What Happens When You See Your Rapist On Tinder

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe
It had taken several years of distress, a diagnosis of PTSD and a course of intensive therapy for Caroline* to start to move on from her rape by an ex-boyfriend in her mid 20s. For a long time, she didn’t date at all. Intimacy, understandably, just didn’t feel safe and she felt it impossible even to try to trust somebody new. 
The fact it had been an ex-partner complicated things; although she understood intellectually that she was far more likely to have been assaulted by somebody she knew than by a stranger, such an abuse of power from someone she had previously trusted was too much to bear. 
But by 2018, Caroline felt she had started to move past the incident; she even told her therapist that she was ready to date again. And then she saw her ex-boyfriend’s profile pop up on Tinder.
"It had taken a lot for me to even work up the courage to be on a dating app," she says. "I was nervous but I did feel that I was ready to go on some dates and explore that side of my life again."

My blood ran cold, I felt sick – I was still shaking 20 minutes after I'd first seen his profile.

When she saw her ex-partner, however, her tentative confidence disappeared. "I had an incredibly physical reaction," she says. "My blood ran cold, I felt sick – I was still shaking 20 minutes after I’d first seen his profile." She immediately reported the profile to Tinder, explaining what had happened and why she felt he shouldn’t be on the app; she never received a response and doesn’t know whether his profile is still up. 
Caroline’s experience with her ex-partner is, sadly, not at all unique. Twenty percent of women over the age of 16 experience some form of sexual assault in their lives, and 85,000 women are raped or seriously sexually assaulted every year. The emotional ramifications of such an incident, particularly for someone’s intimate life, can be far-reaching, explains Naomi Watkins-Ligudzinska, a psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
"The impact of sexual assault is massive in every area of a woman's life: they have difficulty trusting anybody, they can struggle with feeling safe, it can create social anxiety," she says. "Intimacy is also affected. Initially, you may not want anybody to touch you, you may not want any intimacy at all, and that includes emotional intimacy. It can be really difficult."
With therapy, Watkins-Ligudzinska says, some of these fears can be assuaged. But coming across a profile, as Caroline did, can throw survivors right back to where they started. 
"Firstly, there can be a fear that your safety is at risk – if you can see their profile, they may be able to see yours," she explains. "There can also be guilt – if you haven’t reported, and you now know somebody is on this dating app and potentially behaving to other people the way they did towards you, you could feel bad about having not reported."
"And then there’s anger – they’ve done something awful, and they’re able to carry on and hurt other people. A real range of emotions: anger, fear, sadness."
Caroline’s description of the experience echoes much of what Watkins-Ligudzinska says. "My first response was just pure physical terror, but there was so much I had to deal with after that. I felt worried for other women who might end up dating him. Then I felt guilt for not having reported and angry that reporting would probably have resulted in the same thing: him, walking around, living his life, dating women and facing absolutely no consequences for his behaviour."

After a sexual assault intimacy is affected. Initially, you may not want anybody to touch you, you may not want any intimacy at all, and that includes emotional intimacy. It can be really difficult.

Naomi Watkins-Ligudzinska, psychotherapist
"I also felt...impotent, I suppose is how you’d put it," she adds. "I was able to warn other women who knew him in real life; obviously I couldn’t do that for every woman he talks to on an app. On the surface he’s a nice, good-looking, sweet man – I’m sure he’s still getting tons of matches. To this day, that makes me feel sick." 
Tinder wouldn’t provide a comment on an individual case but told Refinery29 that they are "always working to make Tinder a safer place to be". They also pointed to a raft of new safety features rolled out in a US update last month (the features will follow for the rest of the world). 
There is a new integration with Noonlight, a safety app that allows users to share details of who they’re meeting, where and when, and has the ability to trigger emergency services if they feel unsafe. Photo verification has also been introduced to ensure that people are who they say they are, and the app also points to its offline behaviour policies: if you report bad offline behaviour, the associated account may be removed from the app. 
Such safety features, clearly, are partly geared towards protecting users from those using the app with specifically nefarious aims; it’s these cases, after all, that tend to make headlines. Only recently was Tinder implicated in the murder of Grace Millane, whose killer pursued her on the app before their date. 
When it comes to intimate partner violence, however, things are not so simple; not least because there may not always be a criminal conviction to go on. As we know, rape convictions in this country are at an all-time low. The introduction of photo verification may help weed out predators and catfish but it won’t be able to detect whether someone has harmed their partner, particularly if there was never a conviction.
Amna*, also in her mid 20s, had a similar experience to Caroline’s. She came across her abusive ex-partner on Hinge which, until recently, used your Facebook connections to match you with potential partners. 
"I hadn’t really thought about the fact Hinge uses Facebook to help you link up with people," she says. "I’d just heard from friends it was a really nice alternative to apps that are more about swiping yes or no on somebody’s picture. Meeting people within your extended social circle probably is a great way of meeting somebody; for me, having been sexually assaulted by a member of that circle, it really wasn’t so great." 

If apps actually care about keeping women safe – and care about it more than they care about increasing how many users they have or how often their app gets opened every day – then they need to listen to what we're saying. 

"Fundamentally, it made me feel unsafe. I panicked, blocked and reported him, and deleted the app not long after." 
Like Caroline, she received no reply from Hinge, nor did the company respond to Refinery29's requests for comment on this story. However, it’s worth noting that they stopped linking their matches to Facebook in 2018
"I think it’s quite unlikely I’ll download [an app] again," Amna says. "It left me feeling really triggered." 
Both women feel that platforms should be doing more. Though not perfect, Caroline welcomes Tinder’s safety update and believes they take the correct line on offline behaviour. "If someone harasses or assaults me offline, that should automatically discount them from being able to use an app like that. Being able to talk to women on a dating app is not a right, and I’m completely fine with people losing their accounts even over less serious transgressions." 
"I do kind of get why [platforms] might feel like they can’t just believe every report like mine and shut down every profile instantly," Amna adds. "But frankly, they should be giving those of us reporting this stuff the benefit of the doubt."
"It’s the same narrative you get around 'false reporting' more generally – yes, there will probably be a few malicious reports but the vast, vast majority of people talking about their assaults or rapes are telling the truth," she continues. 
Ultimately, Amna concludes: "If apps actually care about keeping women safe – and care about it more than they care about increasing how many users they have or how often their app gets opened every day – then they need to listen to what we’re saying."  
*Names have been changed to protect identities
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.