February 7th 2016
There has been a six-fold increase in reports of online-dating related rape offences over a five-year period, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
The agency’s Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS), which supports police investigations into serious sexual assaults committed by strangers, identified an increase in the number of people that were raped during their first face-to-face meeting following initial contact through an online dating website or app.
The number of reports rose from 33 in 2009 to 184 in 2014, which is double the number of rapes reviewed by SCAS involving bogus taxis.
85% of the victims are women and 15% are men. Of the men, 25% of victims were aged between 15 and 19.
The NCA has published its findings today, along with new guidance to help users of online dating sites and apps reduce their personal risk.
Further work is needed before potential reasons for the increase are fully understood, but the team is considering whether this could include:
– The fact that people feel protected online, and their communication can escalate rapidly to become sexual in nature, leading to mismatched expectations when they meet for the first time
– Deliberate targeting of online sites and apps by offenders who intend to commit sexual assault – there was some evidence of coercion and persuasion being used by offenders to encourage (often reluctant) victims to meet sooner than they would like, and 43% of first face-to-face meetings took place within one week of the initial contact being made online
– Whether there is a lower overall threshold for committing sexual assault
– Victims having more confidence to report assaults to the police
– Whether more people are spending time in private on a first date and so putting themselves at risk – 41% of victims had spent time in private on their first date. In total, 71% of rapes that occurred on the first face-to-face meeting following online contact were committed at the victim’s or offender’s residence.
The NCA team is also looking at the differences between perpetrators who met their victims online and other sexual offenders. For example the former appear significantly less likely than other sexual offenders to have a previous criminal conviction. 84% of people convicted of ‘stranger rape’ have previous convictions, typically for serious offences that are not of a sexual nature. For those suspected of stranger rape where the contact is initiated online, that figure falls to 49% alongside a decrease in the severity of the crime previously committed.
Sean Sutton, head of the NCA’s Serious Crimes Analysis Section, commented: “More than nine million Britons have logged on to online dating sites, and the majority have found that they are a convenient and safe environment to find a relationship. This initial work clearly raises a lot of questions and we will be working with academia to build a more complete picture. However this will take time and we wanted to release our headline findings at the earliest opportunity.
“Our aim here is to make people aware of the potential danger, so they can be better prepared and make the choices that are right for them. A rape victim is never at fault and we do not want the circumstances in which these assaults take place to cause any victim to doubt that. Sexual assault is a crime, full stop, and we want victims to feel confident reporting it to the police.”
Martin Hewitt from the National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “Regardless of the circumstances, sexual activity against your will is a crime. SCAS works together with every police force in the country ensuring that victims are supported when they take the difficult step in coming forward to report these serious offences.”
George Kidd, Chief Executive of the Online dating Association commented: "Dating services account for about a third of all new relationships and the friendships, romances, marriages and families that these bring about. Sexual assault or abuse is never acceptable. Even one incident of harm is one too many. The NCA is right to look at what happens online and the ODA are already working with them in getting the right messages out to people.
“We want dating to be a safe as well as great experience and take our responsibilities seriously. ODA members check user profiles, create safe-chat environments, remove anyone causing trouble, offence or harm and give users advice and guidance on how to stay safe when online and when meeting someone new."
Get Safe Online recommends the following safety advice for meeting up as a result of online dating:
1. Plan it. Say it. Do it.
It’s your date. Agree on what you both want from it before you meet up. Don’t feel pressured to meet before you’re ready or for any longer than you’re comfortable with – a short first date is fine.
2. Meet in public. Stay in public.
The safest plan is to meet somewhere public and stay somewhere public. Make your own way there and back and don’t feel pressured to go home with your date. If you feel ready to move to a private environment, make sure your expectations match your date’s.
3. Get to know the person, not the profile.
The way people interact online isn’t always the same face-to-face. Don’t be offended if your date is more guarded when meeting in person. or if things don’t progress as fast face-to-face.
4. Not going well? Make your excuses and leave.
Don’t feel bad about cutting a date short if you’re not keen. You don’t owe the other person anything, no matter how long you’ve been chatting or what’s been suggested.
5. If you are a victim of rape or sexual assault on your date, help is available.
No matter what the circumstances, sexual activity against your will is a crime. Police and charities are here to help and support you.