The darkest side of online dating
Dating apps were popular before the pandemic, but forced isolation caused them to boom.
Tinder, the most downloaded dating app in the world, hit three billion swipes in a single day during March 2020 – and it's broken that record more than 100 times since then.
Although these apps have helped many people connect with other singles for years, some daters have raised alarm bells about the environment they breed. This is especially the case for women, who experience a disproportionate amount of harassment and abuse on the platforms, most often from straight men.
“The toughest elements for me involved being treated much like I was being used for free sex work,” says Shani Silver. “It doesn't feel good. It hurts.”
Silver, a New York City-based writer and host of dating podcast A Single Serving, used dating apps for a decade. “I was often asked for a sexual favour before someone said hello, before someone told me their actual name. Most of what was happening in that world for me was dismissal – a lot of dismissal, a lot of being made to feel like I was of lesser value.”
These messages proliferate across platforms, and do affect both men and women. But women appear to be disproportionally affected. Data from a 2020 Pew Research Center study confirms that many women are experiencing some form of harassment on dating sites and apps.
Of woman online daters aged 18 to 34, 57% said they’d received sexually explicit messages or images they hadn’t asked for. This is even the case for teen girls aged 15 to 17, who report receiving these messages as well. A 2018 Australian study of dating-platform messages revealed that the sexist abuse and harassment does disproportionately affect women, targeted by straight men.
Some users also report psychological stress – and even more extreme experiences. A 2017 study from the Pew Research Center indicated 36% of online daters found their interactions “either extremely or very upsetting”. Woman daters 18 to 35 in the 2020 Pew study also reported high occurrences of threats of physical harm – 19% (as compared to 9% of men). And, generally, one study showed cisgender heterosexual and bisexual men seldom expressed concerns about their personal safety while using dating apps, while women had far higher concern.
Youth-culture writer Nancy Jo Sales was so rocked by her experience on these platforms that she wrote a memoir about it: Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno.
“These things have become normalised so quickly – things that are not normal, and should never be normal, like the amount of abuse that happens, and the risk and the danger of it, not only physical but emotional,” she says, citing her experiences. She cautions that not everyone on dating apps is having negative experiences, but there are enough who are that “we need to talk about the harm coming to people”.
As this unnerving behaviour taints women’s experience on dating apps, why are interactions like these allowed to perpetuate? Part of the answer lies in the way these platforms are policed, both by the companies who make them as well as larger governmental structures. This means detrimental effects for their targeted users – and changing the situation may be an uphill battle.