'So, what's your bra size?': Can tech ever clean up dating apps?

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“So, what’s your bra and dress size?”

This is the charming opening gambit received by Tinder user Mary from a potential suitor. (Mary is not her real name, she wishes to remain anonymous.)

In the hall-of-shame collection of poor or unsolicited behaviour she’s faced on the app, she says she’s been approached by married men, offered threesomes, and most recently was hit up by a man who had lost his job in the pandemic and was offering paid-for massages for women working from home with, ahem, added extras.

To combat the poor or unsolicited behaviour women face on online dating apps, operators are stepping up measures to offer protection. Will it work?

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To combat the poor or unsolicited behaviour women face on online dating apps, operators are stepping up measures to offer protection. Will it work?

“It’s just so crude,” says Mary. “They’re so direct.

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“And I’m not prudish, but when they ask for your bra size before saying hello, you know you’re not onto a winner.”

Tinder, as of last month, is attempting to make users think twice before sending potentially offensive or inappropriate messages with a prompt it calls simply Are You Sure? Artificial-intelligence technology scans messages sent by a user and if it detects harmful language, a prompt pops up asking them to reconsider sending.

Tinder says early testing shows the prompt reduces potentially offensive messages by more than 10 per cent.

It also says members who saw the prompt were less likely to be reported over the following month, meaning it could influence improved behaviour not just once, but on a continuing basis.

Are You Sure? follows its Does This Bother You? prompt introduced last year that screens received messages, which it says has boosted reporting by 46 per cent.

Last year, Bumble introduced a function where messages don’t automatically disappear if someone is unmatched – meaning if there’s poor behaviour, it can still be reported.

Yu Chun Christopher Wong/Getty Images

Last year, Bumble introduced a function where messages don’t automatically disappear if someone is unmatched – meaning if there’s poor behaviour, it can still be reported.

Tales of poor behaviour on dating apps are, of course, common – and Mary’s experience is thankfully relatively tame against more serious offences like harassment, abuse and threats of violence.

A study by the US Pew Research Centre found in women aged 18-34 using dating apps, 57 per cent had been sent an unsolicited sexually explicit message or image, 44 per cent had been called an offensive name and 19 per cent had faced threats of physical harm (the corresponding statistics for men were 28 per cent, 23 per cent and 9 per cent).

Policing dating apps has always been problematic, but as they continue to evolve, operators are stepping up measures to offer protection where they can.

Last year, Bumble introduced a function where messages don’t automatically disappear if someone is unmatched – meaning if there’s poor behaviour, it can still be reported. In January, it launched an online Safety and Wellbeing Centre, a “resource hub” for support and guidance on dealing with instances like abuse or catfishing.

It also uses AI to screen behaviour – from hate speech and harassing language to automatically blurring unsolicited nude photos.

Another app, Hinge, says it is continuously boosting algorithms to pick up poor behaviour and has hired additional content moderators “to identify and report harm at a faster pace”.

Privacy is another issue highlighted recently when elite “celebrity” dating app Raya booted off one member, Kate Haralson, for breaching its privacy policy when she posted to TikTok a clip of her talking to Friends actor Matthew Perry after matching with him.

Days earlier, another TikTok user, Nivine Jay, posted a clip Ben Affleck had sent to her on Instagram verifying his identity after she blocked him on Raya, thinking it was a fake account.

For both actors it was humiliating, but as Chrissy Teigen weighed in: “I agree celebs shouldn’t be making these creepy desperate video replies on Raya but it’s tacky to release private messages. Ya both wrong, congrats.”

Swinburne University of Technology Professor of Media and Communication Kath Albury says problems with dating apps are reflective of issues with online forums as a whole.

She says abusive conduct is to some extent down to the “online disinhibition effect” – the psychological theory suggesting there’s a lack of restraint because people are not communicating face-to-face and missing the empathy trigger that might happen with in-person interactions.

She says Are You Sure? could help influence a relatively empathic person to reconsider a thoughtless response or quick emotional reaction. “But what they don’t help is if someone is genuinely intending to hurt or frighten or abuse,” she says.

“If someone is, for example, genuinely misogynistic or racist on a dating app, a pop-up is not going to stop them because they intend to hurt. So [the prompt] saying ‘that might be hurtful’, [the user] is like, ‘yeah, I know’.”

Are You Sure? has been rolled out in Australia, US, Canada, New Zealand, UK, Ireland and Japan, and will be available in additional markets in the coming months.

“Safe conversations have been a cornerstone of the Tinder experience since the beginning,” a Tinder spokesperson said.

“We believe we have a responsibility to educate our members – many of whom are entering the dating pool for the first time – about what kind of behaviour is and is not appropriate when building new relationships.

“With the additional context Does This Bother You? and Are You Sure? provide, Tinder is able to take better action against bad actors and provide more support for victims through this technology.”

Mary says she’s undecided about the impact of Are You Sure?

“It might have an initial impact and scare some people off, but the ones who want to will find ways around it.

“They’ll move off the app quicker and show their true colours once they get your number. So in some ways it could get worse.”