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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 19, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 16
Ask Michael: The dark side of the Web
Section One
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Ask Michael: The dark side of the Web

How to lessen the danger of online hookups

by Michael Raitt - SGN Contributing Writer

For the record, what I'm about to discuss is directed to the LGBTQ community, yet it can happen to anyone! This is not a scenario that is exclusive to our community by any stretch!

In my day (and for the record, I'm not that old), men and women in our community made connection in public venues such as bars, because the Internet didn't exist. These public venues created a level of safety because there were lots of eyes - friends watching friends. Now with the convenience of online resources, more and more people are connecting through websites and phone apps. Although the Web is very expedient, there is a shadow side to using this resource to make connection and hookups - secrecy and anonymity. It is in the shadows that predators lurk, and serious crimes are being perpetrated against more men and women than we know about.

Secrecy and anonymity are characteristics that are usually born out of shame. Some individuals need to keep their activities of online connections a secret from those in their lives because they are embarrassed about what they are doing. Some are having affairs, some are partying/playing, some are not out of the closet, and some are just attracted to the adrenaline rush and fantasy that comes with this type of scenario. The more you do it, the greater the odds are that you may experience robbery, physical/sexual assault, death threats, or worse.

A PREDATOR'S BEST FRIEND
Secrecy and anonymity are the qualities that criminals depend upon to avoid being caught. It works because the shame and guilt that drives the secrecy is strongly reinforced when someone becomes a victim of a crime. They feel more ashamed and then withdraw and never share or report the crime. As a result, the perpetrator can continue to victimize others.

Why is this important? There are a couple of reasons - the motivations and the aftermath.

If you are motivated to live part of your life in secrecy and anonymity, the reasons for this are worth looking at. Addressing why you need to compartmentalize part of your life can give you understanding and options to do things differently. As a result, you may make changes that ultimately save you from a traumatic experience.

A lot of people will think about addressing their motivations yet do nothing, because nothing bad has happened - they haven't yet been the victim of an assault or robbery. However, if they do become a victim, they will want to look at things differently.

DON'T BE ASHAMED
Being the victim of a crime in this context is very traumatic. It is traumatic because it is often violent and unexpected. It is also traumatic because there is shame around the context of what happened. For example, if you are simply walking down the street and get punched and robbed, you are likely to call the police and then reach out to friends and/or family by telling them what happened. They are likely to give you support by consoling you and checking in on you.

But if you are beaten and robbed after you hooked up via the Internet, chances are you will suffer this humiliation alone. Most would not call a friend/family member for support and too many never call the police because they don't want to admit the context. Shame and embarrassment are powerful. I have been the victim of a violent assault that today would be considered a hate crime. I know how painful and fearful it is to talk to people and how much damage is done when you isolate due to shame.

VICTIMIZATION'S TOLL
Experiencing an assault of any kind can lead to some things to watch for. Initially, you may experience what is called 'acute stress.' This is a heightened state of agitation, vigilance, and overall stress.

The victim of a crime, depending on many variables, may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Signs of PTSD are flat affect, denial, hypervigilance, recurring nightmares, and/or intense reactions to reminders of the event.

People who have suffered in these contexts may also become more depressed and/or anxious. They often judge themselves and withdraw more because of the shame and embarrassment.

You cannot self-diagnose any of these. If you've been the victim of a crime, you need help dealing with the myriad of emotions that result. Call your doctor and get a therapist. Talk to a trusted friend. Please consider calling the police as well! Without police and prosecutors involved, it is almost certain that a criminal will continue to victimize others. As well, sometimes your courage to step out and report a crime can motivate others to do the same.

Doing nothing actually makes one feel worse. We know that doing something will help us cope with a traumatic incident.

PROTECT YOURSELF
If you are going to hook up anonymously over the Internet, I'd have you consider a couple of things. First, I'm not naïve enough to think that anyone can accurately vet a stranger online. However, we must try our best. Ask lots of questions. If you know others on the various sites, ask if anyone knows of the individual you are chatting with. Most importantly, find someone who you can talk to openly and let them know what you are doing and who you are meeting or having over. Let the person you are hooking up with know that you've been in contact with friends. Criminals do not want to operate in the realm of recognition!

There are never any guarantees. However, there is risk-reduction. Figure out what you need to do to reduce the risk of becoming the victim of a violent crime. If you have been victimized, please get help!

Michael Raitt, M.A., L.M.H.C., is a therapist who writes a bimonthly column in SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at askingmichael@comcast.net.

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