Despite having navigated the same unforgiving dating scene that nearly every other twenty-something heterosexual woman attending college in the '10s (perhaps best described in the decidedly unsexy economics term of being a buyer in a seller's market) has faced, it wasn't until a year or so after graduation that I finally journeyed into the world of dating apps.
I had never questioned the safety of using a dating app until I began chatting with David.* After a couple of casual messages about pizza and the best hangout spots in the city, we decided to meet up, and he gave me his phone number. I Googled him to see if he was actually cute, given some questionable photo choices on his profile.Instead, I stumbled upon multiple social media threads in which a number of women from the city where he used to live accused him of date rape and stalking.
This kind of scenario isn't uncommon. In October 2015, Usha Patel was murdered in her London home by a man she met through a dating website seven months earlier, and in April of last year, a Seattle woman was dismembered by a man she connected with online a couple months earlier. There are more online dating stories with endings far worse than a lack of chemistry or forgotten wallet.
According to Eric Garrison, clinical and forensic sexologist and Chair of Virginia Campus Task Force to Prevent Sexual Violence, online daters face dangers unique to the digital age. Fifty years ago wannabe lovers taking out singles ads in the paper might have run the risk of a respondent who actually lived in a different city, but in this day and age when you set up an online profile, there are different and less obvious ways that you can be exploited.
"They can get you emotionally, they could get you financially, they could get photographs and blackmail you," Garrison said in an interview with VICE Impact. "They could never even meet you and create emotional damage."
Though hard statistics are difficult to pin down, in 2016 the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) reported a 450 percent increase in rapes related to online dating over a six year period (granted, there was also a very large increase in people using online dating platforms over that same period, as the report notes). The NCA report noted that the offenders were less likely to be convicted criminals, instead, taking advantage of " the ease of access and arm-chair approach to dating websites," creating a "new type of sexual offender."
But for femme individuals, in particular, intimate partner violence is far from an online phenomenon; according to stats from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women in the US has experienced intimate partner violence--including battery or physical or sexual assault--and one in seven women has been stalked (compared to one in eighteen men). The CDC lists homicide as a leading cause of death among women ages 15 to 24; according to NCADV, one in three murder victims were killed by intimate partners. Similarly, the Williams Institute found that between 30 and 50 percent of trans individuals will experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. It would seem that online interactions are, sadly, just a reflection of real-world problems.
So what can you do when attempting to swipe your way to happiness? Garrison recommends having friends read your profile after you draft it, or have a close friend help you write it--not only to make sure you're presenting yourself as honestly as possible, but to also detect potential elements that could make you easy to find in the real world.
"I do encourage people to change things a little bit for safety," Garrison said, like bumping your age by just a year or two. When you begin chatting, keep an eye out for red flags; since they tend to vary based on cultural norms and individual preferences, it's important to set boundaries early on your profile and in conversation, like how long you expect to message before meeting in person or whether or not you'd prefer to talk on the phone before meeting up."
"It helps to be able to communicate [boundaries] early on," Garrison continued. "Red flags are where there's gross boundary violation, especially if it's been clarified."
Once offline, he suggests keeping early dates casual, like mid-day coffee. And location is key: "Pick safe neutral spaces; meeting at the picnic area of your apartment is still not a neutral space," he says, noting that you don't want to easily pinpoint your living space too early. "Be very safe when you pick those safe spaces."
And of course, focus on the positives that can come with online dating, including the buffer provided by reading profiles and checking out pictures before making a move. "It can give us clues, good or bad, into someone's life."
Want to help out individuals escaping or looking to escape domestic violence? Check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline