This past Tuesday night at 7:09 p.m., while I was still trying to recover from a cold I had picked up over the weekend from one of the millions of ways to get sick in New York City, I received a text message from an unidentified person with an upstate New York area code. The text had no written message, instead it contained a photo of a man holding his penis next to a stick of Axe deodorant. Then, moments later, he sent another one that was either at a slightly different angle or maybe he just liked it better. To me, they both looked about the same. At this point, I had just assumed someone misdialed. I showed my girlfriend what had happened in a, “I’m not crazy, this is what I think it is, right?” kind of way.
That’s when another text came in, this time from Long Island, featuring another man’s penis. If this were a cartoon, the light bulb over my head would have finally flickered on: Ah, someone is giving out my number.
All told, that night, 19 men either sent me a) pictures of their genitalia, b) shirtless pictures or c) graphic descriptions of what they wanted to do to me with invitations to meet them at their homes. I responded to each and every one of these men in an effort to try to find out what was happening. And being that this was such a bizarre situation, I started tweeting about it. And, yes, some of my conversations with these men became absurd, which has now been documented at other outlets. And because that night has been so well documented already, I’m not going to take you through the whole night, but here are a couple of my tweets to set the scene of what was happening:
Here’s the random photo I just got texted to me. I used some online paint to paint over his penis. pic.twitter.com/fkH5q1RyR9
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) November 4, 2015
Second dick pic guy seems relived I had seen that episode of Seinfeld before. Deep down, we are all human. pic.twitter.com/3qusWOK25a
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) November 4, 2015
I have a sixth guy now. pic.twitter.com/AvdTyELBbs
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) November 4, 2015
I can’t even keep up with all the texts now. This guy invited me to visit him in Long Beach. pic.twitter.com/QyogPXPl2m
— Mike Ryan (@mikeryan) November 4, 2015
Look, I’m an adult male who lives with my girlfriend in what I like to think is a pretty secure apartment building in Manhattan. I didn’t feel in any real danger from any of this. I was annoyed and this was certainly unwanted, but it was one of those situations that was sort of amusing until it wasn’t anymore. Strangers asking me to come over to their homes was a bit unsettling. I saw two separate pictures of men masturbating. And I was legitimately upset when someone repeatedly kept trying to FaceTime with me, and this person was very persistent. But what if I weren’t an adult male? What if I were a kid? What if I were in one of many, many other situations where something like this was legitimately frightening?
From the very first text, after I started texting back, these men all kept referring to me as “Carilyn.” I replied to one of the sexters, “Say my name,” which the Internet has interpreted as me trying to be funny and play along with this guy, but the reality is I just wanted to find out if the name matched with the prior person. The men who would engage with me in conversation — after they finally believed me that, no, I am not a woman named Carilyn who wanted to see their penis and that I personally had nothing to do with this — all of them told me that a woman on Tinder was specifically asking for “dick pics” and giving out my phone number. When they’d try to then go back into her profile to get me more information, she had already blocked them.
The ninth guy to text me not only confirmed this story again, he had taken a screenshot of her profile. Here is the profile that was giving out my number to strange men on Tinder asking for “dick pics.”
I do not know who this person is. I’m sure the odds are good that the woman in this photo has no idea this is happening. My last suitor of the evening, guy number 19 — it was almost 2 a.m. at this point — confirmed to me this was the same profile he had seen, as well. When I woke up the next morning, I expected to be inundated with more text messages from strange men, but there were none. It had stopped. And since this all happened, there’s been nothing.
That is everything I know.
Obviously whoever made this Tinder account knew that he or she was giving out someone else’s phone number. So, either this person gave out a random number and it just happened to be mine, or someone doesn’t like me and wanted to mess with me a bit. One of the men told me that he had been talking to “Carilyn” for about a week. That seems like a long con, just to give someone a fake number that might not even be active and get no payoff for this “prank.”
It’s a weird thing trying to make a mental list of “enemies” — someone who dislikes me enough that he or she would set this Tinder profile up at least a week before this all happened. There are a couple of professional spats I’ve gotten into with people in the last year — like pretty much anyone who works in media (or anything, really) has experienced — but these people don’t really seem like real suspects. A lot of people on Twitter assumed it was an ex-girlfriend, but my most recent breakup happened in 2012 and I have decent enough relationships with my exes. I’ve seen people suggest that maybe I cheated on my girlfriend and this was some sort of revenge, and here’s my response to that: If that were the case, there’s no way I’d be writing or tweeting about any of this, bringing it more attention. I suspect a person in that situation would just pretend none of this ever happened and hoped that was the end of it.
I do not nor have ever had a Tinder account, so I didn’t exactly know how to contact Tinder. On their website, there’s a form to “contact them” which I filled out on Wednesday morning, explaining what had happened and making it clear this was urgent. This form assumes you’re having technical trouble with the app, it even makes you fill out what version of the app you’re using; there was no button for “I don’t use your service and one of your users is harassing me.”
By that evening, there was still no response. I had tweeted at Tinder a few times and I had tweeted at their Founder and CEO Sean Rad. Some colleagues gave me some alternative emails to try, and of them most turned out to be wrong, even though none of them bounced back.
On Thursday afternoon, identifying myself as a reporter and someone who is about to write a story about all of this, I emailed a publicist for Tinder whose information I had been given from another colleague. The publicist responded right away and put me in touch with the communications director of Tinder, Evan Bonnstetter. I explained the story and asked, “Is there any way to get to the bottom of this? Maybe figure out who is giving out my number? At the very least, suspend the account?”
Mr. Bonnstetter replied that a few of the emails I had tried were not working emails, but admitted that they had received the first email I had sent, at this point 31 hours before. He then told me this:
After further reviewing your situation, we were unable to find a profile matching the one in question.
Based off your email, it sounds like someone may have maliciously created a Tinder account in order to send you unwanted text messages. If someone is harassing you, we suggest you contact your local law enforcement. We will cooperate with law enforcement if they contact us directly.
So, in other words, “I did a quick search and don’t see this profile, it’s not our problem, call the police. If they call us, we might take this seriously.”
I honestly imagined what calling the NYPD would have been like, explaining the whole situation, “Strangers are sending me dick pics and the man at Tinder told me I needed to call you.” Obviously there’s no way I am going to put myself through that kind of ordeal, but what if I were someone who was legitimately frightened by what was happening? That’s my alternative? I have to suffer through the humiliation of calling the police because the person at Tinder won’t help me? Something seems not at all right about that.
I informed Bonnstetter I’d be writing my piece about this whole experience. That’s the last time I heard from him. His response was lousy, and I know enough about the way things work to know that that the other people at Tinder know his response was lousy and they know I’m going to write about it, so they went into some sort of damage control, which became almost more infuriating.
The next person to contact me was the Vice President of Communications and Branding. She was much friendlier, but not at all helpful. Here is how our conversation went. (I’ve edited the emails down to be more concise.):
We are truly sorry for your trouble. I’m sure it was incredibly annoying to experience that, to say the least. As Evan said, that profile no longer exists.
We have tens of millions of users around the world and receive thousands of customer support emails a day. Not all emails can be answered in 24 hours as it takes time to review the matter and find the offending profile.
After this, I’m told once again that some of the emails I used were wrong, which I admit they were. But it’s starting to feels like they want to put a little blame on me for this. Then I’m scolded for tweeting about their response, to which she says, “I think we’ve been maligned enough by the tweets alone. I hope you can see it that way, too.”
I’m the one who received unwanted graphic texts and FaceTime requests from 19 strangers, but Tinder has been maligned because some people tweeted at their corporate account. (Daniel Fienberg from The Hollywood Reporter did tweet at Bonnstetter. Bonnstetter blocked his Twitter account.)
I emailed back the Vice President of Communications and Branding to say that, no, I did not see it her way and, no, I don’t think a thorough investigation had been done in the short amount of time that we had been communicating. I then added, “All I wanted was someone to act like they cared.” Then she responded with a very confusing statement.
Due to privacy reasons we cannot disclose how we handled the situation with the profile in question. Sorry if you took that as not caring, but that simply is not the case.
Okay, that’s quite different than what I had been told before that, “We were unable to find a profile matching the one in question.” I responded asking for clarification and if this meant they had indeed found the profile, adding:
And you’re changing some details here. Evan never said “the profile no longer exists.”
Evan said, “After further reviewing your situation, we were unable to find a profile matching the one in question.”
Nowhere in my last email did I say that we found the profile. In our initial email we clearly stated that we were not able to find the profile. The user could have deleted it, or it may not have ever existed.
I love the “may not have ever existed,” part. Because, sure, I might just be making all of this up. Regardless, these two statements seem to conflict: “Due to privacy reasons, we cannot disclose how we handled the situation with the profile in question” and “we were unable to find a profile matching the one in question.”
I asked about these conflicting statements, and she replied.
Mike, I’m in London on business. The rest of my team is in LA. We’ve been conference calling the last hour trying to get this resolved and give you what information we can to put your mind (and ours) at ease and get to the bottom of what happened here. Unfortunately I can’t disclose specifics about how we handle cases. All we know is that the profile does not exist because we cannot find it. The user could have deleted or it may have never existed – it is not in our system. I certainly don’t want you to think that we don’t care or that we are not giving this the attention it deserves, but without being able to locate the profile there isn’t much else we can do. If this happens again please contact us immediately. You now have my personal contact information.
To be fair, this was the nicest of the responses and maybe a lot of hassle could have been saved if it didn’t take nine combined emails back and forth to get to this point. But nothing just “gets deleted.” I don’t believe they don’t have some sort of database of deleted accounts for situations just like this. Or, if they really don’t, that’s even worse. I even offered my phone number to them, so maybe that could search chat logs for just my number and that would possibly lead to an answer. No one has yet to respond to that email.
So, this is what it’s like to deal with Tinder after you’ve been harassed. Oh, wait, let me clarify that statement: This is what it’s like to deal with Tinder after you’ve been harassed and they know you’re in the media and they know there’s a good chance you might be writing an unflattering story about them. I could only imagine what it’s like if a) I truly felt like I was in danger and b) I had no platform where they have to pay attention to me.
Since this happened, I’ve been inundated with tweets from women, basically saying, “welcome to our world now,” and “this is what it’s like for us all the time.” Some people have pointed out that the people I was texting with became “cool” when they found out that I was also “a dude,” and they probably wouldn’t have been so “cool” if I had been a woman. There’s truth to this, because a few of the men, even after finding out their penis pictures were unsolicited, they still wanted to know if I was a woman.
@mikeryan Heard about your experience with Tinder. Welcome to a single woman’s world.
— Aubry Stone (@aubry_stone) November 6, 2015
— Amy Miller (@amymiller) November 4, 2015
Look, the point of this isn’t “Tinder is evil.” The point is they don’t appear to have an infrastructure set up to deal with harassment, even for non-users. It’s kind of unbelievable to me that there’s not something on their front page clearly addressing this with information of who to contact at Tinder if something like this happens. It took me 31 hours to get in touch with someone at Tinder. That’s way too long. Tinder will point to the fact I had some incorrect email addresses, but I only had those (wrong) emails because some of my other friends in the media had given them to me — a normal user wouldn’t have had those anyway. And one of those emails given to me was correct. No normal Tinder user is going to know they need to contact a publicist at a completely separate company.
With all of these circumstances on my side — eventually finding out who to contact, being in the media and them knowing I was writing about this, this already being a popular story on the Internet, having a modest amount of Twitter followers where I can get people to pay attention to what’s going on here — I still got few answers and was told to call the police.
So, if you don’t have those circumstances on your side and you find yourself in a situation where you genuinely feel like you’re being harassed, good luck getting help from Tinder.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.