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BYU study highlights the dangers of not vetting who you meet on dating apps

iStock — Finger of woman pushing heart icon on screen online dating app
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"What we want the message from this study [to be] is to encourage dating app companies to increase their safety measures and also to help those users be aware of the importance of truly vetting an individual before they're alone with them," said lead author Julie Valentine.

New research suggests that sexual predators are using dating apps as “hunting grounds” for vulnerable victims. Brigham Young University researchers found that sexual assault perpetrators who use dating apps are often more violent and seem to be targeting people with mental illness.

“A whopping 60% of the victims self-disclose mental illness. Mental illness across the board is a significant vulnerability for sexual assault,” said Julie Valentine, a nursing professor at BYU and lead author of the study.

The results are published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Valentine, who is also a forensic nurse with Wasatch Forensic Nurses, believes those with mental illness are a target because they’re looking for validation on dating apps. “It may be that those with mental illness, depression or anxiety may be swayed more by perpetrators who use flattery or other means to isolate victims,” she said. On top of that, the study states that 42% of dating app users are sexual assault survivors, which increases the risk of mental health problems.

The idea isn’t to avoid dating apps. Instead, participants should take precautions into their own hands and not rely solely on what, if anything, the companies behind the app have in place.

“The vetting process is really, really important,” said Valentine. She advises dating app users to go on multiple dates in public before being alone with someone from a dating app. Valentine also said it may be a good idea to introduce a dating app partner to other people before being alone with them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: What makes you think sexual assault perpetrators are using dating apps as hunting grounds?

Julie Valentine: Everybody uses dating apps to find someone they connect with. The fact that we found that these rapes were much more violent is what's causing us to state that violent predators use these dating apps. A third of the victims are strangled. That indicates a high degree of lethality, really attempted murder in some cases. We also saw that victims had suffered more penetrative acts and that victims had more anogenital and non-anogenital injuries. So overall, much more violent assaults.

CH: You found in your study that victims fight back less, despite the perpetrators being more violent. Why is that?  

JV: It may seem strange at first glance. Just imagine they meet somebody on a dating app they really don't know well, and they may be very deceived that this is a good person. And then they become assaulted. They are raped. Many patients state, “I thought he was going to kill me” or “I was so scared. I just laid there.” And so when our brains have this high degree of fear and threat perceived, they go into a primitive response. We all know fight, flight or freeze, but we really find in sexual assault the freezing, which can also lead into something called tonic immobility, is experienced by many victims. And we think this is even higher in these DAppSA [dating app facilitated sexual assault] cases because of this high degree of fear.

CH: What are you hoping dating app companies will do to address this?

JV: We have looked at a lot of dating apps and found that most of them actually don't use the term “sexual assault.” They state if [survivors] want to report something that made them “uncomfortable” or a “physical assault.” So, number one, we want them to openly state concerns over sexual assault. We then want the dating app companies to realize that if their only way to address, or primary way to address, safety on their sites is to have a list of written guidelines for safety — that places all the burden of preventing a sexual assault on potential victims. And what that does is it leads to victim blaming. Victims are supposed to follow these guidelines. And what if they don't? I've had patients that have been victims of these dating app sexual assaults who said, “I thought he was a really nice guy.” They met in a public place, and then they were together for a bit on the date. And then he said, “Hey, do you want to go to my apartment?” And then suddenly things turned really scary, and they were raped when they were alone. So when they only have these guidelines to follow, we worry that victims will feel like they are somewhat to blame if maybe they don't follow all of these guidelines, and something bad happens and then they won't report. We also want dating app companies to clearly state that if they experience sexual assault or other abuse, they are not to blame and then to have clear mechanisms for reporting and easy to find resources.

CH: Is there something dating app companies can do to prevent predators from getting on dating apps in the first place?

JV: That's a tough one. There's one country that requires users to upload a government I.D. Some of the apps here in the United States do something called “validation” where they upload a photo and then you have to strike a pose or do another picture to validate that it's somebody in your photo. We worry that there's a false sense of security because anybody can do that level of validation. We want the dating apps to clearly state that they do not do background checks. Or the really great way would be if dating apps would do criminal background checks on users at no additional cost. We do have legislation in Utah that we are hoping to pass this year that's online dating safety amendments proposed by Rep. Angela Romero that will require dating apps in the state of Utah to follow these additional safety guidelines that we've discussed.

CH: For now, what precautions should dating app users take, especially when predators can trick people into thinking they're a good person?

JV: One of the things that we hope comes from this study is that people do realize that they need to have increased awareness when they meet somebody in person — to always go with a fully charged phone, to meet in public and to realize that they are responsible for doing the vetting of that person. You know, when I was dating, you met people that you were dating at school or work or through mutual friends. So there was this degree of vetting that we miss in dating apps. So there's some personal responsibility for that vetting. And then to let other people know where you're going, who you are meeting, and what time the date is going to end so that you have people that can help with some follow up.

CH: What about just staying off dating apps entirely?

JV: I do not want the message from the study to [be] stay off dating apps. Dating apps are great. It's the number one way that people meet. What we want the message from this study [to be] is to encourage dating app companies to increase their safety measures and also to help those users be aware of the importance of truly vetting an individual before they're alone with them.

A native of Utah, Ciara Hulet studied broadcast journalism at Brigham Young University, where she won multiple awards and scholarships for her work. She then went on to help host and produce the podcast Top of Mind on BYUradio. She's conducted hundreds of interviews with national and international experts and is passionate about helping people better understand the world and different perspectives. When Ciara isn't on the radio, she works to fight eating disorders through volunteer work and hikes as many mountains as she can.
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