This morning, the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) released frightening research for the one in ten adults who spend over an hour a day browsing online dating sites: Sexual assaults initiated by strangers met on dating sites and apps have increased dramatically over the last five years. According to the study, titled "Emerging new threat in online dating: Initial trends in internet dating-initiated serious sexual assaults," reports of "online dating initiated sexual offences" increased from 33 incidents in 2009 to 184 incidents in 2014—that's six-fold. Eighty-five percent of victims were women, and 42 percent of female victims were between the ages of 20 and 29.
Although the report is quick to note that online dating platforms "offer relatively safe and positive opportunities for individuals to meet prospective partners," it nevertheless also highlights the difficulty of preventing sexual assaults that originate in the deceptive spaces of online dating platforms, where strangers are not framed as strangers who could easily be lying to you but as potential soul mates. Websites like MyMatchChecker already aim to protect online daters by offering background checks specifically targeted towards people using sites like OkCupid and Tinder—but these cost money, and they require knowing your potential suitor's real name.
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"It's a tricky situation," says Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), echoing the NCA study's wariness about the potential danger in the "increased trust and intimacy" that can develop in online relationships—a little more than half the reported incidents began with communication that included "sexual content" before a face-to-face meeting. "I think that it's fairly easy to tell the creeps and to stay away from them, but that's not where the biggest worry is," Berkowitz says. Offenders have adapted to the parameters and conventions of online dating: The NCA report notes that online dating has "produced a new type of sexual offender" who is less likely to have prior criminal convictions. Instead, these offenders "exploit the ease of access and arm-chair approach to dating websites."
"The thing about most rapists is they give a lot of thought to what they're doing," Berkowitz says. "They plan it out in advance, they think about when and where and how, and they think about how they're going to get away with it."
It's fairly easy to tell the creeps and to stay away from them, but that's not where the biggest worry is.
The dramatic statistical increase in sexual assaults resulting from online dating encounters is likely bolstered by a couple of situational factors: 1) the increase in popularity of online dating over the survey period and 2) an increase in reporting sexual assault, though the NCA is careful to point out that the levels of underreporting are still significant enough that the true number of sexual offenses that arise from online dating is unknown. Nevertheless, according to the report, there were twice as many Internet dating sexual offenses as "bogus taxi driver" sexual offenses in the 2014/2015 fiscal year.
Complicating matters is dating sites' limited ability to effectively target potential offenders; as Berkowitz says, the obvious creeps are very different from the calculated predators. "[Dating sites] are in a tough position because they have no way to tell who's likely to commit assault—no better than the rest of us do," says Berkowitz. "I think that one thing they can be doing is running members through a sex offender registry—which only has a very small portion of all sex offenders, but at least it's something. The vast majority of sex offenders are never caught or convicted, so they never show up on registries."
Although "there's no easy way to identify someone who's capable of doing this," Berkowitz says, there are ways you can stay safer. "The general rules about meeting strangers are sort of the best you can do—meet in public, get to know them as much as possible in a public setting before you're alone with them." The NCA report supports this advice: Forty-one percent of incidents studied in the NCA report began as dates at a residence, and 72 percent of assaults ultimately occurred at either the victim or the offender's residence.
The vast majority of sex offenders are never caught or convicted, so they never show up on registries.
Users can also try to do their own background checks using low-grade Internet stalking skills—see if you can find your love interests' other social media profiles or identify any mutual friends or acquaintances. It's also important to always let someone else know you're going on a Tinder date in case something goes bad.
Despite the difficulty of avoiding potential predators on online dating platforms, the Online Dating Association, a regulatory organization based in the UK, has committed to helping the NCA limit dating site sexual assaults. "We want dating to be a safe as well as great experience and take our responsibilities seriously," the ODA said in a statement published on its website today. "We are always looking at how we can do more."