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Here’s The Deal: Dating Apps and Trivialised Behaviours

Writers: Afrina Zulkifli and Nanthinee Shree

Editor: Reema Dudekula

Content Warning: Discusses online sexual harassment.

“Hey have you seen this 8 inches?”

When most users sign up for dating apps, they believe sexual harassment is a part and parcel of online dating that they have to accept. Almost 79% current and former users, aged 21-34, surveyed by the team at What’s The Big Deal? (WTBD) felt that they were susceptible to receiving unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content when on dating apps.

It’s about time we call out these behaviours for what is truly is – sexual harassment.

What’s The Big Deal? (WTBD), is a first of its kind local campaign aimed at raising awareness on sexual harassment on dating apps.

Dating apps have been gradually becoming the new medium for many to meet new people whether it is for love, lust or even friendships. Dubbing it as the new normal for romance in the COVID-19 climate, dating apps provide those seeking relationships the best alternative to interact and continue with their new meet-cutes.

With the new COVID-19 measures in Singapore such as working from home and physical distancing, dating app developers reciprocate to enhance apps with new features to accommodate growing use and non-physical interactions (Chow, 2020). With the new regulations being put in place and these added features, there has been a sharp rise in the number of users on dating apps. A nationwide survey conducted in December 2020 among Singapore residents aged 21-80 by IN-cube, the newly launched Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet (IN-cube) at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, revealed that almost 46.9% of the respondents increased their usage of dating apps compared to pre-COVID-19.

This rise in users could also possibly lead to a rise in the occurrence of sexual harassment on dating apps. 41.4% of WTBD’s survey respondents have experienced unwelcome comments and content, a type of sexual harassment on dating apps. What is more concerning would be the public’s reaction to a survivor of online sexual harassment. From WTBD’s In-depth interview, some participants have mentioned being uncomfortable in sharing their experiences due to the fear of receiving remarks like “You put yourself in such a situation.” or “Why are you so surprised?”. When the reality is that one should be able to react negatively to such messages. According to the Continuum of Sexual Violence (Kelly, 1987), accumulative effects of the normalised harassment share similarities with physical violence. If it is not okay for it to happen in real life then why should it be okay online?

So here’s the big deal: Problems with sexual harassment on dating apps.

There is a multitude of reason why sexual harassment on dating apps should be considered just as big a problem as harassment in real life. First being because of the Online Disinhibition Effect. Under a smokescreen of virtual personas, users behave more boldly and differently than in reality as they can shun from physical or “real” repercussions. These behavioural nuances on dating apps have become commonplace and normalised. This may explain the recent increase in sexual harassment incidents on dating apps where in 2016, Singapore saw 1 in 5 sexual harassment cases to be technology-enabled, including the use of dating apps (Vitis, Joseph, & Mahadevan, 2017). Additionally, the nature of dating apps further blurs the line between flirting and sexual harassment, and exacerbated by ambiguous individual definitions of sexual harassment faced online, it necessitates the need for this public awareness campaign.

In Singapore there has been current efforts made to curb harassment. In late 2014, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) was enacted to safeguard citizens from digital or physical harassment incidents (Protection From Harassment Act, 2015). Early 2020, “cyber-flashing” and acts of voyeurism have been criminalised; that includes a series of sexual offences and exposure online (Darke & Chang, 2019). Despite the presence of legal channels in seeking justice, WTBD believes that more can be done. From a survey done by the WTBD research team conducted among 133 dating app users aged 21-34, 87.2% of our respondents said they will not reply and just block the harasser's account while 83.5% said they will not reply and just unmatch the harasser’s account. This comes to show there often users tend to take a more passive approach when being sexually harassed on the app. Hence despite the presence of such legal channels, users may still feel highly susceptible to getting sexually harassed on dating apps.

What’s – What’s The Big Deal?

Our campaign, What’s The Big Deal? (WTBD) is a communications campaign that aims to counter the perceived “normal” behaviour of Sexual Harassment on Dating Apps through sustained efforts to decrease its prevalence. By empowering users with skills to (1) Identify, (2) Address and (3) Combat this issue, WTBD is encouraging them to be effective communicators and ambassadors of anti-sexual harassment. WTBD intends to increase user confidence when dealing with sexual harassment, build a community of users with similar experiences and supplement them with Singapore-centric help resources to support sustained efforts in reducing sexual harassment’s pervasiveness.

This would be done through a variety of activities released in phases by WTBD. Having Instagram as our predominant platform as it is the most common one used by our target audience, we have released new digital content such as the “What If” series showcasing the direct juxtaposition between online and offline sexual harassment and an upcoming vox pop hearing out the public’s opinion on this topic. Complimenting that, our campaign also produces informational content such as the 4 different types of harassment and impacts of it on the users. Wrapping up our campaign we will be having a panel discussion with our three partners, Not A Dating App (NADA), Women Unbounded and INCube. Feel free to follow us @WTBD.sg to be up to date with all of our exciting content and events.

Till then… start conversations and let’s make it a big deal.
  • According to the Continuum of Sexual Violence (Kelly, 1987), accumulative effects of the normalised harassment share similarities with physical violence.

Recent conversations regarding sexual harassment:

  • Social movements from abroad, such as the notable #MeToo campaign has resonated with a global audience.

  • Singapore – In 2017, AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre shared that 18% of the sexual harassment cases they serviced last year involved technology.

  • The Straits Time released an article discussing the rise of sexual assault cases using technology (Chong, 2017). As the number of research and reported cases of online and offline sexual harassment cases rise, more can be done to understand how this phenomenon occurs on dating apps.

Survey Findings:

  • In a survey conducted among 133 dating app users aged 21-34, The most frequent form of Sexual Harassment faced by users were unsolicited comments and content.

  • Sampling method: Snowball Sampling Survey approved by NTU IRB.

Some Statistics:

  1. 41.4% of our survey respondents have faced this type (unwelcome comments and content) of sexual harassment.

  2. ~79% of our respondents felt that they were susceptible to receiving unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content when on dating apps.

  3. 87.2% of our respondents said they will not reply & just block the harasser's account (Passive actions)

  4. 83.5% said they will not reply & just unmatch the harasser’s account. (Passive actions)

Top 3 Dating Apps used by respondents:

1. Tinder ~82% have used it

2. Coffee Meets Bagel ~57.9% have used it

3. Bumble ~40.6% have used it

Women Unbounded 

Women Unbounded was founded in 2020 as a means for young Singaporean ladies to empower women in the country. WU is proudly feminist; our approach to feminist activism is grounded in our beliefs in fairness, respect, and empiricism, and our commitment to intersectional feminism.

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