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Toronto OkStupid Group Therapy Session

An open mic night provides a platform for women share their "best worst" online conversations with potential suitors—but they're often sadder than they are funny.

Photo by Nick K from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Nick K from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

I pride myself on being the kind of person who shows up unreasonably early for everything—especially when my plans for the evening include a deadline and a word count.

Yet, on Tuesday night I found myself turned away from a full-capacity bar, packed for the second night of “OkStupid: Live Readings of the Best Worst Online Dating Conversations.” We were told to come back for the show’s 8:30 p.m. intermission. “Did you leave your journalist hat at home?” my friend whispered to me, as we trudged away in the snow to find a bar and wait out our unexpected banishment.

While I berated myself for not having arrived sooner, I had to acknowledge that it hadn’t occurred to me that the event would be all that popular; I envisioned the handful of people you’d expect from any of the city’s Tuesday open mic nights.

And that’s where I was mistaken—OkStupid isn’t just any open mic night. If anything, it’s a surprisingly funny group therapy session.

OkStupid is billed as an open-mic-style reading of participants “best worst online dating conversations.” (Full disclosure: Torontoist contributor Stephanie Avery organized the event.) The second edition of the annual event was held over the course of three nights at the Handlebar, just in time for Valentine’s Day. No “technology-based love-finding platform” is excluded from the readings, and the event description encourages folk of all genders and orientations to participate. Actors are on hand to play the part of “the antagonists,” and from 7 to 11 p.m. women made their way to a dimly lit stage to regale listeners with the tales of their online misadventures.

As I sat watching it all unfold, I found myself laughing and groaning in equal measure. Stories ranged from the funny—“I am an Italian single, can we make love together?”—to the offensive—“what if I treat you as my personal slut and fuck toy?”—to the outrageous—a certain gentleman who wanted advice about the romantic tension he was experiencing with his mother.

“The anonymity of the Internet gives some suitors the confidence to be inappropriate in ways that only the most socially inept would attempt in person,” reads the event description. Sitting in the crowded bar, listening to conversation after conversation, the word “inappropriate” didn’t seem to adequately describe what was unfolding. For every second of hilarity, a sobering moment presented itself.

Although the event organizers said that all genders and orientations would be welcome, in the hour and a half I watched, woman after woman made their way to the stage to share the things men had said to them through the anonymity of an online conversation. The man playing the antagonist role would occasionally shake his head or audibly react to the lines he was given before he read them—visibly in disbelief at what was being written.

In one instance, a woman described a conversation in which a man offered her money ($1,500) for sexual favours. As their back and forth continued and it became clear she wasn’t interested in his proposal, his messages got nasty and abusive. “You need to learn how to treat others with respect,” she wrote him. “I was until you said no,” was his response. A noticeable chill fell over the room for a moment; a collective sadness at the reality of what women have to deal with on and offline.

Every woman seemed to have a different way of responding to her would-be suitor: some immediately sent mocking messages in reply, while others opted to try to engage in reasonable discussions about their day before realizing it was a lost cause. One pair of women shared a fake profile they set up as a joke to deal with the frustration of the creeps they were meeting online. A series of model shots grabbed from the web and a list of interests that ranged from cars to shopping earned them “roughly a message per minute.”

The crowd laughed and heckled, booed and cheered. There was no doubt that the experience was cathartic—a way of laughing at sexist nonsense instead of feeling badly about it. Yet, my friend and I were quiet on our walk home, each thinking of our own less-than-ideal online interactions. “It was funny. But it’s also really disgusting, you know? That that’s what it’s like for women,” she said.

I couldn’t help but agree.

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