Carolina, a 24-year-old microbiologist, has been receiving one-way messages from a man for more than five years now. “I’ve been out of high school for six years, and this guy who went to my school sends me Facebook messages every few months,” she tells me. “Some just saying hi, others asking why I’m ignoring him.” She couldn’t hazard a guess as to why. “I’m not sure at this point. The first year it was funny, then it kept going and going and going. I just haven’t had the heart to ask him to stop.”
While women are all-too-familiar with the phenomenon of men “pleading into the void” — or continuing to send messages at regular intervals even though they’re not receiving a reply — men seem both unaware that such messages are 1) bothersome; and 2) that all kinds of other men are doing the same thing.
There’s a spectrum of persistence, of course: Some guys send four or five unanswered greetings before moving on, while others spend weeks, months or even years engaged in tireless, unidirectional messaging. At a certain point, persistent texting will meet the legal definition of harassment if there’s an intention to annoy, threaten or alarm the person receiving the messages, and if the communication is in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm. Even when there’s no intent to cause harm, though, repeated, one-way messaging can cause women to feel confused, irritated and afraid.
After more than a month of daily, unreciprocated texting from a stranger who got her number from a coworker, Rhiana, who was 19 at the time, asked him to stop. Unfortunately, however, that caused the situation to escalate. “Dude, I don’t know who you are, but can you stop obsessively texting me? It’s getting really annoying,” she texted back. The man denied being a man (“I’m not a dude, bitch”), before pretending to be his own girlfriend and scolded Rhiana for texting him (“Wtf are you talking about, this is Jessica why are you texting my bfs phone”). Next, he went on Rhiana’s Facebook page and found her partner’s name, hunted down his phone number and told him she was cheating — with him. “The delusion was very strong with this one,” Rhiana says.
Not all men will respond in such an unhinged way to a straightforward request to cease contact, but fear of confrontation, retaliation and aggression is a common reason women silently put up with persistent messaging. “Online and in person, it always seems like a safer bet to just ignore men than to reject them,” Carolina explains. “If he’s been diligent enough to send me messages for six years, I don’t know what he would do if I said stop.”
For some of the men who admit to this behavior, not being explicitly asked to stop fuels their persistence. Jeff, 29, tells me that he used to send “maybe five to eight” messages in a row to women without getting a response. “It was usually with people I’d been intimate with before, and I wasn’t getting the message [that they were no longer interested],” he explains. “Or I didn’t want to, I suppose. The lack of clarity was as good an excuse as any.” When I ask him to elaborate, he describes the lack of outright rejection as inspiring a kind of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber logic in him (“So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”). “Like, hey, this person didn’t respond to me six months ago, but things could have changed,” he says. “And they didn’t respond negatively.”
The idea that men should relentlessly pursue the women they want is at play in everything from Grace’s story about Aziz Ansari to Henry Cavill’s recent remarks about the #MeToo movement: “There’s something wonderful about a man chasing a woman. […] Now you really can’t pursue someone further than, ‘No.’” And it almost certainly informs the behavior of persistent texters and harassers.
A number of men explain that a previously good relationship meant they continued to message old friends, hookups, classmates or partners without response. For Sacramento, a 30-year-old writer, the fact that he’d once hooked up with the recipient of his 10 unanswered messages meant it took longer than it should have for the penny to drop. “Every time I was in her town, I’d message her to see if she wanted to hang out,” he says. “The last time I saw her ended on such a positive note. I guess maybe I kept making excuses in my head that she was busy or that she would get in touch with me.”
An existing relationship isn’t a prerequisite to incessant messaging, though, and women with public-facing roles seem particularly susceptible to void-pleading strangers. Jubilee, a DJ and producer based in New York City, receives a steady stream of unreciprocated messages from male fans through her official Facebook page, and Natalie, an escort in her 30s, says that sex workers are plagued by this problem. “Most of us outline very clearly how we like to be contacted and what specific info we need to set up a date,” she says. “But these dudes can’t seem to grasp it. It may be that they’re shy and confused, but most often, they’re just timewasters who want any kind of interaction with the girl in the pictures, no matter how pointless. Some will persist, without reply, for days, weeks or months. It drives us all nuts!”
The root cause of this behavior is a mystery, even to the men who exhibit it. A few admit that it does stem from social cluelessness, while others cite alcohol as a factor. Sacramento suggests it could be a combination of “delusion, loneliness and lack of self-awareness.” Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist based in L.A., chalks it up to three things: 1) social anxiety; 2) an inability to read cues; and 3) sexism. “People with severe social anxiety spend so long in isolation, and in their heads, that they tend to hole up and get zero practice in the world,” she says. “Whenever a skill is new, we suck at it. So, often these types will try things that make no sense, because they literally have no idea how to begin.”
She notes, however, that pleading into the void appears to be a gendered phenomenon. “Men don’t have a monopoly on social anxiety, but women seem to get these kinds of messages way more often than men do,” she adds. “I think it’s mixed with some pretty deep sexism. Meaning that if someone is socially anxious and has sexist views fed into their mental schema, women become even less important as a mirror to take cues from.” She clarifies that this tendency to depersonalize women usually isn’t deliberate. “Generally speaking, I find that people want to connect, love and be seen. This is a very misguided attempt at getting a need met.”
Says Jeff, “I keep coming up with societal theories and explanations about not understanding social cues, but it really was as simple as not hearing what I didn’t want to hear, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Just a priority of my need for validation and attention over the personhood of this other individual.”
These days then, he sticks to a system that guarantees he’ll never unwittingly creep out a woman again. “Now I have a hard rule: two unreturned texts means this person isn’t interested.”