You’re sitting with your friends at the student union, sipping coffee and catching up in between classes. You mention casually that you wished you were in a relationship, and everyone starts suggesting that you try Tinder. You wince: you’ve always thought of online dating as unnatural and just a little weird. But, after some convincing, you download the app. You end up spending Friday night hunched over your Thai food on the couch, swiping furiously and watching matches pour in.
Saturday morning, you wake up to a sea of messages. Among the standard hi’s, one man sends you a string of aggressively sexual, and maybe even downright abusive texts. You aren’t exactly shocked, but it definitely catches you off guard, and the thoughts of the messages linger in your mind throughout the day. Maybe you immediately report him. Or, maybe you clap back at him, screenshot the conversation, and blast him on social media. Both really appropriate responses.
If you’ve found yourself in this situation before, you’re far from alone: according a recent study, 57% of women report being harassed on an online dating platform, compared with 21% of men. In another study, researchers found that 59% of non-binary folks had been harassed on a dating app.
Of course, the reason that men harass women online is the same reason that they harass us on the street, at our jobs, in our homes. We live in a heteropatriarchal society; we teach men that they are eternally entitled to women’s time, work, bodies, and lives, we encourage male aggression and condone violence. The vast majority of perpetrators are men, and the abuse might manifest itself in many different ways.. For example, many women report that if they ignore or reject men, they sometimes become aggressive. Some men target women’s bodies, feeling empowered to comment on their appearances and even suggest that they alter their bodies by changing how they do their makeup or losing weight.
Queer and trans/non binary folks often face even more harassment than their straight/ cis counterparts. Many trans people have reported being blocked from dating apps just for being trans, because people that they message with report them. Often trans folks say that they feel anxiety about sharing their trans identity with people they meet online for fear of being harassed. Many queer women have said that men often message them looking for threesomes or attempting to “convert” them, which is incredibly invalidating and can be emotionally tiring to receive.
For people of color, including queer/trans people of color, online dating can be frustrating and difficult. People of color encounter racism in online dating platforms in many different ways, all of which are emotionally taxing; for example, this Buzzfeed post enumerates examples of awful racism on OKCupid that targets Asian women, often stereotyping and fetishizing them. White people often think that their fetishization of people of color is innocuous, even flattering, as if white desire is something to be sought after. This racism is often gendered, sexualizing racial stereotypes and playing on assumed eroticism.
The guise of anonymity is a big driver for men to participate in this harassment. Just like if a man catcalls women from his car as he drives away, a person might choose to harass people on dating apps because he sees it as an action that has no repercussions. There is no accountability online — even though your Tinder profile has six photos of you and your friends, a rundown of your favorite Rihanna lyrics, all of your seventh grade Facebook likes (“I Only Check My New Voicemail To Get Rid Of The Little Icon On The Screen”), a link to your Instagram, and your most listened-to songs on Spotify, we still accept this online communication with strangers as fairly anonymous. For a lot of people, this is great: it gives us the opportunity to be a little extra flirty, or to ask people out more quickly, because we aren’t as afraid to be rejected. This person has no link to our real life! There’s nothing to be afraid of! For perpetrators of harassment however, this barrier between themselves and the people they harass keeps them from recognizing them as people. The anonymity not only protects them, but it also allows them to see other people without humanity or agency.
Over the past year, Tinder launched their feature Tinder Social, which allows groups of people to swipe together on other groups, creating a group chat with all of the members of both groups. This feature has shown an interesting brand of online harassment, because the anonymity factor is fairly stifled. If a man is in a group with three of his best friends, his actions become totally accountable. Perfectly normal-in-real-life dudes can’t log onto Tinder Social with their buds and start calling women camel mouth ass hoes and then go back to their real lives and pretend they didn’t (that’s a real insult I once got on Tinder Social, by the way. It’s truly the funniest thing any misogynist has ever said to me).
As it turns out, when groups of men who trust and respect each other get together, they validate each other’s messages rather than check them, escalating the chat by piling on insults. If a woman in the chat responds to abuse with hostility, often the group of men will gang up on her and verbally abuse her as a team.
In response to the harassment and uneven power dynamics in traditional dating apps, in the past few years developers have created apps that attempt to give the power to women. With Bumble, women have to message first, a policy that attempts to empower women and tries to eliminate the nasty first messages that some men often send. Apps like these have great intentions, but they don’t defeat the problem. Perpetrators can harass people at any point in the conversation, and forcing women to initiate may actually continue to perpetuate gender roles and places the emotional labor responsibility on women alone.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Well, first of all, it’s disappointing that we have to ask this question. As people receiving harassment, the responsibility of ending the abuse should not fall on our shoulders. But, when you’re getting a flood of aggressive messages, you’re the one who has to make the choice for how to respond.
Your first option is, of course, do nothing. There is emotional labor involved in responding to abuse, and it is not up to you to do it. Let him sit in your inbox, or unmatch him immediately, and don’t engage. It can also feel empowering to report the abuser—this might be enough to kick him off the app, which would reduce his ability to harass people online.
If you feel compelled to do so, you are also entitled to respond to the harassment directly and/or publicly. Reply to him with a five paragraph essay calling him out using quotes from bell hooks and Nicki Minaj. Make fun of him with your friends. Screenshot your conversation and post it on Twitter. Not only is this therapeutic, it also shows other women that they’re not alone if they’ve been abused online.
Dating apps are not inherently bad. We live in a misogynistic culture, so misogyny bleeds into every facet of our lives and world. But that does not mean that harassment is natural or “just the way it is”. Through our activist work, through having difficult conversations with each other, through teaching and learning and growing, we can continue to create a better culture, which will help us create a better online dating experience.
So happy swiping!