Rape Complaints and Dating Apps: Time to Talk to the Boys

Three New Zealand women have reported being raped after meeting with men via the dating app Tinder (See NZ Herald article by Anna Leask). The Herald article quotes a warning from Detective Sergeant James Watson, Head of the Adult Sexual Assault Team, about in-person meet-ups with people you meet on-line:

“Women need to be very aware of who they are meeting when they are alone and without their friends.”

Really? Huh. I’m fairly sure Detective Sergeant Watson has just described the plot of every b-grade horror flick since the 1980’s. It’s roughly the plot of Little Red Riding Hood. Girl, be aware! Don’t go alone! You may have guessed I have some problems with this advice.

Why didn’t Detective Sergeant Watson have a warning for men who use dating apps like Tinder? You know, like don’t rape! Or even, men need to be very aware when using Tinder that sexual coercion is a crime. Sexual contact that is non-consensual is rape, regardless of whether the woman has agreed to meet with you. The Police’s safety message to women reflects a culture where we are still loading women with the responsibility to avoid rape, instead of telling boys and men not to rape.

Sociologist Jaclyn Friedman has argued that these kinds of messages are linked to our understanding of women as ‘sexual gatekeepers’. That is, we portray men as having sexual desire (which is difficult to control), while women are held responsible for whether or not sex happens. In 2011, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer, said “women should avoid dressing like sluts” to avoid unwanted sexual attention. This comment was what motivated the transnational movement ‘Slut Walk’, which protests against blaming rape victims, particularly excusing rape because of women’s clothing.

After the ‘Roast Busters’ saga last year, there is no doubt of the prevalence of rape culture, or that new social media has produced different possibilities for sexual violence. The prevalence of smart phones amongst young people simply means that of course loads of young women are going to meet people via dating apps or social networking. Telling girls not to go alone on dates seems pretty unhelpful, because it goes against the social logic of what a date is, i.e. an opportunity to get to know someone with the prospect of developing romantic feelings. This means by default that you aren’t going to know the person well, and that you are going to be alone.

Stopping rape means changing the context of heterosexual intimacy where men often engage in non-consensual sex with women they are dating, as social psychologist Nicky Gavey points out in her book ‘Just Sex: The Sexual Scaffolding of Rape’. Preventing rape means changing the ideas that boys and men have about themselves ( e.g. that they are entitled, that everyone else is getting it, that they are powerful or that they should be, that horniness is uncontrollable), and the ideas that they have about girls and women (e.g. that we are inferior or weaker, that our thoughts and feelings matter less, that our bodies are for their viewing pleasure). They need to know that a date does not mean she owes you.

It is already difficult for young women to come forward to police, and make complaints about sexual violence. The message the police should be giving women is that unwanted or coerced sex is never acceptable, and that if this occurs, they can talk to the police and be treated with respect and understanding.

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