“Nothing actually happened.” How women downplay abuse and what dating apps can do about it
Because how women talk about abuse matters
As Samantha walked through the dark field with a man she met on the dating app Tinder, she clutched her keys tightly between her fingers. “I’m having a pretty girl come over — things might happen”, the man hinted. His uninvited sexual advances made her fear for her physical safety. But when she described this clearly disturbing experience to me, Samantha downplayed it: “nothing actually happened.”
This is a worrying trend where women define abusive experiences in ways that don’t match up with the impact they had on them.
I interviewed Samantha for my PhD research, which you can read more about here.
It was New Years Eve. Samantha was messaging a man she had matched with on Tinder. He seemed nice. He was hosting a bustling house party — or so he said.
Having made no plans for the evening, Samantha called a taxi and traveled to the address the man had given her. As the taxi pulled up, she realised he had given her the wrong address. Samantha’s wariness began. She told the man where she was and he walked to meet her. When he arrived, Samantha could tell he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. What’s more, he didn’t look like the photographs he’d uploaded to his Tinder profile.
As the pair walked back to the man’s house, he explained that he knew a short cut. The short cut was through a large empty field. With nowhere else to go — and feeling incredibly pressured — Samantha followed. During the walk, she held her keys tight between her fingers, ready to use them if she needed to defend herself. Not long after entering the field, the man begun to make uninvited sexual advances toward her. Samantha was frightened. When they arrived at his home, Samantha’s fears culminated — there was no party, and no guests.
It was after describing this incident to me when Samantha said:
“Nothing actually happened — it was just a very creepy walk.”
Moments later, she told me she stopped using Tinder after that night.
Samantha likely downplayed the incident because she did not experience physical or sexual violence. For her,
- nothing actually happened, despite the man lying and luring her to his house;
- nothing actually happened, but the man had used, at best, dated photographs of himself, or at worst, photographs of someone else on his Tinder profile;
- nothing actually happened, but she felt very scared in the man’s presence;
- nothing actually happened, but the man sexually harassed her;
- nothing actually happened, but she held her keys between her fingers, preempting an attack;
- and finally, nothing actually happened, but she deleted her Tinder profile after the incident.
Samantha’s retelling of her experience demonstrates how she understood it as both ordinary and disturbing. She was not the only one of my interview participants who spoke about her experiences like this. When my interview participant Francesca described physical abuse, she said: “it was probably the silliest of experiences and maybe, maybe the scariest.” Similarly, Rachael understood receiving ‘dick pics’ as both humorous and intrusive:
I actually do find it a bit funny, cause I’m like “why do you feel the need to send that?” […] I actually find it a form of sexual harassment. It’s unsolicited, I didn’t ask for it. Especially when they do it multiple times. I do see that as a form of sexual harassment
How these women described their experiences matters. Despite downplaying incidents that made them feel uneasy, uncomfortable, and unsafe — what I refer to as ‘intimate intrusions’ — the behaviours had a cumulative impact. As Samantha explained, the incident led her to stop using Tinder.
When we downplay intimate intrusions, we normalise the behaviour. This is important to consider, since the same attitudes of disrespect underpin all forms of violence against women.
In 1990, feminist scholars Kelly and Radford investigated how women minimised their experiences of sexual violence through the refrain: “nothing really happened.” When the women’s experiences did not amount to what they understood as sexual assault or abuse, they downplayed the incidents. This research also showed us that women say “‘nothing’ happened because they know that their perceptions of ‘something’ are unlikely to be validated.”
Despite almost 30 years since Kelly and Radford’s study, the women I interviewed downplayed intrusions in similar ways. And understandably so. After all, traditional sexist tropes discredit women by framing them as hysterical and irrational. At the same time, women who disclose sexual violence risk being labeled as flirtatious or promiscuous, therefore untrustworthy. And when men are called out on their abusive behaviour, they often answer with some variation of: “it was just a joke!”
Given that women are met with such opposition when they disclose abuse, why would they want to talk about their experiences any differently?
Adding to the problem, the failure of dating apps to respond to intrusive behaviour — which you can read more about here — sends a powerful message to women that their experiences are not serious and do not justify attention. It also reinforces the attitudes of those who behave in unacceptable ways. To make matters worse, a quick glance at the Tinder Nightmares Instagram account shows us how intrusive behaviour is rewarded with amplification to its more than 2.1 million followers.
What will it take, then, to stop dating app users’ intrusive behaviour when it is ignored by platform operators and glorified on social media?
How Dating Apps can Begin to Tackle an Unspoken Problem
Addressing a cultural problem requires cultural change. Certainly, this will not be an easy task. Men’s intrusive behaviour online is ultimately a reflection of broader social attitudes. This means that to improve women’s experiences on dating apps, we need an attitudinal shift. And men will need to account for their behaviour.
There are steps, however, that dating apps can take to improve women’s experiences facilitated through their services. This is because while abusive behaviour is not created on dating apps, these services play an important role in amplifying and reinforcing it. For this reason, my research focused on the ways that dating apps can begin to address the problem. Dating apps can lead the way by taking coordinated technical steps to better prevent intimate intrusions facilitated via their services.
Enforce Platform Rules
The most important thing that dating apps can do is enforce content moderation policies on prohibited behaviour. The failure of major dating apps to consider women’s experiences as violations of the Terms legitimises and normalises intimate intrusions.
Dating apps’ decision-making needs to be transparent. Research shows us that a platform’s failure to provide clear justifications for moderated content makes it difficult for users to learn the rules. By providing transparent decisions, dating apps would show users what behaviour is unacceptable. Since the women I spoke to who did report users said that they did not receive any follow up messages from Tinder, they did not know if anything had actually been done. This contributed to their decisions not to report future experiences. Transparent decision-making could help to validate women’s experiences of intrusion, while also helping them feel safe online.
Provide Better Information Resources and Mechanisms for Women to get Help
For experiences that happen outside an apps’ view, enforcing the platform rules can only be done when a user actually makes a report. This means that dating apps need to do a better job of letting their users know what behaviour is unacceptable. For many of the women I interviewed, they didn’t report their experiences because they didn’t know how to, or they didn’t think their experiences justified reports. After all, when users understand their experiences of intrusion as “nothing”, there is nothing to report. These findings show us that providing users with more information on prohibited behaviour, and creating more intuitive ways for users to make reports, would better enable them to use the apps’ safety mechanisms.
Samantha’s story is a stark reminder of how society understands and speaks about violence against women. Let’s change the conversation.