Is It Okay to Hit on Me?

With a simple but controversial question, Dr Lindsey Doe (clinical sexologist and host of sex education Youtube channel Sexplanations) touches on the need for sex-positive environments, sexual harassment, acceptable expressions of desire, and the hypersexualization of women on the Internet. She addresses the issue with incredible nuance, highlighting context and intent as two determiners of when a romantic proposition regresses into sexual harassment. A possible list of criteria is also suggested, to help viewers decide when it’s appropriate to hit on someone:

However, a significant problem with Dr Doe’s framework is that the first question to be asked is already a contentious one. In fact, it was central to the debate regarding the sexual misconduct allegations against Aziz Ansari. Despite society’s push to be more sexually progressive, it is important to recognize that sexual desire cannot be expressed without reference to previously established norms (Cameron & Kulick, 2003), and that some people still feel compelled to adhere to them. This creates murky grounds for everyone: when does one know that the nonverbal communication of their partner is a sign of rejection, and not playing hard to get? Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to this thorny issue, but frameworks and open conversations like this help lay the groundwork as we adjust our cultural scripts concerning romance and sex.

In this specific case, the reformation of our social scripts entails understanding how and why men sexually harass women online. (Yes, straight cis men aren’t the only ones sexually harassing others online, but they are the topic of discussion in this post)

The concept of the ‘social semiotic of desire’ (Cameron & Kulick, 2003) is central to the question of ‘How?’ It builds on Jacques Derrida’s work on performatives, and refers to resources or practices that simultaneously restrict and permit the decisions people make when expressing desire. These codes are iterable, as they’re continuously repeated and spread in social life and the media. Thus what’s worrying is that these men aren’t simply expressing their sexual interest – they’re following a social script that has been condoned and overlooked by society. Men’s erotic desire is conveyed through the semiotic practice of leaving overtly sexual comments on women’s social media profiles, and this act can be easily replicated. Given that this behaviour is rarely met with repercussions, men perceive their actions as socially acceptable, and their sexual comments are recirculated. This isn’t a rarity. 21% of women ages 18 to 29 report having been sexually harassed online, more than twice the number of men (Duggan, 2017). Just watch all these videos of women reading the unwanted sexual comments they receive on social media.

Looking beyond the possibility that men are just incredibly horny, we should consider the roles of the Internet, prohibition, and social expectations in explaining the ‘Why?’ First, it’s undeniable that the advent of the Internet has altered the social semiotic of desire by providing the comfort of anonymity. Users are emboldened because they can choose from a wide range of semiotic practices that both express their crude thoughts and remove their accountability for their actions. Second, prohibition fuels the flames of sexual desire (Kohon, 1999) and makes the thought of the forbidden fruit even sweeter. Because openly expressing lewd thoughts to women is deemed as a social taboo that transgresses social norms (in real life), men feel a stronger urge to do so by leaving sexual comments. Third, sexual desire is mediated through conventional notions of heterosexuality (Richardson, 2000) and are developed asymmetrically in communication (Kiesling, 2011). It is hence possible that men are leaving vulgar comments as a means of enacting their heterosexual identity, which is closely tied to the stereotype that they are aggressive and relentless pursuers of women. Furthermore, the Internet is a perfect place to construct said asymmetrical expression of sexual desire, which entails men being in the active and women in the passive role. Men have the ability to leave as many vulgar comments as they please, whereas women have no choice but to ignore or deal with them.

Although we can’t (and shouldn’t) police the Internet, we can take steps towards recognizing toxic masculinity and heteronormativity. We can subvert the patriarchy by raising awareness. We can start by stopping the objectification of women on the Internet, and showing them some respect.


Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and Sexuality. Cambridge University Press.

Kiesling, S. (2011). “The Interactional Construction of Gender as Desire.” Gender and Language 5(2): 213– 239.

Kohon, G. (1999). No Lost Certainties To Be Recovered: Sexuality, Creativity, Knowledge. Karnac Books.

Richardson, D. (2000). Rethinking Sexuality. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Featured image retrieved from Mashable