Are dating sites doing enough to protect their users?

Is offering free therapy for users who have experienced abuse on a dating app enough or should more support and preventative measures be put in place? (Credit- The Independent)

Over the past eighteen months of the pandemic online dating, through the use of apps such as Tinder and Bumble, has increased dramatically, quickly becoming the new way to meet people romantically. However, as the face of new relationships change, so do the sexual power dynamics involved. Bumble now seem set on addressing this, having recently announced that they will now offer free therapy sessions for those who experience sexual assault and violence after using their service.

It’s been met positively, and cements Bumble’s branding as an app challenging sexism in the dating world. Its founder, Whitney Wolfe, set up the app after leaving Tinder due to alleged workplace harassment; the male-dominated technology industry is itself rife with sexism and sexual violence. Whilst this is a step in the right direction when considering the new implications of online interactions in a romantic space, it brings into question why we require these additional services from a dating app in the first place.

Bumble "has built its unique selling point on offering an app to redress the unequal heteronormative sexual power dynamic that exists between men and women [but] little has been done to address the seedy underbelly of online sexual violence."

Offering free therapy sessions to those who have survived sexual violence as a result of using the app is far more than its counterparts like OkCupid and Tinder have offered, but this action still requires a level of responsibility on reporting from the survivor, rather than attempting to prevent these incidents from happening in the first place. Many survivors still feel a sense of shame when reporting incidents of sexual assault which also prevents them from doing so. Although Bumble is trying to remove itself from the criminal justice side of things and use its survivor-led partnerships with Bloom and Chayn to address this, free therapy sessions are not enough. It has also not been made explicitly clear by Bumble what they are classing as sexual assault and relationship abuse. Would receiving unwanted sexually explicit images count as sexual harassment? These incidents should not be placed on a hierarchy of trauma responses, but reports like these are incredibly commonplace, with approximately 57% of 18 to 34 year olds outlining that they had received sexually explicit images without their consent - why are there no tools to tackle this kind of behaviour in the first place?

Sexual violence exists everywhere, and it is not any dating app’s sole responsibility to crusade against this, however there are more ways to prevent this from occurring in these avenues. Bumble does operate a photo verification service in order to avoid incidents of catfishing, which can have severe consequences, but apart from that there is little in place to protect its users. There have been cases where dating sites and apps have allowed known sexual offenders to use their services, which can often lead to repeat offences using said apps. That isn’t to say that just those who have already offended are the ones who would only target others on the app, as 36% of users have reported their online dating interactions to be very upsetting, of which this statistic is disproportionately young women.

What can dating sites commit to ensure that exploitation does not occur on their apps? (Credit-Unsplash)

It is interesting then, that for an app like Bumble which has built its unique selling point on offering an app to redress the unequal heteronormative sexual power dynamic that exists between men and women, that little has been done to address the seedy underbelly of online sexual violence. If anything, dating apps have just become another way for the patriarchal construction of sexuality to exist and be policed, and by introducing free therapy sessions for survivors of sexual violence, Bumble has made a clear admittance that this is very real problem facing many of its users.

What would be interesting to see alongside free therapy sessions, is a commitment to tackling the culture of sexual violence that exists both on and offline. Whilst support services are needed -given that sexual violence should not solely exist in a criminal justice narrative which removes most agency from survivors anyway- being able to report if someone is a repeat offender is crucial alongside being able to access legal advice. Additionally, continued partnerships with survivor led organisations like Bumble have with Bloom, are ones which every dating site should have in place. In an ideal world, we would not need these measures, but without comprehensive education about sex and power, stronger support services and reporting mechanisms are crucial to making them a safer place for those disproportionately at risk of sexual violence. If online dating is the future, then changing the current violent patriarchal culture has to be addressed as the root of the problem, otherwise all other solutions will always be temporary.

Maisie Allen is a final year Liberal Arts undergraduate student, specialising in English Literature and Politics, at King's College London, where she also serves as President of their Women and Politics Society. She has served on Plan International UK's Youth Advisory Panel since January 2019 and has a keen interest in the intersectional nature of feminism and its role in public policy and legislation. She is also a Higher Education Ambassador for Our Streets Now and is passionate about making university campuses a place free from all forms of gender-based violence.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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