Online dating has officially gone mainstream. Some big online dating services trumpet numbers suggesting that 1 in 5 long term relationships now begin online. Those numbers may or may not be exaggerated, but there’s no doubt that any stigma that was once associated with finding love online is rapidly disappearing.
However, that doesn’t mean that the risks inherent in meeting strangers have changed. And, unfortunately, a story has just come out about a date that went about as wrong as a date can go. A woman met a man on Match.com, and went on a date with him. He seemed charming enough, and she agreed to a second date. After that date ended, the woman went home. Her date, however, followed her home, and sexually assaulted her. Later, the woman looked online and found that her assailant had previously been convicted of several counts of sexual battery.
Needless to say, this is a terrible story. But, should Match.com be liable to the woman? Apparently, she and her attorney intend to find out. She has filed a lawsuit against Match.com, arguing that they could have done more to ensure that a convicted sex offender, and others like him, could not register for the service, such as checking the names of members against public sex-offender registries. Obviously, this would not be a guarantee against these types of incidents, but it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t prevent some of them, and may well have prevented this one.
Still, is that something that online dating sites should be required to do? After all, they simply help people meet, and they don’t guarantee anybody’s safety. A bar, for example, bears little, if any responsibility for what happens to two people who meet there, and go home together.
Also, Match.com does have a long list of safety guidelines for their users, and most of them are perfectly sensible. However, at least one of the red flags they mention – “an inordinate amount of spelling and/or grammar errors” – seem slightly questionable. And in any case, it appears that this woman followed the most important piece of advice: taking her own car to and from the date, and not going home with, or bringing home, her date after knowing him for such a short period of time.
However, despite all this, her assailant followed her home, where he was able to commit his horrible crime. Any victim-blaming is obviously unwarranted. But, just because the victim bears no fault for what happened to her, it doesn’t automatically follow that the dating service does.
I have a feeling that the plaintiff will not prevail in this lawsuit. And, as tragic as the situation is, I think that this is the correct result. Sometimes, when a bad thing happens, nobody is to blame. Of course, in this case, the man who actually committed the crime is to blame, but I don’t think any third party can really be blamed for facilitating his crime, let alone directly causing it.
With that said, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t more steps that dating services could take in order to reduce the risk of things like this happening. It wouldn’t replace caution and common sense on the part of the users of the service, of course, but a few simple steps could make these events a little less likely to occur, at virtually no inconvenience to the people using the services.
Currently, it seems that most of these sites only require a name, email address, and credit card to join. It would probably not be too much effort for dating services to have a policy prohibiting convicted sex offenders from joining, and asking for a bit more information, such as an address, to further verify the identity of applicants. Then, the name of every applicant could be checked against public sex offender registries.
Obviously, there would probably be quite a few false positives, considering that a lot of people (especially in a large city) are going to have the same name. There would have to be a system to protect the applicant’s privacy (you don’t want your business to end up falsely accusing potential customers of being sex offenders, after all), and allow applicants to prove that they are not the registered sex offender with whom they share a name.
I’m not saying that this should be a legal requirement for dating services, nor that failing to have such a system should be grounds for civil liability. I am saying, however, that it seems to be a good idea with few drawbacks.
In the end, this case should drive home the point that, most of the time, you can’t really blame anyone for criminal activity except the criminal actor himself. And hopefully he is severely punished for his actions.
I should, again reiterate that although I do not really blame Match.com for this incident, I also don’t blame the victim.