Yes, we’re masterminds. We have to be.

A close friend of mine was recently dating a man who seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be a pretty good guy. They’d been seeing each other for several months, during which time the relationship had blossomed into an intimate and really satisfying connection. There were some pink flags, to be sure, and my friend was approaching the relationship with what I judged to be a reasonable amount of pragmatism given her own history with men. 

Before I go on with the story, I want to assure you – particularly if you are a friend of mine – that I have been given permission and blessing to share this friend’s story. I’ll change her name for her privacy, but when we talked about me incorporating her experience into this piece, she gave hearty consent. You may see why. 

Let’s call her Reba, mostly because that will be entertaining for me. 

So Reba was dating this man whom we will call Rocco, and they were moving along in that airy energy of a new relationship, having plenty of fun and getting closer. One night, Reba couldn’t get ahold of Rocco, and this raised some alarm bells for her. It was unusual given the dynamic they’d established, and so while not freaking out by any means, she was aware that something was off. 

Rocco eventually did get in touch with Reba, and he gave an explanation for his absence that didn’t totally sit well with her. It seemed plausible, but unlikely that he’d been working that night when that wasn’t what he’d told her previously. Reba decided to accept his explanation, while also recognizing that her nervous system was signaling to her that there just may be more to the story. 

And, as you can guess by virtue of me telling you this story, there of course was. As hours and days passed and further inconsistencies started to come to light, Reba’s intuition was building a case. She didn’t have hard evidence of any wrong-doing, exactly, at least not the kind that a court would deem admissible. But the information that was getting revealed – like the fact that Rocco had met up with a female friend and not shared it with her – was getting delivered alongside that classically gaslit reframe of, “I knew you’d probably interpret it the wrong way, so I didn’t want to worry you.” He was just being considerate, after all. 

Within a few days, Reba’s gut knew what her heart didn’t want to bring into full consciousness. She was still working through her thoughts and feelings about what had transpired thus far when she and Rocco were on the phone one afternoon and asked him to send her a real-time photo of him. He gladly obliged and sent her a fairly spicy selfie, the kind I hope we all are lucky enough to be on the consensual receiving end of sometime. But Reba was no dummy, and as soon as she got it, she did her FBI-shit magic and checked the date and time that the photo was taken on her iPhone. 

“This photo is from a few days ago,” she told him. 

“Oh, oops. Yeah, I guess you’re right. Hold on,” he said, seemingly taking a photo in that moment. 

The next picture came through on her phone, and once again, like the smart cookie she is, she investigated. 

“This one is a screenshot,” she responded, keeping her tone even. Meanwhile, her heart was racing in that terrible way they do when we feel both vindicated and devastated. 

Predictably, Rocco moved straight into his defensive posture at that point, realizing that his smooth-talking was landing nowhere with Reba. “Why does this even matter?,” he demanded. “I don’t know why this is such a big deal if the photos are from now or before.” 

“The photos aren’t the point,” she explained, fully aware she shouldn’t need to make this basic relational tenant so explicit. “It’s that you’re lying to me. You’re lying right now, and you’re not stopping.” 

Reba ended things with Rocco shortly after that conversation. The dishonesty and gaslighting that had been introduced into the relationship reinforced it was the right decision, but it wasn’t without a lot of pain. 

As Reba and I talked about how things had played out and how she was doing in the wake of the break-up, I tried to shower love on her broken heart and hold space for how complicated these things are. But I’ll admit, I couldn’t help but hone in on her investigative skills. “I’m still amazed. I don’t think I even knew you could see when a photo was taken or if it’s a screenshot,” I told her.

“Oh yeah, totally,” she said. “These are the things you have to know when you’re dating these days.” 


Knowing how to analyze photo messages for their source data has apparently become part of the necessary labor of being a woman interacting with men in current times. It might seem a symptom of our modern condition, but it’s actually just one of the more recent tools in our kit. 

Even before Reba told me the story about Rocco, I’d been collecting memes for several months that fit into this construct I was noticing. The punchy tweets said things like, “I would love to go to sleep but I simply CANNOT until I figure out if this girl I barely know got divorced or not,” and “82% of CIA agents are men, which is wild because I just used my boyfriend’s likes on twitter to map out his entire romantic history from 2016 on and I just don’t think a man could do that.” 

There is no doubt a trope about women’s obsession with investigation. The narrative, at its most generous, pokes fun at women for this, framing the hours we spend down rabbit holes as evidence of our silly hypervigilance. At worst, it paints women as neurotic or paranoid people with so little better to do than engage in elaborate conspiracy-finding missions. Both implications are dismissive. Both let men off the hook entirely. 

One of the great thinkers of our time, Taylor Allison Swift, once said, “If guys don’t want me to write songs about them, they shouldn’t do bad things.” 

Her breezy explanation for her incisive songwriting provides an important premise not just for responses to heartbreak, but for the preemptive investigative work that women have been doing for eons.

If we as women are spending our time comparing location data, scrolling 2018 photo dumps, or, gasp!, gossiping, it could be worth shifting the question from, “What’s wrong with women?” to “Why might our current structures require women to put so much effort into getting more information?”

I’m going to call this effort Relational Investigating. It’s a form of invisible work. And it’s saved us countless times. 

Long before there were DMs or entire Facebook pages titled, “Are We Dating the Same Person?”, our lady ancestors had to rely on much more basic tools to do their digging. This essentially involved talking to each other, which eventually got branded as an ugly and distasteful practice called gossip. 

But let’s take a quick step back in history for a moment, back to before the concept of gossip began to be used as a way to silence women. In the 1200s, in fact, the notion of gossip was framed as the practice of sharing information about others, one that even the medieval church saw as morally neutral, if not positive. Back then, the word used was “Godsibb,” translating to what we think of as “God-sibling” or “Godparent,” one on some level related to another through God. The idea of sharing information about other people, particularly about their behavior, was tied into the notion of closeness and affiliation with another. 

As centuries passed, Godsibb came to describe an auntie-type figure, a woman who engaged in idle talk. By the 17th century, the term had evolved to gossip and it was being used as a verb to describe the act of sharing secrets. The culture of the time, not so different from the culture of our current time, was dismissive and devaluing of the relational work of women. Instead of seeing the practice of gossiping as facilitating connections and protecting others from relational harm, it became associated with idleness. And as industrialization and capitalism took hold, idleness became the gravest of sins. 

And beyond idleness, gossiping posed another serious threat. This threat was particularly to men, who knew that women gained power in information and collaboration. The more possible it was for their bad behavior to spread, the greater the risk to their reputation and control. And so the most effective of deterrents for gossiping was employed – framing it as unsavory, immoral, and subject to its own harsh judgment. 

Despite the data that suggests that about 60 percent of our conversations today involve some form of gossip, we continue to hold that notion of it as wrong. We can’t quite shake the centuries of propaganda around it, despite the evidence to suggest that it’s actually evolutionarily wired into how we interact and prosocial for society. 

Consider the perspective of anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argues that gossip is our human version of the grooming that our primate relatives do. Gossiping establishes social bonds and is actually really important for keeping a social group safe. Having a language system established to identify and share about behaviors that could be detrimental to the group helps the longevity of the group as a whole. It’s why by age five or so, humans are starting to engage in prosocial gossip, the kind that involves sharing information about others to keep others aware and safe. 

Now, I know that today’s connotation of gossip is seeped in the harm that gossip can cause. And it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to suggest that this harm isn’t real. Gossip that’s based on inaccurate information, for example, or that’s specifically manipulated to destroy another’s reputation is where the danger happens. Cancel culture and propaganda campaigns can use gossip in their arsenals to further their efforts. But I’d suggest that gossip itself is not the problem in these cases; it’s the malintentions of how it’s being used. 

We give far too little positive attention to the ways it’s been used to uphold society and, importantly, to protect women. 

Consider Whisper Networks, chains of information shared among people, but usually women, to empower and protect one another from that which is unspoken publicly. Whisper networks gained popularity as a concept in the era of #Metoo, and are often, but not always, related to information about men’s dangerous acts in an organization or community. 

When Harvey Weinstein was finally on trial for his sex crimes, it was so frequently mentioned that “everybody knew,” even while no one was initially coming forward. Whisper networks structure this knowing, recognizing that the implications and risks for women of more publicly sharing information are often too dangerous. And recognizing that we are desperate to keep each other safe.

Society has for too long framed the investigating and gossiping of women as frivolous at best and immoral at worst. But in the context of a society in which we continue to be limited in our physical, financial, and emotional safety, perhaps doing the work of the Sleuth is doing God(sibb)’s work. It’s how we keep ourselves safe and protected, whether from lying boyfriends, sexual predators, or other bad actors.

It feels only right to quote once again Ms. Swift, who I think nailed it in my personal favorite song on the Midnights album, “Mastermind”: “You see, all the wisest women / Had to do it this way / ‘Cause we were born to be the pawn / In every lover’s game.”

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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