening to them, and that is why they lash out, which I understand, but it doesn’t excuse that behavior.
AWT: It makes you wonder: What is it about the Internet that makes men think that this behavior is acceptable? If this person walked up to a woman at a bar and she turned him down, he probably wouldn’t respond that way.
AT: I think the anonymity of the Internet plays a role. I guess people just don’t think about the real person on the other side of the screen. They don’t think anything will happen if they say whatever they want. Or maybe they’re just not afraid of the consequences. I have heard a lot of stories of women turning men down in public and the men responding with something mean, like, “Well, you’re a bitch anyway.” It really does happen in public too, just not as aggressively. I definitely see a relationship between the messages and catcalling on the street. I think it’s the same thing, just easier to document online.
AWT: It’s interesting you mention catcalling, because there’s a lot of commentary about men not thinking catcalling is a big deal, because when they’re with women it doesn’t happen. Is it the same for your account?
AT: Exactly. Another thing I realized was that a lot of men who don’t behave this way have no idea this goes on. For them, it’s kind of a peak into women’s inboxes and the messages we receive. Often in the comments people are like, “That’s not real! This is fake! That was photoshopped! I don’t believe that!” I’m always like, “No, it’s completely real.” Even when people are shown the evidence directly, they still don’t believe it. I have thousands and thousands of submissions. I have maybe 6,000 in my inbox I haven’t even opened yet. I definitely don’t need to take time to think of fake submissions to post.
AWT: It’s sort of a documentation of male privilege in a way.
AT: Yes! There have always been men acting badly, throughout history, but now it’s just so easy to take a screenshot that shows everyone what happened. Before, he might have just made a little comment on the street, but now that conversations take place online or by text message, it’s just so easy to document.
AWT: It’s kind of like a modern day stocks—public shaming in the town square.
AT: Absolutely. It definitely is public shaming.
AWT: And by publicly shaming these men, women are bonding together over the ridiculousness of their comments. But, as we all know, when you are actually on the receiving end of some of the vitriol, it can still be really damaging emotionally.
AT: I have had people send submissions in and then later be like, “Actually, I thought about it and can you not post that because I’m afraid for my safety?” Or, “I don’t know what will happen if he finds out I did this.” Obviously I don’t post those. I think I had a few times where the guy was actually very, very crazy, and the woman asked me to take it down. I will do that if the original submitter wants me to do that.
AWT: What about if the guys ask?
AT: I have gotten responses from guys saying they were just kidding, or it was only a joke. But some of these guys are actually, legitimately crazy. When guys ask me to take it down, I’ll say, “I’ll think about taking it down but will you please apologize and not send messages like this anymore?”
AWT: Do they ever agree or reach out to the women to apologize?
AT: I have not seen it yet. But I hope that other men who see the account will think twice about sending these kind of messages. Hopefully they’ll think to themselves, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that online because someone might screenshot it and I could be famous accidentally.” Hopefully it’s done some good that way.
I personally haven’t received anything that would be worthy of a submission in a really long time.*
AWT: When a woman receives hostile messages on a dating service, have you found she is better off engaging with him or not engaging with him? Or does it not really matter?
AT: I’ve seen it go both ways. When the women just ignore them or say no politely, the men still respond with hostile messages. If you are getting messages like this, just block the person and report them to whatever service you’re using.
AWT: Do you notice that some sites are worse than others?
AT: I get a lot of submissions from everywhere. I don’t know about worse or better … but most come from OkCupid, Tinder and Plenty of Fish. But I also get submissions from Facebook and text messages from people the women already know. I’ve gotten submissions from that Whisper app, from gaming apps. It’s really just everywhere.
AWT: Can you talk a little about how Bye Felipe has shaped your thoughts on rejection, particularly in regards to the female/male dynamic?
AT: Before I started Bye Felipe I had maybe just a handful of examples of men I’d rejected reacting badly. Their messages shocked me. I was like, “What did I do? Sorry that I’m not interested, but wow, you don’t need to be so angry.” I guess discovering that all these other women also get these messages was really helpful, because it was like “Oh, I’m not alone.” And by now, I’m just not surprised by anything because I read these submissions every day and am just like, ugh. I never think it can get worse and yet it always does.
AWT: It looks like the submissions are all from heterosexual relationships. Have you received submissions from the LGBT community?
AT: I don’t think I’ve received any lesbian submissions, but I have received a handful of submissions from men targeted by other men. I haven’t yet decided whether to post them or not. I may post them in the future. I’ve also never received a submission from a man who had been sent crazy messages by a woman. Even if I did I probably wouldn’t post it, because the systems of power in play are not the same. Men don’t walk down the street afraid for their lives because they’re wearing a short skirt. Straight, heterosexual cis males don’t feel that hostility every day in society. I’m not sure if I’ve gotten any, but I would post messages from trans people, because I’m sure they receive them all the time.
AWT: Now, you mentioned that you get thousands of submissions. Do you see repeat offenders?
AT: Oh, absolutely. Actually one guy messaged me personally. He was one of the first Bye Felipe submissions. After the account got picked up by Buzzfeed, I got emails from four or five women saying, “That guy messaged me too and he’s really scary.” They sent me screenshots of other things he said. He was a lawyer and one woman wanted to report him to the bar association, and another woman filed a police report against him for sending threatening messages. A lot of the time you’ll see comments like “I know that guy, he’s messaged me too.”
I definitely don’t think a majority of men send messages like this, but I think a few bad apples ruin online dating for the bunch. But it’s still so prevalent. If you’re a single woman on an online dating site—or even if you’re not single, I have submissions from women in relationships who have gotten random messages on Facebook—so if you’re a woman active online, chances are you have gotten a message like this. It’s that common.
AWT: Exactly. In this day and age, inside and outside the online dating sphere, the Internet is not always a safe space for women. Why do you think interactions online can become so brutal?
AT: I think it’s just the preconceptions we have in our heads about women. It’s been proven time and again if you go on Twitter with a male name, people won’t talk back to you, or they won’t give you crap about what you say. But as a woman participating in online forums or on Reddit or wherever, you see so much backlash just because you’re a woman. It’s just a symptom of the larger misogyny and patriarchy in our culture.
AWT: How can women continue to fight back against that misogyny and patriarchy?
AT: There’re so many ways to do it, and everyone has their own way. I mean, call it out when you see it. Don’t be silent just because you’re receiving backlash from someone. Keep speaking loudly and don’t let the trolls get you down.
* Editor’s Note: Within a week of the interview, both the subject and the author of this piece received submission-worthy messages from men.