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Dating apps: When the course of true love doesn’t run safe

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Last week’s National Summit on Women’s Safety brought together experts, advocates, service providers and people with lived experience, and took a long overdue, but important step towards ending violence against women and children in Australia.

It’s an ambitious aim, but opening this conversation is welcome, and all Australians now have an opportunity to contribute written submissions for consideration in the next National Plan.

As a Criminology Honours student at the ANU, and as a young woman existing in a world where at least one-in-five women has experienced sexual assault, and one-in-two sexual harassment, it would be easy to become overwhelmed by this expansive criminal landscape. Violence is perpetrated against women and children in ways that it would take a decades-long career to study, let alone fix. It shifts shape, depending on context.

One of the topics under discussion for the next National Plan is technology and abuse. I’m particularly interested in this, as I complete an honours research project on technology-facilitated sexual violence, specifically how it manifests through dating apps.

Last year, ABC’s Four Corners and Triple J’s Hack exposed a deeply troubling pattern of sexual assault facilitated by Tinder. Their investigation earned Tinder the label of a ‘predator’s playground’. The investigation detailed the numerous ways Tinder facilitates and fails to respond to sexual assault.

Of particular concern was the ability for offenders to use to their own advantage, features designed to protect users. One example was Tinder’s ‘unmatch ‘function, which allowed offenders to block their victims after an assault, erasing any evidence of their prior communication.

In the wake of the investigation, Tinder has opted to remove this function and has released plans for a suite of new features designed to promote user safety. While welcome, the efficacy of these features remains to be seen, and we’re yet to know whether the changes will amount to more than a band-aid on a bullet-hole.

Despite ongoing criticisms about the safety aspects on Tinder and similar location-based dating apps, there has been little meaningful action taken by dating platforms and their parent companies towards addressing the root cause of these issues—the fact that these apps grant access to anyone and everyone, even those with a violent criminal history. At present, anyone can create an account and portray themselves however they wish, with only a phone number or email required to sign up for most platforms.

The substantial changes that could rid these platforms of violent and sexual offenders are unlikely to be made. It would take nothing short of a complete industry-wide overhaul, including extensive background and criminal history checks, which if implemented come with a host of additional complexities related to privacy and security.

Right now on these apps, in the void of the advancement of practical and effective perpetrator-focused safety features, women remain responsible for preventing our own victimisation. This is not how it should be, and my research aims to collect women’s lived experiences and perceptions about safety while using dating apps, and how women go about managing this responsibility.

As we’re spending more and more time on our devices and with half the country plunged into lockdown, we are perhaps headed for a ‘bumper crop’ of app-led meet-ups as the country opens up again. With it, comes an increase of the inherent threat to women’s safety, adequate solutions to which are not yet clear.

While I acknowledge the prevalence of dating app facilitated sexual and violent offending among all populations including the LGBTIQ+ community, gender norms are deeply reflected in this crime type, making heterosexual women most vulnerable.

If you identify as a woman between 18 and 55, have a sexual/romantic interest in men, and have used or are actively using location-based real-time dating apps (Tinder, Bumble, Hinge etc) I’d appreciate your contribution to my survey.

https://anu.au1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0VShsNiWLpj83Pw?fbclid=IwAR0Vr8jXG8eb3-kq3ZnQZc6HrxA46JjWGS9Y9_v4TNfvhwS0NYFPWfhqQME

 

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