Are Dating Apps Doing Enough To Protect Women?
In January 2022, a 31-year-old rapist named Tom Rodwell was sentenced to life in prison in the UK. During the trial, the jury heard how he had assaulted five women on multiple occasions between 2017 and 2020. The women had one thing in common: they had all met Rodwell on Tinder.
Today, it’s estimated that more than 323 million people worldwide are using dating apps. This number grew exponentially during the pandemic. Locked-down, lonely and single people were suddenly slaves to their screens – their only portal to intimacy.
It was a seismic shift, one that prompted millions more to pursue love at first swipe. This included a new demographic of people who might have previously eschewed online dating in favour of something more ‘authentic’; a fantasy that doesn’t really exist outside of Richard Curtis films but was nonetheless quickly curtailed by Coronavirus.
There have been consequences to this. As dating-app activity has surged, so have related instances of abuse, harassment and sexual violence. An investigation by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that in a survey of 1,200 women who had used a dating platform in the past 15 years, more than 30% had experienced some kind of sexual assault; of these women, more than half said they were raped.
“Dating apps appear to give straight men the promise of sex, and so when men are not granted it with a woman they meet on one, they are more likely to demand it because they feel sex has been assured by the very act of matching,” explains Nancy Jo Sales, author of Nothing Personal: My Secret Life In The Dating App Inferno.
Research indicates that while these issues disproportionately affect women, some are more likely to be impacted than others, with those from marginalised communities statistically proven to be at a greater risk of online gender-based violence. This manifests in a very specific way on dating apps, where the emphasis is on visual cues.
“Black women and non-binary people in particular are at a higher risk and are often navigating complex dynamics of fetishisation and misogynoir on dating platforms,” says Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at anti-abuse charity Glitch. One report conducted in California outlined how this leads to a culture whereby racist stereotypes are amplified, creating an environment in which violence is not only rampant but normalised.
“It plays out in situations where white app users assume that women of colour should be ‘grateful’ for unwanted fetishisation, or cisgender users assume trans people should be ‘grateful’ for unwanted sexual comments,” says Professor Kath Albury, who has led research into violence on dating apps in Melbourne, Australia.
There are key socioeconomic factors to consider, too. “Inequalities often play out in dating,” Albury adds. “People who are younger or poorer may also be assumed to be ‘grateful’ for attention from older, better-off app users.” This increases the risk of exploitation, particularly in countries where sex outside marriage (and therefore the use of dating apps) is considered taboo.
Hence, many victims are unlikely to seek support. But even if they do, there’s no guarantee they will be taken seriously. We live in a world where victim-blaming is rife, meaning sexual violence is a difficult crime to report, with low conviction rates around the world putting many survivors off altogether. But it’s arguably harder on a dating app, where moderators are expected to resolve sexual assault claims in minutes – and without specialist training.
There are also numerous incidences of survivors reporting their perpetrators to apps, only to see them reappear just days later. Even if the accused are banned from one app, there’s nothing to stop them from downloading another. Hence, the system puts the onus on the victim. This was the case for Natalie Dong, who, after allegedly badgering Tinder for days to remove her rapist from the platform, ended up standing outside the company’s offices holding a giant placard reading ‘MY RAPIST IS STILL ON TINDER’ in order to get their attention. The accused was banned shortly after.
Dating apps are slowly beginning to take steps against violence. Photo verification is now commonplace and some companies, including Tinder, have launched background checks on their platforms. Bumble also now offers complimentary therapy sessions to users who report sexual assault.
How helpful any of this is remains to be seen. After all, sexual violence is a systemic issue, one that dating apps can only do so much to prevent. What does seem to make a difference though are wider conversations, such as those initiated by popular culture. Take I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking BBC One series that featured a scene in which a male character, Kwame (played by Paapa Essiedu), is sexually assaulted by a man he met on Grindr after the pair have had consensual sex. The scene prompted important discussions around consent and the safety of dating apps. It’s moments like this that educate us about the nuances of sexual violence, both on and offline. Perhaps it’s only as this understanding grows that we will start to see tangible, lasting change at a societal and legislative level.
Here are five progressive dating apps implementing new ways to help keep women safe:
- Bumble – the original feminist dating app that allowed women to ‘make the first move’.
- Her – one of the industry’s leading apps for queer and trans women.
- S’More – where users can only see a blurred version of someone’s profile, which becomes clearer the longer you chat to them.
- The Sauce – the app where traditional profiles are replaced with candid videos, so you can get a true sense of the person you’re talking to.
- Safer Date – which conducts ID and background checks on all its users.
Olivia Petter is a relationships writer at The Independent and the author of Millennial Love, published by 4th Estate