They broke up three weeks before the wedding. For the first time in almost a decade, Kelly was single — and looking.
But the rituals of romance had changed since Kelly met her ex-fiancé. Now she was navigating the murky waters of online dating, scrolling and swiping on apps like Hinge and Bumble, searching for a potential match in a sea of grainy selfies.
If you’re a woman who has used a dating app, what happened next will sound familiar: She was ghosted, lied to, approached for group sex. One man she rejected insulted her appearance and threatened to show up at her home.
“I figured I’d run into a few scumbags, but I didn’t think ... it would be this hard,” said Kelly, 32, who lives in a Boston suburb. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her safety.
Kelly recounted the details of these bad matches on a newly created Facebook group called Swipe Left Boston, where more than 800 members — all women, per the group’s rules — swap horror stories about terrible men they’ve met online. Their accusations include all manner of transgressions, some more egregious than others: “love-bombing” (a form of emotional manipulation involving excessive gestures and affection), catfishing (using a fake online persona to lure someone into a relationship), being aggressively pressured for sex. Some women say they’ve been stalked or harassed. Others say they were assaulted. Nearly every post is affixed with the man’s first name, his photograph, and a warning to “swipe left” and stay away.
In the age of Tinder and TikTok, whisper networks have flourished online. These informal back channels allow women to expose bad male actors without resorting to traditional — and typically, inadequate — routes for holding them accountable, such as reporting poor behavior to the dating platforms.
Haley Schwartz, 23, a marketing student at Northeastern University, started Swipe Left Boston in late January, inspired by a friend’s bad dating experience. “I just thought to myself, ‘Why isn’t there a platform where women can share their dating stories with others in the city?’ ” she said.
Schwartz created the group as a safe space for women to talk about their experiences, learn from one another, and “laugh a little bit” about their dates-gone-wrong. To protect members’ privacy, users need Schwartz’s permission to join, and they’re forbidden from sharing screenshots of posts outside the group. (Members who are caught breaking the rules are banned.)
She has also encouraged women to post about the “good guys” they’ve met online who might be better matches for others in the group.
“Dating can be really depressing,” Schwartz said. “I don’t want the group to just be filled with negativity.”
Activity on dating apps surged amid the pandemic. In March 2020, Tinder broke a record with 3 billion swipes in a single day. When the lockdowns began, Bumble saw a 70 percent increase in in-app voice and video calls. Liesel Sharabi, director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at Arizona State University, said social media whisper networks are an outgrowth of the ubiquity of online dating, where deception and harassment are commonplace.
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center report, nearly 60 percent of women ages 18 to 34 said they’ve been sent unsolicited sexually explicit messages and photos on online dating services, compared with 28 percent of men in the same age range. Younger women were far more likely than younger men to say someone had called them an offensive name on a dating platform (44 percent versus 23 percent) or threatened them with physical harm (19 percent versus 9 percent).
“There’s a lot of nasty stuff that happens on these apps, and, feeling frustrated, I think that women might feel like they have to take matters into their own hands,” Sharabi said. “Yes, there are mechanisms for reporting that kind of behavior, but when you look at what actually happens to those people, [women will] see them continue to show up on the platform.”
But there are downsides to relying on private online spaces to disclose harassment and abuse, especially if the posts become public. In 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a crowd-sourced Google spreadsheet called “S----y Media Men,” where unidentified users reported allegations of sexual misconduct about their male colleagues, triggered intense debate about the pitfalls of making anonymous accusations on social media. One of the accused men on the list is suing the spreadsheet’s creator and 30 Jane Does for defamation of character.
More recently, the strange saga of “West Elm Caleb” went viral after several women on TikTok made videos about the same New York City furniture designer they’d met online. He was accused of all sorts of misdeeds, including ghosting, love-bombing, and sending unsolicited explicit photos. The Internet outrage reached a fever pitch, and the man’s full name, phone number, and address were shared online. Critics argued that his punishment far outweighed his alleged wrongdoing.
“It’s important to keep in mind what your intended consequences are,” said Casey Fiesler, an information science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, about women who may be considering posting about their experiences on social media. “Is your intention to inform other women so that they’re not harmed, or is your intention to get someone fired? ... Your answer to that is going to depend on how severe you think the crime was.”
‘There’s a lot of nasty stuff that happens on these apps, and, feeling frustrated, I think that women might feel like they have to take matters into their own hands.’
Liesel Sharabi, director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at Arizona State University
The women of Swipe Left Boston who spoke to the Globe said the group is not about vindictiveness, but safety and solidarity. A 44-year-old woman from Southeastern Massachusetts said women are often taught to excuse or overlook predatory male behavior. She joined the group mostly to help younger women recognize signs of mistreatment.
“Women are made to feel crazy for finding fault ... when there’s definitely dangerous behavior,” the woman said. “I like being able to offer support and to point out, ‘Yes, you’re right. This is toxic.’ ”
Jennifer Flanagan, a 27-year-old PR specialist from Watertown, said she sees the group as an “extra safety tool” she’ll lean on when she returns to online dating.
“I’ve been through so many scary situations, scary men,” Flanagan said. “Any extra resource that I can use to make me feel a little bit better to start dating again, I’m going to take it.”
The group has already averted at least one online dating disaster.
Two years ago, Becca, 24, went out with a man she matched with on Hinge. She thought he was handsome and charming, but one night, they were kissing at his apartment, where she alleged that he slapped her across both sides of her face. Becca, who asked the Globe to identify her only by her first name, debated posting about him in Swipe Left Boston. She was humiliated by what he had done but was wary about sharing her story with hundreds of strangers.
She divulged her experience anyway, and later felt she’d made the right choice: Several women in the group immediately recognized the man. One alleged he’d sent her an unsolicited picture of his genitals. Another alleged that he’d stalked her at her gym.
“He’s alive and well and was messaging me on [the dating app] Bumble last night,” one woman wrote. “This group is a godsend.”