Anna met her ex boyfriend on dating app OkCupid
in August of 2012. His first message was simple, just a “Hey,” and they ended up meeting for a date within a few days of their date.
Over the next year, he became manipulative and emotionally abusive. By October 2013, Anna said he started to physically abuse her. After a particularly violent incident, Anna (not her real name) left him, but did not press any charges for fear of retaliation. What she didn’t know then is that federal laws would not have protected her if she had.
“I had no idea that the laws would not have protected me — that’s pretty horrible,” she said. “I temporarily moved out of state because of it all and am very thankful to have a support network which allowed me to do so.”
Women who date are more likely to be in danger of domestic abuse than married women — and have fewer protections.The most frequent and most severe interpersonal violence occurs in dating relationships, not marriages, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania published in the journal Preventive Medicine found. Intimate partner violence costs the U.S. more than $5.8 billion a year, according to the Center for Disease Control, including $900 million in lost productivity from work.
More than 80% of violent altercations in the city occurred within non-married couples, according to a survey of more than 31,000 police reports from the city of Philadelphia. Less than 15% involved current spouses, and just 3.5% involved ex-spouses. Nationally, more than half of intimate violence incidents are reported to police. Abuse within those couples was also more likely to involve more extreme violence, including pushing, shoving, strangulation, and use of weapons.
The research shows more laws should exist to protect couples that are not married, do not live together, and do not have children together, said Susan B. Sorenson, professor of social policy in the School of Social Policy & Practice and author on the study. The Violence Against Women Act, a federal law passed in 1994 to protect victims of abuse, only applies to people who are married or living with someone who abused them.
“The federal policy focuses on people who are married, live together or have a child in common,” she said. “We know that abuse occurs in addition to those kinds of relationships. Unfortunately, the federal policy doesn’t address that, and the policy is from nearly a generation ago by now.”
Under the Violence Against Women Act, victim protection orders and restraining orders are recognized across state lines. It also provides legal protection to women, like allowing undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic violence to apply for a Green Card in exchange for helping law enforcement officials prosecute their abusers, and helping women who are evicted from their homes due to domestic violence.
Under the Gun Control Act, anyone who has been convicted of domestic violence is not allowed to posses a firearm or ammunition. Some states, like California, have broader definitions of relationships protected by law.
However, women who are not married but experience abuse can be “left out in the cold,” said Beth Meeks, a director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. They may have difficulty getting restraining orders across state lines or obtaining affordable legal help. “When you have a dangerous abuser, the label on a relationship does not make them less dangerous,” she said.
The change in abuse demographics comes as people are getting married older and less often. The average age someone in the U.S. first marries is 27 for women and 29 for men. That’s up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 and 20 and 22 in 1960. Student loan debt is just one of the reasons for the rising age, as well as changing social mores in which it is not socially necessary to marry to have a child or live with a partner, said Meeks.
The latest study may simply indicate that people see the red flags early and act upon them. Or it may be because people have more dating partners due to the popularity of dating apps such as Tinder and OKCupid. (OkCupid and Tinder did not respond to comment. OKCupid and Tinder have a long list of safety tips covering both online and offline behavior.)
“Dating apps allow people to present a very cleaned-up version of themselves,” Meeks said. “Offenders are always hiding what they have done in past relationships, and it’s easier to do that on social media. You may feel very engaged in a relationship before you begin to see a problem.”
The dating industry is worth around $3 billion, with revenue split between advertising and subscription services, up revenue up around 5% per year, according to a report by research firm IBISWorld. Of that, around half is from online dating. Tinder Plus costs $19.99 per month. OKCupid premium costs $9.99 for a one-month subscription.
Not only do people meet each other more frequently online, fewer social safety nets exist to warn new partners of past abuse, she noted. More than 20% of heterosexual couples and more than 70% of homosexual couples met online as of 2010, a 2017 study by the MIT Technology Review found.
In Anna’s case, she found the isolating nature of dating apps contributed to the inability to see her abusive partner’s flaws early on.
“We had no mutual friends that could say he’s messed up and to stay away from him,” she said. “After we broke up there were a lot of things that came to light from his friends that could have protected me or would have kept me away. I don’t think it has to do with the number of partners — there are a lot of great guys out there — but the ease of the not-so-great ones blending in.”
If you are somebody you know is experiencing abuse in a relationship, you can call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.