When I was about 17, I decided to go vegan (I was trying a lot of things at the time, including getting my nose pierced, which I considered a serious act of rebellion). Anyway, I mentioned my new veganism to the guy I was seeing at the time, and to my surprise, he seemed really annoyed. He responded with an uninterruptible lecture on the importance of supporting British farmers. I can still remember one of his appalled, patronising texts: “Oh god, you’re not gonna become one of those vegan feminists, are you??”
I was confused. He hadn’t come across like someone who hated “vegan feminists” – so where had this come from?
I ended things a little while later, which prompted a barrage of texts from him with a lot of derogatory language. It confirmed what I’d begun to suspect: as much as he’d reeled me in with an outwardly “woke” persona, in reality, we were never going to see eye to eye. I had been wokefished.
“Wokefishing”, put simply, is when people masquerade as holding progressive political views to ensnare potential partners. A wokefish may at first present themselves as a protest-attending, sex-positive, anti-racist, intersectional feminist who drinks ethically sourced oat milk and has read the back catalogue of Audre Lorde, twice. But in reality, they don’t give a shit. Or, as is often the case, they are actively the opposite in their personal lives. It’s sort of like catfishing, but specifically with political beliefs.
A lot of us have been wokefished. Maybe more so now than ever. Crises such as the tragic murder of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic have thrown societal injustices into even sharper relief over the past few months, and as a result, there’s been much greater emphasis on individual agency when it comes to the urgent dismantling oppressive systems. It’s no surprise that singles are now consciously choosing partners who are on the same wavelength as them – just as it’s no surprise that others are adapting to circumvent this.
Tom*, 23, is from Bristol, and has a lot to say about being wokefished. “I remember on my first date with this guy, we spoke about racism in the UK. Over the coming weeks we spoke a lot about diversifying the curriculum and issues surrounding the monarchy. It was all great! But then we passed the honeymoon phase and, oh boy, did this guy turn out to be something else,” he says.
The guy Tom was seeing was definitely not putting his words into practice. “As much as he would talk about being progressive, he would laugh at racial slurs. It was like he used being a ‘social justice warrior’ as a personality trait, but did the exact opposite.”
Relationships falling apart because of differing beliefs is hardly uncommon. Research found that in 2016, over 1.6 million relationships crumbled due to rows about Brexit. A more recent study, from 2018, found that people are less likely to be romantically interested in those with political beliefs divergent from their own. It’s clear that political beliefs are an extremely valid factor to consider when weighing up a potential partner: and if you’ve paid for an upgraded Bumble or Hinge account, you can even filter out profiles from certain political standpoints. But what about if you only find out weeks, or even months after the fact?
Wokefishing can be particularly disturbing and damaging when those on the receiving end belong to marginalised groups themselves. Hannah, 19, was in a relationship with her ex for six months. Like Tom, she thought her and her partner shared common ground to begin with. “When we first started talking, he spoke about how awful he thought the ‘whiteness’ of his education was, and how he wished the south of England [where he was from] was more diverse.”
But things quickly went downhill and in the most extreme way possible. “He introduced me to his home friends as ‘his dirty Arab girlfriend’ and passed it off as a joke,” she remembers. “Then one day, he sat me down, started crying and told me he used to be involved with Nazi groups. He said before he’d met me he wouldn’t have wanted to marry a non-white person because he’d thought – quote – ‘mixed race children were impure’.” Hannah broke up with him shortly after.
Zara, 23, was wokefished too. After being in a relationship with her ex for a year, she realised that some his views seemed really off, in a way they hadn’t to begin with. “[Initially], he seemed very philosophical, artistic and well-read. He was passionate about the environment and staunchly opposed the likes of Jordan Peterson,” Zara recalls.
“However, he would want to debate every argument and play devil’s advocate the whole time. He didn’t accept that some things are fundamental to people’s identity and not up for questioning,” Zara explains, pinpointing the moments when his true colours began to show. “Once he tried arguing with my queer best friend that straight people were as oppressed as gay people. I found the incessant need to debate exhausting and often upsetting, and he never acknowledged his own privilege.”
Zara eventually ended things after realising that she “didn’t realistically have enough in common with him”.
Layla, a qualified sex and relationships educator who runs the Instagram account Lalalaletmeexplain, believes relationships between truly like-minded people are much more likely to be successful in the long run. In essence: there’s little point trying to compromise with a wokefish. “For people who understand that political beliefs affect human rights, it is unlikely a healthy relationship could be sustained with someone whose values don’t align with ours,” she explains. “A lot of recent political movements are based on moral values. These are things that you cannot ‘agree to disagree’ on, because they have a direct impact on the welfare of other human beings.”
Layla says that deception like this can be hugely damaging for those on the receiving end. “Realising that you have been deceived by a romantic partner can have devastating and long lasting effects,” she says. “The person who was deceived may be led to question their whole reality and feel uncertain about their ability to judge people correctly.”
Any relationship is essentially an ongoing process of learning more and more about your partner, until you know everything: from how milky they like their tea, to the specific taste of their saliva and their deep fear of cats. It’s normal to amplify or tone down certain facets of your personality in the earlier stages of a relationship (why tell someone on a first date about your secret, obsessive love of Simply Red?) But pretending to believe in certain values when you really don’t is straight up weirdo behaviour.
But also, if you’re a wokefish, it might genuinely be worth considering: why do I hold views that I’m too ashamed to publicly express?
*Names have been changed