The rise in online dating has created a new type of predatory sexual offender.
According to the National Crime Agency’s Serious Crime Analysis Section, such offenders have the opportunity to groom their victims online and will often attempt a sexual assault at the first face-to-face meeting.
In a report, published this month, the agency points out that one in three relationships now start online. The Online Dating Association has more than 7m registered users and expects the number of sites to continue growing, providing potentially rich pickings for offenders.
While the numbers of rapes following online dating is relatively small - 184 reported in 2014 compared to 33 in 2009 - the NCA says many more go unreported. It estimates that only 17% are ever brought to the attention of the police. However, Heather Cooper, service director for the Kirklees Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre, believes the number of ‘hidden’ offences could be even greater. She explained: “The general trend with rapes is that there are ten times more that don’t get reported. People who come to us have not usually been to the police.”
Her colleague, Laura Edwards, a volunteer member of the group’s management committee, added: “Online dating can make people feel embarrassed and they want to keep it secret, which can be very dangerous - if they are not telling people where they are going, for instance. They might go on hook-up sites and not want to talk to their families or friends about it. They won’t report an assault.”
So what are the dangers? And how can an online user avoid them?
Laura says the main issue is that dating site users get to ‘know’ each other online and may come to believe that they have already formed a relationship. She added: “They exchange a lot of information in a short period of time and that builds a false sense of intimacy and a sense of trust that can be used to manipulate and groom people.”
The NCA studied a sample of 163 rapes that had resulted from online activity and found that 85% of victims were female and most were in the 20 to 29 age group - although one quarter were 40 to 49. Teenagers also represented around 25% of the victims. In more than half the cases, online communication had included sexual references and in 43% the first face-to-face meeting took place within just one week of an initial online ‘meeting’. Ultimately, 72% of offences were committed at the victim’s or offender’s home.
The main difference between online offenders and stranger rapists is that those who use dating sites are less likely to have a previous criminal conviction. As the NCA points out ‘ Behavioural experts say people often feel they are a good judge of characters and think they would recognise a rapist when they see him. This analysis reminds us that sexual offenders come in many guises.’
According to Huddersfield-based Chartered Psychologist Saqib Saddiq, human beings rely on many non-verbal clues when meeting someone face-to-face. “You can sense certain things about the other person from their expressions,” he explained. “This non-verbal communication is lost when you talk to someone online. You lose 70% of that communication - it’s scary stuff.”
And he feels there is an added danger in that dating sites may have a particular appeal for less confident people and those who are in a vulnerable frame of mind. He added: “These are the very people who are easy targets and may feel less comfortable coming out and saying that they have been assaulted.”
So what can be done to prevent the abuse of online dating sites? Saqib suggests the sites themselves should take more responsibility for safeguarding users. “There needs to be education about this,” he said. “Even if it was just that someone had to click and read a couple of pages of advice before using a site.”
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Heather and Laura agree that dating sites at the moment don’t do enough to protect users and say they know of one site that refused to remove the profile of an abuser because he hadn’t committed any offence online.
Laura says: “Everybody knows somebody with a story to tell about problems following online dating, but the one thing that rape support charities want to be clear about is that it’s never the fault of the survivor.
“There are some wonderful stories about people who met each other on dating sites and have a wonderful relationship, but people need to be careful and trust their instincts. You might feel you know someone, but when you meet them if you feel uncomfortable you should walk away and not feel you are over-reacting.”
The Kirklees counselling centre, which is based in Huddersfield town centre and received more than 270 referrals last year, hasn’t yet compiled local figures for online date rape but its counsellors are working with survivors and anticipate that this part of their work will increase. In fact, agencies such as KRASACC have been warned by the police that they need to prepare for a spike in their workload. (See survivor story below).
“We are one of the few groups who work with both males and females,” says Heather, “from the age of 16 plus. Our work also covers domestic violence and the survivors of child sexual abuse.”
The group has four employed counsellors and nine volunteer counsellors (providing more than 1,500 counselling sessions each year), a number of helpline volunteers and a management team. It also supports survivors through the criminal justice system. The Helpline number (available Monday to Friday) is 01484 450040 (for males only, on Friday evenings, 07768740549).
Guidelines for online dating site users issued by www.getsafeonline.org
1. Plan it. Say it. Do it.
It’s your date. Agree on what you both want from it before you meet up. Don’t feel pressured to meet before you’re ready or for any longer than you’re comfortable with – a short first date is fine.
2. Meet in public. Stay in public.
The safest plan is to meet somewhere public and stay somewhere public. Make your own way there and back and don’t feel pressured to go home with your date. If you feel ready to move to a private environment, make sure your expectations match your date’s.
3. Get to know the person, not the profile.
The way people interact online isn’t always the same face-to-face. Don’t be offended if your date is more guarded when meeting in person, or if things don’t progress as fast face-to-face.
4. Not going well? Make your excuses and leave.
Don’t feel bad about cutting a date short if you’re not keen. You don’t owe the other person anything, no matter how long you’ve been chatting or what’s been suggested.
5. If you’re raped or sexually assaulted on your date, help is available.
No matter what the circumstances, sexual activity against your will is a crime. Police and charities are there to help and support you.
An online dating survivor’s story
Belle, 28, believes she only narrowly avoided being raped by a man she met through an online dating site. She joined the online dating community because, as she explains: “more and more of my friends seemed to be having success on sites”, but rapidly discovered the unromantic side of internet dating. “Like most of the women I’ve spoken to who have online profiles, I’ve received quite a lot of lewd and obscene messages (as well as a few personal pictures I could definitely have done without seeing). I found this more irritating than offensive and most sites make it very easy to block individual users from getting in touch. I’m certain that some of these users then popped up with a new online screen name, but I understand that it’s difficult for the sites to police this.” However, over a six month period she arranged a number of face-to-face dates and says the overall experience was fun and positive.
Then a few weeks ago she met a man called Jeff through a free site and struck up an immediate rapport. “We were both very direct and straightforward; we liked a lot of the same things and Jeff was complimentary and flirtatious without ever being crude or creepy. He was keen to start communicating over the phone, away from the site, really quickly and was eager to meet as soon as possible, which I took as a good sign - sometimes when men put off meeting up it’s because they’re not single or just want to use sites to flirt. We spoke and exchanged text messages every day. It was quite intense.”
After two weeks they met in a town centre pub. “For the first 10 to 15 minutes it went really well: because of the amount of contact we’d had in the lead up to the date it felt like we already knew each other and it was easy to chat.”
But Jeff’s manner quickly deteriorated and he became “very physical”. “He kept grabbing and touching my legs, very high up”.
Bellle says he began making suggestive comments and when she tried to make her excuses and leave Jeff grabbed her by the arm and dragged her outside.
“I was too shocked to clearly take in what was happening and on a busy Saturday night in town it might have looked like a guy helping his drunken girlfriend out. He began to literally drag me up the pavement towards the train station, where he told me we’d be catching a train back to his house. He was big and he was strong. At this point I began to struggle and protest more loudly, at which point he grabbed my umbrella and hit me with it. I know this sounds ridiculous but it was the first point I realised that something was very, very wrong. I was also surprised by the number of people who passed us by - I was clearly struggling against someone much bigger than me and very loudly telling Jeff that I didn’t want to go anywhere with him.”
Jeff pulled Belle behind a building on a side road and pushed her against a wall. “We must have only been around that corner for two minutes or less but it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life: nobody was paying any attention, I couldn’t get to my phone to call for help and I was unable to even move, let alone fight in any way.”
Belle was saved by a passing group of young men who shouted over to ask if she was OK. Jeff ran off towards the station, leaving her shaken and sick. The men walked her to a taxi. “I hadn’t seen where Jeff had gone and I felt certain that he might have been waiting somewhere for me. Before I arrived home I received messages from Jeff asking if I’d ‘had fun’ and if it had been a ‘good date’. I’m now certain that he was crying to create an audit trail that suggested we’d had a perfectly normal time, scared that I might report him to the police.”
Belle contacted the dating site to tell them what had happened but learned that she couldn’t raise a red flag against Jeff, only block him as a user. She says she’s not sure if she will ever be able to trust anyone she meets online again - or, indeed, if she will ever be able to go on an online dating site in the future.
“However well you think you ‘know’ someone, you really, really don’t,” she says.