Sending unsolicited lewd photos on Bumble gets you immediately banned from the app. And yet, until recently, this behaviour wasn't technically illegal.
Bumble's founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd is changing this. On September 1, House Bill 2789 — which criminalises the sending of unsolicited sexual photos via text, DM, AirDrop, email, social media, and dating apps in the state of Texas (where Bumble is based) — will become law, in large part due to Herd's efforts.
A 2018 Bumble study revealed that one in three women have received unsolicited lewd photos from strangers online — with 96% reporting they were not happy about it. These findings — coupled with the fact that there wasn't yet any legislation to defend such recipients against this kind of harassment — inspired Herd to take political action. Below, we talked to the Bumble CEO about working with politicians on both sides of the aisle, the responsibility of dating apps to protect their users, and what still remains to be done. Here's hoping other US states will follow in Texas's footsteps.
Refinery29: As the founder and CEO of Bumble, why was it important for you to get involved in the passing of this bill?
Whitney Wolfe Herd: I'd been hearing about digital sexual harassment for years from girlfriends and coworkers who would walk through public places and get lewd photos AirDropped onto their phones. When unwanted sexual photos are sent through Bumble, we ban those users right away, but that’s not enough to deter them from doing so on other platforms or in real life. I hated that there was no real accountability outside of our app.
So about a year ago, my team and I started working with lobbyists and passionate state representatives — both Republicans and Democrats — here in Texas. We wanted to make unsolicited lewd photos illegal, whether you send them via text, AirDrop, or dating apps. I’m so proud to share that House Bill 2789, the bill we’ve been passionately working on for over a year, will become a law in Texas on September 1. This means sending lewd images via text, DM, AirDrop, email, or across any form of social media or dating app, will be a class C misdemeanour, like speeding tickets. At Bumble, we believe that if it isn’t appropriate “IRL,” it shouldn't be tolerated on your devices.
What responsibility do dating apps and dating app users have to protect against digital sexual harassment?
We spend all our time in this digital world and it's basically a society with no rules. We’re calling our peers — social networks, messaging apps, and Internet companies of all kinds — to raise their standards, and use their terms and conditions to stand firmly against digital indecent exposure. I want us to serve as proof: You can still drive massive profit and be a good business model while pushing the needle on safety and privacy for users. I want to see other tech companies and platforms take action based on what’s right rather than what their bottom line dictates.
And if you’re on the receiving end of an unsolicited lewd photo on any platform: report it. So many of these unsolicited images are seen by women, who then feel uncomfortable and ignore it. If you take a moment to report the user, you may be helping someone else down the line who could also be sent another image from the same person.
However, sometimes relying on the small print isn’t enough, and technology companies can only do so much to curb the sending of unsolicited lewd photos. We’re depending on legislators to step in and fill the gaps where our best efforts fall short. With the passing of House Bill 2789, we’re proud that Texas is stepping to the forefront of the overdue era of online safety and accountability.
I want to see other tech companies and platforms take action based on what’s right rather than what their bottom line dictates.
This is obviously an ongoing issue that doesn’t stop here — what remains to be done?
Bumble will continue to fight for new laws that not only protect our users, but the digital space as a whole. We’re committed to creating a kinder, safer internet. We spend a considerable amount of our time online, yet the digital world has fallen short in protecting us there. We’ve been focusing our efforts on getting HB 2789 passed on a state level; now that’s happened, we want to focus on passing this law on a federal level, too.
What about sending mutually consensual and solicited photos? How can people engage in this behaviour online in a way that is safe or empowering and doesn’t violate boundaries?
We don’t want to curtail free expression — we simply want the standards of acceptable behaviour in the digital world to match the standards that apply in real life. If solicited photos are exchanged between two mutually consenting adults, similar to if two consenting adults sexually engaged in real life, that is absolutely welcome. However, just like we should have the choice of who sees us naked, we should absolutely have the choice of who we would like to see naked.
For some, sending solicited photos can be an expression of your sexuality, which can be incredibly empowering if you send it in a way that is comfortable to you. Trust and communication are two of the most important factors to think of when sending mutually consensual and solicited photos. Be safe, trust wisely, make your own rules, and go at your own pace. For some, they’d prefer to wait to send solicited images until after they’re in a committed relationship. For others, they prefer to never have their faces in their photos. If you decide to send solicited images, do what makes you feel the most safe and empowered.