Dating apps have made meeting people to date and have sex with simpler than ever, but with their ease of use comes risks. Is it time we had a #MeToo conversation about Tinder?
PLEASE NOTE: this article includes graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
When the #metoo social movement emerged from the Harvey Weinstein fallout, I found myself becoming anxious every time I unlocked my phone and scrolled through my newsfeed. My partner said it was important that women were coming forward and sharing their stories, and I agreed. But the horrible feeling in my stomach was not about a lack of empathy, but rather a feeling of losing control over my own life, my own stories and how I related to them now. The #metoo movement made me remember things I did not want to, that I had pushed to the back of my mind, labelling them “silly accidents,” “my own fault,” and “too shameful to speak of”.
I used to do a lot of online dating. In theory, it’s appealing to be able to sell yourself from the comfort of your own home, especially for someone like me who is naturally awkward and would prefer not to have to strike up a conversation at the pub or join a hobby group. You can upload your best photos and take time to be witty about your life, your interests, your dreams and your dislikes, and all while sitting in your pyjamas.
Through online dating, I did meet some great people. I even dated one for three years. Then, newly single, I realised everyone seemed now to be using Tinder. Call me prudish or naive, but I didn’t realise the app’s reputation as a vehicle for hook-ups. I’m not altogether sure how to describe my experiences because they were incredibly varied: I had some dates that made me cringe and some that made me smile. But I soon learned that my expectation of finding someone for more than one night did not match up with most of the guys I met.
I remember two men from Tinder in particular. They’re the ones who stand out when I think about the #metoo campaign and my response to it. They are why I feel strongly about facing these experiences – and doing something, anything, to address what happened. I find it ironic that I paid for therapy to regain my own confidence after encountering these two men, when they who trampled on it went on as before.
Here’s my first story. I was travelling overseas for work and, not knowing anyone in the city, I found myself looking at local profiles on Tinder. One guy stood out to me more than the others and I swiped right. We began a conversation about music, art and whether ‘hard sciences’ were better than social sciences. He complimented me on my red hair. We shared the same mixture of ethnicities and upbringings in different countries and agreed that before I left we would meet. Was I attracted to him? Yes.
A show seemed to be the best place to have a date – always meet someone in a public space, right? He seemed as sweet and intelligent as I anticipated. After the show, we walked the streets and I forgot about the time. My vocabulary in his language was more limited, so soon we were strolling in silence. Before I knew it, we were in the apartment I had rented. At the time, I thought serendipity.
In the past, I’d felt beholden to perform sexual acts because men expected it of me, and this night I wanted to have a wanton night of pleasure – and our encounter was just that. Until it wasn’t. Until I tensed up because I was being pushed into a position of pain and my breath caught in my chest as it was pressed against the mattress. Until my neck twisted. Until I could feel him trying to penetrate me anally without lubrication and I tried to put my hands back to stop it, saying “no don’t, please”. But he grabbed them, continued, and I held my breath. I was unable to think, and the more painful it was, the more emotionally numb I became.
Afterwards, left bleeding on the bed alone, I did not blame him. I did not call the police. I felt such shame thinking of all the moments where I could have asserted myself. And that I had perhaps encouraged it. I even messaged a friend to tell her that the night had gone well.
On my return to New Zealand, I convinced myself it hadn’t happened. I made myself date more, trying to forget about it. I met some sweet men, but my heart wasn’t in it. I slept with men who just wanted sex because I didn’t want to connect on an emotional level. Looking back, I was trying to protect myself. Yet at a deeper level, I felt the same expectation I had in earlier sexual encounters: that as a woman I was there to please men sexually.
And then when I met someone – again, on Tinder – who I did like, genuinely, the night ended in disaster. He filled my wine glass up again and again, and I didn’t notice because I was so engrossed in the conversation; I thought, “finally, I’m laughing!”. I have little memory of what happened afterwards. I woke up the next morning with bruises around my neck and upper arms, and his equivocation: “I wasn’t going to do anything because I realised I would genuinely want to have you in my life as a friend. But then the wine happened…”
My neck hurt. I was confused. And I couldn’t sleep for days. In the aftermath, an acquaintance who is best friends with my ‘one-night stand’, called me a slut. He was interested in me, but I had been adamant that I would not sleep with him without getting to know him first. Apparently, the incident with his friend revealed my true character and he felt lucky because he had been ‘saved from a whore’ like me.
I didn’t tell him about the bruises. Or how I didn’t remember anything.
All I knew was that touching my neck sent shivers down my spine. That my vagina hurt and the swelling did not reduce for days. I told him that he had no right to slander me publicly while giving his friend a free pass. But the damage was done. Somehow I summoned the courage to forward my one night stand the horrifically abusive messages I had received from his friend.
His response? That he didn’t realise his friend liked me or he wouldn’t have given me all that wine or touched me. And his way of fixing it all would be to take his friend out the next night and find him a girl to sleep with. But I wasn’t fixed.
I have two reasons for writing this; they’re both simple messages I want to share. I hid away from my trauma and blamed myself for a long time. I cut off all of my hair because the man overseas whispered that he knew redheads “liked it dirty”. I acted normally because I wanted all the memories to disappear. But it was only when I accepted that these things happened, that I was sexually assaulted and taken advantage of and it was not my fault, that I began to heal.
Secondly, although Tinder and other online dating sites can be wonderful, I worry that there are other people who have had similar experiences to mine and felt it was their fault too. The two experiences I describe here are different from one another. Yet the shame that resulted was the same.
I know what many of you might be thinking. Why didn’t I call the police when I was sexually assaulted while overseas? Why did I not consider doing anything about this second incident, which happened here at home? And the only answer I have is perhaps why a lot of women in the #metoo movement did nothing at the time. Shame is an incredibly suffocating emotion, and it takes very little to convince yourself that you must have done something, or not done something, that led to the event in question.
Yes, we should teach women of all ages to be aware of the danger signs in any sexual situation, but I have learned after a lot of soul-searching and tears that there are no shades of grey to consent. There are no maybes, there are no half-yeses. Consent should be clear, it should be sought, it should be an on-going process. And it should not produce shame.
Like many things in our culture which should are not inherently shameful, there is a stigma attached to being sexually assaulted. So I am all for the honest conversations prompted by the #metoo campaign, even if they cause distress from time to time. But I would like to suggest another hashtag, #metootinder, to open up a dialogue about the role dating apps can have in sexual power dynamics, coercion and in my case, rape. We discuss the harassment we get from men every day in our work and public spaces. For me, #metoo is about having a space to tell my experience and own what happened to me. Because this movement is not static, and it’s time.
‘Gemma Stevens’ is a pseudonym.
If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.