A Note on Language
In this toolkit, we will sometimes use the word woman/women and feminine pronouns for simplicity and to recognize the significant impact technology-facilitated violence has on women and girls. We recognize that TFGBV also impacts trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit people. We hope that all people impacted by TFGBV will find these documents useful.
Online dating has rapidly gained popularity as a common way to connect to potential dates or find a partner. Dating sites range from major companies with millions of users to niche sites that cater to specific communities based on interests or background. Some women who are wary of meeting in person or prefer to be able to choose the identity they present to the world find more flexibility or comfort online.
For anyone considering online dating, especially women who may have heightened privacy risks, it’s important to have information about privacy and safety options. Everyone should be able to be online safely, free from harassment and abuse, and that includes when dating.
Dating sites rely on gathering and selling information about users for marketing purposes and to make a profit. This is important because the perception of anonymity online may not match the reality: private and intimate information about users is gathered and sold by most sites. In addition to the routine sharing of user data for marketing, dating sites have exposed users’ personal information accidentally through bugs in their software and inadequate security, enabling hackers to access personal and financial information.
Young adults, particularly young women, experience online harassment at a high rate. People who identify with other marginalized groups are more likely to experience harassment. Online dating represents a small portion of where people say that online harassment happens.
Harassment, threats, and abuse that happen “only” online should be taken seriously. Such experiences can be traumatizing and may include financial crime or identity theft. Victims report efforts to ruin their reputations and drive them from online communities. If enough identifying information is known, the abuse can also quickly become an offline threat.
Strategies to Increase Privacy and Safety
The most common concern with online dating is safety, especially as users move to meet up in real life. People often ask, “How do you know the other person is really who they say they are?” and “How can I protect myself?” Another concern with online dating, and dating in real life, is the non-consensual sharing of intimate images. Read more about image-based abuse in this toolkit. While most sites offer tips to increase safety, most advice puts the responsibility on the potential victim.
There have been several dating services designed and marketed to increase feelings of safety and empowerment when dating online, particularly for women and 2SLGTBQIA+ people. One common approach is to limit potential matches to people who are friends of your friends (through Facebook or another social media platform). However, this approach is driven by the fear of attack by strangers, while, the majority of assaults and abuse are actually perpetrated by an acquaintance or someone known to the victim.
When using online dating services, you may want to consider some of these steps to increase your safety and privacy online.
- When creating accounts and profiles, choose a username that doesn’t include your real name or other identifying information. Protect your privacy by not giving out identifying or contact information.
- Consider using different email addresses, profile pictures, and strong passwords for dating sites; and maybe even for each site you use. Keeping this information separate from the rest of your life can help protect your privacy and safety.
- Search for yourself online or use privacy checking services to find out what information is available about you online.
Connecting Online with Potential Dates
- Take as much time as you need before sharing a lot of personal information, including pictures. Just because someone asks for your info or more photos doesn’t mean you have to share. They should respect your boundaries. It’s impossible to get information back once it’s been shared.
- Do an Internet search about the person. Check out news articles, social media sites, and images. Remember that criminal background checks only turn up information if someone has been arrested and/or prosecuted.
- Be careful about attachments and links, which might install spyware or other malware on your devices.
- Trust your instincts. If you start to feel uncomfortable, it’s always ok to stop contact.
Considering Meeting in Real Life (IRL)
- Meet up instead of having them pick you up.
- Bring your phone.
- Let a friend know ahead of time where you are going and that you will reach out to them when the date is over.
- Leave an address and some information about your meeting with someone you trust.
- Familiarize yourself with the meet-up spot ahead of time. Only meet where you’re comfortable.
- Watch out for people saying they want to visit but need loans to be able to get to you, or who use other stories to gain your sympathy and then ask for money. These may be signs of a scam.
- It’s ok to schedule short dates or to cut dates short if it’s not going in a direction you are interested in (no matter how long you’ve been chatting). Trust your instincts.
Evidence and Documentation
Women experiencing, or who have experienced, abuse that began online may choose to report their experiences to the dating platforms or the legal system. Often, a site’s Terms of Service will state what kind of behaviour is not allowed and a woman can ask to have someone banned from the site based on that.
Because online dating sites use both hardware-like devices such as smartphones as well as Internet providers and the dating company’s servers, digital evidence may be available through all of these companies. In addition, women can consider taking pictures, screenshots, or saving other relevant information. See our tips on documenting abuse and a sample documentation log.
Online harassment and abuse may fall under a number of crimes, depending on what is happening. Learn more about preserving evidence or about the laws on online harassment.
Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) is part of a continuum of violence that can be both online and in-person. If you or someone you know is experiencing TFGBV, you are not alone. You can use sheltersafe.ca to find a shelter/transition house near you to discuss options and create a safety plan. You don’t need to stay in a shelter to access free, confidential services and support.
Adapted for Canada with permission from NNEDV’s