My job as a personal coach helping people solve their unusual sexualities issues often brings me face to face with pretty curious situations. Sometimes funny, other times messy or baffling – and occasionally fitting some recurring phenomena.
Let’s examine the case of a person I have met a few weeks ago and who, of course, authorized me to divulge it in its key elements. This man loves BDSM and enjoys it as a switch: that is as a submissive or a dominant depending on the partner; this specific time he had been busy for a couple of months pursuing a relationship with a young woman who wanted to explore the slave role, especially within a cohabitation based on discipline, bondage and more. She seemed nice, harboring a few understandable fears, but also interesting despite her unglamorous appearance and her living several hundred kilometers away. He had but one problem: no matter all their Skype calls and the photos they exchanged, my client just couldn’t find the way to convince her to overcome her fears and actually play together. I was therefore asked to study together how to reassure her or, he hinted, how to seduce her.
After a few question to better frame the issue, however, I had a little epiphany. «Pardon my silly question,» I asked, «but did you ever meet this girl in person at all?»
«As a matter of fact, no – but we talk so often I feel like I have always known her.»
«I had no doubt about that, but before we go on would you like to make a little experiment for me? Since you are always in touch via Skype, could you send her a message asking for a “submission proof” now?»
He scowled at me. «What? At this hour she’ll be at work, and I cannot ask her to be sexy among her colleagues! Not only that, but she made clear since the beginning that she really isn’t the type for virtual games, and neither am I.»
«Actually… I wasn’t thinking of anything embarrassing, far from it. Please indulge me, and ask her to draw your two initials inside a heart, like lovers do, right on the back of her hand. And to send you the picture. How difficult can that be?»
And there, right on cue, the devout slavegirl suddenly became “inexplicably” coy about such an innocent gesture. The same girl who had been inundating my new friend with gynecological photos and declarations of absolute obedience.
«I don’t understand,» he observed. «Usually she is so forthcoming and nice… this must be a bad day.»
«Or, as they say, thinking bad of someone may be rude but it is often right. Let’s put it this way: try asking her to open her phone camera for a second and give you just a little smile…»
«Well, she always said camming isn’t her thing.»
«I imagined that. But… not even a smile? And, by the way: did you ever talk on a regular phone call?»
«Mmh… No, I don’t think so, why?»
«Because voice-changing softwares are way more efficient on a desktop than on a smartphone. And the Internet is full of photos you can pass off as yours, both erotic and otherwise, but finding one matching a simple request like the heart with initials one is definitely harder. I might be wrong, but I’d say you were a catfishing victim.»
Catfishing is a somewhat uncommon behavior, that however becomes relatively common in the online dating world. It consists of presenting yourself under a fake identity and creating a relationship with other persons through this mask, which of course becomes unsustainable as soon as you are asked to meet in person. Somebody resort to even very complicated strategies to delay the end of the relationship, such as creating whole fake social network profiles, steal other people’s pictures, falsify one’s voice like in this case (spoiler: the girl was really a man), create further networks of imaginary identities supporting the main one and so on.
There can be many end goals. The majority of catfishers do it just to explore roles and especially genders different from their own; somebody does it to gain financial advantages from unknowing victims who give them presents or actual money; others even go to the length of openly blackmailing the other one after having put them in embarrassing situations… but they are overwhelmingly just seriously socially-challenged people.
My competence, however, stops at managing the effects of catfishing, so I turned to an actual professional to better understand the phenomenon. I asked my friend Alberto Caputo who, besides being a radio celebrity here in Italy, is a forensic psychologist and sexologist. While some questions and answers were specifically about our home country, I guess you will find our conversation worthy of interest.
Hi Alberto, and thank you for your time. Before tackling catfishing in particular, can you help me get a proper idea of the online dating world? Most statistics about digital erotic interactions seem to be influenced by the agendas of the groups behind them. What are the actual figures for Italy
The most recent and reliable data are from a 2014 study commissioned by Meetic to the London Centre for Economics and Business Research. According to the CEBR , 17% of Italian adults are active daters. That’s about 8.9 million people, 13% more than in the previous year (they are 30.9 million in the whole Europe). Italy tops the list of online dating fans, followed by Germany, France, Spain, United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Italians went on 218 million dates, that is about 25 per year or one per forthnight. One of the most controversial aspects of surveys about dating websites and apps is that they are often based on the number of swipes and matches, not on that of actual users.
Have dating apps and the Internet in general really become the foremost channel for meeting new sexual partners? Why? And, talking about it, how many of these meetings become steady relationships?
The success of dating apps and websites derives from their simplicity, minimalism, speed and repeatability of action. In short, from how they mix different basic evolutional mechanisms: the way humans as a species have survived is through the development of a decisional apparatus able to judge quickly on the basis of minimal information. We inherited the brain of the best maters among the Neolithic sapiens-sapiens, but when it comes to mating strategies they can’t distinguish between what happened in the savannah 15,000 years ago and in today’s online world. Generally, the dating software users set a search for gender, age bracket and geographical range within which to track a potential partner down. They are the three best mating predictors, and this is the rational part of the process.
The application offers possible matches based on appropriate search logic; the user chooses “like” or “don’t like” following an automatic emotional response to each picture (physical aspect) or profile (from cuisine to sexual preference). The third phase is out of the user’s control: the process is waiting for a positive reaction. The number of attempted virtual interactions however is practically infinite, since they don’t require any investment of time nor resources. And above all, being an “asynchronous” interaction mechanism, it doesn’t expose to the frustration of judgment and refusal. One of our fundamental psychological drivers is finding certainties. Traditional dating is perceived as a danger because it involves heaps of uncertainty. The Internet removes us from this danger, makes us feel somewhat safer. It is an established fact that 10-20% of heterosexual couples met online. This percentage rises to 60% among gay couples. It is interesting to notice that 46% of online daters would like a long term relationship, whereas only 25% is looking for a one-night stand. Another interesting thing is that, according to a 2016 Stanford University research, 50% of online daters marry after 3-4 years, while the couples who met offline need 10 years.
It was once common for the “contacts and lonely hearts” ads to exaggerate the positive features of their subjects a little: heights were all raised by a few centimeters, ages and sizes lowered, and the men in particular were all “very well endowed”. Online however it is possible to create whole alternative identities through which to live long-distance relationships. How widespread the phenomenon is, and what are the most common personas?
Generally speaking, 81% of dating websites members lie about at least one item in their profile. Women lie more about their weight, while men tell more lies about their height. Coming to actual catfishing, a survey commissioned by Vodafone to Ipsos MORI for the Safer Internet Day found that 25% of Italian interviewees say they know someone who practiced it. Only 4% admit they did it themselves. According to some north-American research, one dating profile in ten is fake and about 87 million Facebook profiles are fake or duplicate. About 54% of those looking for a date online thinks that at least one other user offered fake information on their profile, and 28% say they have approached in an unpleasant or even abusive way.
The most common masks? Eight types at the least, from the most frequent to the least: 1) Those who pretend to be of their opposite gender and seek persons of their other gender (meaning of the same gender of their true one); 2) Those who falsify their identity with the precise goal to swindle, con or blackmail their victims; 3) Those who lie about their identity seeking for personal, sentimental or professional revenge against their victim; 4) Those who lie about their photo looks, but not about their gender; 5) Those who use their actual pictures but lie about their biography (say, they say they are models instead of supermarket cashiers); 6) Those who are close friends of the victim, but present themselves as someone else to hurt them; 7) “Pickup artists” using the Internet as a training ground for their seduction techniques; 8) Those lying about their identity and hunting for other pretenders.
I admit I can understand those who publish fake ads just “to see how it would be” and to realize how the world reacts to different personas; presenting yourself as a woman looking for partners, for example, for a man is an enlightening experience of the crassness of their own kind. But can you please explain the psychological mechanisms that drive some people to invest so much energy and resources in actually nurturing relationships that can never become real?
I have to make a little aside briefly mentioning the Social Information Processing Theory, especially about Computer-Mediated Communication. Joseph Walther’s SIP suggests that we can develop online relationships even without resorting to nonverbal communication, and that said relations can become even more intimate than face-to-face interactions. The key point of this interpretation of digitally-mediated communication is the management of our portrayal we can evoke in another user, that is the more or less deliberate effort of strategizing how we get perceived. It boils down to how we present ourselves to others when online, through three integrated modes of our being: the actual self, the ideal one and the moral self. The actual self is the person’s real and true personality, the ideal self is the projection of how he would like to be, and the moral self is the projection of what the person thinks they should be. Catfishing comes from a disconnection between the ideal or moral self and the actual self: you end up presenting your idealized or presumed correct image of yourself instead of your true one. How long the game can last depends on each single person. Someone can fabricate their virtual identity entirely, using stolen photos and cheating on their background information. Taken to the extreme, you get those who deliberately catfish in order to con, blackmail or get a revenge on their victim.
The common root of these phenomena is the so-called “online uninhibition effect”, for which the potential anonymity of cyberspace reduces the will to submit to moral and social codes. There is an undeniable, subtle pleasure in swindling another person without having to confront them in person, and thus avoiding tension, guilt and shame. Catfishing is based on building relationships based on trust, confidence and safety within an environment – the social networks one – where you are encouraged to easily share your information. The goal is an actual sadistic attack on the other’s trust.
When it comes to sex, many people unfortunately use to “switch their brain off” and forget the practical consequences of whatever they are doing. In the case of these fake identities, for example, what is the legal risk of using pictures downloaded from the Web, of interacting with potential minors, or even of pretending to be one?
The legislation is different from country to country, but using Italian law as a reference everything begins with the victim reporting what happened to the appropriate police division. Depending on the results of the investigation, the imputations may range from impersonation to personal data theft and copyright and image rights violations. These can all have pretty serious consequences, and even more severe ones in the case of the involvement of minors, even if “virtual ones”.
Since you also are a criminologist, let’s consider the worst cases too. The media sometimes report of online sexual blackmailing cases: can you explain what they are about?
It begins with a friendship request appearing on your profile from a beautiful, intriguing foreign person of the opposite sex. As soon as you accept, you are asked for a messenger-like private chat. The mystery user is immediately forthright in their questions, such as «are you at home alone?», «do you have a webcam?» and so on, until they very quickly suggests having online sex. The truth is it is a fake profile managed by a criminal organization, frequently headquartered in Africa or in the Balkans. The aim is to extort money: the person will ask you to continue the conversation on Skype, and to undress on camera. If you accept, they will capture the screen and save compromising frames and the conversation to create a full blackmail file threatening to compromise your reputation and privacy if put online. The blackmail will begin with threats of spreading the file among your work contacts and of sharing the video on YouTube. The material will only be deleted after you pay a certain amount of money via Bitcoin or MoneyTransfer. If you are lucky.
From bad to worse, there are also even those who don’t even interact with their victims and “just” lynch them online in the so-called “virtual rapes” that recently became a very hot topic. If cases like the Tiziana Cantone tragedy are (hardly) ascribed to pranks that got out of hand, what the hell goes in the head of someone hammering away on very chaste pictures of unknowing persons? And, by the way, does the same thing exist against males?
This is a very worrying phenomenon that apparently started out in Australia. There are social network closed groups, generally populated by men, where people publish random photos of females who are then subjected to “public virtual lust”. All of these groups have one thing in common: seeing women as sexual objects to masturbate over, have fantasies about, insult with vile comments and suggest degrading sexual practices about them, up to rape. I don’t have solid data about this, but similar virtual rape episodes have been recorded among gays too in the USA, albeit much less violent both in words and content. These cases, which ended with prison sentences, were not perpetrated by groups but by single offenders victimizing multiple subjects.
Both are different from revenge porn, consisting in publishing online embarrassing material such as erotic home movies, or nude pictures of your exes – clearly without their consent and often sharing personal data along with them. In 90% of these cases the victim is female.
Which strategies – both psychological and legal – should one use if they become a victim of such aggressions?
As I said above: go to your local police and contact the managers of the social networks involved. Support from a specialized psychologist can be extremely helpful.