Welcome to No Love Lost, where we explore everything from attachment theory to sexting, to unpick how our experiences of relationships and dating have been changed and challenged during lockdown.
I’ve opened a dating app and been greeted by some pretty strange messages over the years. But the weirdest so far? “Your account has been removed. You have been banned… for violating our Terms of Service”.
I’d been using a popular app on and off for a couple of years, but preferred meeting people in real life so had deleted it a few months ago (the irony is not lost). When lockdown hit, I wasn’t the only one whose romantic life took a nosedive – without parties, festivals or birthday drinks at bars, how was anyone meant to meet “someone”?
Even when restrictions lifted, opportunities to meet new people remained at a solid zero, so I pondered returning to the digital dating world again. “Do it for the drama,” my sister joked, bored as I was of the inertia that Covid-19 has forced upon us all. At the same time, a friend had been on a great date, via a dating app, and was singing its praises. “Just give it one more chance,” she enthused. So in September, I tentatively downloaded an app again.
This time, however, there was no invitation to upload pictures or answer the toe-curling conversational prompts. I’d received a lifetime ban, and couldn’t even log in.
I laughed and sent a screenshot to the aforementioned friend, who I was planning on holding personally responsible for the next dating disaster.
“I bet someone reported you because you binned them off,” she replied.
At first, I combed over the small print to make sure I hadn’t broken any of the community guidelines. I hadn’t.
Hinge only asks that you only become a member if you are genuinely looking for a relationship, you’re kind to others and you are authentic. Tinder and other popular dating apps echo the same guidelines, stating: “If you’re honest, kind and respectful to others, you’ll always be welcome. If you choose not to be, you may not last.”
Online dating sites and apps also go into detail about what they won’t allow, for example, nudity/sexual content, harassment, threats of violence, hate speech, spam, promotion, solicitation, prostitution, scamming or impersonation.
After reading that, I worried I’d been hacked or impersonated somehow. Out of concern, curiosity and confusion, I submitted an appeal – I wanted an explanation, if not a solution. For a while, the most thought I gave it was when rolling it out as an anecdote to my friends.
’I bet someone reported you because you binned them off,’ my friend suggested
I heard nothing for a while, so I started looking deeper online for answers.
Match Group is the parent company that owns Tinder, Hinge, Match.com, OkCupid, PlentyOfFish and Ship. I discovered that these and other apps had been criticised in the past for their handling of similar complaints.
Many users had taken to social media to discuss the issue, such as the Twitter page @ytinderbannedme, and posts in chat forums on sites such as Reddit outlined a pattern whereby seemingly innocent users – predominantly female-identifying – would be banned with no explanation and no option to appeal.
I read distressed comments from people whose conversations and contacts had been removed with no warning, and those who were just plain frustrated.
I couldn’t stop thinking about one Reddit thread in which the commenter (a man, I established) advised a fellow user to simply report a girl “any time they are a c*** to you… The moment you receive a text that isn’t moving things forward in a way you want, just report… When I report regularly, I just type ‘gaslighting’ as the reason, and then add ‘made me feel uncomfortable’ (the catch-all that can’t be proven).”
It made my skin crawl, and reminded me of the online incel culture whereby ‘involuntarily celibate’ men plot punishments for women who won’t sleep with them. Is revenge-reporting their new tactic? Had someone reported me because I hadn’t replied or “moved things forward in a way that they wanted”?
I reached out to several women online who had experienced similar issues. “I believe it was men who were upset that I didn’t respond either fast enough or after they had sent me messages I didn’t want to reply to. I truly cannot think of anything else that could have got me banned,” says Maiya, 28.
Kim, 22, agreed, adding that “People might assume my account is a catfish account because I’m a pretty girl and I don’t respond.”
Kara, 21, and Harriet, 26, were both banned from the apps they’d be using after reporting men that had sexually assaulted them, one of whom had created multiple fake profiles in order to contact the woman. Of all the women I spoke to, most appealed and one said she couldn’t as the decision had been “informed and final”. Only one successfully had their ban lifted after tweeting about it.
In the name of research, I took a deep breath and texted the handful of people I had met on the app whose numbers I still had. I assured them that it wasn’t some elaborate way to get back in touch or trick them into a confession, and to their credit, they all responded denying reporting me or, indeed, anyone else.
But I still wasn’t reassured: I had no reason to think they were lying, but I knew that if I had been targeted, it was the tip of the iceberg.
Trans people continue to be reported at higher rates by cisgender members simply for being who they are
Last year, Tinder’s Chief Executive Elie Seidman admitted to Reuters that its reporting options were being abused: “Trans people continue to be reported at higher rates by cisgender members simply for being who they are”. Trawling social media, Reddit, and Trust Pilot, it was apparent that trans people, and women in particular, were being targeted.
Tia, 28, has been banned multiple times by dating apps. “I had been using the app on and off for six months. Almost immediately after I highlighted that I was transgender in my profile, my account got removed.” The app later reactivated her account, claiming it had been reported for catfishing, but not without endless emails to get the issue sorted.
Actor and activist Laverne Cox was banned from Hinge in July, and Hinge responded that users didn’t believe her account was real because she’s so high-profile. In November, she posted an Instagram video that addressed transphobia, and explained she had been banned again on both Hinge and OkCupid. “There are some men out there who don’t even want a trans person in their existence in any way – because they might find themselves attracted to a trans woman and all of a sudden they have to question their ‘masculinity’. So it’s easier for them if we just don’t exist – on apps, in public, anywhere.”
The app responded to Cox, as reported in Gay Times, saying, “We’re honoured that you chose us to help you find love. We’re so sorry our people thought having you on Hinge was too good to be true. Your account has been reinstated and we’ve given you a lifetime preferred membership, which we hope you won’t need for long.”
Hinge’s own website states that it “does not offer an appeals process“, but a spokesperson for Hinge told Stylist: “If someone believes they were inaccurately removed from our community, they can submit an appeal request to firstname.lastname@example.org to our Trust & Safety team. We have a priority queue that allows us to review appeals by anyone who believes they were banned based on their gender.”
Many dating apps do not disclose their criteria for individual bans, and many have reported a lack of information provided to the banned user about which rule they are supposed to have broken. This policy tends to protect the identities of victims but can also leave innocent users vulnerable to ‘revenge reporting’ with no opportunity to make their defence.
Two months after my original appeal, my account was reactivated.
I was told my account was removed because of a “bug that resulted in some users on our Android app mistakenly receiving a ‘You’ve Been Banned’ error message”. Most of the women I spoke to who had been using Hinge used iPhones and said Hinge informed them that either that their account was accidentally flagged by security measures, that it was a mistake or simply a technical error.
“We work tirelessly to protect and create safe spaces for all users regardless of gender identity,” says Hinge. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for any behaviour that is abusive, discriminatory, or that promotes hatred of any kind. This includes making deliberately false reports on our platform against other users based on their gender identity or using the report feature to denote discriminatory biases. Furthermore, anyone who reports a user for being trans or non-binary will be banned from our community.”
“If a user experiences transphobia, we encourage them to report it through our hate speech reporting option – which they can do directly within the app – for us to take immediate action.”
Dating is hard. Dating in 2021 is near-impossible. Dating apps are meant to empower us
Sadly, Tia and many others who have experienced abuse say reports to their respective apps haven’t been met with action and there are many concerns that users wish to see addressed.
Dating apps are big business. Match earned $2.1 billion in revenue in 2019 but perhaps it’s the case that fast-developing, industry-leading dating platforms can’t keep up with their own growth: the bigger they get, the more problems arise, and the faster those problems spiral out of control.
Dating is hard. Dating in 2021 is near-impossible. Dating apps are meant to empower us: but they need to address where they are failing to protect women’s safety or create a space where all women are welcomed. If one acts, they set the precedent for other apps to follow suit. If every profile reported is reviewed by a human moderator, as so many of the apps promise, the concept of “revenge reporting” should be easy to eliminate.
Unlike our height, location or age, women’s safety is not a preference you can opt in or out of. It should be the bare minimum offered by all dating apps, and until it can be, perhaps we should be deleting them first.