“People really do find love [on dating apps]. But what else do they find?” This was one of the opening questions to Dr. Julie Valentine’s TEDx talk on March 17. More than 50% of young adults in the US use dating apps. But on a platform where a person can curate their image and create a false impression of themselves, it’s not difficult for a “wolf to hide in sheep’s clothing.” Being a researcher focused on sexual assault and violence against women, Julie was concerned with these so-called “wolves” and created a study to learn if dating-app facilitated sexual assaults are different from other forms of acquaintance sexual assaults.
For her study, an assault was considered a dating-app facilitated sexual assault, or DAppSA if it met the following criteria: one, the victim was 14 years of age or older; two, the victim reported meeting the perpetrator on a dating app; three, the victim was raped at the first meeting; and lastly, the victim had a sexual assault forensic medical examination with evidence collected.
After Julie explained the criteria for her study, she encouraged the TEDx audience to take a deep breath before she continued with her findings. “I can’t sugar-coat this information,” she said, “because to do so would be an injustice to survivors, my patients.”
“Out of 1,968 acquaintance sexual assaults from 2017 to 2020 across Utah, we found 14%, or 274, that met our DAppSA criteria.” She continued, “Half the DAppSA victims were college students. Furthermore, 60% of the DAppSA victims reported mental illness, a huge vulnerability for sexual assault. [Additionally], the DAppSA cases were much more violent with one-third of victims being strangled.” As strangulation indicates a high level of lethality, this was a particularly concerning finding.
Julie shared a shocking piece of information that in DAppSA cases, “victims were less likely to fight back against their attacker.” As a nurse who has worked with survivors of sexual assault, Julie shared this insight saying, “In any rape, victims often experience a freezing response where it’s difficult to move–or sometimes even speak–due to the fear and trauma of the sexual assault.”
How can we make dating apps safer? Julie explained that there is one approach that is decidedly not working. “Do we just tell dating-app users, ‘Be careful; there are wolves in sheep’s clothing.’ Is that sufficient? No. That is the current approach, and it is failing. The problem with that approach is that it solely places the burden of preventing sexual assault on the victim. If the victim does not follow written safety guidelines or does not perceive the wolf in sheep’s clothing, they may then erroneously feel like they are to blame for the rape and not report it. And if victims do not report, then the wolves keep attacking.”
An effective way to protect people is to change the way dating apps run, from having them include background checks to creating clear channels for victims to report assault and violence. “If we truly want safer dating apps,” Julie explained, “then we need to address and reduce sexual violence in our society. In the United States, one in three women and one in four men experience sexual violence in their lifetime.” The first step to lowering these numbers, according to Julie, is to believe victims. “The major rape myth out there is that there’s a lot of false reporting in rape. This is simply not true. Multiple research studies have found that false reporting in rape is low, between 2-8%. That’s the same as other crimes. Therefore, we must believe victims.”
TED’s tagline is “Ideas worth spreading.” Perhaps some of the best ideas we can share are the ones that protect the vulnerable.
Keep an eye out for the full TEDx talk on YouTube in mid-April.