If you spent another Valentine's Day alone, you may be thinking it's time to find someone on a dating app. While these applications offer a seemingly limitless amount of potential opportunities, they can also bring on an onslaught of misogyny and scary interactions for Black women.

In my sophomore year of college, I had to download Bumble to get into a fraternity Halloween party. My dating history is nonexistent, so the idea of dating apps was intriguing to me, but never enough to actually download one. I ended up building myself a profile a few days later. My roommate at the time who accompanied me to the party downloaded Bumble upon arrival. She also had a similar lack of dating app experience. However, the differences in our experiences were stark. My roommate went on daily dates with men who were mostly respectful and kind to her. Meanwhile, on the rare occasion that I did get a response from a man, it often resulted in them divulging their violent sexual fantasies—choking, slapping, kicking and more—and how excited they were to enact them with me.

Why was the reception I was getting on Bumble so starkly different from hers? The answer is that she’s a skinny white woman. I, on the other hand, am neither skinny nor white. Her race and her build are obviously not things I hold against her, but the discrepancies between our interactions with men made me realize that systemic, anti-Black racism is inescapable, even in the digital realm. In my case, the violent messages I received from men of all races assumed that because of my build (thick) and my race (Black) that I am promiscuous. 

Dating apps are designed to be transactional and that naturally perpetuates misogynoir at a drastically more rapid rate than face-to-face interactions, creating yet another realm where women of color are routinely traumatized, sidelined and assaulted.

A Wall Street Journal study found that within the first few days of the U.S. lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average household internet usage increased by 25 percent. The physical isolation and the highly individualized Internet experience left ample room for stereotyping and racist aggression to be perpetuated online.

Christian Kenoly, a 25-year-old cultural strategist, primarily uses Tinder and has used Grindr in the past. They said they have many experiences being verbally assaulted on Tinder and they believe it is because of this social isolation that comes with internet usage.

“I do think that dating apps create more objectification and fetishization because now you're just some hot girl on the internet that doesn't really exist,” Kenoly shares. “Even contextually, there's no difference between you and a chatbot, or between you and some girl that they could just be paying with Bitcoin to talk to.”

Obviously, sexual assault existed before the birth of dating apps, and it is not fair to say that Tinder is the only dating app on which people experience assault. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of dating app users said receiving sexually explicit images or videos they didn’t ask for is a common experience. Unsolicited pictures aren’t the only form of harassment on online platforms. Ali, a Gen Zer of mixed heritage, said men make comments about her ethnicity as a conversation starter when she used to use Tinder.

“I don't know what it is about me. I think it's just the combo of my skin and dark hair, but everyone thinks that I'm a Latina queen,” Ali shared. “I had a lot of people saying ‘hey, mami,’ and then I do get a lot of questions about my race as openers. I think they're just trying to be original, but they're not at all.” She says that many label her as “exotic” to try and compliment her.

“I've noticed that with Arabic men in particular, they find it very attractive that I am a different version of their ethnicity,” she says. “They’ll say things like, ‘I know where that name is from.’ And I'm like, ‘Alright. I don't care, first of all, and shut up.’”

I personally have been sexually harassed time and time again on Bumble, and these interactions are usually remedied by using the block and unmatch functions. One encounter that left me traumatized was when I was scrolling through Bumble during a depressive episode and reluctantly engaged with a man who wanted to sext me. As soon as he finished, he unmatched me. I felt dirty and used, and that was one of the key experiences that led me to delete the app.

I later learned that this is a relatively common practice in the online dating world. Many users treat dating apps as a game, according to the report, “What are You Doing on Tinder? Impression Management on a Matchmaking Mobile App.” With no initial compatibility questions or detailed filtering, it's easy for users to make judgments solely based on photos and geographic location, with little thought to the inappropriateness of the comments made.

Realizing that there is a "game" mindset online, it can be smart not to take initial interactions to heart. “I think that general boredom led to me and my roommate spending a lot of time on the apps, just like laying on the couch swiping and making fun of people,” Shaukat confesses. “Honestly, it's not even like we're going to meet up with them.”

Oluchi Akinfenwa, a senior computer science major at McGill University, approaches dating app interactions with even more skepticism.

“I turned to dating apps during a time in my life where it felt as if nobody liked me,’” Akinfenwa confesses. “I automatically assumed that it was people not liking Black women because that's just a thing, statistically. The dating apps seemed a cool way to expand the pool, but then you kind of see the same pattern occurring in the apps. It's discouraging.” 

Akinfenwa’s statement rings true to statistical patterns. While most apps do not have “race filters” (a way you can set your racial preferences), Match.com does. The company refused to abandon its filters after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, even while other dating apps removed them from their platforms, and the Match filter still remains to this day. OKCupid released match data in 2014, and across the board, Black women were rated the least desirable, with only Black men’s rating of Black women being marginally positive.

The speed at which dating app users evaluate whether they match with someone is evidence of how racism is perpetuated in digital spaces generally: subconsciously, without intention and more rapidly than any microaggression could be inflicted in real life. Waking up to multiple messages of “chocolate queen” in Akinfenwa’s case, or messages detailing hijab corruption kink fantasies to Ali—who isn’t even Muslim—or messages explaining in excruciating detail how many bruises a man wants to leave on me all inflict pain and trauma onto women of color.

“I always gaslight myself and say, ‘My experiences are not a big deal. So many people go through things that are way bigger,'” she surmises. “But that doesn't mean that I should be invalidating my own feelings. I can't believe that I've been so conditioned to think that this is not a bad microaggression when it actually is. I've been conditioned to just swallow it and take it as normal. There's anger I feel around that.” 

Obviously, Kenoly, Ali, Akinfenwa and my own online dating app usage and experiences are all unique. Does this mean every single man on every single dating app is waiting in the Tinder shadows to send nude photos and make racist remarks? Of course not. However, it is clear that for women of color, the experiences on dating apps can be more strained and far more complex, something that Black women and women of color must take into consideration when they turn to these platforms to find love.