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SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus pandemic has driven singles to online dating apps and communities now more than ever, resulting in a lot of happily ever afters. But before wedding plans begin, online dating still remains only a precursor to in-person dating, and precautions for initial meet-ups need to be taken seriously.
Even outside of a global pandemic, though, on average 3 in 10 adults still utilized dating apps, according to a recent Pew Research study. Thus, recognizing the hazards of online dating is no laissez-faire matter. The study further found that 57% of female users between the ages of 18 and 34 reported that another user had sent them a sexually explicit message or image they didn't ask for, while 19% said someone had threatened to physically harm them.
Although some online apps advertise that they are more "secure" than others, Marc Mathis, a justice division administrator at the Salt Lake County District Attorneys Office, said that sexual assault occurs across all online dating platforms, so users should always be alert.
"For example, with Mutual, there's a presumption that Mutual might be safer. Whereas, Tinder is more expansive and aimed at people that might want to just thumb through a Rolodex of people," Mathis stated. "But across the board, regardless of whatever app it is, if it's an online situation the same predatory tactics are going to be a play in whatever app you use."
Popular dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, Bumble or Mutual (frequently used in Utah) don't screen users or conduct criminal background checks. This is why Mathis reiterated the importance of asking several initial and follow-up questions throughout all text messages and in-person exchanges.
Prince or Princess Charming could be a felon on the run, he said.
Just like when somebody calls up and says, 'Hey, I'm calling from the Social Security Administration,' and tells you that your SSN has been compromised and 'we need to verify your identity.' You are skeptical of the caller, and so you should be in your online interactions.
–Marc Mathis, Salt Lake County District Attorneys Office
"Just like when somebody calls up and says, 'Hey, I'm calling from the Social Security Administration,' and tells you that your SSN has been compromised and 'we need to verify your identity.' You are skeptical of the caller, and so you should be in your online interactions," Mathis explained.
And while the first or second date might have gone well, that doesn't mean Tinder date No. 12 is a known entity now.
"Be more cautious and recognize that if you're dating in an online capacity, it will take you longer to get to know this person because in online situations there is literally no or limited context for this person," Mathis stated. "The one thing I can say that has been consistent with any case I've ever dealt with arising out of dating apps is to always meet in a public place. That is rule number one."
Mathis explained that dating apps are an easy medium that predators can exploit, making it easier to perpetuate. Engaging with potential dates used to be a solely in-person physical interaction that happened at school, work or through a friend's referral. Online apps easily mask red flags that are apparent during an initial physical interaction, because the online potential date has sole control and can manipulate how you view him or her.
Katherine Aguilera, director of advocacy at Utah's Rape Recovery Center, further elaborated that warning signs include the perpetrator seeking to control the victim.
"We would advise looking for red flags that typically have a focus on control and power. Even early on in the 'talking stage' via apps or online, you can note certain language that follows alarming behavior. The following are examples that pertain more to relationships and also show themselves through certain language early on; they include but are not limited to:
- Peer pressure: Threatening to expose someone's weakness or spread rumors, telling malicious lies about an individual
- Anger/emotional abuse: Putting the person down or minimizing feelings, making them feel bad about themselves, making them think they are playing mind games, humiliation, making the partner feel guilty
- Using social status: treating the partner like a servant, making all decisions, being the one to define 'men and women' roles
- Intimidation: making someone afraid by using looks, actions, gestures, destroying property, displaying weapons
- Minimize/deny blame: making light of the abuse and not taking concerns about it seriously
- Sexual coercion: manipulating or making threats to get sex, getting someone pregnant, and/or getting someone drunk or drugged to have sex
- Threats: making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt another, threatening to leave."
There are, of course, countless success stories. The concern Mathis repeatedly expressed, though, was that of observing victims who possessed a false sense of security because online apps physically separate an individual from a predator. In reality, these victims were being emotionally manipulated into a place where they would let their guard down in a real-life situation.
And if victims are relying on dating apps to be held legally liable for assaults committed offsite, this will not happen.
"Online dating services have used a provision in the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) to deflect lawsuits claiming negligence for an incident of sexual assault," according to a recent ProPublica article.
Further, the article elaborates that a perpetrator's current dating app will typically not alert the next dating app he or she joins of prior complaints made against the individual. If a victim is assaulted on Bumble or Tinder, when that perpetrator then joins Hinge, potential Hinge victims will be unaware of that individual's past history.
"You don't know them. You don't," Mathis said. "And dating apps don't change that until you spend enough quality time with them in real life to find out that you, at some point, do."
However, if you do find yourself as a victim of sexual assault, Aguilera wants to remind everyone that sexual assault can occur regardless of precautions taken.
"We want people to know that if they are assaulted, that it is never their fault. Assault and abuse are always the perpetrator's fault; and ultimately, we have to keep doing more to create communities where abuse is not acceptable, even while we are using new methods of meeting people," Aguilera explained.
The Rape Recovery Center's tips for safer online dating
Use different photos for your dating profile. It's easy to do a reverse image search with Google. If your dating profile has a photo that also shows up on your Instagram or Facebook account, it will be easier for someone to find you on social media.
Avoid connecting with suspicious profiles. If the person you matched with has no bio or linked social media accounts, and has only posted one picture, it may be a fake account.
Check out your potential date on social media. If you know your match's name or handles on social media, look them up and make sure they aren't catfishing you by using a fake social media account to create their dating profile.
Block and report suspicious users. You can block and report another user if you feel their profile is suspicious or if they have acted inappropriately toward you. This can often be done anonymously before or after you've matched.
If at any point you or someone you know needs help, the Rape Recovery Center has certified crisis counselors available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to provide confidential crisis intervention, referral advocacy assistance, and overall emotional support to anyone impacted by sexual violence. This service is available in 150 languages via a 3-way tele-interpreting service. The crisis line number is 801-467-7273.