Violent sexual predators use dating apps as ‘hunting grounds,’ BYU study finds

Nov 14, 2022, 7:10 PM | Updated: 7:34 pm

PROVO, Utah – Online dating is one of the most common ways people meet each other, and wonderful relationships often start through a screen. Unfortunately, new research shows those digital connections can also lead to real-world violence.

“We started seeing more and more patients report that they had been raped after they met someone on a dating app,” said Dr. Julie Valentine, a certified sexual assault examiner and Brigham Young University nursing professor at the forefront of sexual assault research in Utah.

New research from Valentine and a nursing team at BYU is the largest study of its kind in the world. The study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, analyzed 274 sexual assaults in Utah that occurred during the first in-person meeting between people who connected through online dating apps from 2017 to 2020.

The findings show those assaults were more violent compared to sexual assaults among acquaintances that were not directly linked to online dating apps, with a higher percentage of victims (32%) reporting they were strangled and higher percentage of victims (50%) experiencing anogenital injuries.

“We found that freezing, that lack of response, is even heightened in these dating app rapes,” Valentine said. “Because, think about it, this is someone they barely know. And they’re being raped at the initial meeting, as a violent rape. We have many victim statements where they say, ‘I thought I was going to die.’ ”

Dr. Julie Valentine

Dr. Julie Valentine, BYU nursing professor. (Josh Szymanik/KSL TV)

The study also cites previous research that found users of one dating app were more likely to exhibit traits like Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy than non-dating app users. And Valentine’s research found “a substantial number of victims” (60%) reported having mental illness or use of psychotropic medications.

“Our takeaway is that violent sexual predators use dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims,” Valentine said.

But the answer, Valentine said, is not to discourage people from using dating apps.

“That’s the number one way relationships are forged,” she said. “There’s many happy relationships from dating apps.”

Instead, Valentine has worked with Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, to make online dating safer in Utah.

“We just wanted to put the safety requirements there, particularly when we’re talking about sexual assault, and when we’re meeting with someone for the first time,” Romero said.

Romero is proposing legislation to require dating apps to let users know whether they conduct background checks, flag accounts that could be engaging in catfishing or other forms of fraud, and clearly post and provide resources for preventing and reporting assaults.

She ran the bill during the 2022 legislative session, but said lawmakers ran out of time to pass it. She’s confident it will pass during the next session and said other states have already modelled their own online dating safety legislation after her bill.

Valentine noted that currently, some apps only provide a list of safety guidelines they tell users to read.

“It’s putting all the burden of preventing a sexual assault on the potential victim,” said Valentine. “So, what if a potential victim maybe doesn’t follow all of those safety recommendations and they’re raped? That increases the self-blame, because they think, ‘I did meet with him,’ you know, and ‘I wasn’t in a completely public place.’ And so, then they’re going to be less likely to report.”

Romero said she worked with dating app companies to craft her bill and ensure language presented to users in the future will not place blame on victims.

Rep. Angela Romero, Salt Lake City. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)

“I want people to know that if you didn’t give consent, it’s not your fault,” said Romero.

She said reporting assaults can help law enforcement identify and prosecute perpetrators, but more importantly, connect victims and survivors with free help and services that are available.

“Just because someone agrees to go on a date with you doesn’t mean they agree to have sex with you,” said Romero.

If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the Rape Recovery Center Crisis Line at 801-467-7273 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.

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Violent sexual predators use dating apps as ‘hunting grounds,’ BYU study finds