Most women are reluctant to report matches from dating apps fearing retribution, which leaves the assaulters free to pursue others.
New Delhi: Stumbling upon the man who sexually assaulted you isn’t something you would expect when casually scrolling through profiles, but for several urban women, it’s more common than you think.
Even more common is matching up with sexual assaulters.
While apps like Tinder and Hinge have helped liberate women by removing, even if to a small degree, the stigma attached to casual sex, one hard truth is becoming increasingly clear: Women are getting assaulted on their dates and see no recourse in the organisations that set them up.
The implications of this are startling – men who have assaulted a ‘match’ continue to actively use the platforms, which put them in the direct path of thousands of women who unknowingly swipe right.
‘Still can’t talk about it’
Meghna, 25, of Delhi told ThePrint about a terrifying experience she had on Tinder a couple of years ago.
Going through a troubled time in her life, Meghna logged into the app as a distraction and matched with a man who was into BDSM — a form of erotic roleplaying that deals with bondage, discipline, dominance and submission.
On their date, she said, “He took me to a tiny, dingy one-bedroom apartment somewhere in Hauz Khas.”
“He had metal handcuffs and all kinds of whips in his room. He was very drunk, but I made sure to stay sober,” she added, “Whenever he wasn’t looking, I’d drain my drink down the sink.”
“At some point, he picked me up and threw me on the bed, which didn’t even have a mattress. I hurt my back very badly,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my life.”
When Meghna tried to leave, the man caught hold of her hand, blocked the door, and tried to placate her. “He was standing right in front of the door; there was no space to run really,” she said, adding, “The only way to get out, I knew, was to just go through it.”
The man tied Meghna’s hands behind her back and led her to the terrace, where he left her alone, half-clothed, for up to 10 minutes. “I let him have sex with me, waiting for morning to come so I could leave,” she said.
Meghna said the ordeal left her in shock. “I remember, the next night, I took a cab to somewhere along the Golf Course Road and walked aimlessly on a deserted road till 3.30 am. I felt like a ghost,” she added, “I still can’t seem to talk about it.”
She subsequently blocked the man on Facebook, and stopped using Tinder for a while, choosing to switch to Truly Madly, an Indian app. “And there he was again (on Truly Madly), with the exact same pictures and bio,” she said.
What happened with Meghna was an example of cross-platform harassment, which the US-based organisation Women’s Media Centre describes as being extremely effective because “users are currently unable to report this scope and context of the harassment when they contact platforms, each of which will only consider the harassment happening on their own sites”.
Mini, a 25-year-old former software developer, was looking for a man from outside her professional sphere when she agreed to a date with a writer-photographer on Tinder four years ago.
“After a few meetings, he invited me to his house, the cutest 2BHK you could have seen,” she told ThePrint. “Everything was meticulously arranged, there were no red flags.”
Mini and her date proceeded to have sex that night, but, at a certain point, “he pushed me away and finished outside”.
“That’s when I saw that he wasn’t wearing a condom,” she said.
Mini was mortified because she clearly remembered putting one on him.
“When I confronted him, he was so casual about it,” she said. “I didn’t understand what had happened, but I realised later, when I’d read up about it, how wrong it was,” she said.
Secretly removing one’s condom without the partner’s knowledge is a dangerous trend that has its own name in the modern dating lexicon: Stealthing. Activists and victims claim it qualifies as sexual assault, because it’s a violation of the conditions of consent. In the worst case scenario, it leaves women with unplanned pregnancies.
Ananyah Iyer of Mumbai recalled a horror story similar to Mini’s.
When she agreed to have sex with a Tinder user, the founder of a well-known youth culture and media organisation, she told him “at least 15-20 times that I would not have sex without protection”. But she realised when he entered her that he wasn’t wearing a condom.
It took both women a Google search to realise how their privacy and consent had been violated.
Just months later, when Ananyah discovered the man’s media platform was set to release a newsletter on sex and sexuality, she confronted him on text, saying the initiative amounted to hypocrisy as “the owners themselves didn’t understand consent”.
“Initially, he laughed,” Ananyah told ThePrint, “Then he just stopped replying to my texts.”
Official data on the number of people who face sexual harassment on dating apps is virtually non-existent, with organisations like Tinder, Grindr and Hinge reluctant to share numbers.
However, independent studies from around the world, with varying sample sizes, can give us a fair idea.
According to one such study from 2016, conducted by the US-based nonprofit Consumers’ Research on hundreds of online daters, “Roughly 57 per cent of the female respondents, versus only 21 per cent of male respondents, reported experiencing feelings of harassment” on dating apps.
Of the platforms covered, Tinder and OkCupid topped the list, with 39 per cent and 38 per cent users of the apps, respectively, reporting feeling harassed.
Women are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment online and on dating apps because, as Women’s Media Centre explains on its website, “When men face online harassment and abuse, it is first and foremost designed to embarrass or shame them. When women are targeted, the abuse is more likely to be gendered, sustained, sexualized and linked to offline violence.”
Experiences of sexual harassment spawning from interactions on dating apps are so common among women that there is an Instagram account with over 400,000 followers dedicated to exposing it.
Started by Australia’s Alexandra Tweten in 2014, @byefelipe has received more than 4,000 submissions from women across the world. From unsolicited ‘dick pics’ to abusive retorts, the account has testimonies covering it all.
But despite the overwhelming evidence pushing for accountability, “when pressed, dating companies seem unwilling to talk about safety in much detail” a report on Quartz noted last year.
The four dating apps reviewed by ThePrint – Tinder, Hinge, Bumble and Grindr –all allow users to ‘report’ a series of transgressions: From fake profiles, inappropriate messages and spam, to inappropriate in-person behaviour after you’ve matched and met.
None, however, responded to requests for data on the number of users who have reported sexual harassment on their platforms.
“The safety and security of our users is a top priority at Tinder,” a Tinder spokesperson told ThePrint, adding that the organisation “encourages our community to report any instance of misconduct via the self-reporting tool featured on all Tinder profiles or online”.
A spokesperson from Bumble, which is due to officially launch in India by the end of this year, said information was currently under an embargo imposed by their headquarters in the United States ahead of the unveiling.
Where do we go from here?
Across testimonies recorded by ThePrint, what emerges as perhaps the biggest pitfall of dating apps is not being able search for specific members or run a thorough background check on partners users have matched with.
“You can look for (the men you match with) on Facebook and Instagram, but what if they don’t have accounts?” asked Pune resident Manisha.
“People will obviously find loopholes and stay off the radar,” she added.
For Manisha, two successive bad encounters were enough to abandon online dating altogether.
In one, a man she had matched with swiftly turned her over during intercourse and penetrated her anally, without asking her. “It all happened so quickly, I wasn’t sure what to make of it,” she added, “But I remember thinking right after it happened, why didn’t he ask me?”
Reporting the man “didn’t even occur” to Manisha. She just wanted him out of the house first thing in the morning.
It took a conversation with her flatmates and a little retrospect to fully process what had happened.
For Ananyah and Meghna, reporting their experience didn’t seem viable, as they feared retribution.
Referring to another case of assault with a man who uses Tinder, Ananyah said, “I don’t know what would happen if I reported him. I’m too scared to find out, because I just wouldn’t want him to be able to trace it back to me.”
For Meghna, reporting was out of the question. “I didn’t want to report him because he might find out that it was me, and I couldn’t have him approach my friends or anything like that. He was on my Facebook, he had access to so much of my life,” she said.
Mini just stopped talking to the man.
“He would continue to try and contact me, so I blocked him on all social media, and unmatched with him on Tinder,” she added, “But I never thought to report him on the app, no.”
For Vishal Paramanik, a 24-year-old corporate employee, the only way forward from a Grindr date rape was to adapt his own expectations.
Vishal was gang-raped by his ex-boyfriend and a match from Grindr, an app dedicated to gay dating, a few months ago in Delhi.
When they met, sex wasn’t on the table.
But still, he said, “Both of them started to have sex with me even as I cried out in pain – it was as if crying made them more wild.”
“They were both muscular, and I had no energy to fight back. Then I fainted.”
Vishal stopped meeting people from Grindr for a few months after that. “Thoughts about the incident are always in the back of my head, and difficult to explain,” he told ThePrint.
Vishal said he did not report the duo that raped him, because “how could I, when your own people do this to you”.
Why no one reports
Of the seven people ThePrint spoke to, none hit the report button. Without data and a larger sample size, it is impossible to ascertain how many or why people feel uncomfortable reporting abusive matches.
However, experts say it could be because one’s online and offline behaviour often mirror each other.
“Online behaviour definitely mimics offline behaviour,” said Smita Vanniyar, the second lead of digital projects at Point of View, an organisation aimed at amplifying women’s voices in digital and real-world spaces.
“The people using online and offline platforms are not any different,” she added, “Technology and the internet can never be gender-neutral when the people behind them are not neutral.”
If people are not reporting instances of sexual harassment, Vanniyar believes there are three interconnected reasons why: “One, they probably don’t see it as useful or as taking meaningful action. Two, if the instance of harassment was in-person, then they don’t see it as an online problem [alone], and three, they can’t see what happens after they report.”
The changing nature of danger
According to Kavita Arora, a leading psychiatrist in Delhi, the lack of reporting could have to do with how social media has skewed our understanding of danger.
“See, you’re not going out to a place that is potentially or conventionally supposed to be dangerous, so you don’t have your antenna on — now the danger is on your phone, coming to you,” she added.
When it comes to coping with trauma caused by such experiences, Arora says there really isn’t any recourse for those who choose not to take legal action.
“Who is allowing this to happen in the larger picture?” she said, “Whether it’s mindless apathy, or mindfully neglecting the kind of impact your product can create, there is no regulatory authority from the corporate’s side taking accountability for the impact of such apps on our mental health.”
What apps can do
Though Tinder has stated that it has a “zero-tolerance policy for harassment on or off [the] platform”, reporting mechanisms and how they work still remain unclear to users.
Vanniyar said the apps could do a lot to make users feel safer to report abusers and assaulters. “No one should feel like their abusers will find out if they report, and apps should put up a message every time someone looks to report, saying their identities will be kept confidential”, she said.
“What apps can definitely do to encourage reporting is keep their users in the loop and follow up on reports,” said Vanniyar.
“Even if no action has been taken against an accused user, the person pressing the button needs to know.”
Without proactive encouragement, survivors resort to what they have for years: Silence, or, like Manisha, talking to friends to seek solace.
“Talking to my flatmates helped me realise what happened was wrong,” she said. For Mini, it was searching for the right words to articulate her sense of violation.
For some, coming across an abuser unwittingly means reliving the trauma.
Waiting to recover from the jolt can sometimes be too late, for the next time the app is opened, the man’s profile would have vanished forever, shuffled among the thousands of other men looking for a good time. For another woman, the ordeal may have just begun.