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While the pandemic might have more people opting for the ‘quarantine and chill’ online dating experience, a Dalhousie University PhD student cautions that the possibility of sexualized violence is very real — even in a virtual setting. 

Last week, Nicole Doria penned a blog post to provide tips for people to stay safe on dating apps during COVID-19. 

“In addition to STIs, add COVID-19 to the list of infectious diseases you are going to want to protect yourself against these days, and a condom will not help you here,” Doria wrote. 

With public health guidelines strongly discouraging people from having sexual contact with people who aren’t in the same household or “bubble,” Doria said many are fulfilling their sexual needs virtually. That includes sexting, chaturbating (mutually mastubating while online chatting), phone and/or video sex. 

“If you are using online dating apps to combat loneliness and frustrations, feel no shame — sext your quarantine away,” Doria wrote. “I would recommend, however, that you go about it as safely as possible.”

Doria’s pursuing her PhD at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Health. Her research examines how online dating facilitates sexualized violence against women. When the pandemic hit, she said it was natural for her to begin thinking about how COVID-19 might be exacerbating this problem.

Nicole Doria is pursuing her PhD in the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University. Photo: Contributed

“It wasn’t too much of a pivot for me because a lot of the issues are the same. It was more about how during COVID, time online can be amplified, which people then need to realize could amplify sexualized violence online,” she said in an interview on Tuesday. 

“Sexualized violence can be experienced online, it is experienced online. I think people need to be validated in their experiences of sexualized violence online as well and I think people need to take it seriously.”

Doria said she’s often met with skepticism when talking about her research. She describes sexualized violence as a broad term that can take many forms online. It ranges from sexual exploitation, sexual coercion, and distribution of sexually explicit images without consent to stalking, sexual harassment, unwanted sexualized attention including sexist remarks, transphobic remarks, and sending unwanted images and videos.  

“A lot of times when people think about sexualized violence they just think of physical sexual assault or rape, and it’s way more broad than that and way more inclusive,” she said. 

“So people think they can’t experience sexualized violence online because you’re not going to be raped on a dating app, but that’s not what I’m getting at. There are so many more nuances and components of sexualized violence that people are experiencing on dating apps.”

Doria said there’s not much data or research — especially in Canada — looking at how online interactions transition offline in real world encounters and how that could increase or change how sexualized violence is experienced. She intends to explore this in her own research. 

“A lot of people talk about how sometimes we engage in discussion online and you’ll be sexting and you might be getting carried away or you’re in the moment and you say things,” she said.

“And then when you meet in person, that can be perceived as consent has already been given to participate in that sexual act or to engage in a behaviour that you might have changed your mind about or really are not comfortable participating in offline because it was different when you said you were into it online.”

The issue of consent matters both on and offline, she said. Communication must be active and remain open in an online context just as it would in a real life encounter. She also warns against sending unwanted messages or photos to anyone. Ever. 

“You may think it is a nice surprise, but in reality, it is sexual harassment,” she wrote in her blog post.   

Doria points to the explosion in popularity of dating apps as people try to find ways to beat their boredom at home. At the end of March when the country was in lockdown, Bumble Canada saw a 56% increase in video calls, a 33% increase in messages sent and a 100% increase in the length of conversations and video calls. 

“Dating apps surged during COVID, which for my research purposes is very interesting,” she said.

While she isn’t personally against dating apps or online dating, Doria said it’s important for people to be aware of the potential pitfalls. 

“I’m not against online dating in any way, but I do think it’s important that people are aware that there are dangers that maybe they haven’t considered,” she said. 

Some of her safety tips include keeping your nudes anonymous (no faces, identifying tattoos or jewelry or backgrounds). Turn off the live photo camera feature and the location feature to ensure your images don’t contain additional footage/audio and aren’t encrypted with your geographic location.  

“Always consider the possibility that what you share may be shared further — not everyone is who they pretend to be, and even Prince or Princess Charming can turn to revenge porn when you ride off of Tinder with another match,” she wrote in her post. 

Doria also advises people to research the online dating platforms they’re using and the people with whom they’re speaking. Set boundaries and expectations, and make sure your phone settings aren’t saving your nudes to your camera roll or backing them up to the cloud. 

“This is a really new area of research so I think as my doctoral research continues and more people do research in this field, a lot of interesting results will surface,” she said. 

“There’s a lot to learn not just from a researcher’s standpoint but from people using dating apps every single day.”

Doria’s research will include interviews with women from across the Maritimes to learn more about their experiences and how they perceive sexualized violence being facilitated by online dating apps. Her longer term goals include improving the seriousness with which authorities deal with reports of online sexualized violence. 

“The access that we’re giving people is just at the touch of a finger,” she said. “We are so accessible nowadays online, and I think we’re really vulnerable dating online, probably more than people recognize.”

She believes her message and safety tips take on added urgency if we do experience a second wave of the pandemic and find ourselves back in lockdown.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the near future, if we’re going to have a second wave or if potentially there are going to be social distancing restrictions for the long term,” she said. “That will definitely increase the amount of time that people are spending dating online.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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