It’s May 2015, and Toronto’s Supermarket Restaurant & Bar is packed with Tinderellas—boisterous single women seeking their Prince Charmings on the world’s most popular location-based dating app. Officially, they’re here for Tinder Tales, a live storytelling series where users gather to entertain the audience with hookup horrors. Unofficially, they’re here to bond over dates-gone-wrong war stories, more veterans of the awkward and terrible than fairy-tale protagonists. A darkly funny evening, it’s a testament to our new digital dating culture: fast, fun and freeing but also dangerous and disposable. An online world where delicious sex-positive empowerment often comes with gag-worthy harassment, sexism and disrespect.
The first Tinder devotee onstage is blogger Steph Davidson, a cute, curvy thirtysomething with thick-framed glasses. The audience listens, rapt, as she launches into a story about a truly dismal Starbucks date. Her wannabe beau, she confesses, showed up wearing a Cosby-esque sweater (not ironically, she thinks), was at least 15 years older than his profile picture and smelled like the back of a stale cab. Davidson remembers sneaking out to the washroom to give herself a pep talk and ultimately deciding to stay. She wanted to be polite.
Resigned, she ordered a large tea and let her date pay for it, both things she would regret, especially as he peppered her with questions about what kind of porn she watched. When she later told him she was uncomfortable, he asked her what she expected; after all, she had tattoos. Oblivious to her I’m-not-into-you cues, he wanted to go out again, but she told him she didn’t feel a connection. He stormed off, yelling “F-ck!” She remembers looking over her shoulder the whole way home, thinking “He’s going to make a Steph suit out of me.” When she got in the door, she had a text: “You need to stop choosing men with your clitoris.” When Davidson says this onstage, she shoots the audience a look like “This is ridiculous, right?”
I laughed along with everybody else, but I wondered if these stories were really funny at all. In March, Toronto police announced the arrest of 29-year-old Everest Zhuka, charged with two counts of sexual assault. Police alleged that he had lured at least two women through dating sites like Tinder with saccharine messages and promises he could help them start modelling careers. When the women arrived for their dates, police say that Zhuka tried to convince them to become escorts before sexually assaulting them. It’s an extreme case, but one that’s cooked in the same culture of digital dating horror stories where women are lured into close proximity with dubious men, under the guise of whatever charming persona they’ve crafted online.
The Internet has a long legacy of incubating misogyny. From Gamergate to revenge porn to fat-shaming Reddit boards, too much of the Net rewards men who harass women. It’s easy but depressing to see what this means for online dating right now. The Instagram feed Bye Felipe provides disturbing insight into this mash-up of entitlement, extreme non chalance and blatant sexism. Founded in 2014 by Los Angeles-based Alexandra Tweten after she received abusive mes sages on OkCupid, it charts the aggres sive and violent ways that some men react to rejection online, for an audience of 358,000 followers. In one recent post, when a woman politely informed a man with a shirtless, faceless six-pack profile that she wasn’t interested, he responded with “Even I don’t like fat bitches.” In another, a man threatened to jab his penis against a woman’s head. When she questioned, “Isn’t that rape?” he told her “Rape is frat”—implying rape is a normal bro-style activity. Women are often called c-nts and whores and told to go kill themselves—all this for responding with a “no thanks” to a man’s advances. There are also a lot of dick pics.
Laura Nowak, a 25-year-old blonde with an expressive face who lives in Toronto, uses the word “feminist” in her Tinder bio. She has received a lot of grief for it from men on the app who she says “don’t understand the relationship between casual sex and respect for women.” So she started posting her Tinder conversations on Instagram at feminist_tinder. “I’m not in the business of brushing off sexism,” she says. To her, Tinder is full of micro-aggressions—acts so seemingly small that most of us let them slide. For Nowak, they add up: all the times she’s told to smile more, the times she’s asked within seconds if she “does anal,” the times guys tell her she needs to learn how to take a compliment, and the many unsolicited junk snaps.
“I have girlfriends who feel like that’s the sacrifice they have to make to be in a casual relationship,” says Nowak. “That terrifies me.” Me, too. How do we promote things like equality, respect and consent when our new hookup culture tells us a picture of an erection is an acceptable way for a man to say hello to a woman?
The problem isn’t exclusive to Tinder—you can obviously encounter jerks on traditional dating websites or at a club. But in those cases, there are filters (digital and social) to help avoid them. Sites like OKCupid, for example, typically allow people to write longer bios and answer hundreds of preference questions; you can adjust your settings so that you don’t receive any messages under a certain word count. Tinder and many location-based apps like it, in contrast, let you participate after providing nothing more than a photo and a Facebook account. While old-school dating websites still have a loyal following, use of the latter has skyrocketed since the launch of Tinder back in 2012. According to U.K.-based research firm GlobalWebIndex, there are now 91 million people on Tinder and the many copycats that followed. (Even OKCupid and Plenty of Fish have introduced swipe functions.) Roughly one-third of those users are women, and the vast majority of them are aged 16 to 34. Estimates from 2014 peg Tinder’s worldwide activity at 50 million, and the company says it routinely processes more than one billion swipes every day. The Tinder user is also super engaged: on average, both men and women log on to the app 11 times daily, with women spending eight and a half minutes swiping—left for no, right for yes—per session, and men clocking seven minutes. That means the average user swipes for roughly an hour and a half every day—a whole lot of time to find a hot hookup or a potential BF but also to get harassed or put down.
I discover this first-hand when I join Tinder for research. Over a few days of idle swiping, I match with a man who introduces himself by asking if I was ready for “sexy fun” (his profile said he sometimes cries himself to sleep). Another man seemed charming until he told me he had spent the night in jail for a DUI (he swears it wasn’t his fault). I spoke to many women who admitted that the more swipe-happy they become, the less attention they pay to vetting their dates. One told me she has swipe-offs with her roommate and they have to promise they’ll stop at 50 or 100. All the swiping can start to seem unreal, like playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Netflix.
For millions of women, this kind of gamesmanship is fun and empowering. Don’t like the look of a guy? Just swipe left. But it also leaves us more vulnerable to meeting up with men we would never agree to date if we initially encountered them face to face. And more of us are meeting our digital matches in person. A 2013 Pew Research Center study concluded that Internet daters were more likely to meet IRL than they were a decade ago: in 2005, only 43 percent of respondents had met an online match in person; in 2013, that number jumped to 66 percent. The study also found that online dating is viewed more positively now than it was in the past, yet more than 40 percent of female online daters said they’d been harassed or made to feel uncomfortable.
Dating apps today put us in uncharted territory, says Caroline Pukall, a professor of psychology and director of the Sexual Health Research Laboratory at Queen’s University. “There aren’t any rules of engagement yet,” she adds, “and it doesn’t help that most people’s dating profiles—a photo and a single line about themselves—effectively reduce them to one-dimensional SIMs.” Online, we willingly ditch the face-to-face cues that give us more insight into a person in favour of a conversation that feels more like a game than a dialogue. Both men and women can have multiple chats on the go at once, cycling through rote questions: Hi. Hey sexy. How was your weekend? I like travel and sports. You’re cute. I like your smile. Let’s grab a drink. I’m over six feet tall. DTF?
Related: 40+ Real WTF? Tinder Fails
Pukall likens these new digital dating habits to the gimme-the-new-next-best-thing consumerism that dominates much of the modern tech world. When other options are just a swipe away, we amplify our judgmental nastiness and have less patience for working through communication glitches or challenges with a potential partner. This seeming lack of consequence comes into play, particularly with nude photos. “Emboldened by anonymity and distance,” says Pukall, “many men approach online dating with an extremely lowered set of inhibitions, making their tactics similar to dating while drunk.”
Jocelyn Wentland, a sex and relationships researcher at the University of Ottawa who studies the intersection of technology and dating, says things get tricky when users aren’t upfront about their expectations. “Women are better at definitions,” she argues. “They pay more attention to the nuances because the stakes for casual sex are higher for them (pregnancy, reputation, violence). This can be tough to translate to Tinder, which was originally conceived as a hookup app.” In a way, says Wentland, the growing legion of people who are looking for more than just a hookup throw a wrench into the original ethos. Both Wentland and Pukall say it’s important to be explicit about what you’re looking for and what you want and to keep reevaluating that. It’s easy to put a one-line disclaimer on your bio, saying you’re looking for a relationship or not, but both agree that daters are notoriously bad at doing so. Saying you just want sex can be seen as crass, whereas demanding a relationship can seem to contradict the carefree vibe of apps like Tinder. Complicating matters more, many men and women will ignore a bio line in hopes of becoming the exception, says Wentland, which “makes it confusing for everybody.”
But she doesn’t believe all the bad news. For her, Tinder done right, with open, clear communication of expectations, is an empowering experience. Women, she suggests, can even choose whether or not they want to put up with harassment. “If you send me a dick pic and I’m not into it, I simply unmatch you—that’s it,” she says. “You can’t talk to me again. In that way, it is quite powerful.” I see Wentland’s point, but it’s hard to feel empowered when an unwanted boner pops up on your phone.
I broach this subject with Nowak, and she agrees that, as much as we play them down, these pictures are harassment. She’s not against them, so long as a woman has explicitly asked for one. Otherwise, she likens her reaction to the same horrified feeling she’d get if a man walked up to her at a bar and pulled out his erection. “He would be charged with indecent exposure,” she says, “and you’d never say to the woman, ‘Well, you can simply choose not to date him, right?’ It’s mind-boggling that we treat online cases so differently than in-person ones,” says Nowak. She bristles at the lack of recourse for women when it comes to reporting unsolicited dick pics.
Sending one doesn’t break the law, unless the image is both sexually explicit and shows violence, dehumanization or degradation. It’s possible to make an argument that a dude is committing criminal harassment if he sends repeated pictures after he’s been asked to stop, but indecent exposure charges can only be brought if a person reveals him- or herself in person and in public.
So why do we treat digital cases so differently? I put that question to David Fraser, a partner at the Halifax-based law firm McInnes Cooper who specializes in Internet and privacy law. “It may well be an example of the law not keeping up with technology,” he says. “Because 10 years ago people weren’t sending dick oil paintings or dick Polaroids—the people writing that portion of the criminal code didn’t have to think about this type of thing. Legislators and judges are often one or more generations removed from the people using this technology.” Until the gap between the law and tech closes, these apps may remain a wild, wild west of digital dicks.
Related: Margaret Atwood on Dick Pics
I contacted Tinder several times for information on their harassment policies. A rep did get back to me initially to ask how the company would be framed in the piece, but didn’t offer further comment. The rules posted online offer little reassurance. On the app’s safety page, there are tips to avoid money scams, as well as advice that will read as “duh, obvs” to anyone born after 1990 (“Meet for the first time in a populated, public place” and “Bring your phone with you”). It’s easy to report someone in the app—designating them as spam or someone who is abusive—but it’s unclear what happens to the user after he or she has been reported. (I tried it and the only confirmation I received was a “Reported!” pop-up.)
But why are so many men sending these pictures in the first place, sometimes after only a couple of messages? Nowak has confronted the men who’ve sent her unsolicited pictures. She told one she considered his crotch shot harassment and asked, “When you go out to a bar, do you hand pictures of your dick to the girls in there?” He messaged back: “Just for the lucky ones.” Then: “Not a nice picture?” On Bye Felipe, men have responded both plaintively (“Clearly you don’t know what it feels like to be a guy—a guy can’t even send a dick pic anymore without getting shamed. What a cruel world.”) and abusively (“I don’t care, c-nt”).
I spoke to a thirtysomething Torontonian named James, who has dated on Tinder, Plenty of Fish, OkCupid and Craigslist. He has sent “a bunch” of penis pics over the years. In the past, he says, he has messaged photos of his erection without asking whether a woman wanted to receive one. “But it was never ‘Bam! Check out my dick!’ It was more about feeling out whether or not we’d be possible sex partners.” He explains that, because men feel turned on by unsolicited nudes of women, they often assume women will enjoy surprise nudes of them. A female friend, however, recently told him, post-dick pic, “Those don’t work on me. When I get one, I say, ‘Congratulations on your personal sexual revolution.’” Now he sees them not only as harassment but as ineffective at achieving their intended goal: turning on women so they’ll have sex with him. Sending pics on dating sites and apps isn’t something a lot of men think about, he tells me, especially when it comes to the consequences. “If a guy is sending a dick pic in the heat of the moment, his judgment is probably clouded,” says James. “There is probably a lot of post-masturbatory sent-dick-pic regret.” I don’t know whether that should make women feel better or worse.
As females, we’re socialized to be polite in bad situations, often sacrificing our own feelings and comfort in favour of not offending anyone. That tendency can be dangerous when a girl meets a guy with whom she has only exchanged a few texts. Many women I spoke to confessed to showing up to dates and feeling awful—and unsafe—within the first few seconds but staying because they didn’t want to be rude.
Rosie Henderson, 27, is a Scottish expat living in Toronto, with dark brunette hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. She says the worst Tinder date she has ever been on was with an older man who was far too handsy. They met at a bar. After two beers, he was drunk and his fingers kept grazing her arms and legs, even as she inched away to make more space between them. Yet, when he asked her to go and see Dumb and Dumber To, she agreed, despite having zero interest in him or the movie. She wanted to leave but also wondered what her mother would think; she was raised to be polite. From the bathroom, she called a friend who convinced her that, if she was getting creepy vibes, she didn’t have to stay. Henderson was ready to bolt, then realized she’d left her scarf and toque under her seat in the theatre. She went back, sat down and says she couldn’t summon the courage to leave again. She spent the rest of the date prying her hand out of her date’s, all while he yelled drunkenly at the screen. In the end, she lied, telling him she had to go home because she had to work early the next day. He hugged her at the subway and, once he’d left, an onlooker remarked that it was the most awkward hug he’d ever seen.
Apps like Tinder become havens for harassment, savvy developers and entrepreneurs—many of them female— are hoping there’s a way for women to date online safely and respectfully. It’s a thought that occurred to Whitney Wolfe, one of Tinder’s co-founders, who left the company in 2014 after suing her co-founders for sexual harassment. Wolfe debuted Bumble later that year. The app lets you match with people similar to the way you do on Tinder, but the woman has to send the first message. If she doesn’t break the ice within 24 hours, the match disappears. Another female-friendly option is The Grade, a location-based app launched by an NYC-based developer named Cliff Lerner after a few of his female friends showed him the worst messages they’d ever received. Lerner decided that reporting users wasn’t enough; there had to be accountability. The Grade (tagline: Make the Grade or Be Expelled) allows both genders to mark (A+, A, B, etc.) prospective matches on their conversational abilities, response times and looks. It also runs an algorithm that scans for spelling mistakes, use of slang and what Lerner calls “inappropriate phrases”—those that are derogatory, abusive or overly sexual—and expels users who are indulging in nasty messaging. Plus, unlike Tinder, which allows people to broadcast photos to all their matches, similar to Snapchat, The Grade doesn’t permit photo messaging.
The only trouble with these female-friendlier apps? Relatively few guys use them. Lerner admits that getting men to sign on is a challenge but believes The Grade will attract “higher-quality”—if fewer—prospects. Still, his app only has 70,000 users compared to Tinder’s many millions. Bumble reported in June that women have initiated more than five million conversations on the app—a stat that seems impressive until you realize that Tinder facilitates double that number of convos every day. Sadly, harassment-free dating seems to be more appealing to women than it is to many men.
For now, at least, we may have more luck fending off online harassers by shedding our ingrained sense of politeness and dishing some attitude back. Instagram feeds like Bye Felipe are one way to do this. Other women I spoke to turned the crude comments back on the men. Toronto comedian Christina Walkinshaw loves the app for short-term meet-ups, has been on more than 50 first Tinder dates and struggles to find an example of a bad one. But she still gets her share of rude messages. When someone greets her by asking if she likes anal sex, she sends an equally gross message right back: “I’m glad you asked. The answer is no. If you ever saw what came out of my butt, you would NOT wanna go in there.” Guys have blocked her and she’s delighted about it—maybe they’ll think before trying the same line again. It’s a hilarious solution. Too bad the joke’s still on us.
This story is part of #Project97—a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #project97.
Best Tinder Profile Beauty Looks: Cute, Sexy or Fashion-Forward?
Can a New App Cure Your Tinder Blues?
Try This New Dating App When You’re Totally Over Hookups
Ask Sharleen: How Do I Get Back in the Game?
7 Female-Friendly Dating Apps: How Many Have You Tried?
Margaret Atwood on Dick Pics