Online Dating, Sexual Harassment and Internet Safety
This article is just one in a series of guest posts written on internet safety, you can read the rest here.
Kylie* had been chatting with Marco* for about a month after having connected on OKCupid, but they hadn’t yet met in person. One night, after over an hour of increasingly flirty texts, Marco suggested that they switch to a more visual forum – he wanted to Skype sex.
The next day, Kylie was horrified when one of her friends called to tell her that she received a recording of the encounter. An hour later, Kylie got a message from Marco: pay up, or the recording would be sent to even more people in her social network.
Online dating is where women are most vulnerable to cyber-sexual harassment.
That’s because unlike most social networks, dating sites are where you go with the express purpose of meeting, and potentially getting intimate with strangers. Whereas on other sites strict privacy settings could serve as a shield, on dating sites those tactics for staying safe would just result in another solitary Saturday night.
While dating apps are supposed to be fun, they’ve also been known to lead to some pretty unpleasant encounters.
For instance, Esme* met Raphael on the app Happn. After chatting on the app, the conversation moved to WhatsApp, but when Esme checked his profile picture, she noticed Raphael looked different and his profile did not match the one on the dating app. Not wanting a confrontation, she told Raphael that she had some personal issues to work out before she was ready to date. Instead of accepting her explanation, he started bombarding her with aggressive questions about where she was and who she was with.
Finally, Esme blocked him and reported him to Happn. Knowing he would seek her out on social media she also blocked him on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. And when he tried to call her, she blocked his number too. Whether Raphael finally got the hint (unlikely) or simply found it too hard to maintain contact, Esme was able to stop the abuse – but not all women are this lucky.
What happened to Esme is known as catfishing – or when someone misrepresents themselves online, often using fake photos and profiles. While Esme was able to clearly see that the person on the Happn profile was different from the person in the WhatsApp profile, most catfishers are smart enough to better hide their tracks.
Similarly, it’s pretty easy to unknowingly become the accomplice of a catfisher. Take Cori*, for instance. One day she got a call from a friend that her Facebook profile picture was being used on someone else’s dating profile. Cori reported the fake profile and it was deleted, but who knows how many people saw her face and information before then?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to both meet people online and ensure you’ll never be a victim. However, there are ways to protect yourself.
3 Ways to Protect Yourself on Dating Sites
1. Do a Background Check
When you first connect with someone online, search them on Google, Facebook, and other dating apps if you’re on them. Look for inconsistencies in their pictures and profile descriptions. If you find any, report the profile to your app.
2. Get to Know Them on the App
Chat on the app before moving the conversation to a different platform. This gives you a sense of who they are before exposing further details about your personal life. Once you do feel comfortable enough to move the conversation to another platform, be aware of what they can see there. For instance, both WhatsApp and Telegram allow profile photos, WhatsApp allows status updates, and Telegram lets you write a little bio about yourself. Both apps also have a “last seen” feature that shows your contacts when you were last on the app. If you don’t want someone to see any of this information, change your privacy settings. And if you do end up getting together in person, make sure to meet in a public place, and let a friend know where you’ll be.
3. Keep Your Social Media Accounts and Pictures Private
This minimizes the chance of someone stealing your pictures and using them on dating sites.
Staying Safe on Meetup.com
One of the amazing things about the internet is that it can bring together total strangers who have something in common, but would never have found each other otherwise.
A great way to do this is through the website Meetup.com, which lets users create and join events and activities based on themes that interest them. Popular categories for meetups include film, health and wellness, LGBTQ, and pets. It’s a fantastic way to make new friends and cultivate your interests.
But didn’t your mom always tell you not to talk to strangers? Was she really onto something, or just being paranoid?
A little of both. You should absolutely get yourself out there and take a big bite out of life… but also, take some precautions:
1. Don’t Include Too Much Personal Information in Your Profile
Be aware that your profile page is completely accessible to anyone with internet, so only include information you’re comfortable being totally public.
If you have a passion for food, and can’t wait to find culinary meetups in your town, definitely mention the new taco truck you’re totally obsessed with. But don’t say it’s located right outside your building on 333 Main Street, where you live in apartment 4D – which by the way doesn’t have a deadbolt.
Or if you’re looking for family meetups, go ahead and write that you have a ten year old and six year old, but don’t include that their names are Timmy and Sue, and that they go to Lincoln Elementary, from which they usually walk home alone at 2:30 pm.
2. Get to Know People IRL Before Communicating One-on-one
Meetup has an email forwarding system, so you can get messages from members sent to your email without them having your actual email address.
But even so, if you’re just not interested in people contacting you before meeting and hitting it off in real life, you can choose to block messages from users and only receive messages from event organizers. Just go to your account and click Settings>Privacy.
From there you can choose whether you want your groups or interests listed on your profile. You can also select who can contact you on Meetup – whether that just be organizers, members of your meetups, or anyone on the website.
3. Let a Friend Know Where You’re Going
For any situation in which you’re going out to meet strangers, it’s good practice to tell a friend where you’re going, and set a time to check in with them so they know you got home safe. Also ,if the meetup involves drinks, never leave yours unattended.
*Names have been changed