SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

Swiping left on danger: Combating dating app violence in Utah

Apr 1, 2023, 3:45 PM

dating apps...

A top researcher on sexual assault says many cases of dating app violence go unreported. Dr. Valentine calls dating apps "digital hunting grounds." (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) Utah lawmakers want to require dating apps to warn their users on dangers of online dating.

(Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — Dating apps are now the number one way couples meet. And research shows it has quickly taken over the dating world. Over half of young adults in the U.S. have reported using a dating app at some point, according to the Pew Research Center.

But what’s happening isn’t all love at first sight.

Instead of church bells, many users are ending up scammed out of thousands of dollars, or the victim of a violent attack.

This is what Dr. Julie Valentine has been studying for years. She’s Associate Dean and professor at Brigham Young University College of Nursing, and forensic nurse with Wasatch Forensic Nurses.

Several years ago, she was working at Safe & Healthy Families, where many abused children are seen.

And after months of dealing with sexual assaults, she was about to call it quits.

“One day, I took care of a young teenager who had been raped and spent a lot of time with her, and had a complete change of heart and thought,” Valentine said. “These are probably the individuals that I most need to provide care for, that I most need to advocate for.”

Valentine says this set her off on her current path.

She is still a practicing forensic nurse. But now, she is focusing on doing research in areas where she says she’s seeing major gaps. Specifically, looking at sexual assault in Utah.

“When I look at all those lines of data, I acutely know that these are people whose lives have forever changed. Many of them, their lives have been shattered by this experience. And I think my drive is trying to be a voice for all of these patients,” Valentine said.

Several years ago, Valentine started going through sexual assault kits sent to crime labs. Included in that information was a question on how the victim knew the assailant and if they had met on a dating app.

“In my forensic nursing team, we started talking about how we were seeing more and more rapes that occurred when individuals met on a dating app,” Valentine said.

This is a relatively new category for sexual assaults.

“After just anecdotally seeing it myself as a practicing forensic nurse, my research team and Dr. Leslie Miles and our many research assistants, we started coding if they met on a dating app,” Valentine said. “We started collecting that in 2017, and our question was pretty basic. Our question was: Are rapes that occur when someone meets on a dating app different than others?”

What the numbers show

Valentine said they separated these dates into just the first time two people meet in-person after connecting on a dating app.

“We found incredibly disturbing findings,” Valentine said. “That was 14% of the acquaintance sexual assaults during this time period—2017 to 2021.”

Valentine then looked at the differences between this category of sexual assaults and other reported assaults.

“We found that these dating app-facilitated sexual assaults are much more violent. A third of the victims are strangled,” Valentine said. “And when you consider strangulation, strangulation indicates a high degree of lethality. People die from strangulation. And many times, half the time, it leaves no marks, you can render someone unconscious with strangulation in about six to eight seconds, and they will not have any marks necessarily on their neck.”

Many of the victims in the cases Valentine reviewed were women. And all of the perpetrators were men.

“So think about their fear level, when the first time they get together, they are raped,” Valentine said. “And a third of the time, those victims are also strangled. We collected victims’ comments, and many of them said, ‘I thought I was going to die’.”

These victims are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Valentine. Because only about 12% of victims ever report for a medical exam.

“I really worry, especially in these dating app facilitated sexual assaults, that some victims survivors feel some degree of self blame erroneously,” Valentine said. “For most of these cases, the scenario is that the connect on a dating app, they meet in a public place for most of them, they are meeting in a public place, which is what I advise. But then the victim will say, I thought he seemed like a really nice guy. They begin to feel safe with them. They then become isolated, and that’s when the sexual assault occurs.”

Dr. Valentine says 50% of college students are using at least one dating app.

One of the major findings of her research is that 60% of victims self disclosed some kind of mental illness.

“We know that mental illness is a high vulnerability for sexual assault.”

This makes Valentine think perpetrators are using dating apps to search for people who are more vulnerable.

“It’s going to be that person on the fringes, someone who likely will be less likely to be believed, who will be easier to isolate,” Valentine said.  “We found that it was even higher in the dating app-facilitated sexual assaults. So we believe that violent predators use dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims.”

Who are these people going after vulnerable individuals on dating apps?

The research is just starting to look into who is actually committing these crimes and if it’s the same repeat offenders.

“So when most victims don’t even report, those motivated offenders can perpetrate. And then there’s no consequence. It’s most likely they’re never going to be reported,” Valentine said.

What will change look like?

Most of these victims are women and girls. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports one out of every six women has experienced rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. But not all victims are women. Boys and men account for 1 in every 10 victims.

Luke Johnson is one of Dr. Valentine’s research assistants.

Johnson got involved after his own experience with sexual assault.

“When I was a teenager, I was sexually assaulted, probably drugged and sexually assaulted. And that was extremely challenging,” Johnson said. “And so it was really important for me to help, especially women who have been sexually assaulted, to kind of start recreating a positive image of men.”

This is exactly what Valentine wants to see happen with her research—a change in how we talk about and respond to all sexual assaults, not just those that are facilitated through dating apps.

“When we view rape and sexual assault as a woman’s issue, one, we discount the many men who are also victims of sexual assault. But by making it a woman’s issue, then we do not have buy-in from 50% of our society,” Valentine said. “We have to have men buy-in to this. I get asked all the time to come and talk to young women groups. And I say no. I say, you know, this, this is not a young women’s issue. It’s not a Relief Society issue. This is a societal issue.”

So how does society fix this?

Representative Angela Romero passed a bill in this past legislative session—without a single opposing vote—to start holding dating apps responsible.

Her bill will require dating apps to use specific language—somewhere on the app that’s easy to find—to warn users about how to stay safe on dates. Dating apps will have lists of resources readily available to support victims.

“This legislation requires dating apps to openly address sexual assault,” Valentine said.

The new law also requires apps to notify users if they do a background check or not. Many apps already have options that ask users to verify their image by uploading a picture of themselves smiling. 

One app that caters to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lets users get verified by posting a picture of themselves holding up a Book of Mormon.

This is supposed to add a level of security, because it shows that they are able to confirm this person really is who they say they are—or at least their face matches. But this is not a criminal background check.

Romero says dating apps will now have to make that distinction more obvious.

“When you open the app right away, it’ll let you know whether they do a background check, or they don’t—most dating apps don’t use background checks,” Romero said.

She also says it was important to her that this bill change how dating apps treat victims of sexual assault.

So the law will now require apps to post a list of options for victims to report and get help.

“In sexual assault, control is taken away from that individual. And as a policymaker, I don’t want to take more control away from that individual. So I want to make sure that they are aware of the services and the help,” Romero said.

Romero says she wants to see safety become a bigger concern to app developers.

“If it makes one person think twice about meeting up with someone or letting someone come over to their house, I’ve done my job,” Romero said.

Many apps already have some sort of safety tab or section on their websites that offer safety guidelines.

But it needs improvement, according to Valentine.

“Some of the dating apps on their safety guidelines will say something like, trust your gut. The problem with that is that there are perpetrators that are really good at fooling people. And when we say trust your gut or depend on the spirit, the problem is that then it makes the victims feel like, well, what’s wrong with me? I thought this was a nice guy,” Valentine said.

The Match Group worked with Romero on her bill. Match owns many popular dating sites, including Tinder, Match.com, Hinge and Plenty of Fish, just to name a few.

A spokeswoman for the company says they are also implementing the policies laid out in the bill. They have until January 2024 to get it all in place.

The Match Group also recently reported a new partnership with Garbo, which provides background checks, but you have to pay extra for this feature.

Valentine says this feature has one other major shortcoming. Because only a small number of victims ever report, there’s a limited number of criminal background information on any offenders.

“Few victims report. So that means that many people who have committed acts of violence, sexual violence, aren’t even going to show up with any kind of record,” Valentine said. “So just because there is a background check, does not guarantee safety as well.”

Help for victims of dating app sexual violence

Romero’s bill also involved input from Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

“Sexual assaults are unfortunately prevalent, not only around the country, but also in our state,” Gill said. “And if this effort will safeguard one person, or make them safer due to that exploitation or abuse, then I think we’re doing the right thing.”

Gill is also concerned about improving the treatment of victims.

“By one study, if there are 100 victims of sexual assault in the state of Utah, 88 will not report it,” Gill said. “And we have to ask ourselves, why will they not report it? Why are we not creating an environment where these women feel safe and protected and advocated for?”

As for the students at BYU working with Valentine, several of them say they simply don’t use dating apps.

“I’ve never used the dating app,” said Johnson.

Fellow BYU student, Conner Alder is also avoiding using them.

“I think in part, it’s because of the research I’ve done. I can’t lie and say that it hasn’t influenced that,” Alder said. “But I don’t think dating apps are inherently bad. I don’t think that you shouldn’t use dating apps. But when you work with this data that we do work with so frequently and see the, you know, the actual cases of horrible things that have happened, being facilitated through dating apps, it’s hard to be super enthusiastic about them.”

Alder is a part of a club on campus that is trying to tackle this issue for the BYU community.

“I was just really surprised to learn that there is sexual assault on campus, and that the rates are not that far off from other universities. And I just felt like that was unacceptable, and just wrong. And I mean, of course, it’s wrong anywhere,” Alder said. “So I really wanted to be a part of the change and give a voice to those people who maybe felt like they couldn’t express their concerns, and I just wanted to help make a change on campus.”

Part of that change could be in the digital world.

Dating has changed dramatically in the last decade. Whether apps and websites continue as a go-to source for dating connections will depend on how much safety these apps provide and how much trust we give them.

If you have experienced sexual assault, help is available. You can call the 24-hour sexual violence crisis line made by the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault at 1-888-421-1100.

Domestic violence resources

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Swiping left on danger: Combating dating app violence in Utah