Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Saturday, 2 September 2017

Unpicking The Complicated Relationship Between Catfishing, Adolescence And The Gender Games

Unpicking The Complicated Relationship Between Catfishing, Adolescence And The Gender Games

The Debrief: Could catfishing be a positive way of young people exploring different sexualities and gender identities?

She was 23, had huge round eyes, and straightened dark hair. She was top-heavy and fake-tanned and fancied me rotten.

Except, suddenly, this lesbian that I’d met on a women-only dating site, went cold. Her name no longer popped up on MSN Messenger and I soon lost interest. All we ever did was talk about sex, anyway. And I hadn’t done much of that when I was 16.

By the time I turned 18, though, I wasn’t so green, and once Microsoft had launched Windows Live Spaces as a competitor to Facebook (see how well that went?), I could see the email address that had been attached to this beautiful woman in fact belonged to a man in his thirties.

Catfishing is a megaphenomenon. In case you haven’t seen the MTV series or the film of the same name, to catfish is to pretend to be someone else online. The boundaries of what renders us someone else, or, perhaps not ourselves, were questioned during the recent trial of Gayle Newland. The 27-year-old had, aged 13, created a fake persona of Kye Fortune on Facebook using photographs of an American-Filipino man she’d found online.

Years later, Newland used 'Kye' to seduce another young woman who she concurrently got to know in real life. This girl, given the name Chloe in court (her real name is protected for legal reasons), knew Newland as a friend, and Kye as a lover. ‘Kye’ convinced Chloe he had such low self-esteem that she had to wear a blindfold every time they met, and a dildo was used for sex.  In court, Newland attested that 'Kye' was a consensual role-play fantasy, as it was ‘the only way we were comfortable doing things sexual’. But Chloe said she had been tricked by Newland, and only discovered the fraud the moment she removed her blindfold during sex. The jury found Newland guilty of three counts of sexual assault by penetration, and she was sentenced to six years and six months in jail.

The case provoked many questions about gender, sex, deception and consent, but one sticks out as universally relevant to anyone who’s ever used the internet: how truly should our online representations of self match our real live self?

Apart from white lies in delayed email responses, I don’t lie online anymore. But aged 13 to 15, before webcams were a thing, and before I realised that lesbian dating sites - albeit ones festooned with straight men - existed, I would go onto chatrooms responding to ‘a/s/l’ with ’18/m/london’. I crafted for myself a kind, handsome and smart young man and would have ‘cybersex’ with girls - or at least I thought they were girls - exchanging descriptions, never photos, of the sex we could have. I didn’t have to pretend I knew how lesbian sex actually worked, because I could defer to straight sex, which I’d learned from a Dorling Kindersley cross-section diagram years before.

Half my life later and I realise I wasn’t only trying to make comfortable my attraction to other girls by framing it within a ‘normal’ heterosexuality. I was trying to mask the wrongs of my deceit by being the perfect man. I don’t think I need a therapist to unpack why I posed as a hygienic, symmetrical and charming upgrade of my first, incredibly mean, boyfriend. I wanted to re-write our own experiences as positive by borrowing his identity and purifying it. If that sounds creepy, I don’t care; he once told me I was so fat I needed 'two bras, one for your boobs and one for your stomach.'

Online I was safe from vile boys. Or so I thought. Even by the time I kept my lies to the absolute minimum; skewing my age so I could chat to other lesbians, that didn’t stop others, those who presumably had a better chance of sating sexual desires in real life, from lying for kicks.

After reading about Newland’s trial, I wondered: have many others lied about their gender identity online? Or have they been lied to? Could playing at another gender, at borrowing the qualities that are stereotypically off-limits, give them some solace? And what’s the damage caused when someone is lied to about another’s gender online?

I asked around. All names have been changed.

‘I had a girlfriend online who thought I was a boy,’ explains Chrissie, 27. ‘I lied about that, and I lied about having a moped. But I didn’t lie about my emotions. Still, she found out I’d used someone else’s photos and was angry. I tried to say sorry.'

Danny, a 23-year-old gay man, was a little more prolific with his cat fishing, aged 14 until around 18: 'I had a Twitter and MSN account and I’d pretend to be a girl on there to chat to boys,’ Sometimes he wonders if he might be trans, and online he felt good about these musings: ‘I felt like such an outsider at school, then when the boys online spoke to me, it would really boost my confidence.’

Danny would occasionally dress up as a girl, and would take selfies in drag to share online, 'I even spoke to one of them on the phone, in a girl voice!,' and adds: ‘I didn't speak to gay men cause it didn't fulfil me, I enjoyed being a girl.’

Dr Lesley Prince, a retired psychologist from Birmingham University, who was working around the time of mine and Jemma’s days of being catfished (and, um, in my case, catfishing), says that things have got better: ‘People who are LGB still have a difficult time, but for a lot of people [gender has] become something to play with in public.’

But he - for full disclosure, Prince lived as a trans woman for years before de-transitioning to male - also adds that there is a necessity for offline spaces for people to experiment with gender.

‘Trying out [different gender roles] is a natural part of growing up that a lot of people reject because we got all strait-laced about it. Some people will adopt an alien identity for negative reasons like stalking or grooming, though’.

As well as only talking to straight men, ‘mainly about sex, to be honest’, Danny posed as a 20 year old woman, and would only ever speak to older men, insisting now ‘The older guys were more interested in talking to me, opposed to young boys, who were like: “SHOW ME YOUR TITS!”’

That puerile behaviour was exactly what Jemma, 31, came to expect from the lesbians she spoke to online. ‘There were these lesbian chatrooms on MSN. I’d go on them when I was about 14, and I’d email these people and speak to them for months, about how I was going to tell my friends I was gay, all this heartfelt stuff.’

But she didn’t get what she gave: ‘They’d never reply when the conversation got emotional or concerned actually being a lesbian. They’d just want pictures or details about sexual stuff. I’d be like “But my FEELINGS!” and it was a little later that I realised they were probably all men.’

When it happened to me, I felt hugely creeped out, but how did Jemma feel upon discovering she’d been talking to men who knew she was only 14? ‘I ended up feeling more isolated. It’s weird how early on you realise your sexuality is being objectified by straight men.’

Jemma grew up in Brighton, one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the UK, if not Europe. And yet still, she found it hard to fit in until she got a girlfriend at school, joined an LGBT+ youth club, and met lesbian friends she is still in touch with to this day. ‘Thank god for Myspace, all-age punk shows and gay bars’, she adds.

Online safety is a continuing concern for parents, but children who feel they have to hide an aspect of their identity could be at more risk.

‘Adolescence is an uncertain scary time, and what would be great is spaces where people can express themselves and explore what the possibilities are, but in a way they know they can be safe from any consequences of that exploration,’ explains Dr Patrick Leman, head of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London: ‘The anonymity online means, for certain aspects of sexuality there is a forum, a liberal utopia where people can have those ideas and see who they want to be. But they’re doing it in a way that gives them privacy because they’re not certain, and it’s the uncertainty that makes them vulnerable too.’

I wasn’t only spending more time online because it offered me glimmers of support I couldn’t find elsewhere, but I placed greater value on the relationships I made there.

But you can never underestimate the importance of real-life, felt affection, Dr Leman adds: ‘From a mental health perspective, if you’re having to parse off part of you, or doing something secretive or seeking to repress some aspect of your sexuality, that’s not great.’

‘You can live multiple lives and if you’ve got a good balance ,that’s great, but very few people can retain that degree of schism in terms of aspects of who they are.’

There are other reasons people might pose as a different gender. One person, who promises ‘I’ve mellowed over the years’ tells The Debrief that she loaned a work colleague a fake female profile she had created in order to see whether her girlfriend could be lured into cheating on her. She helped write messages to the colleague’s boyfriend in order to see if he took the bait.

Another person tells The Debrief that, at age 20, she and some mates set up a profile for a ‘fake hot guy’ on Facebook and ‘make him comment on our walls loads. We used a stock picture of a model, and added a load of random people so that he had friends to make it look legit.’ The goal was, pretty much, to wind a friend up.

They eventually came clean, but ‘People had started adding him and he ended up with thousands of friends, who sent him messages and wished him happy birthday. A friend manned the account and would have conversations with the strangers.’

‘I don’t think she tried to lead them on romantically, but there were definitely people who thought they were friends, which is a bit sad.’

Ten years later, the account no longer exists, and Ann Coffey MP, whose constituent - a male model - has complained about being used as bait for catfishers, is lobbying for legislation against people pretending to be others online.

Simultaneously, there are more places for young people to explore their sexualities and gender, for real; whether that’s on increasingly tolerant, if not liberal streets, in schools where the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ is no longer outlawed under Section 28, or even just on Instagram, where self-expression, makeovers/unders and individualistic identities are celebrated.

Dr Leman says ‘Schools aren’t perfect, but they’re infinitely better than they were in terms of making children feel safe about who they are’, and Dr Prince is grateful that he has no idea of where young people explore their sexuality safely: ‘Young people can explore quite freely within their own networks and groups, but I’m not privy to them because i’m 65. Yet a lot of gamers will play with the contrary gender’.

Indeed, after being rumbled by her online girlfriend, Chrissie migrated to Habbo Hotel, where the definition of a truthful identity was broader: ‘I had a lot of cybersex there, but was eventually thrown off for scamming somebody for some free furniture. I had this whole mafia empire and lost it.'

Dr Prince is hopeful, for the most part: ‘The future is optimistic, people are much more able to present in non-standard formats, to play around with things. What there is, though, is a big dark cloud on the horizon. Politically speaking, we’re going through a reactionary period and if we’re not careful that is going to spill over and a lot of the progress that’s been made could roll back.’

While nothing is going to undo the sad sorry case of Newland and her victim, and there remains a sickly feeling in my stomach that me, and countless of other young people have been exploited online for perverse gain, by people who could still be at large, it’s worth remembering just how useful it is for young people to comfortably and safely explore their gender and/or sexual identities, without hurting anyone else, or themselves.

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