In 1998, the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com, You’ve Got Mail, brought Internet dating into the mainstream. However, the film’s popularity was far from a watershed moment for dating sites like Kiss.com (founded in 1994) and Match.com (founded in 1995). It still took well over a decade for us to shake off the stigmas associated with looking for love online. Today, the process of “swiping left” or “swiping right” on a dating app is so ubiquitous, the phrase has become woven into our every day lexicon.
As more and more people flock to Tinder and OkCupid to meet a mate, there has also been a disturbing spike in men harassing women on these platforms. For a decade, Detroit-based artist, Sarey Ruden, has been experiencing the online dating abuse first-hand. In 2016, after receiving a particularly triggering message from a guy on JDate (“You’re an angry mean loser who will never have children, don’t contact me again, whore.”), she launched her revolutionary art series, Sareytales.
Stunned by the cruelty of his words, Ruden decided to turn the painful message into a provocative, political, and eye-popping piece of art. As she continued to search for love online, the disturbing messages from men kept coming (“Feminists have ruined the world,” “Jewish girls are freaky,” “You sound bi-polar,” “Rape culture is a myth”). The artist began creating stylized versions of the messages and posting them on Instagram and Twitter, which eventually turned into posters, cards, stickers, and even gift wrap which she sells on her Etsy page.
What started as a fun project to turn hate into art has today turned into an empowering platform to help other women stand up to all forms of online — and offline — harassment.
A Michigan-native, Ruden moved to New York City in 2003 after graduating from the University of Michigan. After working as a graphic designer and an art director, the young entrepreneur moved back to the Detroit area in 2009. Newly single, she explains, “That’s when I really started hitting the dating apps/sites hard.” While she received many inappropriate comments from men, it wasn’t until the particularly cruel 2016 JDate message that she began to document them for all to see.
She explains, “The words were so hateful I was actually stunned… yet they sounded poetic to me. I wanted to somehow visually express how they made me feel.”
In the decade that she’s been collecting these awful-yet-artful quips from men on dating sites, she has identified multiple underlying themes in their messages, including ageism, anti-semitism, and mental health. After picking out a particular theme, she creates a series (between two to five pieces) and groups them together dependent on the way the content makes her feel. “For example,” she says, “my ‘anesthetized’ series focuses on the idea of the feminine being weak and emotional, so I used makeup such as lipstick to create the artwork — which is an icon of the feminine in our culture.”
Ruden’s personal online dating experience reflects a larger societal crisis. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, one in five Americans have been subjected to online harassment, with women more likely to be on the receiving end of the abuse. A 2016 Consumer Research survey confirmed similar results: 57 percent of the women polled — compared to 21 percent of men — had experienced online dating harassment.
These stats support why Ruden’s Sareytales’ series has resonated with so many women. Even so, Ruden did not start her collection of work expecting this response. “I thought it would be more me telling my story and people laughing — not inspiring others to share my story and contribute their own,” she shares. What started as a creative way for her to have a little fun while navigating the dating app world has evolved from graphic design projects to more involved, multi-disciplinary works of art.
Based on her experiences online, Ruden noticed an uptick in the cruel messages she received and the 2016 presidential election. “I definitely think there is a correlation between the politics of today and how men communicate, especially via social media,” she explains. However, she also believes this super-charged climate has led to “an outpouring of support and recognition that toxic masculinity is a universal issue.”
Ruden thinks dating apps bear some responsibility for the abuse she and others receive, stating, “Adults shouldn’t have to be monitored in order to act civil. But I do feel certain that apps can be more responsive to the harassment many experience.”
Indeed, now that Sareytales has grown in popularity, the dating sites are getting hip to her antics. She is eternally banned from Match. As of the date of the interview for this article, she was temporarily blocked from PlentyofFish, but still able to log on to OkCupid. Meanwhile, her access to Bumble, Tinder, and JSwipe was on and off, depending on the day and location where she tried to access the apps.
Despite her app status, her message is not going away. This kind of harassment is happening all over the world, to all types of victims — but there is a shift happening. Toxic masculinity is finally coming to the forefront of our ongoing national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are here to stay… and Sareytales is an important part of getting that message across.
Sari Beth Rosenberg is a writer and educator based in New York City. Her most recent media appearances include TheSkimm’s “Back To School” 2018 GOTV series and Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.” Last year, she wrote the daily women’s history #SheDidThat series for A+E/Lifetime.