“I’m not comfortable with you posting sexy selfies anymore,” Jim* said to me. We had been dating for about two months, and things were getting serious.
“Excuse me?” I replied. I was indignant. How dare Jim try to inhibit my freedom mere weeks into dating me? Who did he think he was, telling me what I can and can’t do? I felt like my social media rights were being infringed upon, as if Jim hadn’t taken the time to read our relationship’s Terms & Conditions, which clearly states I’m still allowed to post Snapchat selfies. But in the scheme of things, my right to post a selfie seemed like a shallow position to defend. I brushed it off.
“It’s just stupid social media. Who cares? It doesn’t mean anything,” I reasoned.
“Well, if it doesn’t mean anything, why do you need to do it?” he pressed.
Dammit. He had me there. So I did what any nerd who reads too many studies and has a crippling fear of intimacy would do in my position: I blamed science. “It’s harmless, reward-seeking behavior hardwired into our DNA, Jim. You can’t expect me to fight thousands of years of evolution!”
When Mick Jagger sang “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he probably didn’t imagine science would someday validate his claim. The human drive to seek outweighs our ability to be gratified. If this weren’t the case, we’d still be sitting in caves, happy with our bonfires. There have been countless studies that prove how social media preys on our brain’s reward systems and triggers doses of dopamine and opiods—the chemicals responsible for pleasure and desire. The unpredictability of small, unsatisfying morsels of information in likes and retweets ensnare us like rats in a cage in what experts call a “dopamine loop.” It’s a loop that’s nearly impossible to escape until you become fully conscious of the fact that you’re a powerless junkie chasing a high. Or until someone else points it out.
“I don’t see why you need that kind of attention from other men now that you’re in a relationship,” he said.
“Fine. I’ll stop posting that stuff if you stop looking at hot chicks on Instagram.”
“Me looking at a woman isn’t the same thing as me inviting women to fantasize about me.”
There’s always been a thin line between normal attention-seeking and flirting, but that line has all but evaporated in the dawn of the digital age. We know that social media has changed the game of seduction, and it’s now a slippery slope. Consciously, our reasons for why we post innocuous pictures of ourselves might seem obvious, but there are biological, chemical and psychological factors we might not even be aware of on subconscious and cellular levels. Posting harmless selfies can lead to sliding into DMs and before you know it, sexting, dick pics and breathless anticipation for more. Even the most faithful significant others have moments of weakness, so why was I, just two months into a relationship, so confident I wouldn’t slip down the slope? Like any addict, I got defensive. “Maybe you need to be more secure.”
“Maybe I’d be more secure if you weren’t signaling to the world that you’re open,” he fired back.
I wondered, What are we signaling when we post a gym selfie, or a sexy selfie of any kind? We might think we have a specific intention when we post it—maybe we felt great about our body that day or were working on self-love or perhaps we actually felt ugly that day and wanted some “likes” to scare away the blues. But when I post a sexy selfie, is it me flirting with the world?
“I believe you aren’t flirting,” he said, “but men might perceive it differently.”
I knew what Jim was talking about from experience. Not just men, but every person who views my image has a different reaction to it based on their filters, belief systems, hopes, fears and in some cases, delusions. I’ve been called a tease, a slut and an attention whore. I’ve been told I have daddy issues, mommy issues, low self-esteem and a high opinion of myself. Nine times out of 10, they won’t take responsibility for their reaction, but will instead point the finger and try to label me.
And this was exactly what I was doing to Jim. Instead of asking myself why I felt so attached to my need to post pictures, I called him insecure. Instead of examining whether my “freedom of expression” was more important to me than a loving relationship, I labeled him “possessive.” Instead of looking at my seeming addiction to attention, I classified him as “needy.”
I can’t possibly be responsible for everyone’s feelings, but I can—as should everyone—do my best to make my partner feel safe instead of belittling his discomfort or using science as a scapegoat. As Mick says, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” After all, isn’t compromise what relationships are all about?
*Name has been changed to protect the innocent. And no, Jim and I didn’t last, as this woman eventually realized she needs to be with a man or woman who loves me for sharing parts of myself with the world, not in spite of it.