Amy was sexually assaulted three years ago, and we matched on Tinder in June. Even though I’m a journalist and a stranger she met online, I’m one of the only people she’s ever told her story to.
It started when Amy, who lives in Yellowknife, agreed to go for coffee with a man named Paul. As the date was wrapping up, Paul asked if she wanted to go for a drive, reluctantly agreeing that they wouldn’t stray too far from home. To Amy’s alarm, Paul drove her much farther out than she expected—hitting the Ingraham Trail, they sped by the city’s borders in his truck, passing Prosperous Lake and Madeline Lake, more than 27 kilometres out of the city. When Paul finally stopped the car, Amy refused to get out, sensing something was horribly wrong.
Paul tried to pull her out of the car. Then, he forced himself on top of her, kissing her and pulling at her clothes. Amy fought back, screaming at him to stop touching her and take her home. Paul was furious: He told her she shouldn’t have let him waste gas if she wasn’t willing to have sex with him. Amy got out of the truck, and Paul drove away, leaving her stranded and alone on the trail at night.
Amy met Paul on the popular online dating site Plenty of Fish. (To protect Amy’s identity, both their names have been changed.) Online dating websites and the mobile apps that followed have made dating and hook-ups more convenient than ever. But conversations have emerged about how toxic these spaces can become for women and marginalized people. The technology makes it easy to forge meaningful connections with people—and to mistreat them.
Using accounts on different dating apps and swiping on users across the country, I searched for people who wanted to share their experiences with sexual harassment. Users who consented to being interviewed spoke to me about what they’d gone through and expressed their views on what apps could do to make their spaces safer.
There’s no doubt dating apps have a role to play in promoting safe romantic interactions, and in many cases, platforms have taken their responsibilities to heart. But sexual harassment and assault are social problems—and a culture shift is required if things are ever going to get better.
Online dating websites like Plenty of Fish and OKCupid have been around since the early 2000s, initially functioning as classified ads for potential mates. In 2009, capitalizing on smartphone geo-location settings, bisexual men connect with other men in their area. The subsequent launch of Tinder in 2012 revolutionized the dating scene by turning romance into a game: Users rifle through the profiles of potential flames like playing cards, swiping “left” to pass on a person, or “right” to express interest.
Marina Adshade is a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and at the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University. Adshade is an expert on the economics of love and holds a “techno-optimist” perspective, arguing that it’s hard to see how expanding the choice pool can have an overall negative impact on user satisfaction. From a purely economic standpoint, she tells me, dating apps solve a “thin market problem”: When there are too few romantic options for people in real life, it becomes difficult to find a partner without having to lower your standards.
But as much as dating apps have done for their users, they’ve also fuelled anxieties. Google “dating apps and hook-up culture” and you’ll get more than 10 million hits, including several ruminations on the abysmal state of love in the digital age. In the fall of 2015, when Tinder was already in its prime, Nancy Jo Sales published “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” in Vanity Fair, featuring testimonies from users who were both enamoured and disillusioned with dating apps and the role they’ve come to play in romantic life. (Tinder took to Twitter to accuse Sales of unfair reporting.)
There’s no question that some users have negative experiences on dating apps—a social media kaleidoscope of Facebook groups, Tumblrs, and Twitter threads have emerged to put some of the notoriously bad behaviour of app users on public display. Identifying harassment, however, is complicated by the fact that many users overtly seek out sexual experiences. Divergent user preferences—for hook-ups, for long-term relationships, for one-night stands—can result in unpleasant interactions when expectations collide.
It’s common for women on dating apps to receive unsolicited sexual advances from male users. A 2016 Consumers’ Research study found that 57 percent of female respondents, compared to only 21 percent of men, reported feeling harassed on the dating apps they used.
Anecdotal evidence seems to support these findings. Bridget, who goes to college in P.E.I., told me that men she knows from school will use Tinder to demand sexual favours, saying things to her online that she believes they would never repeat to her face. When Bianca, from Outaouais, Que., told a man on Tinder that she wasn’t looking for a one-night stand, he told her that “all guys just wanted sex” and that she was “so hot that every guy would want to jump [her].” Asma, an 18-year-old who lives in Mississauga, Ont., has received graphic messages on Tinder from men who are significantly older than she is. In an attempt to get a 49-year-old man to stop sending her sexual messages, she lied and told him she was only 16; he responded that “no one needs to know.”
A number of women also told me about receiving unsolicited photos of male genitalia—notoriously dubbed “dick pics”—from people they met on dating apps, either directly on the platforms or once they disclosed their contact information. During my conversation with Lena, whose name has been changed, she told me a man had just sent her a photo of his penis, apparently personified with the caption, “he wants ya.” Malindra, from Nunavut, estimates having received over 50 dick pics in the past three years.
The fact that some men treat women like sex objects is not exactly groundbreaking. But the internet can provide a separation from reality that emboldens users to say things they would never even consider in person. Even Adshade, who has a Tinder account of her own, has been flabbergasted by what men have said to her on the platform.
Most users can brush off an offensive message or two, but faced with relentless or vindictive advances, the impact can be severe. Bridget says the crude comments she receives on dating apps, both from strangers and from people she knows in real life, make her feel “worthless” and less trusting toward men in general. Repeated unpleasant interactions can also provoke defensive changes in behaviour. After numerous men sent one woman I spoke to lewd comments about her breasts, she self-consciously cropped the pictures on her Tinder profile so that she was only visible from the neck up.
Victim-blaming is a common facet of harassment. Complainants who face harassment in physical spaces are often accused of being disingenuous or naïve for wearing certain clothes or not taking what are perceived to be appropriate precautions. On dating apps, swiping right, messaging first, or even having an account in the first place can be perceived as “asking for” sexual advances.
Fed up with what she perceived to be toxic user culture on Tinder—and in tandem with a sexual harassment lawsuit she launched against the company—co-founder Whitney Wolfe left the app to forge her own path. Her brainchild, Bumble, is a self-proclaimed feminist dating app: It gives women the exclusive ability to start conversations with their matches. Alongside other policies and campaigns, the company has also proven impressively willing to publicly shame harassers on their platform. In 2016, one user forwarded Bumble a vile rant she’d received after she rejected a man on the platform; Bumble published an open letter condemning the man’s conduct and sparked the viral Twitter hashtag #LaterConnor, named after him.
The efforts of apps like Bumble recognize something important: Though dating apps can facilitate harassment, they can also help stop it. But while some of my sources reported positive experiences with Bumble’s approach, in Lena’s opinion, giving women the reins has the potential to backfire. Because men on Bumble wait for women to make the first move, they might think the women who do so are looking explicitly for sexual encounters—which is why Lena believes some men have been aggressively forward once she reached out to say hi.
When users log onto dating apps, they do so without shedding their pre-existing conceptions about how the world works. It’s unsurprising that the interactions users have in these spaces come with the baggage of real-life misogyny. Bianca told me that her negative reactions to unsolicited advances have sometimes caused men to blame her for their own bad behaviour. Much to her frustration, she’s often heard the same refrain: “You’re on Tinder. What do you expect?”
The wonderful thing about apps like Grindr, Adshade points out, is that they can help marginalized people connect with one another in a way that may not be possible in real life. Simultaneously, marginalized people can find themselves particularly vulnerable targets for online perpetrators. Users on dating apps can direct bigotry toward queer, racialized, or disabled people by pestering them with offensive comments or questions, ultimately making the platforms more difficult to navigate for people who experience multiple forms of oppression.
One common form of bigotry is fetishization: when users sexualize others’ identities or feel entitled to sex based on erroneous stereotypes. Four women who identify as lesbian or bisexual told me about being constantly pressured for threesomes by both men and women on dating apps. Natalie, who lives in the Greater Toronto Area and whose name has been changed, is frequently propositioned for threesomes. She considers this behaviour homophobic, and equates it to being treated like a “sex toy.”
Transgender and non-binary people are also frequently sexualized and targeted with intrusive lines of questioning. Cam, a person of colour from Toronto whose name has been changed, told me about receiving both transphobic and racist harassment from one user who repeatedly referred to him as an “oriental.”
Much of the harassment marginalized people experience online mirrors what they go through in real life. Some users I spoke to felt they were regarded as inferior, which in some cases has led to them feeling excluded from the dating scene altogether. Jadyn, an Indigenous woman from Yellowknife, told me she’s had numerous negative experiences both on apps and in person. “Where I’m from, Indigenous people are looked at very negatively,” Jadyn says. “That alone can make at least a quarter of the men I speak to put off by me.” When people Jadyn meets realize that she is Indigenous, many of them regress to racist stereotypes: they bring up her treaty card or accuse her of leading an easy life. But when people mistake her as white, they treat her with much more respect.
Kristen, who lives in Brampton, Ont., has cerebral palsy and commonly encounters people who are blatantly rude about her disability on and offline. On dating apps, she gets intrusive questions, like whether she uses a wheelchair or needs a hip replacement; in real life, people just stare. “Disabled people are often rejected by the people found on dating apps or just not seen as the type of person who would even want to date,” Kristen says. “Almost as if they don’t have a love life simply because they have a disability.”
When I asked Amy if she ever tried to track Paul from Plenty of Fish down, she told me she was too afraid. The last thing Paul told her before he drove away was that if she didn’t let him fuck her next time, he would find her and “do it either way.” Amy didn’t file a report with the dating site, and even if she had, it’s hard to know what the app’s staff could have done. If dating apps already struggle to control behaviour on their platforms, it can be virtually impossible to intervene when users go offline.
Amy is far from the only person I spoke with who experienced or was threatened with assault. Jarryd, from Newfoundland, met a man on Tinder who seemed “perfect” at first; he later found himself trapped in the man’s apartment for hours when the man refused to let him leave until they had sex. On holiday in New Zealand, Joe was raped by a man who had lied to him about his HIV status. Though Joe filed a report with the police, he ultimately decided not to press charges.
All of these experiences started with a message or a swipe, but there’s a case to be made that the apps act as mere interfaces for the worst sides of human behaviour. In 2017, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) launched a public safety campaign focused on online dating and alerting the public of ways to avoid dangerous situations. Adshade has publicly criticized that campaign, as many of the situations the VPD highlighted—including a woman who met her romantic partner online and later found out he had HIV—could just as easily occur when people meet in person.
It’s telling that social media sites often explicitly carve out provisions in their terms of service that shed them of legal liability for the behaviour of their users. The actions of developers and staff are also rightfully bound by concerns about data collection and threats to user privacy—think of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and the infamous Ashley Madison hack.
A week after I spoke with one of my sources, she emailed me out of the blue. After one of her matches sexually assaulted her, she finally decided to delete Tinder. It’s hard to tell whether an app like Tinder can, or should, be held responsible for sparking initial interactions that later turn violent. Assault is a horrifying reality of many women’s lives, whether or not they meet their aggressors online. Could Plenty of Fish really have prevented someone like Paul from assaulting Amy?
This is not to suggest that apps are relieved of all responsibility toward their users. Certainly, facets of online dating can aggravate existing risks. Elements of anonymity on certain apps make it difficult to hold users accountable for their terrible actions. Aside from the car Paul drove and the name he had given her, Amy has no information about the man who assaulted her—he deleted his profile shortly after they met, and she hasn’t heard from him since.
Adshade points out that, unlike Plenty of Fish and OKCupid, apps like Tinder and Bumble require users to sign up with Facebook, adding an element of verification that promotes user safety. The other side of that coin is that an easily identifiable Facebook profile or a synchronized Instagram account can put users at risk of being tracked down. After Rose, who lives in Toronto, posted a selfie to her Instagram story, one of her Tinder matches figured out where she worked, showed up and watched her until she got security involved.
Specific features of the apps can also make it easier for stalkers to get their way. One Grindr user took a picture of Jordan and sent it to him while he was working his restaurant shift in Montreal. To his distress, Jordan realized the user had tracked him down using the app’s narrow distance settings, which can specify geo-location down to the metre.
Initial sparks on apps like Tinder might too foster a sense of one-sided familiarity that makes users feel entitled to attention in real time. One Tinder user, Alyssa, told me a man she’d never seen before approached her and her children in a grocery store just to ask why she didn’t swipe right on him. Stephanie, who lives in Fredericton, was once followed home by a Tinder match who recognized her in a bar. The man walked six metres behind her the entire way to her apartment, and when she neared the building, she rushed to the door so he couldn’t enter.
An element of “stranger danger” is normalized in any internet space, especially spaces that users flock to for potential partners. But new technologies, as disruptors of everyday life, can foster fears beyond our wildest imaginations, resulting in scare stories that are too often fuelled by misinformation. Jadyn told me she’s been apprehensive about using dating apps since she heard a gruesome story from a friend. A woman’s Tinder date drugged her in her home, and when she woke up from her stupor, she was horrified to find her furniture cased in plastic and power tools lying on the floor. A quick Google search revealed the story was a viral hoax.
When I asked my sources whether the apps they use could have made things safer for them, many said no. Given the onslaught of misogyny and bigotry they receive in real life, many women and marginalized people on dating apps expect to be objectified or targeted.
While it’s unreasonable to expect an app to provide a quick fix to harassment, they can change the game. The largest dating apps have hordes of staff working behind the scenes, imposing a sort of governance on their users, and relatively contained online spaces can provide a solid landscape for social change.
Most dating websites and apps have robust policies in place to protect their users from harassment, and the platforms themselves from liability. When I reached out to major dating and hook-up apps for comment, Tinder and Plenty of Fish affirmed their broad commitment to their existing policies, and encouraged users to report any offensive behaviour they encounter Grindr didn’t respond to my requests, and, disappointingly given the app’s mandate, Bumble didn’t either.
There are also specific ways apps can tailor their services to their consumers. Users I spoke to had a number of suggestions for improvement: allowing users more agency over what information they share, sorting users into categories depending on what kinds of interactions they are looking for, and making information about consent more visible on the apps themselves.
The efforts of apps to address harassment have often been met with mixed results. Bumble was launched with the intention to create a positive space for women and LGBTQ people. The company, however, faced backlash for a public safety campaign that appeared to be focused exclusively on harassment faced by women and perpetrated by men, ignoring non-heterosexual users.
In 2017, Tinder launched a “Menprovement” initiative geared toward improving the behaviour of its male users. The strategy’s new “Reactions” feature armed female users with the ultimate weapons against harassment—emojis. The promotional material for Tinder’s Reactions showed women bravely fending off creeps by firing off red Xs as strikes or tossing virtual martini glasses at their screens. Critics were unimpressed.
An overwhelming number of my sources wanted apps to take reports more seriously. When I asked Tinder to explain their reporting process, a media representative said that Tinder takes “appropriate measures” to respond to reports, which may include removing profiles or banning users. (Everyone I spoke to who filed reports on Tinder told me they didn’t know what happened to the person they reported.) It’s unclear whether Tinder’s policy is to follow up in these cases, and media relations declined to elaborate.
With millions of subscribers around the globe, and without resorting to Big-Brother-like surveillance, it’s understandable that apps trying to address harassment might experience hiccups along the way. It’s much easier to change a platform’s settings than to tackle the internalized bigotry and entitlement of the people who use it for evil purposes.
Put aside for a moment that harassment on dating apps is difficult to address—many people don’t consider it a real problem. In a context where many users are comfortable with sexual attention, others may feel entitled to it; the boundaries that would exist in real life tend to evaporate when people take to their screens.
Though most users I contacted on dating apps were eager to share their stories, I was also mocked for my efforts when I posted a call for submissions in Facebook groups. Some people laughed off the idea that consent could even apply on dating apps, and one user told me (in far less cordial terms) that I was going through an awful lot of effort to get laid.
Underlying the resistance to being proactive about this problem, there appears to be one logical way for users to stop harassment on their own: unmatch or block the people that are causing them harm.
Still, many users reported unmatching or blocking people who simply found them on other social media sites. Other platforms, like Grindr, don’t use a matching system at all, and users can message anyone.
Focusing on the responsibilities of users also places the onus on them to take precautions. But apps that foster certain digital dynamics, and certainly apps that make users pay for their services, have an obligation to the people who occupy them. Beyond elements of social responsibility, platforms that don’t do enough to promote online safety may find themselves losing customers: A number of my users, fed up with the way they’ve been treated, have decided to keep their distance.
My career as a Tinder journalist is over, and not by choice. A week and a half into my reporting, Tinder suspended my account and placed it under review indefinitely. Over the span of a month, I went back and forth with Tinder’s team to figure out why they barred me from the platform. Some of the sources I’d been in the process of interviewing undoubtedly believe that I abandoned them, and I don’t blame them. Telling a stranger on an app about experiencing sexual harassment and abuse isn’t exactly easy.
Tinder eventually deleted my account, copy-pasting the same message when they notified me I’d been removed from the platform. Media relations had little to say beyond linking me to Tinder’s policies and claiming that I was using the platform for an inappropriate “commercial” purpose.
It is disappointing, not to mention ironic, that Tinder suspended a journalist for using their platform to report on harassment under the same policies that are supposed to protect their users.
Given the dissatisfaction my sources expressed with Tinder’s reporting process, some people believe the company is not paying attention to their stories. When I tried to make those stories public, Tinder pulled the plug.
Apps can do better—and people can too. Technology is part of our lives, and dating apps have a huge role to play in fostering modern romance. For better or for worse, online dating is here to stay. We should embrace the innovation dating apps have brought about while insisting that they do more to ensure their platforms are equitable for everyone.
“My body is mine, no matter what the situation is,” Amy tells me. I hope that one day, online spaces will be hers too.
Teodora Pasca is a student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. From 2016 to 2018, she ran the opinion and editorial sections of the Varsity, the university’s student newspaper. As a reporter, her most in-depth stories have engaged with the ways new technologies can address social justice problems—and how innovation for the better can sometimes make things worse. Writing for This is Teodora’s first jaunt into freelance journalism.