Lana and David* clicked immediately. Their two-month relationship started via a popular dating app. His bio said he lived in San Francisco, so she initiated the conversation by asking him what brought him to her hometown of Vancouver. He wasted no time responding that he was there a lot for work.
Perfect, she thought, He isn’t someone just looking for a vacation hookup. His jet-setting lifestyle, and the fact that he was the CEO of his own company appealed to her—as did their shared love of film and food culture. Within days, they took their conversation off the dating app and onto text message and then phone calls—but it would be another two months before they would actually meet in person.
During those eight weeks, they remained in constant contact. He’d send her photos of fancy meals and funny memes and they’d talk on the phone for hours about their careers and families. Despite having never met in person, she felt she knew him and she was falling hard.
“He was flying all over the place and was very busy, so I didn’t question the fact that we were never able to meet up in Vancouver when he was here,” says Lana. Instead, she took him up on his offer to fly her to Las Vegas to spend a weekend with him. Looking back, she believes that meeting there was very intentional. “Inviting me to another city was a way to disarm me,” she says. “He even offered to talk to my mother beforehand, a gesture that helped solidify the trust I already had in him.”
She started to notice the red flags immediately after meeting him. “When I got into the hotel room, he was much more uptight and tense than he came across on the phone,” says Lana. “I asked him if we could turn the heat up in the suite and he said ‘No,’ really firmly. Then at dinner, he insisted on ordering for me and demanded I eat something I told him I didn’t like.”
His off-putting, controlling nature didn’t sit well with her, but she brushed it off—she had a vision of how the weekend would play out, and she was still hopeful that it would be realized. Instead, she faced a terrifying reality. In a city a thousand miles away from her friends and family, he sexually assaulted her.
“It was a nightmare,” she says. “It was a horror film come to life.”
Dating app horror stories are common for women. They run the gamut of being subjected to annoying, unsolicited messages to being trapped in dangerous situations like Lana was. The main gripes women have when it comes to mainstream dating apps is that they are ineffective, have a lack of quality men, and are potentially harmful. But instead of accepting these complaints as an inherent part of the app experience, the women Cosmopolitan.com spoke with believe there are measures that the dating services can make to improve the experience—and apps like Sweet Pea, a new app launching this January, are taking note.
Shirin, a New York-based wellness coach, complained that certain apps create fake accounts for men to improve the app’s appeal and says she is often hit on by guys who are only looking to hook up. “It would be great if they had categories for people who are ‘looking to hook up’ or ‘looking for a potential relationship,'” she says. “It would help users sift through the crowd.” Additionally, Shirin said that she experienced harassment from users logging in to other people’s accounts. “The ex-girlfriend of a guy I matched with started messaging me threatening comments,” she says.
A similar thing happened to Michelle, a TV production assistant from Atlanta. Except instead of an ex trying to thwart a romance from happening, it was the user’s mom attempting to play matchmaker. “I had a mother reach out to me, trying to set me up with her son!” she recalls. “There’s no reason she should have been able to message me.” She believes a secure login or two-step verification would help prevent this type of incident from happening in the first place.
Danaka, a student at MIT in Boston, says that while being able to report and block trolls is an important feature, she would prefer to never see their messages in the first place. “It would be helpful if you could flag certain words and if they show up in messages, they won’t even reach your inbox,” she says. “If you say you’re not interested, then you’re called names and no one wants to deal with that.”
“I always add a guy on social before I will meet him. If he has like, three friends or maybe doesn’t look like his photos, it’s a hard no.”
Elizabeth, a news anchor in Wyoming, had concerns for her safety when she discovered that men she matched with were creating accounts with fake identities. Even though some apps take measures to verify users by having them link to their social media accounts, there’s an easy workaround: Men can simply create fake social media profiles. Now she does her best to verify matches herself. “I always add a guy on social before I will meet him,” says Elizabeth, “And if he has like, three friends or maybe doesn’t look like his photos, it’s a hard no.”
These concerns are being heard and dating apps are evolving in ways to create a safer, more effective dating experience. Sweet Pea, which launched last year, has extensive filtering options to fine-tune the types of matches its users get, and they employ features like “Hush,” which flags offensive messages so you can choose if you want to open them. Its mission is to elevate the conversations happening on dating apps, making matches more meaningful and poised for success offline. Founder Michael Bruch designed the app to showcase users’ personalities in detailed, substantive profiles: Think icebreakers (every user has one on his or her profile, and they must be answered to initiate a connection), stories, video, and features that let users search matches from common interest topics and hashtags—all to foster quality conversations in addition to quelling safety concerns.
As for Lana, she knows it’s not always possible to gauge a stranger’s true intentions, but measures to make the dating app experience safer will help. She would love if there were ways to anonymously “flag” men who, for example, have misrepresented themselves or acted inappropriately to women on the app. Ultimately, she decided to return to online dating, and when she did, she made use of her own safety measures. She only pursued locally-based men, she did not engage in prolonged online interaction, and she insisted that all initial meetings took place in a public place or with friends in tow. Two years ago, she met her current boyfriend on an app. “I still believe a loving, meaningful relationship can be found via a dating app,” she says, “I know this because I met the love of my life on one.”