Op-ed: Lawmakers should make dating apps safer to fight against sexual assault

Helen Keshishian, contributor

Winters in Boston mean two things: freezing temperatures and cuffing season, a time when people search for a partner to pass the cold winter months and dating apps have their highest flurry of activity. While our generation no longer bats an eye at the prospect of meeting an online stranger, we still tread carefully. “I’ll call you crying if you need an excuse to leave,” “share your location and text me every hour,” my friends and I say when someone goes on a first date. 

We may deliver these precautions as jokes, but the fear that lies beneath them is not unfounded. Crimes involving dating apps have doubled in four years, and the last few years have brought us stories of fake profiles used to lure individuals to rob and beat them and countless acts of rape and murder. Just googling “Boston dating app assaults” left me reeling. We might chalk this up to media sensationalization, but it’s more than that — it’s a public health issue that must be addressed.  

The dating app Bumble ranked Boston #2 in “Best Cities for Singles 2021,” citing that half of the population is single. As Boston is home to 35 colleges and universities, this comes as no surprise — especially given that almost 50% of university-aged individuals use dating apps. But what Bumble writes lightheartedly should give us pause. 

A study in The Journal of Sex research found that of 277 college students surveyed, 88.4% self-reported at least one instance of dating app facilitated sexual violence. Adding insult to injury, dating apps notoriously have ignored calls to remove rapists from their platforms and to follow up on allegations of assault. This leaves the onus on individual to keep themselves safe through groups like Red Flag Dating of Boston on Facebook, where women post warnings about men to stay clear of on dating apps. 

Worse yet, dating apps fail to prevent children from using their platforms, leading to exploitation, abuse and grooming. In fact, this problem was deemed so egregious that in 2020 a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee launched an investigation into several popular dating apps, including Tinder and Bumble, for potentially allowing minors and sex offenders to use their apps. This investigation was in part prompted by a report in the United Kingdom that found at least 30 cases of child rape and 60 cases of child sexual exploitation occurred through online dating services from 2015 to 2019. Additionally, a Northwestern University study found that more than 50% of sexually active gay and bisexual boys between the ages of 14 and 17, more than 50% have had sex with people they met on apps. 

Apps like Tinder and Bumble ask for ages and birthdays, but don’t corroborate them. Their CEOs write about protecting the community, but fail to implement stricter safety measures like identity, or ID, verification despite calls from experts. Companies continue to show lackluster effort in protecting their users, indicating that we cannot rely on them to make the changes we need. Until lawmakers push executives to require ID verification, women, LGBTQ+ individuals and children will continue to bear the consequences. 

One lawmaker has already stepped up to the task. This September, California Representative  David Valadao introduced the Online Dating Safety Act to require online dating services to verify the identity of new users using IDs and notify users if they have communicated with someone who has violated safety policies. This move is backed by research  showing when individuals lose their anonymity they feel less emboldened to commit crimes, likely making identity verification an effective preventative tool in dating app related assaults. For those with very real concerns around IDs, privacy and hacking, two other bills are also currently being considered by Congress to ensure security protections for consumers, including dating app users. 

As we hit the peak of cuffing season, let’s make sure we’re not sacrificing safety for a chance at love. 

This issue is very real for our city and likely bigger than what is reported. I thus urge you to do your part to keep your peers and community safe. Contact your representative to support the Online Dating Safety Act. 

Helen Keshishian is a 2019 alumnus of the behavioral neuroscience major. She can be reached at [email protected]