Tinder dates, unsafe sexting and stranger danger

Recent court cases and a growth in complaints show that online dating can be a dangerous game

Stranger danger:  virtual dating bypasses the opportunity a first date used to provide for two people to meet and assess each other in a safe environment. Photograph: D3sign/Moment/Getty

Stranger danger: virtual dating bypasses the opportunity a first date used to provide for two people to meet and assess each other in a safe environment. Photograph: D3sign/Moment/Getty

 

“A special word of warning to anyone using social-media sites: we urge you to please be cautious and be aware. Sonia made an error of judgment and paid for this with her life.”

A grieving family, standing outside the Criminal Courts of Justice in Dublin, issued this sobering statement two weeks ago, on May 26th.

Sonia Blount, who was 31, had been killed by Eric Locke, her 35-year-old ex-boyfriend. He had used social media to create a fictitious character, luring the young mother to a Dublin hotel before strangling her.

Blount was one of two women at the centre of recent court cases who in 2014 each met a man online and arranged a first date. Blount was strangled; the other woman alleged she was raped.

The so-called Tinder rape case involved a university student who claimed she had been raped by a man she had met on the dating app. The accused – neither he nor the complainant can be named for legal reasons – was acquitted at the Central Criminal Court on June 2nd.

These may be mild messages in sexting terms, but it’s hard to imagine people saying that kind of thing to each other on a first date in a bar or restaurant

During the alleged victim’s cross-examination transcripts of WhatsApp messages between the pair were read to the jury. Their communication included numerous sexts, or sexually explicit photographs and texts.

Transcripts of the woman’s messages revealed that she told the accused she had a “naughty side”. She described herself as “horny” and told him that “kissing was one of her biggest turn-ons.”

These may be mild messages in sexting terms, but it’s hard to imagine people saying that kind of thing to each other on a first date in a bar or restaurant.

Letting their guard down

So what is it about social media that leads some people to let their guard down and trust another person so fully and so quickly?

Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist, says that the answer lies in a person’s desire to create a sense of closeness and a connection online.

“When chatting on a site people rely on self-disclosure. It’s not a face-to-face meeting, so there are no verbal cues. So they give out information about themselves in an effort to establish an intimacy. This creates an illusion of a closer relationship.”

Tinder can be a great place to meet people, to flirt harmlessly and even to find a life partner. But you’re still dealing with a stranger, and caution is advisable.

Before the internet, a first date usually took place in a public venue. Two people had time to chat and assess each other in a safe environment. That stage is bypassed in virtual dating.

In both these cases online exchanges were followed by meetings in private settings. Blount travelled to a hotel room to meet a stranger she had befriended online. The university student in the “Tinder rape” case got into a stranger’s car and went for a drive into the Dublin Mountains.

Tinder can be a great place to meet people, to flirt harmlessly and even to find a life partner. But you’re still dealing with a stranger, and caution is advisable.

Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says more people are making contact with individuals via social media and suffering sexual violence as a result.

A criminal barrister says he receives about one phone call a month relating to allegations of rape or sexual assault after one-off meetings on Tinder.

Although few of these proceed further than a Garda interview, they suggest that an increasing number of Tinder dates are turning into threatening or dangerous encounters. Almost a dozen rape and sexual-assault trials involving people who met via the app are due before the courts shortly.

Fake online identities

The trial for Sonia Blount’s murder shows the lengths some people will go to in order to create plausible fake online identities.

Blount, who had a three-year-old son, had begun chatting to a man called Shane Cully on Facebook. When she arranged to meet him at the Plaza Hotel in Tallaght in early 2014 she was unaware that he was in reality her former boyfriend.

Locke had invented the profile a year earlier, and it appeared active and genuine. He had befriended dozens of people and posted photos and comments on his page.

Blount’s friend Aisling Halloran told the court that Blount had said that Cully could be Locke, but she had disregarded this possibility after she asked Cully for a selfie and he provided one. Blount appeared to trust Cully, and she quickly develop an attraction to him.

As in the “Tinder rape” case, messages that they exchanged online formed part of the prosecution’s case.

A forensic psychiatrist, Dr Richard Bunn, told the court that Locke’s feelings of inadequacy disappeared when he assumed Cully’s identity. Social media provided him with the perfect cover to execute his plan.

Blount was found strangled in her hotel room on February 16th, 2014. Locke admitted causing her death but said he didn’t mean to kill her, and he relied on a defence of diminished responsibility. The prosecution’s case was that Locke was angry his ex-girlfriend was meeting a stranger for sex. He was given a mandatory life sentence.

During cross-examination in the so-called Tinder rape case Michael Bowman SC, the defence barrister, deconstructed the complainant’s account by referring to her WhatsApp messages.

It was the prosecution’s case that the man had driven the student into the Dublin Mountains and raped her in his car. The accused man had pleaded not guilty to rape at Kilmashogue Lane in Rathfarnham on September 11th, 2014.

The defence placed a lot of weight on the fact that the student had been in contact with six other men on Tinder within 36 hours of the alleged rape. “Surely what she says happened would have warned her off Tinder forever,” Bowman said.

She told the court she wanted to forget about what had happened the previous night and had been trying to “carry on as normal” the following day.

“Meeting for sex”

The accused man believed they were meeting for sex. The woman said he exclaimed, “What the f**k do you think we’re here for?” when she pulled away from him and asked him to “take it easy” after they kissed.

The man told gardaí he had had consensual sex with the woman and said her version of events was wrong. The defence argued that the online messages showed a true picture of what happened: “Two adults using Tinder to hook up for consensual sex.”

Alex Owens SC, the prosecuting barrister, said that none of this negated the fact that the alleged victim said she did not consent to sex.

The accused man was acquitted by the jury.

“The internet can be a great place to meet people, but it can be dangerous too,” Noeline Blackwell of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says. “Even if you’ve been chatting online to someone for weeks they are still a stranger.”

Speaking generally rather than about the recent cases, she says: “Even if you’ve been naive and too trusting . . . never feel ashamed to come and talk to us.”

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 24-hour helpline is at 1800-778888; drcc.ie

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