In her first monthly column, Camille Sojit Pejcha explores internet stalking as a queer rite of passage

My ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend is playing guitar, her hair in a messy bun. She’s looking mischievously over her shoulder. She’s starring in a play, her first big break. She’s posing with her family, or doing acro yoga, or traveling the world with the man I will later come to date; she’s maturing out of Instagram filters, she’s moving across the country, and, eventually, she’s getting over him.

I know this because in the early days of my relationship with this man—when he was pitting us against each other in pursuit of his affection—I would look through her Instagram, attempting to envision her appeal through his eyes. What was it about her that he fell in love with? I’d ask myself mid-scroll, careful not to double-tap. Was it her musical ability, their shared passions? The curve of her hips, or the dimples on her cheeks? They’re cute, I’d concede; anyone could fall in love with those.

For years, I perused her Instagram in times of insecurity, despair, and boredom—first to compare myself to her, and then because I’d become invested in her life. Even after I broke up with the man we’d both dated, I’d still look her up on occasion, just to see how she was doing. So when that same woman followed me on Instagram years later, it felt, in some strange way, like breaking the fourth wall. At this point, it had been seven years since I started dating our ex, three since I’d left him, and even longer since she did. Neither of us followed him. This wasn’t about him anymore. I felt vindicated: Our parasocial relationship had transcended the man who mediated it.

“I would look through her Instagram, attempting to envision her appeal through his eyes. What was it about her that he fell in love with? I’d ask myself mid-scroll, careful not to double-tap.”

In the year since, our relationship has been that of social media mutuals: We exchange likes and hearts like smoke signals from afar. After the follow, I half-expected her to DM me—to acknowledge, perhaps, the peculiarity of the dynamic, or convey some essential intel about my ex’s indiscretions—but no such message ever came. I almost forgot about it until the day a different ex’s ex—we’ll call her ex B—reached out over text.

“Hey, how have you been?”

“hey i’m good, what about you? it’s been a minute!”

The typing symbol appears, then stops. What could this possibly be about? I ask my current boyfriend, trudging through the snow as I explain, for the first time, the hours I’ve spent stalking my ex’s exes.

The next morning, I wake up to a paragraph-long text message from ex B. She tells me I crossed her mind the other day, then proceeds to confess that she has had a crush on me for years. Bleary-eyed, I struggle for comprehension. It’s been a full decade since we were romantically involved with the same person in college, and at least six years since we’ve seen each other in person; our last text was from 2017, when we had class together and she asked to borrow an iPhone charger. Yet her unexpected message infuses me with adrenaline and that same feeling of validation ex A’s follow had. All this time, I had considered my interest in these women embarrassing, even creepy. But nearly a decade later, here was evidence that, for every time I had thought of her, she had done the same.

When I looked at these women on Instagram, I channeled the perspective of the man I was dating, imagining what he desired about them. This experience was reflected back to me for the first time in The First Bad Man, an incredibly weird, incredibly good Miranda July novel in which the female protagonist compulsively fantasizes about a younger woman from the perspective of her male crush. Similarly, I had looked at these women through my ex’s eyes, assuming my interest in them was an extension of my feelings for the man we both dated. But faced with evidence of ex B’s desire, I was finally forced to recognize mine.

In Scammer, the writer-cum-internet-personality Caroline Calloway recalled using men as a way to express her craving for intimacy with women, having sex with a guy who looks like her female ex-best-friend because “fucking him meant holding onto her.” In an earlier section, she described a similarly sapphic friendship that, in her youth, acted as a stand-in for the intimacy missing in her heterosexual relationship: “My affection for him was unsustainable without her emotional availability,” she wrote, detailing how fights with her then-boyfriend translated into nights spent sniffling into her friend’s neck. Looking back on my own experiences in college—the nights spent crying into my best friend’s arms, or sleeping next to her in bed—I wonder if I would have put up with so much bullshit from my then-boyfriend if it hadn’t driven me closer to her. In these instances, men serve as a gateway to queer experience, just as romantic competition served as a justification for my stalking.

This kind of sexual-emotional transference isn’t always obvious in the moment. When I was a non-practicing bisexual, I once hooked up with a guy who had previously dated an it-girl I admire, hoping he was good in bed because she seemed like the kind of person who wouldn’t settle for less. I was validated that the man she had desired also desired me, but when it came time to shed our clothes, there was an intangible sense of depth missing from the arrangement: I couldn’t feel her influence in his touch, the way he talked and thought. Instead, his desires felt blunt, obvious. I ended up kicking him out of my apartment halfway through. Maybe I should just fuck her, I thought, and cut out the middle man.

Though 24/7 access to pictures of your ex’s exes is specific to the social media era, the intermingling of jealousy and desire is for many women a queer rite of passage. In an essay for The Point, Grazie Sophia Christie wrote of “an envy so profound and wistful it is almost sexually charged,” detailing how her friendships with beautiful women provoked simultaneous pangs of envy and eroticism—an experience she traced in the literary canon, concluding that “some of the most exquisite passages of eroticism are in the voice of women envious of other women. Wanting them? Sometimes. Wanting to be them? Naturally.”

“When my eyes lingered too long on a girl’s hair or waist, I was looking at them as a benchmark against which to gauge my own appeal to the male gaze—right?”

After ex B’s unexpected confession, I wait a day, then respond. All-lowercase, I admit I’ve always thought she was beautiful too—that I’m in a relationship, but should we get a drink sometime? She ghosts, and I’m left hanging for days.

My curiosity ignited, I start asking female friends about their experiences with internet stalking, and receive a half-dozen variations of the same response: “Oh yeah, at some point, I was unhealthily obsessed with my ex’s ex.” Some friends show me photos, recalling days spent scrolling through the feeds of their Eskimo sisters; looking up their childhood homes on Zillow; watching their acting reels. One of my friends said she used to masturbate to pictures of the women she was pitted against romantically, channeling her jealousy into sexual gratification. It wasn’t so much out of intrinsic desire, she said, but as a way to psychologically program herself to see their beauty as a source of pleasure, not pain. She’s poly now.

Galvanized by the commonality of our experience but unsure what to do with myself, I decide to message ex A, the one who followed me on Instagram years ago. “Hey, I know this is weird, but…” I type into her DMs, then throw my phone across the room. To my surprise, her response is enthusiastic and immediate; a few days later, we’re on the phone, laughing like old friends. “When I got your Instagram message, I was like, Oh, it’s finally happening,” she tells me, confessing that she too had spent years scrolling through my feed. She had followed me, she said, because she didn’t want to come on too strong and message outright. Instead, she decided to “lob the tennis ball in my direction,” hoping I’d return the favor.

Over the course of a three-hour phone call, I discover that her experience mirrors mine: Like me, she hadn’t realized she was queer at the time—and like me, she’d since come out, though we’re both now in serious relationships with men. “Sometimes I’d just idly scroll through your Instagram, and potent feelings were coming up, feelings that I didn’t really understand. So I brushed them away,” she recalled. “At the time, I felt like I was supposed to find a man to spend the rest of my life with. I experimented [with women] when I was younger, but I wrote it off, like ‘everyone does that, it doesn’t necessarily mean something.’ I didn’t realize how much of it was compulsory heterosexuality.”

Coined by Adrienne Rich in a 1980 essay, the term “comphet” is used to describe how societal assumptions and pressures enforce expectations of heterosexuality, leading women to eschew further exploration of their own desires. Looking back, my relationships with other women can be retrofitted into that category: for years, I cloaked my attraction to women in the logic of self-comparison. When my eyes lingered too long on a girl’s hair or waist, I was looking at them as a benchmark against which to gauge my own appeal to the male gaze—right? I envisioned them as romantic candidates, but not from my own perspective; rather, everything was filtered through the imagined eyes of my male partners, obfuscating my own desires and providing a convenient social narrative to explain my interest in these women’s bodies, personalities, lives.

Two weeks after the initial confession, ex B gets back to me: “Sorry, things were crazy,” she says, and we set a time to get drinks at a candlelit bar in Williamsburg. Heart emojis are sent on both sides. The day of, she reaches out to see if I still want to meet up—but when I try to confirm the details, she ghosts.

“I’ve been stood up,” I text my boyfriend, a bemused witness to the whole chain of events. “The saga continues,” he says. “Hey, at least you didn’t have to go out tonight.”

My obsession buoyed by the ongoing mystery, I tell him that—whether out of authentic desire or just for the story—I can’t stop thinking about fucking my ex’s ex. My partner and I hook up with women together, so it’s not out of the question. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asks. Of course not! But it would be a feminist win, I joke, for me to fuck her. He’s not convinced.

Later that night, we have plans to meet up with the girl we’re seeing—a fellow bisexual who, I suspect, has her own storied history with her ex’s ex. I assure him, lovingly, that she’ll understand.