If you’ve ever used a dating app, then you’ve probably had this experience: you exchange messages with someone, you enjoy the conversation, you go on a date — and that person never responds to you again. You’ve been ghosted.
As an avid dater, I have engaged in and experienced my fair share of ghosting. But as I’ve been on the receiving end of ghosting more frequently, I’ve started feeling confused by the practice. Why didn’t you just tell me you’re not feeling the conversation or that you no longer want our dogs to meet at the neighborhood dog park? Rejection is hard, but there is an extra sting when someone ducks out without a word. Despite how normal it is to be ghosted, I’ve started to wonder if ghosting is a lot more harmful than we want to admit.
I recently called someone out for ghosting me, and they claimed that ghosting is less rude than saying why they didn’t want to keep talking to me. They also said they didn’t owe me an explanation. They’re certainly right about some of this. There are many times when ghosting is the right move — like when you’re being harassed — and we probably do not owe an explanation to someone we’ve chatted with on an app but have never met. But in many situations, ghosting can be objectifying and dehumanizing towards the person who’s been left in the dust. It can make the ghostee feel like a thing instead of a person. The idea that ghosting is objectifying might sound dramatic — but that’s only because it has become a normal part of dating. It’s so common to be ghosted that most of us have had to develop a thick skin and let it go. Some people even see handling this ambiguous form of rejection as evidence of how “chill” they are. But thinking of ghosting as “normal” hides how harmful it can be.
This interaction and these thoughts made me want to dig deeper into what’s going on. As a philosopher who studies interpersonal ethics, I started thinking about what the ethical value of communication is and what perspectives are being taken up when deciding not to communicate. We maintain our social ties and communities by respecting and recognizing that others are thinking, feeling people who can understand our reasons for acting or be held accountable for hurting one another. We talk to them, get angry with them or explain ourselves to them. And when we don’t do those things, we’re revealing that we don’t see them as a thinking, feeling person. Philosopher Peter Strawson called this taking the “objective attitude.” When someone takes the objective attitude, they don’t treat the person as a person, but as an object that must be managed. This is how we treat pets and other non-human animals — we train and manage them through positive reinforcement, and we don’t talk to them like people who can understand why what they do is wrong. And that’s exactly why all of us could stand to be more careful about how and who we choose to ghost.
Taking the objective attitude is not always wrong, of course. Sometimes for the sake of your own security, safety or mental health, you might need to approach someone more objectively. If someone is harassing you, sending unsolicited nudes or making you feel in danger, then ghosting them is an effective and sensible response. People who repeatedly cross your boundaries often cannot handle rejection in a mature way, so you can choose to manage their behavior by cutting off access to you. You can ignore them, block them or unmatch them without saying a word. In this case, you’re still taking the objective attitude, but it’s a sensible response given the position they put you in.
But absent this context, ghosting can be harmful behavior, and it can often feel disorienting for the ghostee, who has no metric for understanding their behavior. The ghostee is being treated like an object to be managed without their own feelings, anxieties and concerns. Many times when I’ve been ghosted, I’ve become fixated on figuring out what I said that offended the ghoster, scrolling back through the conversation to determine why they thought I couldn’t handle rejection gracefully.
Some ghosters may recognize how much ghosting sucks but still ultimately think that the other person isn’t owed an explanation, like my ghoster told me. However, what we should do isn’t always because people are owed something; often what we should do is rooted in maintaining supportive, fulfilling communities. As queer daters, we are necessarily in community with each other. We are the people who are often pushed to the margins by mainstream society, treated like objects or pets to be managed instead of being engaged with as persons. When we ghost each other, we’re just multiplying the harm. We are not only weakening our community — we’re increasing feelings of objectification in those people we ghost.
And like in all cases where interpersonal interactions echo systemic harms, those who experience multiple forms of marginalization are hit hardest. As a brown trans femme, I am battling against harmful stereotypes of being predatory or creepy in everyday life. When I’m ghosted and when others like me are ghosted, it takes on an extra sting. We can start to wonder if we actually are creepy. And even if we’re able to quiet these anxieties, we’re left with the reminder that it’s not only the cis, straight world that can view us in harmful ways — our own queer community can do that, too.
Our communities are relatively small, and while dating can be overwhelming, tiring and annoying, we should pay more attention to how we engage with each other. Being queer or trans doesn’t stop our actions from echoing the harms all of us already experience. The people we’re no longer interested in dating may not be owed an explanation, but clear communication — whenever it’s practical and possible — goes a long way in keeping our queer and trans communities strong and supportive.