The UK's National Crime Agency recently reported that sexual assault associated with online dating had increased by six-hundred percent. That's a shocking statistic at odds with what has become an accepted way to meet people romantically. And while many individuals have had pleasant, or at least neutral experiences with online dating, those promoting the activity are often simultaneously selling it.
Mary Aiken sees herself as a bulwark against the commercialism of romantic encounters. Her aim is not to tear down technology that has widened our social circles marvelously, but merely to balance what she calls "the army of marketers" telling us that cyberspace is good. What is not good, says Aiken, or at least very different from normal behavioral, is how quickly we disclose personal details online.
Called "hyper personal interaction," it is well documented that people disclose personal details at double the rate the normally would when they are online. What results is a false sense of intimacy between two people, and while this feeling may aid the romantic connection promised by dating services, it can equally result in misunderstandings. And sometimes those misunderstandings occur over serious matters such as one person's desire to become physically intimate.
Of the sexual assaults documented by Britain's crime agency, "71 percent of these assaults took place on the first date and either in the home of the victim or the offender," says Aiken. It is not the case that sex offenders have migrated en masse to online dating platforms. Instead, navigating new social rules introduced by the Internet is complicated. Though to be clear, sex without consent is a crime.
When a cyber encounter moves offline into the real world, there are four identities parties must navigate: two real identities and two cyber identities, i.e. avatars that present an idealized version of an individual often for the purpose of attracting a mate. Unfortunately, sex crimes that result from online dating are likely to unreported, partly because victims fear their online exchanges will compromise their case. If anybody has been a victim of a sexual assault associated with online dating, however, it is essential to report it immediately.
Mary Aiken's most recent book is The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online.
Mary Aiken: Lots of people have a positive experience of online dating. One of the criticisms of my book is that I showcase a lot of negative content in terms of all things cyber. But there’s a good reason for that. We have an army of marketers over here telling us it’s all good. I want to position myself over here saying well it’s not so good. And hopefully then we can meet in the center and have a balanced debate. So online dating. What could go wrong? Well like all things in life it comes with risk. So the NCA which is the National Crime Agency in the UK, police force, recently issued a report to say that there has been a six-fold increase in sexual assaults associated with online dating. And what was really disturbing about that report is that 71 percent of these assaults took place on the first date and either in the home of the victim or the offender. So the question is well why is that happening? So if you look more closely at the research as a forensic cyberpsychologist the thing that really disturbed me is that the offenders reported didn’t have the typical profile of a sex offender in that they didn’t have previous convictions and they didn’t have a criminal record.
A large number of them did not have a typical profile. So what does this mean? Does it mean that sex offenders are now moving online to online dating forums to find victims more easily? Or does it mean that something else is happening in the dating world and it’s ending up with this catastrophic outcome. So let’s think about it from a cyberpsychology perspective. When you date online you create this avatar, this profile, this representation of self. But is it really you or is it an idealized version of self? And let’s not forget the person that you’re trying to date is also creating this profile. Princess Diana – we all remember Princess Diana. She said that her marriage was a little crowded because there were three people in it. Well online dating you’ve got four people in the relationship. You’ve got two cyber selves and you’ve got two real world selves. So the question is do you really know the person you’re dating. We talk to kids about stranger danger. I want to talk to you guys about stranger danger in terms of online dating. As the police say, get to know the person and not the profile. So what is the science behind why you think this stranger is suddenly an intimate friend?
In cyberpsychology we talk about hyper personal interaction which basically means that people move towards extreme amounts of self-disclosure online very quickly. Self-disclosure in the real world operates at around 40 percent according to one study but increases to 80 percent once you go online. This is a lean medium. Very few visual cues. And what happens is that as you get pieces of information you can tend to fill in the blanks and turn this person into something much more aspirational, your ideal partner. But it’s not a reality and you don’t know the person. It’s a little like what we call stranger on the train syndrome. It’s easy to sit down with a total stranger and totally disclose. But there are consequences and real world consequences. And in the report, the police report their researchers felt that the root of the problem was what they classified as misdirected expectations which means that the chat online, whatever platform whether it was text based or chat based platforms had quickly escalated into very intimate and sexualized content in some of the cases which in turn meant that when there was real world meeting that there were misdirected expectations.
To be clear sex without consent is a crime. So if anybody has been a victim of a sexual assault associated with online dating you must report it immediately. One of the big problems we face from a policing perspective is the underreporting of crime associated with online dating. It is estimated that less than one in five of these assaults are reported. And possibly because a victim may feel that the digital trace they have left online somehow may have compromised their position. That is not the case. A crime is a crime is a crime irrespective of the way that the victim engaged with the offender.