20 Sep 2022

The dark side of internet dating in NZ

From Afternoons, 1:35 pm on 20 September 2022

Violent and misogynistic pornography is bleeding into the landscape of modern dating, making the use of dating apps a more dangerous place, according to a sexual safety advocate.

Nikki Denholm, a former midwife and now FGM Educator,

Nikki Denholm, Photo: RNZ

Nikki Denholm tells Afternoons it heightens the need to take precautions and be mindful when navigating social and sexual online engagement.

Her comments come after the dangers of dating apps and ‘swiping right’ were highlighted in a local documentary Swipe With Caution, screened on TV1 this week

You can watch Swipe With Caution on demand here.

Swipe With Caution shines a light on the darker side of online matchmaking in New Zealand - an issue that gained greater prominence with the murder of British backpacker, Grace Millane.

A number of experts are featured in the documentary, including director of the Light Project, Nikki Denholm.

She says the Light Project was set up to help young people, their families and youth professionals better navigate the new online sexual landscape, specifically pornography.

“We were involved in the documentary because of our work, and I guess in the porn and also choking space.”

Easily accessible porn has been normalising violent sexual behaviours in the eyes of some young people watching it, which can pose problems with sexual expectations and inappropriate behaviours.

“I think what it does is we know that a lot of more aggressive behaviour that we see normalized in porn now are shifting in shaping some young people's understandings and expectations in terms of what's normal for sex,” she says.

“So that's going to play out for some young people that engage in dating apps in terms of when they hook up and what their expectations are in terms of what's normal.

The increasingly aggressive nature of porn is confusing many young people with what is considered normal.

“We're seeing a lot more misogyny, sexist behaviours, violence and aggression 97 percent of the time towards women. It’s tricky for young people, because often the actors act with pleasure when those different aggressive acts occur. So that's quite tricky in terms of young people understanding what's normal, what's not, what girls want, and that can impact what they perceive to be normal and expect and real-life sexual scenarios.”

The danger posed here is that everybody is at risk when it comes to dating apps, she says, because these platforms attract predators and people bent on exploitation of the vulnerable.

“I think everyone is particularly vulnerable, that girls may be potentially a little bit more than boys.

She says the case of murdered backpacker Grace Millane didn’t show that backpackers or those who have little in terms of local social networks are more vulnerable to predators.

“I think in general, young women and young people are vulnerable because what we haven't done as a society is we haven't given young people in particular information on how to navigate apps safely, on how to build protective factors, how to mitigate risk, how to build critical thinking around people that you meet online.

 “So many young people in New Zealand engage with apps without telling their friends who they're meeting. It was obviously a terrible situation where a really unhealthy and predatory person took advantage.”

The best way to keep yourself safe on a dating app is by using critical faculties in determining who you are engaging with – what kind of person they are.

“There are some safety precautions that can take place. In our ‘In the know’ website we've got a section on creating sexual content and that’s where it's critical things that young people can, or older people can, think about before they engage sexually online.

“There are certainly things that someone can do, but in saying that even then, there's still some dodgy people out there that are particularly good at scamming and taking advantage of people.

“But the more we talk about as a society, the more we build more protective factors and mitigate those risks. I think the more you know, the less terrible scenarios we'll have like the Grace Millane case.