Illustrations by Erin Taj

Searching for the Girl Next Door

On ‘Doppelbangher’, men help each other get over unrequited crushes in an only-on-Reddit way

Doppelbanger (noun): when you bang someone solely because they look similar to another person you want to [bang]

/r/Doppelbangher (noun): a subforum on Reddit that helps users find “pornstars that look like girls you know”

“I personally find the subreddit creepy so I don’t care to participate,” says Sam, a 23-year-old woman who helps moderate the subreddit Doppelbangher. But because the forum’s two other mods either went inactive or deleted their accounts, she’s become the lone mod of one of Reddit’s many quiet factories of male desire — specifically for people in search of a porn star who looks like someone from their past.

With only a few posts a day and 6,000 subscribers, Doppelbangher is hardly the most popular masturbation-oriented corner of Reddit. Some of its posts include a detailed fantasy of a lost or unrequited love (or, more commonly, lust). Others identify their requests with vague recollections: “Friend I had a looong time ago,” “Super sexy Chicago TV personality,” “Dis girl from my bank.” Inside these posts, they share images, presumably pulled from the Facebook or Instagram pages of these old friends, TV personalities and bank patrons, in the hope that a fellow Redditor might identify a lookalike porn star. Those posting appear to be almost entirely men — a scan of about 100 posts revealed just one unconfirmed lesbian — and though the corollary subreddit “Doppelbanghim” exists, it remains mostly unused. The only rules of Doppelbangher? No minors, no identifying information and a request that users “be respectful in the comments,” according to its guidelines. “Please be aware of how someone might feel about finding their picture here,” it reads, adding, with almost too much self-awareness: “Yes, I am trying to guilt you as the results of [this] are usually unpleasant.”

The warning didn’t keep Vincent*, 27, from sharing an image of a crush from his teenage years. He went to an all-boys Catholic school, and she was the first woman he “truly felt attracted to.” “I have been kinda worshipping her all these years and I wanna stop that, so I thought, I should see her as a normal girl,” Vincent explained in an email. “I should just fap to her like any other pretty girl and let her go.”

But what if Vincent’s crush found out he was posting her photo in an internet forum, looking for her porn star lookalike? “I know she would hate me, she would feel disgusted, and I would have totally lost her,” said Vincent (who adds that, if contacted, he would agree to take down the post). Similarly, Mike*, says his former co-worker would be angry if she found the image he posted of her on the subreddit. But he has his reasons: “I posted it [on Doppelbangher] because every man or woman has a moment of clarity that they would want to be with someone, but many do not have the confidence to pursue their fantasies.” Mike and his crush worked at the same camp when he was 18 and she was 23. While he says that “every boy” at camp had a crush on her, he’s now given the users of Doppelbangher the opportunity to crush on her photo, without her permission.

Mike’s post, which includes an image hosted on Imgur, now has 11,000 views. While no one has responded on the Reddit thread itself, the Imgur thread has eight comments. Six of them call Mike a “loser” or “creep”; one suggests he ask the woman out; but one gives him what he wants: the name of a lookalike porn star.

In 2013, the story of a woman happening upon her image on the Doppelbangher subreddit went viral. Under the handle wtfisthisbull, she wrote: “She looks pretty identical to this girl! ;)” And if you had clicked on the link, it revealed a photo of the woman holding a sign that read “you’re disgusting.” While she responded in (relatively!) good humor, Doppelbangher is filled with requests — from teachers about former students (and vice versa), bosses about female employees, and exes about exes — that might make the subject of the photo far more upset.

But as with any public online platform, those whose images are used shouldn’t expect to take it up with Reddit. The site requires Redditors to use image hosting from a third party (Imgur is particularly popular), protecting Reddit from any liability. Meanwhile, Reddit’s skeleton crew of around 75 full-time employees can barely keep track of the millions of comments posted every day, “leaving Redditors to largely police themselves, following a ‘reddiquette’ post that outlines what constitutes acceptable behavior,” The Verge writes. Meanwhile, volunteer moderators like Sam spend little time looking at the content itself. Instead, Sam says, she relies on user complaints that point to posts containing underage or “just turned 18” photos. But unless a photo clearly shows a woman at prom or other clear indications of her status as a minor, it can be impossible for Sam to tell if the subject of the photo is indeed underage. Other subreddits like r/gonewild, where nude photos are often posted, ask users to post verification photos with their birth dates — but, as Motherboard points out, “even that’s an imperfect solution, since photos can be easily manipulated.”

While we may be willing to laugh off a picture of someone behaving badly that is posted without their consent — like, a woman taking up a subway car pole or the entire concept of “manspreading” — we’re quick to condemn other instances, for privacy’s sake. “In a very sexualized forum, it could be [considered] invasion of privacy or emotional damage,” explains Kenton Hutcherson, a Dallas-based attorney who specializes in internet law and revenge porn cases. But he acknowledges it would be much harder to prove damages. “Privacy laws aren’t specific to the internet. In the internet context, the only thing out there are revenge porn laws.”

But anyone familiar with MTV’s Catfish knows it often doesn’t take more than a reverse image search on Google to track down someone’s identity. It’s not illegal to post a photo taken in public in an internet forum. But what if that photo was taken from a friend’s Facebook feed? Sure, they allowed their friends access to the picture — but not the entire internet.

“There is a good reason we don’t have general privacy laws,” says Berin Szoka, president of Tech Freedom, a nonprofit think tank focused on internet progress. “We don’t ban speech because it makes us uncomfortable.”

While Szoka says the posts in Doppelbangher could be a clear copyright issue if the images are used without permission (as would be the case with an image pulled from a Facebook page), they would only fall into the category of harassment as part of a larger pattern of threatening behavior. “There need to be laws that specifically prevent the posting of compromising images without the subject’s consent,” Hutcherson said.

According to Hutcherson, provisions under the federal Communications Decency Act mean websites are not liable for any emotional damage caused by their content. Such laws have allowed diversity of opinion to flourish, but make pinning responsibility on forums like Reddit more challenging. Recently, Reddit has taken more responsibility over the content on its forums. In May of 2015, the company published one of its first anti-harassment moderation policies, prohibiting revenge porn and asking users to email volunteer moderators directly with issues. In July, Reddit explicitly banned “abusive or harassing content and sexual material involving minors.”

But it’s unclear whether this policy would apply to content posted on Doppelbangher. Is it harassment? Reddit defines harassment as “systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person conclude that Reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.” Doppelbangher, while unsavory and potentially demeaning, poses no direct threat to those whose photos are being shared. But while users admit they’d be ashamed if their crushes found out, in their minds the request is a compliment—a tribute, even.

Vincent is still friends with the woman whose photo he posted in Doppelbangers. He now has a girlfriend, but remains jealous of his former crush’s relationships with other men. He says he hoped Doppelbangher would help cure him of this infatuation.

“It’s like that thing when you were a teen, had a crush and you really liked that girl but couldn’t even talk to her, ‘cause you were overwhelmed? I’m doing my best to cope with the feeling — I know it sounds contradictory, but I think that’s the most mature thing.”

But when I asked Vincent if he thought the subreddit had “cured” his desire, he wasn’t so sure. He said that, while he’s found a porn star who is similar to his friend — a “sort-of-amateur girl,” as he described her — it hasn’t killed his crush.

In Vincent’s case, it’s better to have loved and fapped than never to have loved at all.

*Not his real name.

Tonya Riley is a freelance writer based in New York.