It used to be, if someone mentioned online dating to me, I'd find myself plunged into a deep panic attack. I remember once, a casual conversation with work colleagues after a work dinner, one colleague saying that he'd met his partner on an online dating site. Somehow, I don't remember, but I ran into the ladies room. My colleagues found out that night that all was not well on planet Em. Another time, years later, but still suffering from PTSD, a new senior hire was being introduced to the whole office. For some reason, a joke was made about online dating. It took all my energy and focus to ground myself into the chair I was sitting on and not flip out in front of 100 of my colleagues. Online dating. That's where it all began.
I know for lots of people, for many of my friends, including that one colleague, online dating is where it does all begin. It's where for many, they meet their happy ever after. When newly single, divorced, it's where you go to meet new people. Whilst the data seems to show that actually less than 10% of long-term relationships start online, that's not how it feels (and other data suggests that one in three relationships do start online). When you're newly single, and divorced, and trying to get back into the dating game, then it feels like your only options are the people you work with (usually already partnered up, and not great for career progression if it all goes wrong), or meeting new people, online.
When I was newly single, and divorced, after a marriage that had taken me off the dating scene for 12 years, I went online dating.
Initially, it was fine. I had a couple of dates that passed without incident. One of them, I got a little drunk and when we were home at mine, I changed my mind. He slept on the couch.
Then, it wasn't fine anymore. One date ended in me suffering from PTSD for years, in a breakdown, in almost dying (more than once). I went to the police, about a month afterwards, because I'd seen his profile still up on a different dating site. I'd realised, I couldn't ignore what had happened (well, my nightmares weren't allowing me to ignore it anyway) and I needed to report him so that he didn't hurt anyone else. (That was the initial reason. After, I felt like justice was actually important. Not getting it became a whole other story).
After, I wrote to the online dating site concerned. I don't know if they removed his profile, or if he removed it voluntarily. They never replied to me. The next thing I knew, I was being charged for membership: despite having written to inform them one of their subscribers had raped me, they wanted to continue to charge me! Eventually, when they did agree to cancel my subscription, their 'sorry you're leaving' email still contained the standard 'but if you'd like to join us again' text. It was the definition of insult to injury.
Now that I'm better, now that I'm able to talk about online dating, write about online dating, I'm wondering: in the intervening years, has anything changed?
It's certainly a fact that online dating sites offer the ideal environment in which sexual predators can hide in plain sight, picking out their prey, looking for the vulnerable, those that might have been hurt already, with low self-esteem, looking for affection and validation. Data released earlier this year by the NCA (National Crime Agency) showed that online dating-related rape had risen 450% in 6 years (2009-2015). I know that I was probably the 'perfect victim' - not in the sense of the kind that the CPS might prosecute for (although I'd thought I was that too; white middle class privilege doesn't get you everything) - but in the sense that I was naïve, vulnerable, had low self-esteem, little clue about dating, trusting.
In writing this, I've looked for what's changed. There are some sites that didn't seem to exist back then, focusing on staying safe in the world of online dating. The primary focus seems to be on scammers, and preventing fraud. The secondary focus is on the 'staying safe' advice that reinforces the myth that if women do all the 'right' things, then they'll be safe (and if they don't do those things, of course they only have themselves to blame for being 'foolish' - cf Mr Justice Gilbart). I thought I was doing those things. I was still raped.
I wondered, back then, did one dating site share information with another? I mean, I know they do when it comes to subscriber details, and if you register for one, you might find yourself approached by people on another - but what about keeping a blacklist of accused? Like the casinos do with the card sharks. The fact I'd reported him to one site, it didn't seem to stop him from keeping his profile on another. Different 'name', same photo. When online dating is becoming increasingly normalised and there are over 7 million UK registered users of online dating sites, when it is an industry worth over £166m/year, when the NCA is saying that is has produced a new type of sexual offender, when less than 17% of rapes are reported to the police - is now the time for online dating sites to take their social obligation seriously and compile and share between themselves details of accused predators?
I'm looking forward to their thoughts and next actions.
Emily Jacob is the founder of ReConnected Life, a pioneering whole body/mind/self approach to recovery after rape. As well as helping women directly through her pioneering coaching programme, she runs a Community group for survivors to support and help each other, more details are here. You can link with her on Twitter here, and follow the Facebook book page here. If you'd like to support Emily's work to offer pro bono help to those who need it, you can donate here.