Sarey Ruden TED Talks
Birmingham artist Sarey Ruden launched the AWOL Movement as part of a larger effort to combat harassment of women on dating apps. (Photo: Sarey Ruden)

Local artist Sarey Ruden will lead a weeklong digital silence in May to challenge online sexual harassment.

Birmingham artist Sarey Ruden has had it with online dating culture. All of it, she says. The hate speech women receive from men after they say they aren’t interested, the trauma from cyberflashing — receiving an unsolicited sexual image — and most of all, she says, being silenced by dating platforms for reporting abuse and harassment that happens on their sites.

Ruden’s not alone in her outrage. Over the past 3 ½ years, women all over the world have connected through her art and design project, Sareytales, to say they’re having the same experiences.

They’re drawn to Ruden’s creative response: to transform ugly into art. She takes the cruel and obscene messages men send her, and turns them into clever, conversation-starting graphic design prints, sculptures and photographs.

“I’m subverting the narrative,” she says, “and reframing the words. ‘You said this to me, yeah, but I’m doing something with it that makes me feel powerful and fulfilled.’”

Sarey Ruden
Sarey Ruden

Having connected with female audiences and their allies through pop-up art shows, speaking engagements — she hosted a TED Talk, “The Art of Online Dating” at TEDxDetroit’s 2019 conference — and on social media, Ruden’s now launching a week-long protest to raise awareness of what she calls gender-based injustices and abuse on dating apps.

Women are routinely silenced in digital spaces, she says, for exposing cyberflashing; harassing and threatening messages; and unwanted sexual offers from men. But what if there were no women on dating apps, she asks.

So from May 9 to 16, Ruden is launching AWOL: All Women On Line, a protest where she’s urged her 11,000-plus Instagram followers and other Sareytales supporters to go dark on their dating platforms. Participants can freeze engagement, ignore their messages and even cancel their accounts.

There’s significance to the launch date of May 9 — the date the FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960. “It’s a theme of hearing our voices and not being silenced,” Ruden says.

“I want [dating apps] to feel this,” the artist-activist says. “I want them to see less activity, to be made aware there’s an issue, that people are unhappy and there’s injustice going on.”

Online dating activity has been on the rise since COVID-19, according to media reports. With many Americans being asked to stay home, platforms are producing new tools and offering free special services. But numbers released by the Pew Research Center in early February revealed some of the downsides.

From May 9 to 16, Sarey Ruden is launching AWOL: All Women On Line, a protest where she’s urged her 1,100-plus Instagram followers and other Sareytales supporters to go dark on their dating platforms. (Photo: Sarey Ruden)

Nearly half of women who date online say they continued to be contacted by someone after saying they weren’t interested, compared to 27% of men, the study says.

Forty-six percent of women say they’ve received an explicit message or photo they didn’t ask for, compared to 26% of men. The study of various age groups also found that young women ages 18-34 see the highest levels of explicit communication (57%), offensive name calling (44%) and threats to physical harm (19%).

Going dark on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter was part of the AWOL plan, but Ruden’s decided to focus only on dating apps during COVID-19. People need social media to work and communicate with loved ones right now, she says.

She gives a few examples of the thousands of remarks that have propelled her movement, remarks she’s collected and made into art from her interactions on sites like Plenty of Fish, OkCupid, Match, Tinder and Bumble.

The Only Value You Have is to Lie Still and Take It.

It’s Your Fault for Being Hot.

I’m Gonna Beat Some Sense into You.

Thank God You Don’t Have Kids Because Hitler Should Have Taken Care of the Jews (Ruden is Jewish).

Sarey Ruden
Ruden makes art featuring some of the abusive, derogatory or condescending messages she has received from men over her years of online dating. (Photo: Sarey Ruden)

Ruden says her accounts have been deleted from multiple apps after she reported harassment and cyberflashing. When she follows up with the platforms, her accounts may get reinstated with an apology for the inconvenience. Other times, she says, she’s been banned or blocked for months.

On April 23, Ruden says she reported a man on Plenty of Fish for using hate speech against her Jewish identity. She says her account was then cancelled due to “a violation of Terms of Use & Community Guidelines.”

These guidelines, Ruden says, need to be reformed. The AWOL movement includes a Protest Demand Document which Ruden is co-crafting with supporters. The in-progress document currently calls for timely and appropriate action to abuses, background checks on users and the implementation of no-tolerance to hate speech, unsolicited sexual image sharing and vulgar language.

What someone says and does outside their profile is often ignored, says Ruden. “What’s public facing is what these companies care about. As soon as it goes private in a direct message, they don’t want anything to do with it.”

In January, she and others tweeted against Plenty of Fish for stating that reports could only be made about a person’s profile and that accounts would be deleted for reporting “silly disputes.”

Ruden says she had wanted to report a man who’d made her nervous by sending her several unsolicited naked photos, leaving her many voice messages through the platform and saying he wanted to surprise her at work.

When she saw the warning from Plenty of Fish, she chose not to report him because she didn’t want her account cancelled. “This language (“silly dispute”) is not only dismissive and negligent,” she says. “It’s actually complicit in the victim-blaming and rape culture mentality that permeates cyberspace.”

Plenty of Fish has since changed their report language, which Ruden believes is a result of her tweets. On Feb. 14, she received a direct message from the dating app on Twitter thanking her for bringing the language to their attention and stating that a person’s behavior would now also be reportable.

But, Ruden says, reporting someone’s behavior is exactly what got her kicked off the platform recently.

When contacted by the JN, Plenty of Fish did not comment on the AWOL movement, but shared the following statement about their methods for banning and deactivating accounts and for handling reports of sexual harassment:

“We have a zero-tolerance policy against abuse or assault. We encourage users to report any bad online or offline behavior immediately so our dedicated team can take appropriate measures, such as removing and blocking these accounts from our platform. If a crime has been committed, we encourage users to report it to local law enforcement.”

Sarey Ruden Art
An example of Ruden’s art. (Photo: Sarey Ruden)

Ruden’s negative experiences spill into social media, as well. In one case, she says she received an unsolicited sexual image on Instagram. When she filed a complaint, she says Instagram responded that the incident didn’t violate community guidelines. Ruden blurred out the genitals and posted the picture to her story.

“It was removed for violating community guidelines,” she says. “The person who sent it didn’t violate guidelines, but the person who exposed it gets penalized?”

Instagram is where Ruden’s met many of her supporters, like Dani James, a massage therapist who lives in Colorado. Also Jewish, James says she connected with Ruden over the work they both do to raise awareness of online abuse toward women.

She remembers feeling hopeful when she joined the dating realm, but has since been disheartened.

“I thought it was going to be this fun thing, because after being in a long-term relationship, and really growing as a human being, I was prepared,” she says. “I thought that I was going to meet all these amazing guys. Man, was I wrong.”

Over the past six years, James says she’s received thousands of “atrocious” messages: what men want to do to her, lewd comments about her body, the kind of stuff you’d smack him for in person, she says, but in cyberspace all the normal boundaries are removed.

“Unsolicited dick pics?” she asks. “Yeah, I’ve received my fair share of those. Every single time it just makes me cringe. It’s always a violation.”

After she reported cyberflashing to Plenty of Fish, James’s account was put under “quarantine,” she says, where she wasn’t able to refuse messages or respond to anyone, and she wasn’t able to ward off current abusers.

“I couldn’t say what length of time a quarantine is because it always got unlocked when I gave it push back,” she says. But when her accounts were reinstated after she sent emails, she’d lost all her history, she says, along with any documentation of harassment.

The majority of people don’t realize this is happening,” James says. “That’s why I want to expose it.” A lot of men do support her activism, she says, but others don’t think online abuse toward women is a real problem.

“It’s going to take national news and millions of women on board,” she says. In regard to the AWOL movement, she’s hoping something will come of it but says, “I don’t think the guys will notice. They’ll just go after prey that’s available.”

“Going after” women through cyberflashing in particular causes harm that’s highly understated, says Alexandra Deans, a third-year sociology student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. “People don’t understand that it’s actually quite traumatic.”

“If someone was to flash me in real life, they’d be charged with a crime,” she says. “But if that happens in a private message online, there’s no protection there for women.” Yet, some states are taking action. Texas deemed cyberflashing illegal last fall, resulting in a fine up to $500. A similar bill has been proposed in California.

Deans says her “morbid interest” in cyber dating comes from meeting her husband on Tinder. She writes academically about topics like toxic masculinity and the absence of online safety laws for women. But, she says her experience six years ago differed greatly from what her friends go through on dating apps now.

“I’m blown away from the kind of responses they receive from men,” she says. “With the younger generation, where dating apps are now becoming the new norm of meeting people, I’m scared they’ll think this is how dating interaction should be.”

That’s why Sarey’s movement is so important,” she says, explaining that a friend brought it to her attention a year ago. “It says, ‘No, this is not right. There needs to be systemic change, and legal change, to support women.”

“It’s also really important just for women to come together across the world, to understand this is not just something that happens in America, or Scotland,” she says.

If Ruden doesn’t have the backing to create legal change just yet, Deans says she hopes Ruden will continue to organize, and that the movement will “get bigger and bigger every time.”

“They won’t pay attention until they have to,” Ruden says.

“But this idea is something that’s really important. Sareytales is me personally — it’s my art, it’s my brand. (The AWOL movement) is something that’s just happening through me; it’s something much more universal.” This culture has to stop, she says. “Dating platforms aren’t selling love or even dating….they’re selling women.”

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