You may never have used any of these, but you’re probably familiar with how they work. What you may not be aware of is the level and frequency of sexual harassment that goes on once you make a match.
The hopeful among us actually thought a global pandemic would put a stop to that. And it did for a brief, shining moment. When the creeps thought they might be at risk of contracting a deadly illness, they went quiet. But then, as soon as the restrictions started to be relaxed, there they were.
Suddenly I was receiving offers of sex, some without a single “hi”. Just men bearing their virtual appendages at the virtual bar without even buying me a virtual drink.
So you probably have a few questions as you’re reading this. Why not just get off the apps? Why don’t you report them? And, why would a complete stranger send another complete stranger a picture of their privates?
Valid questions. The answers are: a) because I don’t want to die alone with 50 cats licking the skin off my face; b) of course I do; and c) if I knew the answer, I would be able to unlock the secrets to the universe.
Curious to speak to others on the frontline, I put a call-out for stories on Instagram. The response from single women was overwhelming. But it was surprising how many said they didn’t consider the kind of language they experienced as sexual harassment. (The NSW Anti-Discrimination Board’s definition of sexual harassment is “any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that makes you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written”.)
Rather, they consider it the language of the dating apps. Something they just take it in their stride – like being harassed by internet trolls – deleting the conversations, occasionally reporting it to the app’s “block and report” function if it is upsetting enough, and moving on.
Whether reporting an incident is all that effective is still a mystery. A Tinder spokesperson says “when a user reports an assault, we attempt to identify the alleged perpetrator and block the associated account”.
A representative from Bumble says their moderators review each complaint case by case, which could include banning or blocking the user.
But is that enough? Shouldn’t Australian women have the right to feel comfortable when trying to find a potential match? Why should we have our hearts in our throats every time we open up a message, not knowing if it’s going to be someone asking us out for a drink or a text full of verbal bashing?
“You have to be safe,” says Leanne McDonald, national head of abuse law at Shine Lawyers. “If [a person is] sending pictures or saying things that are unacceptable in a conversation it should just be an automatic ban. No warnings. Otherwise it’s almost encouraging it.”
McDonald says she has seen an increase in queries of this nature over the past year, and says it was likely more instances of this kind of harassment would be occurring during the coronavirus crisis. She says if women are feeling unsafe as a result of toxic behaviour on the apps, they should report the incident immediately. Not just to the respective digital platform but to the police if they feel it is warranted. “When you don’t have your normal network around for support, getting things from these sites that are unwelcome can cause real damage.”
McDonald also credits the rise in reports to the fact that people are now more likely to be believed when they come forward with their story. “If this becomes a normal conversation,” she says, “and something people can report and talk about, then I think that is a way to change the culture.”
Gary Pinchen, owner and principal of A Whole New Approach – an organisation representing Australians against sexual harassment – says there has been a spike in the past month in the number of women making complaints about online dating and harassment over social media, and inquiries as to whether they can lodge a claim.
A study published by RMIT said there were few international studies on the adult experiences of digital harassment and abuse, particularly in Australia. “Little is currently known about the extent, nature and impacts of digital harassment and abuse on adult victims,” the study said.
Frustrated with the system, many women now take to Instagram to share their stories – either on their own feeds or sending their stories to accounts such as Tinder Nightmares and Alexandra Tweten’s Instagram account, Bye Felipe.
Tweten, who is based in Los Angeles, has been a long-time advocate for change and has a podcast and book on the subject. In a Bye Felipe poll of her 560,000 followers on Friday she reported that 50 per cent had noticed a difference in the amount of sexual harassment they were experiencing, and from that group, 72 per cent confirmed it was more frequent.
“I’m just seeing a lot of dumb men trying to convince women to go against the stay-at-home order,” she says. “They’re talking about the virus like it’s an STD. One guy was trying to tell a woman it was a man-made virus. Her reply was ‘I’m a scientist. It’s not.’ His reply, ‘whatever, you’re a whore’.”
Who can you contact?
Wherever you are in Australia, you can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for confidential information, counselling and support on sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse. You can chat online and find services in your area.
Here’s a list of support organisations for victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse:
Chelsea Lowik, owner of Queens Fine Pastry in Hobart, is isolating in her hometown of Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast. She was recently pressured online by a nurse to break isolation and “hook up”.
“It’s just really frustrating. The harassment wasn’t so much overtly sexual in nature, but there was harassment around my ethics and decision making,” she says. “Almost mocking my decision to follow the rules and then getting aggressive and defensive when I called out their behaviour.”
Lowik is now taking a break from online dating.
Cassandra Ferguson, who works for boutique jeweller Heart of Bone, is no stranger to sexual harassment on dating apps. For her, it is men offering to pay for sex, asking for crude sexual favours and then getting angry and abusive when she ignores them or turns them down.
It’s a really sad reality that women shrug it off as part of dating. It shouldn’t be … but unfortunately we write it off as part and parcel of what you should expect.
For the most part, having been harassed for so long and so thoroughly, she “shrugs it off”. But sometimes it is impossible to ignore.
“It’s these guys that think that it’s OK to either say these things to your face or to text you when you constantly make it clear that you’re not comfortable with it,” she says. “It’s a really sad reality that women shrug it off as part of dating. It shouldn’t be … but unfortunately we write it off as part and parcel of what you should expect.”
Poppy Paraw, a research assistant at RMIT, says since lockdown she’s used the apps a lot more, and opened up her dating pool to people she may not usually choose. The upside was people were more eager to chat. The downside? “The incessant messaging.”
You can be more selective with whom you choose, she says, but unfortunately “nothing will really save you from harassment”.
It’s all very well to say Time’s Up for the creeps writing the messages, but is anyone going to say Time’s Up to the dating apps, with a call for stricter controls, so these men are not given a voice in the first place?
Who’s moderating the moderators?