The "Catfish" phenomenon
No, I’m not talking about the actual fish. I’m talking about the term that has become fairly well-known in recent years among those of us online. A “catfish” is a person who creates a false identity online (using fake pictures, and even pretending to be the opposite sex) with the purpose of attracting or seducing others. To perpetrate this sort of hoax is known as catfishing.
This term first entered the lexicon a few years ago when photographer Nev Schulman produced a documentary about his experiences; he’d fallen in love with a young woman he “met” on Facebook, only to find out much later that this woman was actually much older (old enough to be his mother) and married. But it’s the recent scandal with football player Manti Te’o that’s really thrust the term into the forefront. Allegedly, Te’o was tricked into an online relationship with a young woman named Lennay, and was even led to believe she died of cancer. It turned out she didn’t exist — her pictures had been copied off of a random young woman’s profile, and it was actually a man behind the hoax.
A lot of people don’t believe Te’o was fooled; they think he was in on it and enjoyed the drama and the attention. “How could anyone be fooled like that? No one’s that stupid!” Wellllll… he may be naive. But I believe him. There are some very clever people on the Internet; people who are capable of reinventing themselves, creating new and convincing identities, and keeping the ruse going. And all sorts of people fall for it. Including yours truly.
Several readers who go back a long way with me will recognize this story, but I think it’s worth repeating for the newer ones who don’t know it.
I forget exactly when (around 2004-2005); I was contacted on a fetish site by a man I will refer to as C (for Catfish; I don’t want to even reveal his proper initial). I was actively seeking a play partner at the time and he sounded interesting, so I exchanged a couple of messages with him on the site, and then we moved to email.
The first red flag popped up in the emails; he started writing elaborate spanking scenarios and stories about us, and I wasn’t quite ready for that. And I definitely wasn’t ready for the types of photos he was sending. Not full-on dick pics, but stuff like him standing in his kitchen in a bathrobe, and the bathrobe was open. I told him I wasn’t comfortable with that, and he stopped.
C was local, so we agreed to meet for lunch. Practically from the minute we met, I knew I’d made a mistake. I simply didn’t get the right vibe; I was uneasy. I didn’t feel an attraction or any chemistry. During lunch, I did most of the talking, because I was nervous. He was quiet, played more with his food than ate it, and watched me so intensely, I felt naked at the table.
Later, via email, I tried to tell him nicely that I didn’t think we were a good fit, but he got belligerent and pushed the issue. I commented that I didn’t like the way he stared at me all through lunch. He came back with, “You’re such an egomaniac; you think everyone is staring at you.” That was that; I didn’t reply. A couple of days later, he wrote me a cajoling, let’s-be-friends message. I ignored it. I figured that was the end of it.
Cut to a few months later. On another site, I was contacted by a man named Brian. Very pleasant intro, and he’d attached a picture. Cute guy, at a party of some sort (there were balloons in the background), nice smile. Once again, the messages back and forth on the site, then emails, plus Yahoo Messenger.
We chatted for weeks. He was divorced, late 40s, a couple of grown kids. He sent me another couple of pictures, very vanilla, same attractive smile. He gave me a phone number, but we never talked on the phone. I tried to call him once or twice, but got voicemail. No biggie; I prefer email anyway.
I liked Brian. He was very polite and respectful, smart, knew his way around spanking talk. I told him a lot of personal details over our chats. He said he was super busy with work and didn’t push for a meeting in person, which was actually kind of a nice change of pace. I was used to ad guys wanting to meet right away with barely any discussion, and I preferred to take things more slowly. However… as time went by, it was getting a little ridiculous.
So, about six weeks into this, after a lot of correspondence, I started pushing the idea for us to meet for coffee. That’s when he balked, and began saying strange things. “I don’t think you’d like me in person.” “I’m not the way you think I am.” Stuff like that. And of course, I’d insist that I would like him — what’s not to like? He’d then say “OK, soon,” but wouldn’t commit to it.
(You guys see where this is heading? I didn’t.)
One Friday afternoon, before I was due to head for John’s, Brian and I were IMing. Once again, he was saying that I wouldn’t like him in person, and I was growing more baffled and irritated with that. Finally, he said, “I’m not who you think I am.”
The hairs on my arms prickled. “What do you mean?”
He hedged a bit, we went back and forth in the IMs, and then he finally came out with it.
There was no Brian. This was C, my catfish. It had been him all along.
It’s hard to describe how I felt, sitting at my computer that afternoon. Sick to my stomach. Disbelieving. Violated. My mind spun, remembering all the personal things I’d revealed to him. “What about the pictures??” I asked.
“My brother-in-law,” he replied. Then, as a dig at me, I guess, he added, “Those photos were old. You wouldn’t like him now; he’s lost most of his hair and really porked out.” Nice.
What about the phone number? Oh, wait. Yeah, I always got voicemail. And come to think of it, the voicemail message never gave a name. Just, “Hi, you’ve reached [phone number]; please leave a message.”
“How could you DO this?” I wrote, glad he couldn’t see how badly my hands were shaking and all the typos I was making and erasing.
His answer? “It’s the only way I could get you to talk to me.” And then went on to write, “Don’t you see? The man you’ve been chatting with all this time, the Brian you wanted to meet? That’s ME. Brian is me. I’m that same person you liked so much.”
“NO,” I wrote back. “Brian doesn’t exist. Brian was a complete fake, someone you invented. And I don’t like you. I don’t want to ever hear from you again.”
He didn’t accept that. Somehow, he truly believed that the end justified the means; it didn’t matter that he’d intrigued me with an invented personality. All that mattered was that I had been intrigued, so that made it OK. But it most certainly was not.
What followed after that was some drawn-out online ugliness, which I’d rather not go into here, because it really doesn’t matter. The story does have a good ending. Things got so out of hand, C ended up contacting me via email with the header “Please don’t delete this.” In the message, he requested that we meet for another lunch to talk things out; he wanted to set things right. I didn’t want to at first, but he sounded so sincere, I followed my instinct and decided this was on the level. Of course, I discussed it with John and told him where and when I was meeting C. John was expecting to hear from me at a certain time, letting him know I was OK.
At lunch, C apologized to me. Said he was sorry for lying to me, sorry that things went as far as they did, etc. I figured if he was big enough to tell me that, I could be big enough to accept his apology, and I did. In a show of good faith, he gave me his business card, which had his full, real name on it, his picture, his company’s web address, etc.
He tried to be friends, but I couldn’t do it; too much had happened. Forgiving was one thing, but I still wasn’t completely comfortable with him. Eventually, he faded out of the scene; I haven’t seen him online in years. I’m glad we wrapped things up the way we did; it could have been much worse.
What’s my point? I’m a reasonably savvy and intelligent woman, and yet I was thoroughly fooled by someone online. So it doesn’t just happen to “dummies” or “careless” people. It can happen to anyone. Also, I’m not trying to frighten people, or tell them not to trust any online contacts. I’ve met most of my tops online over the years, including the best ones like Danny, ST and Mr. D. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. But do exercise due caution. And if something doesn’t quite feel right to you, then chances are, it isn’t. As with pretty much everything in this scene of ours, it comes down to following your gut instincts, rather than listening to your head as it contradicts your gut. Or listening to the seductively convincing words from someone else over your own inner voice.
Speaking of Mr. D, he still has pink-eye, even though it’s healing. At least we had good timing, sort of — I was sick at the same time, so we cancelled each other out. But now I’m feeling better, and hoping he recovers QUICKLY!