A damning report into dating apps and websites has found alarming levels of sexual violence and repeat victimisation of their users.
Three out of four Australian dating app users have been subjected to some form of dating app facilitated sexual violence (DAFSV) in the last five years, it revealed.
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The findings were part of the first ever national study into the prevalence and nature of DAFV in Australia, published by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) on Tuesday.
It found one in three respondents had been subjected to in-person sexual violence perpetrated by someone they had met on a dating app or website, such as being pressured to perform sexual acts without consent, and having their drinks spiked.
A wide range of behaviours also emerged as being commonly experienced online, from receiving unsolicited nudes and demands for sexually explicit images, to online stalking, and being subject to abusive or threatening language.
The data found LGB+ groups were disproportionately affected by DAFSV both online and in-person.
The survey questions did not allow for any transgender people who may have been within the group of 9987 respondents to correctly self identify – a limitation the study acknowledges.
“LGB+ women reported the highest prevalence of online DAFSV (86.6 per cent), then non-binary respondents (84.5 per cent) and LGB+ men (79.2 per cent), followed closely by heterosexual women (79.1 per cent) and finally heterosexual men (61.5 per cent),” the report said.
“Around half of LGB+ male (45.5 per cent) and female (49.5 per cent) respondents and 42.3 per cent of non-binary respondents experienced in-person DAFSV. One in three heterosexual women (35.4 per cent) and one in four heterosexual men (26.6 per cent) reported in-person DAFSV.”
Warning for first time users
The statistics corroborate anecdotes already widely understood by dating app users, but AIC Research Manager Sarah Napier told 7NEWS.com.au that the results offered a realistic glance at potential dangers for first-time users.
“Because there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence about this already happening, there’s probably a lot of people that are aware of it already, especially the ones that have experienced it,” Napier said.
“For first-time users who haven’t used a dating app yet, this study is probably very important for them because it shows that there are risks to using these sites and there are some things you need to do to be careful.
“But the dating apps themselves should be educating new users about those safety measures.”
The most commonly reported behaviour was sexual harassment, with 69 per cent of the surveyed users reporting they had been repeatedly contacted by someone they weren’t interested in.
Nearly half of respondents had been sent sexual images when they did not ask for them, or were subject to threatening or abusive language, and just over a quarter had been stalked online.
How they get away with it
Some of the safety features, such as blocking or deleting an account, can also be used against victims by the perpetrators themselves.
They can be used to “remove evidence of their conversations with victim-survivors,” the report says.
Napier told 7NEWS.com.au: “We found that around half of the respondents that were subjected to online or in-person sexual violence said that their perpetrator had blocked or unmatched them, or deleted their own account afterwards.”
“This shows that there are still functions in some of the apps and some of the sites, that really benefit the perpetrator and allow them to disappear without detection, and that’s a real problem,” she said.
The study did not look at which apps and websites offer these features, but Napier said that some platforms had deleted certain features after receiving anecdotal reports of sexual violence.
What needs to happen
The findings allowed AIC to develop some safety feature recommendations for the developers of apps and websites to help reduce the prevalence of sexual violence.
“These dating apps really have a responsibility to protect their users, and we’ve seen from the findings from this study that in a lot of cases that’s not happening unfortunately,” Napier said.
“These companies should invent safety-by-design principles in their development.”
Napier says this could include reporting mechanisms within the apps and sites that are easy to use and always provide a response, so that an incident can be addressed “as soon as it happens”.
Identity verification requiring official identification would also “help stop perpetrators from setting up new accounts after they’ve been banned”.
“They could also use AI to censor explicit images, because we found that one of the most common forms of sexual violence, was online sexual harassment.”
“Most importantly, the dating apps and websites should really continue to monitor the impact of effectiveness, just to make sure that the measures that they do use to protect users are actually working.”
She says that the responsibility falls with the online dating companies to both educate users, and update their products.
“The responsibility really is on these platforms, because before these platforms and sites were in place, this wasn’t happening.
Rather than let platforms evolve without thinking about the implications for harm for users, we need to start embedding these safety features while they’re being developed,” Napier said.
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