entered the world of app-based dating in the same manner I exited my eight-year marriage — with a furious sense of purpose.
It had been over twelve years since I’d dated, and I naively assumed people must still prefer to meet organically. The idea of connecting with a stranger through an app baffled me at first; however, there was an undeniable appeal to an armchair-approach to dating.
These apps thrive, at least in part, due to the false sense of intimacy and immediate gratification they provide, and I wasn’t immune. Within minutes of downloading Tinder, I became thoroughly seduced by the format. I’d been separated for ten months, legally divorced for twelve days, and after just an hour of swiping I’d agreed to a date with a man named Jim for that very evening.
The last time I’d been on a real date, smart phones didn’t exist, apps weren’t a thing, and most people met each other in bars, at school, through mutual friends, or at work. Because I am not a fan of spending time in the trunks of strangers’ cars and had been well-trained in the art of “safe dating behaviors”, I convinced a friend to accompany me on that first date. She was surprised when I told her that despite having zero experience with the apps, I’d planned to meet a complete stranger after exchanging a total of eight messages. She chased away my nerves by celebrating my newfound bravery and offering words of wisdom.
That night she sat on the neighboring bar stool while we waited for him to appear, telling me lies like, “The first date post-divorce is just practice. It doesn’t count.”
It was summer in Seattle, and as I clutched a glass of cold gin, I was blissfully unaware of what the coming months held in store for me. The good: movies under the stars, first kisses, whiskey and punk bands at 1 a.m. — dancing myself into oblivion at the local lesbian dive bar with gorgeous women whose names I’d never remember. The bad: the three-hour date spent mindlessly nibbling stale tortilla chips while I was educated on the finer points of sumo wrestling comes to mind, alongside the missed connections, tears, and danger.
Jim’s profile included a photo of him at the Women’s March in 2017, carrying a sign that read “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” Not terribly creative, but a sentiment I certainly shared. He smiled in all of his photos, and his bio included a quote by a writer I admired.
In person, he was my favorite kind of attractive, tattooed and tall with mussed hair and dark eyes. His looks hooked me deep in my chest, in the secret place where my obsession with Jordan Catalano still reigns supreme, and when he hugged me by way of greeting it occurred to me that I hadn’t been touched by a potential sexual partner in over a year.
Within minutes of meeting him, I gave my friend the agreed-upon signal and she casually excused herself. He and I drank, laughed, talked about our jobs and our families, and eventually the conversation turned to sex. To be honest, it was refreshing.
Jim wanted to know what I was into. I’d wager that any unwillingly celibate, recently divorced woman would struggle with how to answer this one.
I’m into a partner who unloads the dishwasher without being asked. I’m into foreplay lasting longer than three minutes. I’m into any sexual act that doesn’t end with me having to soothe the frail ego of my cheating ex.
I managed to reel it in and did my best to answer flirtatiously yet responsibly about my sexual interests (or what I could recall of them).
He told me he identified as a feminist, and good sex was about respect and consent. I agreed, thrilled to hear an adult male use words like respect and consent without rolling an eye. In retrospect, I was setting the bar very low.
Two hours after that first drink was poured and less than a minute after leaving the bar, he pushed me against a building and kissed me with dizzying force.
‘You are starving and I am food,’ I thought as the bricks scratched my arms and lower back.
It didn’t occur to me until later that mere moments after a discussion about consent, Jim had failed to ask if I was into public displays of intimacy or being kissed without prelude.
I allowed him to continue. Maybe I was the one who was starving.
I invited him into my home, imagining our evening would be roughly on par with steamy make outs I’d had in college, before marriage. I poured us another drink and he told me about a funny summer job he’d had years ago as a juggler in a traveling carnival. I told him the story of the rather regrettable tattoo I have behind my left ear. And when he leaned in for a closer look at the faded ink, I was ready.
“This okay?” he asked, kissing my neck without waiting for my reply. I nodded. “And this?” he asked as his hand drifted under my shirt. I nodded again. He kissed me and I closed my eyes.
So, this is what consent means nowadays, I thought. I leaned into him and reveled in what felt like empowerment, idly wondering about the least awkward way to ask his last name while his erection was pressed against my leg.
And then his hand crept past my collar bone and wrapped firmly around my throat.
I had a strange thought in that moment. That my neck was made of hollow bones. Bird bones. That they could snap cleanly beneath the flick of a stranger’s wrist. You didn’t ask me about this, I thought, unsure of how to say no, afraid of what his reaction might be.
But as the room started to darken and breathing became a struggle, an instinct for survival outweighed the fear of what this man might do if I resisted. I pulled back and tugged at his hands, shaking my head as firmly as I could. He stopped instantly and I took a deep breath.
“Too hard?” he asked. He had a tiny frown line between his eyes and kissed me softly as I rubbed my neck. I wasn’t able to speak. He filled the silence with his own words. “I’ll remember for next time.”
I’d like to say I kicked him out. I’d like to say I told him there’d never be a next time. But I didn’t, and there was.
It has taken me a long time to admit that seeping through my fear and anger that night, there was something else, something fiercely shameful to me and stronger than my sense of self preservation. A desperate need for connection after two years without physical intimacy.
In the weeks that followed, I always forgave Jim when he took an extra minute or two to hear my objections, insisting that sexual acts which were painful or frightening last just a little bit longer.
He’d negotiate with words or force… and I didn’t argue when he claimed it was his uncontrollable attraction to me that caused him to get carried away, leaving bruises on my arms, chest, and neck that I hid from coworkers and friends.
But I hated myself for it, convinced it meant I was contributing to a very real societal problem. By allowing Jim to handle me in any way he saw fit, I believed I was reinforcing his notion that it was okay to treat women badly, and I was sure this behavior meant I wasn’t the feminist I’d always believed myself to be.
That first night, as he pushed me deep into my mattress and once again pressed his hand against my throat, I told myself it was my fault.
It wasn’t until months later that I unpacked that experience.
Considered what it said about me.
What it said about him.
What it said about lip-service and silence in the age of enthusiastic consent.
I spoke to a few trusted friends about what had happened, and was shocked to learn that almost all of them had comparable experiences to share.
During these early conversations, I found myself saying things like, “I drank too much. It was stupid to invite a stranger to my place on a first date. I wanted sex, and I got what I asked for.” It was prototypical victim blaming, and I’m eternally grateful to the strong and frank women who listened to me without judgement and assured me in no uncertain terms, that I was not at fault.
I reached out further, to other women I was more remotely connected with, and heard disturbingly similar stories. Being choked by casual sexual partners wasn’t that rare, it seemed. Most of us were hesitant to discuss our experiences at first, but more than anything we were deeply troubled at the commonality. One woman revealed she had actually blacked out during an extremely rough and frightening sexual encounter, waking in the morning to a note from the man thanking her for “a great time”.
Another told me she slept with a man who grew angry when she told him to take his hand from her throat, calling her a “vanilla cocktease” before leaving her house and deleting their virtual connection before she’d even locked the front door behind him, let alone had an opportunity to report him to the app. Non-consensual aggression and potentially lethal sexual practices during initial encounters seemed to be an increasingly common phenomenon.
Erotic asphyxiation was a practice that in my experience, was never discussed first by the men who attempted it. I struggled to understand.
Was there some sort of sexual fad making its way across the country that I’d missed the memo on? A viral porn these men were watching and learning from? I’d been fairly adventurous in my life, open-minded and kink-friendly. However, the act of wrapping your hand around someone’s throat and applying sufficient pressure to alter breathing patterns and prevent speech is not your typical first-date fare.
Or is it?
I pondered difficult questions. Why and how was this happening with such seeming regularity?
I suspect there is a correlation between the election of a self-avowed sexual predator to our nation’s highest public office (those “Access Hollywood” boasts released in 2016 still send a shiver down my spine), a reaction to the irrefutable force of the #MeToo movement, and the increased frequency of casual sexual encounters to which app-based dating has given new birth.
I am worried that enthusiastic consent has become a millennial tag line in dating profiles and rally photos are the accompanying click bait, used by some as a source of commonality that amounts to nothing — like agreeing you both like sushi when really one of you likes sashimi and the other only eats California rolls drenched in soy sauce. One of you is full of shit.
The open and ongoing discussion of what sexual assault looks and feels like needs to keep happening — in our schools, our universities, our workplaces, and certainly on the apps. Perpetrators of assault must be held accountable, and the women who come forward must be supported.
There seems to be a gap between word and action, and in that gap there is silence. And that is the dark place where behaviors become normalized by society.
I don’t blame technology or the creators of contemporary dating platforms for inciting misogynistic violence against women. I don’t blame apps for increasing trends in sexual assault in dating scenarios. To do so would be to shift accountability from the individuals hurting women to a line of code. An algorithm. A demand for instantaneous connection and endless options which is being eagerly met by savvy entrepreneurs. I don’t blame the apps. But I’m also finished blaming myself.
Though many online platforms offer articles, newsletters, and advice on safe dating practices, one troubling thing I’ve noticed is that a good deal of this advice still targets women as the sole parties responsible for ensuring sexual assault does not occur. After I broke things off with Jim, and at the encouragement of a good friend, I researched safe and anonymous ways to report sexual assault, starting with the apps I used.
They didn’t provide clear information. Would I really be kept anonymous? What exactly would happen to the man I was reporting? What did an investigation by these apps actually consist of? I let Jim into my home and into my bed… so would anyone truly believe I’d been assaulted? Another friend warned me off reporting directly to an app. She relayed that she had done so after receiving repeated, aggressive sexual messages from a match on OKCupid, and assumed his profile would be deleted as a result.
Within three days, this man’s profile appeared back in the pool of available men. She felt betrayed and worried he might retaliate in some way, but worst of all, she felt unheard.
Tinder, OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and other free platforms falling under the publicly traded Match Group umbrella do not verify information from users (either paid or free) against state sex offender lists. Instead of collecting more information up front in order to make an effort to protect users, these free apps often require nothing more than a social media link, name, and age, any of which could be false.
The responsibility for safety is therefore shifted entirely to the user, and away from Match Group. Despite a 2016 study conducted by the UK National Crime Agency which found up to a 450% increase in online-dating sexual assault over a period of five years, many of the most popular free platforms still haven’t implemented significant safeguard measures.
When E. Jean Carroll, who wrote for Elle magazine, came forward this summer and alleged that President Trump violently assaulted her more than 20 years ago, he responded by claiming it never happened, in part because “she’s not my type.” When one of the most powerful men in the world reacts to allegations of sexual assault in such a publicly dismissive manner clearly meant to humiliate and shame, the lessons learned by the young people who are watching are disastrous.
It goes without saying that all people should be cautious and use common sense when meeting strangers. Women are being taught to make the assumption that any man she meets for the first time is a potential rapist, murderer, or the perpetrator of sexual assault, and that it is her responsibility alone to ensure her safety and well-being. What, exactly, are we teaching the men?
During my search, I discovered the existence of anonymous reporting apps such as JDoe and Callisto which offer a less traumatizing means of reporting sexual assault than walking into a police station might. But ultimately, and almost a year after the first incident with Jim, I sought emotional support through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is confidential and completely free to use.
Recently, a fellow writer and friend asked me what I might have done differently — whether I had any regrets. In truth, I wish I’d reported Jim’s behavior to the app immediately. That I’d ended things between us sooner. That it hadn’t taken so long to stop shaming myself for wanting sex and craving human connection, instead realizing that a man took advantage of a healthy desire and did not listen when I said no.
I am still processing what happened, and its impact on my dating life. I find it difficult to trust, and sex has become a more complicated enterprise. I’ve worked hard to sift the lessons learned from the regrets, and for me there are two crucial takeaways.
Silence is not a friend. And consent is not negotiable.