Keep Calm And Stay Awake 59

Online Cruelty


Kevin Smith maintains profiles on both Scruff and Grindr. I do that because back when I was first looking to explore a hugging connection, I looked in places where people were also looking to connect for sex.  I just didn’t know where else to start.

Even Craigslist was confusing. I’d meet men from the “strictly platonic” section who were ultimately disappointed that I wasn’t looking for sex (is there something unclear about either “strictly” or “platonic?”) And posting in any of the “sexual” categories for men interested in “just hugging” was met with so many electronic grenades that I quickly withdrew from that particular venue.

Most users of these kinds of online services are hoping to connect with others in some way. For some the preferred connection is sexual, but for others, it often isn’t. As one of my friends describes it, “sometimes the blow job is just the price of admission. But what I’d really like is the deeper connection.”

I continue to maintain online profiles now because, like it or not, there are some guys on Scruff and Grindr who would rather be held for an hour than find yet another blow job. I’m interested in finding those people and connecting to them, or connecting them to the idea of Touch Practice and similar practices across the country. So I spend a good amount of time online chatting with men about various forms of erotic, non-sexual touch, and the constructive role it might play in our lives.

And that time online can sometimes be, well, brutal.

I am constantly surprised at the level of unkindness online. Even when I’m prepared for it, it catches me by surprise every time I log on. So many people who search for deep connection, people longing to make themselves vulnerable to each other, simultaneously treat each other with such suspicion, cruelty, hostility and unkindness that, well, it’s a miracle that any connection of any kind could come out of that. “Be completely honest and vulnerable with me while I poke at you with judgmental, opinionated cruelty” doesn’t seem to be a formula for happy coupling on any level.

Because I’ve been studying attraction, aversion, shadow and projection, this has been an interesting place to watch these things and understand how they work.  When we’re online as a “profile,” no one knows anything about who we truly are. They see an electronic image and a description. That’s a magnet for projection. It’s a target. An online profile can be like a very neutral therapist: the person we’re talking to can imagine us to be any way they want to, and the way they are inclined to imagine us will be projected from their own experience.

There are those who project that I’m anti-gay, anti-sex or ashamed of my sexuality, those who project that I’m doing something secret or shameful that my spouse doesn’t know about, those who project that I’m trying to ‘convert’ people somehow; those who project that I’m covertly looking for sex but not willing to say so.

Sometimes the projections are so vivid and quick that it’s hard to imagine how they get constructed.  In one conversation, the fifth exchange from the man behind the screen was, “it would be a fucking nightmare to be married to you, and I feel very sorry for your spouse.”  And then he blocked me to prevent my further response.

Really, that’s quite an analysis for an exchange that lasted less than 5 minutes and involved, oh, less than half a typed page of text!

On the plus side, there are guys who project that I’m the nicest guy in the world, that I’m loving, that I care about them, that I’m a beautiful physical hunk of a guy, and more.  Now, the temptation is for me to want to “own” that second list but claim the first list is about others, but alas: projection works in both directions. Neither list has much to do with me, at least not in the first 120 seconds of online relationship! The truth is, I am neither as beautiful nor as horrid as people project I am.

Turning around the negative projections, what I am experiencing as the target is their shame, secrecy, insecurity about their sexuality, awareness of their own covert or unclear practices, fears around sexual motivations, and so forth. Turning around positive projections, I’m the receiving target of the person’s inner kindness, desire to find beauty, willingness to be open and non-judgmental, and so forth. But, clearly, as you can sense, I am more reactive to projections I perceive as “negative” than I am to others, so that’s where I’m trying to wake up and get clear.

My practice now is to try to stay awake enough that when I get something stinging on the second or third line of an online exchange, I remember to ask myself, “so what information does this give me about this person’s experience?” If I can feel my way through my annoyance, it sometimes allows me to figure out my strategy to build compassion for them and, ultimately, to connect with them, even a little.

Identifying myself as someone who feels “happily married” in my profile invites a particular projection, especially from those who feel “unhappily single” or who are in a marriage where they’re not behaving with integrity. Very often people will go after the integrity of my marriage within two or three lines online, which is curious, because, really, how can you analyze the quality of a marriage where you haven’t met either party and don’t have any more information to go on than a profile?

Their starting assumptions seem to be that my spouse doesn’t know about Touch Practice, or that I cuddle or snuggle in some furtive, covert practice.  Those are bad assumptions (my spouse is looking over my shoulder at this blog at the moment) but it does tell me that they might have something secret or covert, or some integrity issue, which is bugging them, that they’re hoping to solve or at least engage.

I find projection just annoying, on some level. Any of us who have interacted with someone, live or online, where we can sense that they’re throwing “their stuff” onto us and reacting to something they imagine in us, can probably identify with some feeling of exasperation around that.

Nonetheless, as I continue to work to get clearer about my understanding of shadow, projection, attraction and aversion, being online is a useful exercise into the exploration of human nature. As the Talmud says, “we see the world not the way it is, but the way we are.” Paraphrased, when we look at each other, we don’t (can’t) see what’s going on inside of each person–we see what’s going on inside of us.

I do wish the online world could become a little kinder. Kindness makes all sorts of work possible, deeper and more comfortable. In your place in the online world, either through one of these services, or facebook, or e-mail, remember that kindness is an option. It’s a great option. I urge you to try kindness; model it, put it out into the world, including the electronic world. Don’t expect it from others first; be the first to do it. And in time, have the courage to insist on it as a condition of engagement.

I’ve taken to giving a warning when an online conversation “heads south” along the lines of, “listen, I’m happy to explore this with you, but kindness is very important to me. I am going to continue this conversation with kindness towards you and I’d like to ask the same from you towards me.”

If after two or three warnings the person isn’t able to stop using the phrase “fucking asshole,” well, you know, my practice is about compassion, but it’s also about healthy boundaries, too. There is a time and place for the holy sacrament of “blocking,” and while I always feel a sense of defeat when it comes to that, as they say in the airplane, “put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to assist others.”

I think the online world offers us a powerful way to connect with each other on so many levels. My hope is that it will become a kinder and gentler place for many people who come there lonely, vulnerable, and tender, looking for many different sorts of connections.

Have thoughts you’d like to share?

Touch Practice is a sacred practice for me, and part of that is keeping confidences sacred. While a name and e-mail address are required to post a comment, feel free to use just your first name, or a pseudonym if you wish. Your e-mail address will never be seen by or shared with anyone. It is used to prevent spam and inappropriate comments from appearing in the blog. I’d really like to hear from you!

  1. Frank

    What an amazing healing practice (ministry, if you will) you are creating, Kevin. Thank you. Love the animal photos, too. –fdc

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith08-28-2011

      Thank you Frank. I’d be dishonest not to (continually) admit that the primary beneficiary of this practice is ME; it was a way of healing myself. But I have been encouraged by others to share it, I have enjoyed the companionship and the dialogue with others along the way, and I’m happy if it’s beneficial to even one other person. I love the quote by Roethke, “a teacher is one who carries on his education in public.” I suppose in that sense, all I’m really trying to do is carry on my own personal healing in public. Thanks for your encouragement.

  2. Jerry

    Thanks for this Kevin,

    I can’t tell you how many men I meet that are desperate for intimacy (often without knowing it) and wind up settling for sex. I think the men that know this at some level are suffering more – but those lives are often sad to witness.

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith08-28-2011

      Hi Jerry–thanks for your comment. As some of my colleagues are quick to point out, there’s no either/or dilemma between sex and intimacy–the goal, I suppose, is to be able to have both: intimacy which can lead all the way up to and including sex, and sex which includes intimacy. We also have the right to explore each one separately if we wish (sex without intimacy, and intimacy without sex.) Ideally we learn to operate flexibly and comfortably within a fully functional spectrum of experience there.

      It is curious to me, however, that so many men are totally comfortable exploring sex without intimacy (quick “hook-ups,” either online or otherwise) and in fact they become defiant and even militant about their right to pursue sex without intimacy. (I grant that they have that right.) But when I suggest the possibility of exploring the opposite–intimacy without sex–they act as though I’ve spoken something hateful or perverse to them.

      My experience suggests that for some gay men, practicing sex without intimacy is seen as a God-given right, but exploring intimacy without sex is viewed as some sort of bizarre pagan practice. That has never really made sense to me. I don’t understand it even now.

  3. Jeremy

    This was another particularly interesting post, Kevin. For one thing, I have experienced some of the exact kind of vitriole you are talking about, only in my case it was probably a lot more justified, since it was true that the fact that I was having these conversations online was kept secret from someone in my life from whom, ideally, I should not have such secrets. About 10 years ago, in fact, I feel like I may have chatted to the very same guy you did, your quote from him sounded so much exactly like what he said to me. Considering how rare I find it even online to find someone to even begin to talk along these lines with, it makes it seem not so terribly outside the realm of possibility, even among 100’s of millions of people.
    I did end up “coming clean” about all that, later. It sure wasn’t easy. I have often wondered if it would have been better if I hadn’t. On the other hand, the loss of intimacy I was feeling from not disclosing what had happened seemed too painful to bear before I disclosed it, too. Having to make that choice of whether to cause my partner to have to share in the intolerable pain I’d inflicted on myself, reasoning that if I didn’t, it would come out some other way that would hurt her as much or more anyway, certainly seemed to prove that guy right. Looking back, it seems where the whole decision tree went wrong stemmed from the point where we were having problems with dissatisfaction with the relationship to begin with, and I chose to try to figure it out in terms of which portions of the blame for this belonged to whom, leaving out the possibility that the source of the problems had more to do with things beyond either of our immediate control than with bad decisions on either of our part, and that the essential part of the answer I was currently missing was to address those things, namely emerging health issues.
    I definitely feel that if I had done that, I could have gone without the communications (and some meetings in person) I carried on in secret. I certainly have been picking up the pieces after that ever since. But you know, yeah, it would have been nice if that guy online could have understood that heaping contempt on me for doing that, and in fact for my whole circumstances, causing me to re-experience, in a strange sort of partial-reverse, all the social stigma I felt growing up for the part of myself that I could not reveal to anyone, was not going to help remedy the situation at all. I can see, though, that some of his “projections” might not come entirely from his childhood etc., but also from meeting people similar to myself (that I have met also), many of whom have not even thought things out to this extent, if even at all.
    As you can see, I still return, from time to time, to anonymously confiding in others like this in secret. I’m a lot more careful, now, though, to try to make sure that whatever understanding I gain only supports, and does not begin to replace, communicating with the significant people in my real-time life. I recognize this still certainly isn’t ideal, but it seems the best I can do right now, as long as I keep moving things closer and closer to full understanding and openness.
    Anyhow, I *knew* there had to be a reason I was connecting so much to your focus on kindness, describing it with all the qualities that have drawn me to the concept of chesed as that simple yet elusive something that when gotten right, sweeps away all of the petty physicality of what we think we want in favor of that much more powerful desire inside encompassing all that and more.

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith08-29-2011

      Jeremy: thanks for your comment.

      In my experience and from my point of view, it is not behavior outside of a marriage or partnership which ultimately damages the marriage/partnership; it is the SECRECY required to maintain the behavior which is the thing that ultimately takes down the marriage/partnership. It is choosing to withhold parts of ourselves from each other, to create separate lives for them in order to exist fully, that ultimately destroys the marriage.

      Again, from my point of view, if we can create marriages/partnerships where each of us can accept ALL of the other person, all their feelings, thoughts, experiences, and we can make enough space for the entirety of the other person we are with (and this inevitably includes making space for parts of them we don’t like, parts we wish were different, parts which scare us and parts which challenge us) THEN the need for secrecy disappears. The need to act covertly outside of the marriage/partnership disappears entirely, because there is always room for all of who we are within the marriage.

      I have often said that marriages don’t end because someone goes out and gets a blow job from someone other than their spouse. They end because of the secrecy and compartmentalization that people create in order for that blow job to happen, and it’s the secrecy, ultimately, that takes the marriage down. If the partnership can’t embrace ALL of who each person is, then the alternative is either for a small portion of each person to be lived secretly outside the partnership, or for that piece of each person to die. Not a very appealing set of options, in my experience.

  4. Jeremy

    It really is something how things can happen when, as you have mentioned here before, you focus your desires and ask for them. We have a streaming-movie subscription, and last night she and I, without realizing what the whole story would be, watched the movie “Jean Harlow”, a very inaccurate biopic that nevertheless did adhere to the reported facts concerning her marriage to an executive at her studio named Byrne, which turned out to be his attempt to hide and/or change his sexuality–an intolerable situation for her of course–and ended in his suicide a month later. We of course found a lot to relate to in that, and made a definite step in a more inclusive and accepting, and loving, direction in the conversation it provoked.
    I don’t know what piqued her curiosity about the movie, actually, but I was on the computer, and probably wouldn’t have gone in to watch, except that I am musically inclined, and the opening sequence had a score of sustained strings over jazz orchestra with a slow, shuffling Latin-influenced rhythm that somehow seemed to have a hint of Far Eastern flavor too, that to me seemed to take the classic breezy escapism of that kind of music and take it to a different cultural place with a haunting twist, all adding up to a certain melancholy yet easy-going air of resignation that you don’t often hear in music, but that I have often felt, kind of a “stranger in a strange land” type of thing.
    Just one of those experiences, where it seemed that no sooner did I turn all my attention to the source of that kind of bittersweet feeling in my life than I heard the soundtrack to it coming out of the other room and joined her, neither of us imagining how directly it was going to address it.
    For my part, I am certain that, approached in the right way, something like your touch practice would satisfy every need/desire I feel in that direction. As you point out above, though, this is very difficult for a lot of people to understand. In fact, I often feel that it wouldn’t necessarily even require touch, but just the right words and expressions of understanding to help me to feel the completeness I’ve been seeking. So that’s been essentially my goal–to focus my desires for that sort of outlet into something she can completely accept, trust and embrace as well, to finally achieve that satisfaction that can only come without secrecy. I just can’t deal with making any more precipitous revelations, which by nature would be immediately misunderstood and damaging (again, health issues play a role in this). As long as perceptible movement toward full understanding continues, though (even though some of that depends on anonymous confidences like this to help me focus my thoughts), I can have the patience for however long it takes, because the relationship we do have, and have had for over 20 years, is worth it.

  5. Barry


    once again another thought provoking and terrifically well written piece – with some very honest and heartfelt comments – thanks to Jeremy et al.

    I love the reminder about projections and the bi-directionality of them. I especially appreciate the suggestion to try and catch ourselves when receiving them to try and imagine the source of them in a more positive way, ie trying to be compassionate to their self-image that created their projection. I would find that a challenging thing to remember – although, at least on-line, we have a bit more time and space to be able to think that through than we do in face-to-face encounters. I think there is also that difference between the real, physical encounters vs the virtual encounters – in that the anonymity of the virtual somehow allows/permits the other to feel freer to either be abusive or just “fly off the handle” with whatever comes into their mind at the moment.
    as always – many thanks for sharing your practice and journey – it helps me in mine!

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith08-31-2011

      Hi Barry: so agree with what you wrote about virtual vs. physical encounters. The computer screen seems to support de-humanizing behaviors, those where we treat the other as simply an object. Compounding that is the fact that the same words that might be delivered in person, with subtle facial affect, will almost always seem harsher when we read them in an e-mail or on screen. an online profile is not only an invitation to project, because of it’s detached nature, but it’s also an invitation to forget that we’re dealing with full-hearted, tender human beings. take care, warm wishes–K.

  6. Henrique

    What do you think of the idea – or perception – that many folks look for sex just so they can AVOID intimacy?

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith07-05-2014

      Well, that’s interesting. I would think that if people were genuinely looking to AVOID intimacy, they’d avoid sex, because sex can lead to intimacy, even accidentally! However, I think what does happen very often is that people who want intimacy but find intimacy difficult, are afraid of intimacy, or have what is called an “approach/avoidance conflict” (they want it and they don’t) can fall into mindless sex, or unembodied sex, sex where we are not really present and paying attention, and thus end up having sex and missing intimacy. For people for whom sex functions as an addiction, sex can be the “trance” state that addicts experience as they approach the addictive substance or behavior. There’s definitely a relationship, somehow.

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