How Ghosting Harms Queer Communities, According to a Philosopher

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.


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Em Hernandez

Em is a trans/genderqueer Latinx philosopher and writer who thinks about interpersonal ethics and the way being marginalized affects our relationships. They are currently a post-doctoral fellow at UC Irvine.

Em has written 1 article for us.

28 Comments

  1. You don’t have to explain why you’re not interested in a person, but it’s common courtesy (after a certain point) to say you’re not interested in order to not leave them hanging.

    It’s easier on the ghoster to ghost because they get to avoid a difficult conversation or text, but it’s worse on the person being ghosted. “I’m not interested in another date” is surprisingly hard message to deliver, but it’s better to know than to wait and wonder and keep reaching out and getting no response.

  2. Wow! Thank you for this! I have more of a comment than a question… hahahahah. Kidding. (That’s a phil-conference joke for all the rest of y’all)

    Seriously, though, what do you think of framing our duty to the community through the lens of care ethics? I feel like this is the natural position in the logical space to occupy as we move away from the objective attitude, a position that foregrounds our personal connections and obligations. As members of marginalized communities, maybe the rhetoric of “family” isn’t just talk, but a real acknowledgment that we have personal and individual obligations to each other *even if we don’t really know each other well, or at all*.

    Thoughts?

    • Hey, love this comment!

      I think I’m usually very hesitant to use duty/obligation talk for largely feminist ethics-y reasons (I’m thinking Baier), but I opt more for Iris Murdoch than care ethics when thinking about our moral relations to each other. That said, there is definitely something appealing about thinking we may have special obligations to members of marginalized communities that we’re a part of!

  3. Why can’t we just let things flow naturally? Before social media, we weren’t automatically connected *forever* to people upon first meeting them. If there was something there, interest was expressed, and some connections naturally fizzled out. I certainly don’t want to be mean or make someone feel unwanted but it would feel pretty aggressive to clearly communicate that I don’t want to see someone again because I just don’t like them that muchng. And I would take it pretty hard if someone did that to me too, it would feel much more like a rejection of my person to fully spell out “I won’t see you again because xyz” than just not talking to me anymore.
    Just like I miss the days we had actual off time from work rather than being reachable by our boss at all times, I miss the days when we could just lose sight of some people naturally, without motivating our backing off, cause it just wasn’t meant to be. Now because we’re all friends on SM it’s like seeing everyone you’ve ever met on a daily basis, forever.
    It’s not because I see people as objects, it’s because to me, we’re not meant to maintain a connection with everyone we’ve ever met.
    I’m not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea and vice versa, and that’s totally fine! Telling them “well we’re not gonna talk anymore cause I don’t really like xyz about you/our connection” is (to me) much more akin to treating them like objects, because it makes things about what I’m looking for and whether they have it or not. That feels like consumption/shopping and it would weird me out if someone did that to me. Idk if that makes sense.

    • Yeah I totally agree with this. I don’t want randomers I’ve talked to a bit to message me out of the blue to tell me they’re not interested. That’s rude in itself – conversations fall out by themselves. Obviously if someone is messaging you multiple times then it’s rude, but in most cases that’s not happening. Why are people so obsessed with getting an answer in words when they’re getting their answer through the lack of answer? The fact they’re not ok with that shows that they *aren’t* good at rejection. Nobody owes me their time or words.

      • I agree! Give me a friendly ghost over a weirdly intense rejection any day.

        I have trouble doing the rejecting because I’ve had people handle it cruelly in the past – I’ve sent friendly “sorry not interested but would love to be your friend!” Messages and received some scathing bitterness in response. I’d rather risk upsetting someone I’ve been on 1 or 2 dates with, and ultimately don’t know that well, by not responding, than risk receiving another downright abusive response from someone who can’t handle rejection.

    • I remember being ghosted back in the 90s, before social media existed, and it really didn’t feel good.

      It actually happened to me twice with 2 different guys – we had a nice first date, set up a 2nd date and then they called to cancel because they were sick, but said we’d reschedule. And then nothing. Never heard from them again. I’m not sure if them saying, I’m sorry I’m not feeling this after all would have been better or worse though.

      • I really appreciate all the anti ghosting talk, because I think it interrogates the concept of what we consider “natural” and why. Humans don’t actually just “naturally” stop interacting in a dating context – not usually anyway. At least one person often has to make intentional choices to keep reaching out, finding activities and coversation to connect over, and making time (often) outside of their regular work / life schedule. And then at some point, one person generally makes a fairly conscious decision to cut things off / stop hanging out / etc. This goes for whether you met the person at a party and then agreed to get a drink just the two of you later on in the week, or met them on the internet.

        I think how we handle communicating that we want to stop going on dates is very much constructed and often not as natural and mutually obvious as we think. That it would seem aggressive to tell someone asking you out on a fifth or sixth date that “I’ve thought about it and I don’t see us going forward romantically, but I’ve had fun” or some equally benign response qualified by whatever else you want to add is nearing on mind boggling for me haha

        But it’s telling that most of the people agreeing here are qualifying this with “randoms I’ve talked to once or twice” or “someone I’ve been on one or two dates with” so maybe I’ve misunderstood. It definitely seems there is a common – if not natural – urge to sort of qualify that there’s a threshold that’s somewhere more than 1 or 2 dates, but not less, after which you actually maybe should communicate to people directly if you want their role in your life to change. In particular people you’re hooking up with.

        So yeah, the original column kinda went too far, but I’m guessing maybe that was an intentional device just to get people talking. If the line isn’t after the first date, when is it? And have you ever questioned why you chose the fifth or sixth date or “if they ask” or “only if we’re officially girlfriends” or whatever? And whether maybe we’re giving ourselves a little too much leeway just to avoid temporary (because with practice I’m sure it goes away) discomfort?

    • exactly! there is advice not to justify rejection with feedback for a reason and it’s because it feels like setting an ultimatum ‘change yourself to fit my needs or I leave’. when in fact rejection is often decided for a fact and wouldn’t cancel off if rejected person changed xyz, but it gives a false hope that breaks hearts even more

  4. There’s scales of ghosting, obviously someone ghosting someone they have a serious thing with can be rude but even that is qualified because what if the person ghosting has a serious reason to ghost?

    For relationships less than that, especially casual early dating like… it just happens. Like, strictly talking about the scenario in your first paragraph, is that the same level of harm? Is it even harm? I don’t think it is, I think that’s just… normal lol. Not to mention people literally have no idea what is going on in the ghoster’s life, and I highly doubt they are really thinking of the ghostee at all. As someone who has been ghosted (and has ghosted though I’ve been on the receiving end far more), I know ppl who ghosted me and its because shit went down irl or for myself personally, something more important than the person I went on one date with came up.

    But also, I try not to over think it too. Is it because the other person has family troubles that need more mental energy than someone they went on one date with? Or maybe they thought I was too brown or fat? Maybe but also…. that’s all the better for me lol. I wouldn’t know either way and frankly that’s fine.

    I really don’t agree that the opening scenario is ‘multiplying the harm’, ‘weakening our community’ or ‘increasing feelings of objectification’, at least, not inherently (the other person’s behavior /during/ the date is probably going to show signs of any of that). Like I said, scales of ghosting and all.

  5. Ghosting baffles me. I understand that a connection can fizzle out naturally from both sides. Or that one can communicate without too many words that one isn’t interested when the other person is (or vice versa). But a one-sided decision to just disappear? Maybe I was lucky but the times when someone said “sorry not interested” to me, it was always with kindness, I felt valued and moving one was made easy.

  6. This is an interesting point of view, but I don’t know that no one ever ghosting again in the queer community would actually solve the problem of scrolling back through a conversation wondering what went wrong, oh my god, did I do something creepy. Because when ghosting doesn’t happen this is usually how rejection happens instead “Hey, had a great time, but wasn’t feeling it. Sorry!” or “So nice to meet you, but I’m just really busy right now.” Which are generic responses generally give to every person whether a great time was actually had, or the person is actually busy, or not. I don’t think the solution is to getting a first date review from every person, I have thought I wasn’t compatible with people or not been interested in them for all kinds of reasons that were valid for myself but would have been unkind and unnecessary to say out loud. Some were things they could have fixed – talk so much about themselves, didn’t ask questions about me – and things that were just part of their personality,-seems like we aren’t interested in the same kind of sex life – I think this is just a fundamental part of dating as it currently exists is that getting rejected sucks, and you’ll never totally know why. I just don’t actually think for myself at least, there was every that much of a difference emotionally between someone not answering a followup text after a first date and getting a generic “thanks but no thanks.” I am on the side that ghosting becomes cruel when you have enough of a relationship with a person that you could mutually reasonably be expected to remember each other’s full names one year later.

    • “Because when ghosting doesn’t happen this is usually how rejection happens instead ‘Hey, had a great time, but wasn’t feeling it. Sorry!’ or ‘So nice to meet you, but I’m just really busy right now.’”

      That’s a great point. Makes me think about things I’ve read along the lines of the myth of closure. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there and a lot we’re just never gonna get to know. It’d probably be less shitty if there was less uncertainty about everything else.

      Thinking about it that way, there probably is a larger impact on queer and other marginalized folks in a world where your state could suddenly make laws that make it illegal to discuss your gayness or race. But does the answer then lie less in individual interpersonal interactions and more in creating a safe and stable political environment?

      Now I need a hug.

  7. Em, you mentioned you scroll endlessly through the conversations, trying to figure out what you did wrong. 99% of the time you did nothing wrong – this is important to understand. People are flighty and fickle. One day you could captivate their attention when they’re undistracted, the next day they could become really busy and indulged in their everyday life again, and that need to speak to someone over a dating app becomes unnecessary for them. It rarely has anything to do with you.

    I don’t agree with ghosting, and anyone who finds it “polite” to do are ridiculous. You don’t walk away halfway through a conversation with someone in real life, so why would you do it online?

    It is also incredibly unacceptable to be ghosted by a friend, especially one you’ve known for years (unless there is abuse present). Even worse if it’s a partner. And yet it happens. If you’ve known someone for at least a year and you ghost them without giving them any justification, you are trash. There are no two ways about it. You do not silently exit someone’s life like you’ve died without giving someone a reason. It’s spiteful, it’s cruel,

    I will say this though, the only people I’ve met who justify ghosting people are probably some of the most selfish people I’ve ever met in my life. They absolutely only proritize and care about themselves and you’re right – they see others as objects in their lives, rather than thinking feeling beings that may or may not connect with them.

    Know this – anyone who ghosts like it’s no big deal is an incredible insecure person. People who are secure in themselves and their values don’t slam doors on the people in their lives. A lot of the time people ghost because they’re scared to be abandoned first, or slam the door to try and control the feelings you evoke in them (both good and bad).

    It is rarely, if ever, personal Em.

  8. People are saying its less painful to ghost then to directly say ‘I don’t want to see you again’ but when you’re being ghosted it takes a while to work out whats going on. Depending on the relationship it might take days or weeks to realise the other person is just not ever going to reply and all that waiting can be painful! I’d rather just know as soon as possible that they don’t want to see me again so I can get over it and move on.

  9. “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.”

    Yes, I feel like this as well. I’m bi/pan poly, kinky, and married POC. I feel like so many stereotypes are working against me that I worry all the time if I’m being creepy or overbearing. I know that’s totally me and my own baggage from society and my own fears. It’s truly wonderful to have that simple response of “things have changed I’m not so into your any more, no thanks” to stop the attempts at reaching out.

  10. This comment section is honestly wild to me haha. I feel like Em brought up such valid, well-thought-out points, and a lot of folks are like “you’re overreacting, ghosting is fine”? Also a lot of focus on individual experiences / preferences and very little discussion of Em’s main point that if we step back / zoom out a little bit, ghosting might be especially harmful to the queer community?? Am I missing something here or am I just very underslept??

  11. This is a really interesting perspective and I especially appreciate your explanation of the “objectivity” theory in this case. In a way, I feel this framing could also be applied to the way we sometimes understand codependency or avoidant anxiety; if we see the other person as a thinking, feeling being capable of hearing us out, etc, perhaps we can let that help us stop trying to “protect” them.

  12. I don’t know if this is ever going to be an issue where everyone will agree on a clear and definitive approach, because there are so many variables to take into account. People will have different experiences, perceptions, histories, insecurities, communication styles, etc. that will inevitably clash at times and end up with one person expecting something that the other doesn’t. This is even true in established relationships, never mind casual dates. People don’t even agree on what the definition of ghosting means (after a few days of texting? First date? Several dates?) never mind what circumstances might justify it.

    There is pretty much always room for all of us to improve our communication skills and build more compassion and consideration for each other in our communities. But I think it’s also worth acknowledging that dating inherently comes with some emotional risks, and we cannot mitigate all of them. Personally, my answer to this (the rare times I’ve attempted dating) is to keep my expectations low and offer space for the other person to gracefully back out if they’re not feeling it. Would it still sting to have someone I thought I had a mutual vibe with suddenly stop responding? Certainly. But that’s a risk that I’m choosing to accept when I decide to seek out connection and intimacy. I’m never going to be able to control how other people interact with me, so all I can do is try not to get too attached to any particular outcome.

    • Hi Katie,

      I know that feeling all too well. I know it was me, I knew just how to hurt him so I could leave and he would feel helpless. I followed the worst advice from unqualified people and ruined his life for my own happiness. He’s gone now 😢 the father of my daughters and son. He wasn’t always the best partner but I know he loved and his children and was the beat father and friend I’ve ever know, I miss him more than words can say. I was coward for not trying and blaming him, the guilt I feel is overwhelming. Whenever I look in my children’s eyes and see a piece of his soul staring back at me crying out for their father I feel like leaving this world myself. The worst part is they blame him still, I broke him, I did it for me, I never imagined he would leave his children leave the world as coldy as I left him. My broken heart is with you

    • It’s not your fault for believing in someone Katie, it’s their fault for pretending to love you and then leaving you so coldly. No one deserves that kind of invalidation, they are cowards you, liars, manipulators you are right. Stop blaming yourself, you were love bombed, devalued, and discarded, they find out what makes you tick and try to destroy it, stay strong!

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