The Far Reaching Consequences of Dating Apps & Sexual Violence
The problem of violence and abuse is the greatest challenge the Internet faces today. According to the United Nation's, 73% of women have already been exposed to or experienced some form of online violence. It is a significant issue that cannot be fixed with simple and easy solutions. Cyberviolence and online abuse goes far beyond the average person’s experience and is much more complex than the snarky attitudes we see in the comment sections or the obvious violent threats.
In the world of online dating young women and gender variant folks are one swipe away from experiencing online gender-based violence. The experiences of Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of the popular dating platform Tinder, exemplifies this. Wolfe left the company because of the violence and harassment she faced. Consequently, she created a revolutionary new dating app - Bumble. Bumble centres control and communication in the hands of its women-identified users in order to ‘equal the online gendered playing field’ (Bumble, 2016). It is a response to the tremendous pressure, rape culture and gender-based violence that young women face when using dating apps. Recent research by the Consumers Research (2016) provides compelling evidence regarding the prevalence of violence linked to the use of dating apps.
Being a woman or other marginalized gender on online dating apps exposes communities to specific and targeted online misogyny that far exceeds mere impoliteness or disrespect. Instagram accounts like @byefelipe and @feminist_tinder (now deactivated) that are based in the US/Australia have been documenting instances of men turning aggressive, abusive and threatening when faced with rejection or disinterest from women on dating apps.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre Survey among the options presented: Tinder, OkCupid, Grindr, Match and eHarmony, Tindr and OkCupid are the most popular digital matchmakers. Their survey also indicated that tech savvy Millenials (20-30 year olds) seem to be utilizing their devices to cast a wider net for potential mates by using a number of dating apps, instead of just one (Pew Research, 2016).
However, most women and gender variant people who have tried to find love and connection on the internet know, dating apps- while potentially a wonderful way to meet people- can be an awful and overwhelming experience of harassment, discrimination and online gender-based violence. According to this Pew Research (2016) study dating app users report experiencing high levels of harassment, and particularly on the most popular apps. Moreover, unsurprisingly, women are being harassed much more than men. 57% of women respondents said they’d been harassed while using dating apps versus only 21% of male respondents, not to mention users who’s identities intersect with systems of oppression.
This report provides anecdotal and qualitative observations based on OCTEVAW’s outreach and engagement with young people.
What do we hear young people say about their online safety?
Young people want us to know that contrary to the idea that cyberviolence facilitated by dating apps is less harmful than physical violence, the social and emotional harm caused by online violence is real and substantial, and can lead to further, physical harm. Youth we connect with speak of powerlessness and physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social and financial harm as a result of cyberviolence facilitated by online dating platforms. Young people are harmed by acts of cyberviolence including abuses of trust, exposing details of their private life to the public, objectification of their bodies, removing their ability to control the lines of communication, and excluding them from social communication.
Dating apps and rape culture and misogyny
Young women-identified and gender variant people have expressed that online dating sites and apps are spaces where rape culture is very much alive and well. They explored the meaning of popular terms used in these spaces such as ‘fuck boys’, ‘thirsty’ and behaviours such as collecting ‘nude’ images as trophies or feeling entitled to send unsolicited photos such as dick pics.
Young women in particular, feel like they are ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ when it comes to participating in online dating sites and sharing private or explicit content. If they choose not to share they are considered ‘prude’ or ‘killjoys’ and if they do choose to share they are considered ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’.
Addressing rape culture and misogyny is crucial to tackling cyberviolence on dating sites. Young people note that men have the power to share intimate pictures and are ‘expected to do this’; whereas women are ‘supposed’ to be ‘chaste’ and sharing photos could damage their personal value and self-worth as women.
Young women routinely face a stream of unsolicited and non-consensual intimate images, mass email and spam propositions, descriptions of rape fantasies, and judgmental commentary on their race, sexuality, personality and appearance from men online. Women who openly seek casual sexual experiences through hook ups must deal with “slut shaming” and attacks on their characters and reputations from people of all genders. Women modify their profiles and communication to minimize this kind of aggressive communication. Several dating apps offer more quality content filtering and tools to help block and prevent problematic or abusive comments and communication features that allow women more control of their online experience. For example, once two users have mutually indicated interest in each other, Bumble (a dating app similar to the Tinder platform) requires that the woman initiate communication.
As has been reported in the media (Geuss, 2015), we have heard from local youth that some high school aged boys are gaining social status and income through the compiling and selling of online collections of intimate photos of young women accessible only to peers. The collections consisted of their peers and girlfriends’ pictures. The collection was reported to the social media platform and removed.
An experience we hear from young women is of them being aggressively communicated with and stalked by men. At other times, young women say an online encounter could go well, but the in-person date involved harassment. For example, a date doesn’t leave, or a date comes uninvited to her workplace or home. A former dating app moderator that we spoke to reported that she witnessed a male dating app user admit to molesting a minor, but the dating app platform had no tools to flag or respond to the issue.
Dating Apps, racism and oppression
Racialized youth we interact with note that dating apps’ marketing often showcases images of happy, White, heterosexual couples with little diversity. This leaves some wondering whether the site welcomes or would be a safe space for racialized users or if online dating is mainly for White people. Racialized youth we have connected with also express concerns with what’s been going on with communities of colour and racism in North America right now. These young people stress that their communities need a safe space to find dates and to connect with others.
For racialized people who do end up using dating apps, vulnerability to racism is an ever-present concern. Dating platforms have the ability to perpetuate racism and harmful behaviours and stereotypes online by providing users the power to customize their online dating experience by filtering down to exactly the level of diversity you want (Brathwaite, 2016). By only selecting White women to interact with, women of colour no longer appear in their dating app feeds and become actively erased.
- Tinder users can remove and reject racialized profiles by swiping left, while others choose matches based on racial stereotypes of who would reluctantly accept more in an interaction, for example White women are often perceived as more docile than black women.
- “Match” algorithms have also been called into question with regards to issues of racism and racial bias within dating apps. Even if you say “no preference” for ethnicity within your dating app profile, users report that many dating apps tend to show you people of your own race (Haidrani, 2016).
- The largest problem surrounding the issue of racial dating bias on dating platforms is that it too often the issue gets reduced to “personal preference”. This discourse surrounding racial bias and “preference” is upheld by a system of institutional racism that begets more tangible harm. This is facilitated by technological functions such as algorithmic sorting which is a phenomenon users on the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel have described as their experience using the dating app (Notopoulos, 2016).
- OkCupid, has found clear evidence of racial discrimination within their platform and it’s culture. OkCupid has been keeping track of race since 2009 and has found that people gravitate “toward people who look like themselves.” In fact, the site found that racial bias went up between 2009 and 2014. The site also found that “82 percent of non-Black men on OkCupid showed some bias against black women” (Oktrends, 2014).
- People of colour have consistently reported and expressed concern with the length of time it takes dating app platforms to respond to and address their concerns and experiences of racism and violence.
Users can go even further by explicitly specifying preference and undesirability of users from marginalized communities in their profiles. By doing so they have the capacity to objectify, fetishize, and hyper sexualize users from marginalized communities, which can be damaging because of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism.
Dating apps, homophobia and transphobia
All young people using dating apps can experience cyberviolence, however, LGBTTQ+ users face unique safety risks. Moreover, trans youth face unique vulnerabilities when they are meeting potential romantic partners online. They must decide whether to present themselves as trans in their profile, or ‘revealing’ their trans identity to a person after they have made a connection. There are significant risks to disclosing online or later in-person. Revealing in person can not only lead to only rejection or surprise but can also lead to violence if the person feels ‘threatened’ by their gender identity.
The same goes for dating apps’ move to increase gender identity options. While dating apps recognize that more options for users’ identities might make LGBTQ+ users (and other users) feel more welcome, users should have the ability not to post details gender and sexual identity details publicly. While trans and non binary people still have the right to choose the binary “male” and “female” gender options, disclosing outside of the binary may put them at risk for being flagged or having their personal information released to the public. LGBTQ+ users shouldn’t have to choose between their safety and their participation in these platforms.
Meanwhile, disclosing their trans identities in their profiles is particularly fraught as it can lead to transphobic harassment. Even on LGBTTQ+ dating apps, some trans users report having their profiles flagged (reported as problematic to the dating app) because they are seen as not belonging by other users. This leads to the automatic removal of their profile from the site and an exclusion from that dating community for inconsistent periods of time. This type of ‘false flagging’ has been identified as a form of cyberviolence: in addition to being removed from the online community, their gender identity is undermined. This poses a greater threat and risk of violence to trans and non binary users.
Moreover, many trans and non binary users have expressed the fear and ever present danger of being doxxed. Doxxing is the act of publishing someone’s personal information and confidential information publicly. Often times this information is released into an environment that implies or encourages intimidation, violence or threat. Doxxing is particularly dangerous for those trans and non binary folks who have decided to medically transition or change identity markers and information pertaining to their trans histories. In these ways confidential information can be released publicly as a means of undermining their trans identities and threatening violence through vulnerabilities. Using vulnerabilities (such as a person’s trans history, medical records, etc.) often results in survivors being exploited (resources, time, attention) and undermines their attempts to negotiate boundaries or prioritize self because they are so worried about isolation and outing which could mean losing custody of children, loss of income, loss of housing, and heightened risk of violence (Burke & Tucker, 2009).
Additionally, while many geo-location software based dating apps move towards expanding and rolling out more inclusive gender options for their users this poses a new challenge and threat. Predatory and malicious users may use trans users gender identity markers as well as geolocation data as a means of pinpointing their exact location and exploit this technology to target trans and non binary users for violence. Issues such as targeted violence, gender bashing and stalking continues to be a problematic feature and consequence of dating apps relying on geolocation services within their platform.
There are a number of ways that dating apps can help protect their trans and non binary users from potential danger and risk of violence. Instead of making location sharing compulsory, dating apps should set privacy as the default. If users wish to share personal information related to their location they can opt in.
Moreover, LGBTQ+ communities and people from other marginalized communities may be especially vulnerable to being targeted on dating apps because perpetrators know they will be less likely to report crimes to the police. This is particularly relevant and true for people living with HIV/AIDS who experience more barriers to accessing online spaces and inclusion. The online dating world poses significant risks and barriers for people living with HIV/AIDS who have to navigate the social, legal and cultural contexts of what it means to be living with HIV and complexities around disclosure and “outing” of their HIV status.
Dating apps and ableism
Just as dating apps do not prominently feature racialized people in their marketing, nor are people living with disabilities, which can lead to exclusion and stigmatization.
Similar to trans users, users living with disabilities (either invisible or inexplicit) disability face the dilemma (Sykes, 2014) of deciding when it is safest for them to share information on their disability with a date so that their date does not feel “tricked” and react negatively. Other risks for people living with disabilities include being fetishized or seen as asexual if they are in a wheelchair or an amputee (Sykes, 2014). Sometimes, persons with disabilities’ dating partner view dating them as an act of charity or “settling”, which can lead to power imbalances in dating relationships which increase risk of dating violence. All of these attitudes are in play online as well as face-to-face. Moreover, online dating platforms and profiles do not make it easy for users to communicate their disability in a sensitive and meaningful way.
Dating apps and engaging men
In our community work engaging young people, it has become clear that some young men think violence is only physical, and sexual violence only involves contact with genitalia. Evidence shows that young men who hold these beliefs are less likely to think that there are significant emotional, mental, social and financial impacts as a result of violence (Vancouver Coastal Health, 2016).
Meanwhile, we also regularly interact with many young cis men who feel strongly about the importance of emotional safety for young women. These young men make a connection between online violence and mental health, a history of trauma and self-esteem. These connections are crucial to promoting pro social behaviours and challenging sexism and gendered violence in online spaces.
In working with men of all ages in the community, we observe that men put more weight on assessing the intention of an action rather than its impact – including in the online dating world. Young men’s definition of violence focuses on whether or not someone intends to harm another person, rather than on whether or not harm was actually caused. For example, when discussing harassment young men believe that at times the intention was to simply compliment a woman rather than understanding how this harassment impacts her capacity to consent, as well as her emotional and physical safety.
Moreover, due to the pervasive myths and stereotypes surrounding sexual violence and consent many young men discussed the widespread lack of understanding of consent – in the context of relationships and hooking up. For example, many young men do not perceive coercion or pressure as being a form of gender-based violence.
 Women-identified users will be referred to as women for the remainder of this section.
 Cisgender (often abbreviated to simply cis) is a term for people who have a gender identity that matches the sex that they were assigned at birth. Cisgender may also be defined as those who have "a gender identity or perform a gender role society considers appropriate for one's sex." It is the opposite of the term transgender.
 Cis men users will be referred to as men for the remainder of this section.
Sexual assault & other observations from institutionally reported cyberviolence
Experts from both medical and police response fields contributed some high-level observations regarding sexual violence facilitated by dating apps. These observations do not reflect trends, and capture anecdotal observations only.
One-on-one dates that use deception to assist group facilitated and observed sexual assault
A particular type of sexual assault that is being facilitated by dating apps is characterized by a perpetrator (most often men) who uses a dating app in order to identify a vulnerable target. The perpetrator then sets up an in-person date with their target victim (most often women) with the intention of causing harm or sexual assault. When the woman- victim arrives at the agreed upon location of the date, unexpectedly, there are additional men present. These men will either participate in sexually assaulting or observing sexual assault of the target victim.
Sexual assault in the context of dating or ‘date rape’
Experts identified one of the most common scenarios related to dating apps they observe: date rape. Almost all instances observed involved a male perpetrator and female survivor.
In order to gain trust, predators use information gained through a person’s online profile. After two users meet in an online dating platform, the first one or two in-person dates go well, establishing trust between the two users. However, once trust has been established, the man later sexually assaults the woman. Often times, the woman agreed to specific sexual behaviours, but her date forced her to engage in other non-consensual sexual activities. Moreover, in many of these situations, the dating apps most commonly used allowed user anonymity reducing the ability to report the experience or seek justice and accountability.
Survivors of sexual assault often struggle to overcome internalized societal expectations that the survivor is to blame for the violence, otherwise known as ‘victim blaming’, rather than the perpetrator. In cases of sexual assault facilitated by online dating platforms, people working in medical response found that survivors blamed themselves more than survivors who were assaulted by someone they met at a bar: that they “should have known better because online dating is not safe”, that they should not have trusted the person. They also expressed that survivors of cyberviolence are more prone to judgment and victim blaming and demanded to justify or explain to themselves how “they could not have recognized the red flags or how dangerous dating on the internet was in the first place”.
Suspicions of Child Abuse
There have been instances of single parents, especially mothers, who are targeted by sexual predators to gain access to their children.
Non-consensual sharing of intimate images
Another form of cyberviolence is the non-consensual sharing of intimate images in which the perpetrator coerces a person by threatening the release of private or intimate images and video to their family, employer or general public. The perpetrator may sometimes be a young woman peer, or at other times may be a man masquerading as a young woman peer. Men dating other men also identified this type of cyberviolence.
It is no surprise that dating apps are being used to mask predatory behaviour as well as mirrors systemic discrimination such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Moreover, typically the burden of addressing cyberviolence falls on the user; particularly impacting young women and other marginalized genders online. Young people have some options available to them to reduce cyberviolence and cope with the impacts of online gender-based violence such as content filtering options, identity-based dating applications, encrypted software and educational tools, but online platform developers could do more to improve young people’s online dating experiences and help prevent cyberviolence through building prevention, response, privacy and support.
All social media platforms should be designed with online gender-based violence and safety in mind, regardless of whether they are directly marketed as dating apps or not, by:
- structuring a positive online environment that helps to prevent cyberviolence;
- strengthening internal app responses to violence when it does occur;
- enhancing privacy, especially related to dating app users’ whereabouts and personal information; and
- increased privacy—particularly around dating app users’ whereabouts and personal information—is essential to keeping women safe online.
- building better frameworks to connect with community supports and resources for survivors of dating app facilitated violence.
Brathwaite, L.F. (2016). Racial Profiling: Filtering Out Discrimination in Dating Apps. OUT Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.out.com/news-opinion/2016/2/12/racial-profiling-filtering-out...
Fairbairn, J. and Black, D. (2015). Cyberviolence against women and girls. Retrieved from OCTEVAW website: http://www.octevaw-cocvff.ca/sites/default/files/CyberViolenceReport_OCTEVAW.pdf
Geuss, M. (2015) San Jose teen cited for child porn after posting classmates’ nudes on Instagram. ARS Technica. Retrieved from: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/11/san-jose-teen-cited-for-child-porn-after-posting-classmates-nudes-on-instagram/
Haidrani, S. (2016). Are Dating Apps Intrinsically Racist? The Debrief UK. Retrieved from: http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/news/real-life/are-dating-apps-racist-20160463167
Matias, J. N., Johnson, A., Boesel, W. E., Keegan, B., Friedman, J., & DeTar, C. (2015). Reporting, Reviewing, and Responding to Harassment on Twitter. Women, Action, and the Media. May 13, 2015. http://womenactionmedia.org/twitter-report
Notopoulos, K. (2016). The Dating App That Knows You Secretly Aren’t Into Guys From Other Races. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/katienotopoulos/coffee-meets-bagel-racial-prefe...
Burke & Tucker (2009). LGBT DV Beyond the Wheel: Tactics of Abuse. Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse. Retrieved from: http://www.nwnetwork.org/advocacy-tools/
OkCupid (2014). Race and Attraction Report: 2009–2014, Available at: https://theblog.okcupid.com/race-and-attraction-2009-2014-107dcbb4f060
Pew Research Center, October 2014, “Online Harassment” Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/
Sykes, T. (2014). Online dating is hard enough. Try doing it with a disability. The Guardian UK. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/18/online-dating-with-disability-match
UN Women, UNDP & ITU (2015). Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-Wide Wake Up Call. Available at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2015/9/cyber-violence-against-women-and-girls
 To learn more about Bumble, read the Vanity Fair article by Leora Yashiri entitled Meet the Tinder Co-Founder Trying to Change Online Dating Forever available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/bumble-app-whitney-wolfe
 Any person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century. This generation is typically born between 1982-2004.