BYU study finds hundreds of sexual assaults linked to dating apps. Can Utah Lawmakers Make Online Dating Safer?

Proposed legislation would require dating apps to provide safety information for Utah users and background check disclosures.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Editor’s note: This story is about sexual assault. If you need to report or discuss a sexual assault, you can call the Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline at 888-421-1100.

Hundreds of rapes in Utah in recent years have been linked to dating apps, according to a Brigham Young University study released in November.

To address this issue, State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is re-introducing a bill during the upcoming 2023 legislative session that would create specific requirements for online dating companies aimed at making dating apps more secure.

Under the proposed legislation, online dating platforms must provide a list of safeguards for how Utah users can report assaults, notify members when background checks are being conducted, and allow the platforms to notify users when a member they messaged have been banned from the app.

The study found that of nearly 2,000 rape cases reviewed where the perpetrator was an acquaintance, 14% occurred during the first meeting after being matched on a dating app. The researchers also found that the attacks were more violent and targeted vulnerable individuals, such as those with mental illness.

“We genuinely believe our findings suggest that violent sex offenders are using dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims,” ​​said Dr. Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor who led the research.

Valentine said she’s concerned about dating apps’ approach to providing safe spaces and that Romero’s bill is a “great place to start.”

Valentine has been working with Romero on the bill since its introduction in the 2022 legislative session, specifically on the language of the bill.

“Every word you use in a bill is important,” Valentine said, adding that the bill would require online dating sites to use specific language that avoids blaming the victim.

Romero said removing any victim-blaming language is important to ensure people feel comfortable with reporting.

“Especially when we talk about sexual assault, most people don’t come forward because they feel like they’re not believed,” she said.

Valentine said the original language of the bill focuses on what users should or shouldn’t do and puts the security burden on users rather than the app provider, something she’s not comfortable with.

“We wrote the bill so that dating app companies would be more accountable for clearly identifying sexual assault and having clear sexual assault reporting mechanisms and sexual assault support services,” Valentine said.

The bill has been made a committee draft, according to House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee chairman Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, meaning lawmakers are generally unanimous on the legislation. He added it was “an important issue” and the bill would “most likely” be passed in the upcoming session.

research results

According to Valentine, the goal of her research was to find differences between rapes by an acquaintance versus cases where the rape occurred at the first meeting arranged through a dating app.

For the study, the research team reviewed the medical exam charts of approximately 3,400 sexual assault victims in Utah from 2017 to 2020. They then narrowed their analysis to acquaintance rapes, which were responsible for 1,968 assaults.

Of those 1,968, 14% or 274 occurred during the first meeting after being matched on a dating app.

The most worrying finding, Valentine said, is the high rate of strangulation, with about a third of victims being strangled and cases being generally more violent.

The researchers also found that about 60% of the victims in the cases they reviewed had reported a mental illness.

About 22% of the victims were college students and 15% were between the ages of 14 and 17, although dating apps require a minimum age of 18.

Due to the high percentage of sexual assault victims who do not report, Valentine said the study’s findings are “the tip of the iceberg,” adding that she plans to work with app industry leaders to make institutional changes outside of legislation to influence. BYU study finds hundreds of sexual assaults linked to dating apps. Can Utah Lawmakers Make Online Dating Safer?

Justin Scacco

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