People violating social norms have always attracted a good deal of public attention. In the early 16th century, families’ idea of Sunday entertainment was going to town square to witness the trial and punishment of the previous week’s offenders. In the mid-20th century, when mass media was becoming more widespread, news was almost exclusively a catalog of deviant behavior. In December 2018, college student Michaela Okland created SheRatesDogs, where half a million Twitter followers revel at the worst DM debacles the internet can offer.
SheRatesDogs is named after the wholesome dog-rating Twitter account We Rate Dogs, except in this case the dogs are your exes and the scores are always below zero. An Instagram account with a similar agenda is beam_me_up_softboi, which features “the best of the world’s softbois,” with almost 400,000 followers. When I first discovered these accounts I was sure their huge followings were due to our historical interest in punitive, public humiliation, but the anonymity of the (mostly male) offenders and their followers being mostly female convinced me otherwise. Is it possible that such a collection of manipulative messages, unsolicited innuendos, and borderline online sexual harassment offer a safe space?
“It’s incredibly cathartic, in kind of a twisted way, seeing the kind of messages other women receive from men,” 20-year-old Mia told me via text. “It’s vindication; I was right to be put off by this message, I was right to be upset.” Considering female anger is culturally dismissed as having no rational basis, accounts like SheRatesDogs offer a support system that validates what we feel and lets us know we’re not alone. After all, there is power in numbers, and god, our numbers are colossal.
The very existence of such accounts and the support they’ve garnered act as a resistance to the normalization of online sexual harassment. “For some reason, women don’t really talk about the shitty things that are said to them online as often as it happens,” Okland said in an interview with Bitch. “I don’t think people realize how normal [this harassment] is, and how it translates into actual violence against women.” Because romantic relationships (and the talking that precedes it) are largely private, we are essentially clueless on how pervasive harassment and abuse are. We keep these experiences to ourselves because we are socialized into thinking it’s simply what happens in dating—that we are overreacting. In a way, the accounts are PSAs, helping you identify red flags and making you realize that the behavior you’ve gotten used to is actually not normal.
The number of posts on each account (SheRatesDogs has 838 posts on its Instagram account, beam_me_up has 588), which are all submissions from followers, is a testament to the ubiquity of this phenomenon. Okland shared with NYLON that guys often respond to the DM screenshots she posts with defensive disbelief that “this would never happen” or that “guys don’t talk like this.” The fact that an account with content as specific as SheRatesDogs receives so many submissions daily proves otherwise. “I always check in with the girls [who submitted] like, ‘Are you okay? What happened?’” Okland adds. As entertaining as the texts are, at the end of the day they’re a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Young women, who are disproportionately victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse both offline and online, flock to these accounts as a way to regain control in systems that were never designed to protect them. We may have not been able to fight back during the conversation, but by inviting thousands of people to mock our abusers, we find a sense of safety in the solidarity. It’s an online safe haven, subsequently deploying the lingua franca of the internet—memes and humor—as coping mechanisms. Okland, in particular, turns some submissions into songs or reads them aloud after inhaling helium. As a result of this satirization, it becomes easier to permeate the mainstream and reach more people.
It is this popularity that makes the accounts even more powerful. A guy I met online once told me to not put him on SheRatesDogs after an extra raunchy joke, proof that what started as a funny Instagram account is now an authority keeping creepy men in check. All too often, women carry the responsibility of their own safety. We must always manage how we appear online and which spaces to avoid lest we get harassed; and even then, there’s no guarantee. By having this kind of all-seeing authority figure who heeds the call of any victim, the responsibility is rightfully returned to the hands of the perpetrators. Accounts like SheRatesDogs, in their own small way, give women the upper hand; some men now police themselves in fear of receiving the same treatment they give women. And because submissions are anonymous, victims can come forward without fear of intensified abuse. It does not matter that identities of perpetrators are concealed—given the internet’s ability to shape public perception, just merely raising awareness on the pervasiveness of this issue is powerful in itself. SheRatesDogs, you are a 1000/10.
Annie Walton Doyle