Commentary Abortion

We Could Have Been a Match—Until He Called Me a ‘Baby Killer’

Jen Ferris

Dude said it was a joke after I shared my abortion advocacy job while online dating. I wasn't amused.

Last week, online dating giant OKCupid announced a partnership with Planned Parenthood. Site users can choose to answer a question about the health-care organization and earn an #IStandwithPP badge for their dating profiles. OKCupid says that about 200,000 people have now identified themselves as Planned Parenthood supporters.

This move, which allows me to see if someone disagrees with efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, couldn’t come at a better time for me. Last week, I had a run-in with the shadiest of online dating characters: the secretly anti-choice guy. We met on OKCupid and matched on a number of variables. We both have young kids; we both like travel and the outdoors.

I thought he was cute, so I suggested moving off the site to text, adding a humorous pre-admonishment not to send dick pics. I didn’t realize this would be nearly prophetic.

He texted, “What type of work do you do?” I replied, “abortion rights.”

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I work in abortion rights advocacy in North Carolina. No lie, it’s a sweet gig and I’m super proud of it. I’ve worked for more than a decade for feminist causes, and it’s such a personal victory to say my career is specifically in abortion access.

But sure enough, my would-be-dreamboat showed me his—metaphorical—dick.

“Ugh your [sic] a baby killer.”

In that moment, I was the physical manifestation of the “typing” ellipses that tell you when someone begins typing but hasn’t hit send. I sat agog, staring at the hateful words.

Working in abortion advocacy means knowing some people find your work controversial. When I go to a clinic or step into the halls of my state’s legislature, I steel myself for the attacks. I harden myself against those who would take away the rights of others who choose abortion.

But when I’m online dating, I’m a bit softer. I have an expectation that the guys trying to hook up with me—the guys who had to see a picture of me holding a pro-abortion sign to reach my profile—will treat me with a modicum of respect.

While I sat in shock, another text followed.

“Hahah jkjk I believe it’s choice”

And another.

“I was looking for a fire up on your end.”

Oh, buddy. You have no idea what kind of fire you just set.

There is a rich tradition of men being offensive and then gaslighting those who don’t laugh, accusing them of not being able to take a joke. It felt like I was being set up to fail, no matter how I replied. Since the forum was online dating—in theory, a lighthearted space—I could feel my own internalized pressure to laugh it off and reassure this man that he was still in my good graces.

It was frightening to respond with my own truth.

“I mean, it’s not a great joke,” I wrote back after some consideration. “It’s my life’s work, you know?”

Long pause from my suitor, during which I experienced the self-doubt and adrenaline dump that confrontation brings.

Clearly, this should have been it. I should have written off the guy and moved on to other prospects. But because I am a communicator, a consensus seeker, and a glutton for punishment (and maybe because I just wanted to win, dang it), the conversation continued. If I were in any other career, I argued, it’d be offensive for him to make a joke at my expense.

“I’m not sure when it was made clear to me you were passionate about … oh well as I said I didn’t mean to offend you,” he wrote.

I wished him best of luck in his endeavors and closed the chat window.

As a woman, my body is a target. As a public-facing abortion rights activist, my work can be in the crosshairs. I receive hateful, even threatening Facebook messages almost weekly. Some even question my parenting abilities. I’ve been called a “baby killer” more times than I could ever count. I have no expectation that abortion rights is a 40-hour-a-week endeavor. But when it creeps into my dating life, I’m knocked off kilter.

A few years ago, newly divorced and fresh to the world of dating, I went out with a guy who didn’t know about my work before we sat down for drinks. When talk turned to careers, he asked me, “Don’t you think some people use abortion as birth control?” To my shame, I quickly changed the subject; I was more afraid of losing his attention than I was passionate about standing up for my values.

This time was different. Although I didn’t respond with anger and outrage, at least I pushed back. I had to wonder: How would have this been different if I were in a professional context?

Had I been on a street with a protest sign, I would have spoken with authority, telling him how his words were incorrect, and how they hurt women. If I were on the record with a TV station or a newspaper I would have quoted statistics or given a powerful quote.

But since I was in the odd interstitial space of online dating, where we are all concurrently strangers and also potential intimate partners, I didn’t have a snappy clapback waiting in the wings.

Two years ago when I built my first-ever online dating profile, I listed my profession as “nonprofit communications” and left my profile pictures apolitical. Since that time, I’ve had some good dates—great dates even—where I revealed my work, and I’m lucky that I seldom encountered negative responses.

That luck is probably more a statement about my liberal bubble. Stigma against abortion—and against those working in abortion advocacy—is very real and documented. Many of us don’t tell our potential dates what we do—at least not at first—because you don’t know what response we’ll get. People who work in abortion, like me, often cluster together to avoid the violence, harassment, and pain involved in dealing with people who accuse you of murder.

Unfortunately in online dating, there is no true safe space and no way to really cluster with like-minded individuals. An online badge like #IStandWithPP could even be a method creepy anti-choicers use to gain access to abortion advocates like me.

If I sound paranoid, I’m not. A local abortion provider recently revealed that she’d been raped by an online dating match, who talked about her work while assaulting her.

I’ve realized that I concealed the true nature of my work not out of personal privacy, but because I was afraid of rejection based on it. Realizing the absurdity of working specifically in abortion communications while being shadowy on OKCupid, I switched to a more “out loud” dating profile. My number of responses immediately went down, but the quality went up.

“I love the work you do! Get it!” wrote one anonymous dude a few weeks ago.

I just checked, and my gaslighting chat companion doesn’t have the #IStandWithPP flare on his profile. Then again, neither did I until a few days ago when I read about the promotion. It might be a helpful sign in the uncertain universe of online romance, but like any bumper sticker, yard sign, or T-shirt, it can’t be the only sign of a paramour’s convictions.

I join OKCupid in standing with Planned Parenthood, but I also stand with every woman who has been gaslighted in an interaction with a man—especially by a stranger on a dating site.

OKCupid, could you make a badge for that? It might save us all some hassle.

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