One of the Brigham Young University nursing team conducted a study on Utah sexual assault victims’ medical exam charts from 2017 to 2020.
The study was conducted because the use of dating apps has become ingrained in American social life, yet there is still work to be done to assure user safety.
Online dating is one of the most common ways people meet each other, and wonderful relationships often start through a screen. Unfortunately, new research shows those digital connections can also lead to real-world violence.
The research found that violent sexual predators use dating apps as “hunting grounds” for vulnerable victims.
The study reviewed 3,413 sexual assault medical forensic examination charts from 2017 to 2020 in Utah and found 1,968 were instances where the perpetrator of the assault was an acquaintance. The study says that 14% of the 1,968 rapes committed by acquaintances occurred during an initial meetup arranged through a dating app.
It has been stated that those cases stood out in disturbing ways: victims with mental illnesses and other vulnerabilities were targeted, and the attacks were significantly more violent.
The findings show those assaults were more violent compared to sexual assaults among acquaintances that were not directly linked to online dating apps, with a higher percentage of victims (32%) reporting they were strangled and higher percentage of victims (50%) experiencing anogenital injuries.
Additionally, about 33% of the victims reported being strangled during the assault, while 22% of victims who were not meeting perpetrators for the first time through an app reported strangulation.
Dr. Julie Valentine is a certified sexual assault examiner and Brigham Young University nursing professor at the forefront of sexual assault research in Utah. She said, “We started seeing more and more patients report that they had been raped after they met someone on a dating app”. Also this is the largest study of its kind in the world.
Valentine told, “What we found is incredibly concerning. We’d started to see an increase of victims reporting being raped after meeting someone on a dating app, and we wanted to know if rapes facilitated through dating apps differed from other acquaintance rapes. They are indeed very different.”
In the study, 47% of the victims of acquaintance rape that was unrelated to dating apps disclosed a mental illness.
Among those assaulted during a first meeting set up through an app, the number was much higher still, with 60% disclosing a mental illness.
College students were also more likely to be victims of dating-app-facilitated assaults, and male victims were nearly twice as common among app-related assaults as among other acquaintance assaults.
Valentine says, “In a dating app, people can shape themselves however they want to appeal to vulnerable victims. Those with mental illnesses like depression may be more susceptible to a predator who might, for example, flatter them profusely and persuade them to meet in person”.
Adding further she said, “Our takeaway is that violent sexual predators use dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims. That’s the number one way relationships are forged. There’s many happy relationships from dating apps.”
Across the board, sexual assaults happened on all dating apps, and no specific app stood out above the rest in terms of concern or danger, the study says.
Valentine has also worked with Reporter Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, to make online dating safer in Utah. Romero says, “We just wanted to put the safety requirements there, particularly when we’re talking about sexual assault, and when we’re meeting with someone for the first time”.
Romero is proposing legislation to require dating apps to let users know whether they conduct background checks, flag accounts that could be engaging in catfishing or other forms of fraud, and clearly post and provide resources for preventing and reporting assaults.
Valentine noted that currently, some apps only provide a list of safety guidelines they tell users to read.
Valentine emphasized, “It’s putting all the burden of preventing a sexual assault on the potential victim. So, what if a potential victim maybe doesn’t follow all of those safety recommendations and they’re raped? That increases the self-blame, because they think, ‘I did meet with him,’ you know, and ‘I wasn’t in a completely public place.’ And so, then they’re going to be less likely to report.”
Romero said reporting assaults can help law enforcement identify and prosecute perpetrators, but more importantly, connect victims and survivors with free help and services that are available.
Valentine suggested, “Dating app companies can increase artificial intelligence to identify perpetrators, have stricter identification requirements for users, run criminal history searches at no extra charge and connect with other companies to ensure that perpetrators aren’t just jumping from one app to another. They can also improve ways for victims to report assaults and provide more support services for victims”.
At last Valentine concluded, “What I don’t want people to take from the study is that we shouldn’t use dating apps—they’re the number-one way that happy couples meet. We want to preserve that but increase the safety”.