Online Dating-Related Rape: The Full Story

The Big Picture

It’s been over a month since Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a sexual predator by the New York Times, and a long list of actresses and other film industry professionals have bravely opened up about their experiences with the movie mogul.  On social media there have been more than 2.3 million '#MeToo' tweets from 85 countries and on Facebook, more than 24 million people participated in the conversation by engaging over 77 million times since October 15.  Whilst it is depressing that these events had to happen at all, it does offer a glimmer of hope that awareness and attitudes towards consent, sexual assault and rape could now be shifting.  

People's experiences of sexual assault and rape are widespread and are often not spoken about.  To give some concept of scale - and not to reduce any survivor’s traumatic experience to mere numbers - the Office of National Statistics (ONS, 2013) reported that:

  • Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone, every year; that's roughly 11 rapes of adults every hour.

  • Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year

  • 1 in 5 women aged 16 - 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16

  • Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the offender prior to the offence

  • Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police

No facts and figures exist to illustrate the number of people who encounter these violations and never tell another soul - or at least until a long time after - because of self-doubt, guilt, fear, isolation or persecution.  One prime example is Lady Gaga, who courageously spoke about the fact that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since being raped at the age of 19, having kept it quiet for seven years.  That's not to suggest that every survivor should talk about their horrendous ordeal, it is always their choice.  But it's often helpful to talk it through with someone who is trained to help them process the event and work through the resulting impact.


An Emerging Threat

With the ever increasing popularity of online dating - more than nine million people in the UK registered - more recent research has revealed that the number of people reporting being raped on their first date, with someone they met on a dating app has risen six-fold in five years (NCA, 2016).  The National Crime Agency uncovered a significant increase in the number of reports to UK police forces about serious sexual assaults during the first face-to-face meeting, after initially meeting through online dating sites and apps. 

An in-depth analysis of offences where dating started online between 2003 – 2015 showed that:

  • 85% of victims were female, 15% were male.

  • Prior to the first meeting, communications of a sexual nature were reported in 54%, and not in 46%.

  • In 43% of cases the first face-to-face meeting took place within one week of initial contact online, and after more than a week in 57% of incidences.

  • 72% of offences were committed at the victim’s or offender’s residence.

  • The percentage of online dating-related rape has overtaken those related to bogus taxi drivers and burglaries.

The behaviours and expectations created by the online environment, has seen a new type of sexual offender emerge, one who exploits the easy access arm-chair approach.  What we are seeing is online relationships progressing faster than offline, because people open up more.  Research shows that asking questions, looking at photographs, checking social media profiles, using emoticons all build familiarity, feelings of trust and intimacy toward the other person.  This results in people having a sense of being more advanced in the relationship by the time they meet, no longer seeing them as a stranger, even though it is the first time they are meeting.  This higher level of trust can sway people towards taking more risks than they normally would, such as meeting privately rather than in public places. 

One of the key themes from this piece of research found that offenders have heightened expectations of sexual activity in initial face-to-face meetings, which differs from their victim’s expectations. Offenders are unwilling to accept this difference in expectations, often because they have a perceived investment (e.g. emotionally / financially / their time), an increased sense of intimacy, exchanged sexually explicit messages, have been invited to the other party’s residence or basing on their previous experiences of dating.  These expectations are no doubt influenced by how sex and intimacy are portrayed in the media, as well as the distorted messages conveyed by easy access to pornography.  


Clear Lines

Any sex without consent is rape.  Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are crimes.  In any face-to-face meetings - initial or further into a relationship - the onus is on both parties to make sure that the other person is participating freely and readily.  Consent must always be given verbally and by checking the other person’s body language.  It can never be given by someone on drugs or too drunk, asleep or unconscious, with a serious mental health problem, learning disability or a head injury.  At any time either party has a right to withdraw their consent, and once consent is withdrawn sexual activity must be stopped immediately.  Any frustrations, disappointments or feelings of rejection can be dealt with far more easily than the consequences of committing a crime and the guilt experienced in the cold light of day.


Fight, Flight or Freeze

It is incredibly heart-breaking that often survivors feel that they didn’t do enough to stop their attack, because they encountered a ‘freeze’ response as opposed to ‘fight or flight’.  They are conflicted, struggling to comprehend “why didn’t I run?”, “why couldn’t I push harder?”, “why didn’t I hit out?”.  A new Swedish study, published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica confirms that it is in fact normal for victims of sexual assault to experience a temporary paralysis that keeps them from fighting back, screaming or running.  Researchers in this study found that 70% of women reported significant “tonic immobility,” or involuntary paralysis, during their attack.  This is an instinctual response that can not be overridden in the moment.  We each have a tendency to default to either a fight, flight or freeze reaction.  In any incident of rape or sexual assault the victim is not at fault.  They need not feel ashamed, nor blame themselves.  They must be able to rest assured that they (and their neurobiological survival system) did everything to the best of their ability, under very distressing circumstances.   


Date Safe

Going on a date with someone new is exciting and it’s easy to get carried away with the adventure of it all and act spontaneously.  Keep in mind that even though you feel closer to someone having interacted online, via phone or on text, this person, to a great extent, is a stranger to you.  What people say and what people do can be two very different things. Actions speak louder than words.  Give yourself plenty of time to really understand them and what they are about.  Although there are no guarantees, there are steps you can take to date more safely online, share these 5 steps:


1. Plan it. Say it. Do it.

It’s your date.  Agree on what you both want from it before you meet up. Stick to your plan. You don’t have to meet before you’re ready or for any longer than you’re comfortable with – a short first date is ok.


2. Meet in public. Stay in public.

The safest plan is to meet somewhere public and stay somewhere public.  Make your own way there and back and don’t feel pressured to go home with your date.  If you feel ready to move to a private environment, make sure your expectations match your date’s first.


3. Get to know the person, not the profile.

The way people interact online isn’t always the same face-to-face. Don’t be offended if your date is more guarded when meeting in person, or if things don’t progress as fast face-to-face.


4. Not going well? Make your excuses and leave.

Don’t feel bad about cutting a date short if you’re not sure or not keen. You don’t owe the other person anything, no matter how long you’ve been chatting or what’s been suggested. It’s your life.


5. If you’re raped or sexually assaulted on your date get help









Where To Get Help

NHS Choices – Help after rape and sexual assault 

Sexual Abuse Referral Centres – Find a SARC - Specialist medical and forensic services for anyone who has been raped or sexually assaulted. 

NSPCC - Helpline: 0808 800 5000 (24 hours, every day) - UK's leading charity specialising in child protection and the prevention of cruelty to children. 

Rape Crisis - Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30) - National organisation offering support and counselling for those affected by rape and sexual abuse.

Victim Support - Supportline: 0808 168 9111 - Support for anyone who's been raped or sexually assaulted, now or in the past. Regardless of whether you have told the police or anyone else about the attack. See someone face-to-face or on the phone.

RASAC (Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre) - National Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30 & 7-9.30) - Emotional and practical support for survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse, their families and friends. 

Women Against Rape - Help and support, legal information and advocacy. Campaigning for justice and protection for all women and girls, including asylum seekers, who have suffered sexual, domestic and/or racist violence.

Women's Aid Federation - National Domestic Violence Helpline (24hrs): 0808 2000 247 - We work to end violence against women and children, and support over 500 domestic and sexual violence services across the country.

The Survivors Trust - Helpline: 0808 801 0818

Survivors UK – Male Rape and Sexual Abuse Support. Emotional support by Chat Service and SMS and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.

Rape Crisis Network Europe - RCNE is the network of European rape crisis centres. All member centres share a ‘survivor-centred’ and anti-discriminatory approach.

Personal Safety Advice - Travellers, tourists and foreign businessmen and women can be prime targets for criminals, however. See our advice to plan your personal safety strategy in advance.