SALT LAKE CITY — Online dating is a "great avenue for people to meet someone like themselves," said local dating coach and relationship therapist Alisa Goodwin Snell.
There are ways to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault, rape and even heartbreak, she said. But even taking all the precautions, individuals can end up in situations they don’t really want to be in.
On Wednesday, felony rape charges were filed against 37-year-old Orem resident Gregory Peterson, a GOP activist who prosecutors say lured women to his cabin and sexually assaulted them. He was an active member on various dating websites, including those frequented by a large percentage of LDS men and women.
“Meeting in a public place is great, but it is not an absolute thing that you’ll be safe,” Snell said, adding that leaving a paper trail or letting a friend know what’s going on is an important part of playing it safe when meeting someone for the first time offline.
“Knowing your boundaries” is also something Snell, who met her husband online, teaches. She said predators tend to seek out weak or vulnerable populations, including those in religious groups who are often seen as more trusting.
“Wolves are attracted to lambs,” she said. “People who are in vulnerable situations will always be preyed on by perpetrators more than someone else.”
Layton resident Megan Nielsen, 34, has learned the hard way to be careful with online dating. She said she’s nearly been raped twice by men she met on an LDS-themed dating website.
“As women, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so we don’t say or do what needs to be done,” she said. In hindsight, she wishes she’d have run away, screamed or done whatever she could have to get away from the men who have taken advantage of her.
Nielsen, who is looking for husband and stepfather material, said she would purposefully look for men who had noted, like Peterson, that they had a current temple recommend, but in the end, she learned, “all the creeps just lie about it anyway.”
In March, the three largest providers of online dating websites, Match.com, eHarmony and Beverly Hills-based Spark Networks, each agreed to begin screening members for identity theft, financial scams and sexual predators, also adding a rapid reporting system to protect their members from abuse.
Spark owns LDSSingles.com, one of the sites Peterson used, and credits itself for taking “a multifaceted approach to creating and maintaining safe online communities.” The company offers dozens of niche dating websites, targeting various religious, cultural and ethnic groups, which a spokeswoman said “brings value to relationships.”
Online dating, which has gained popularity over the years, has resulted in numerous successful relationships, including one of every six in the last three years, according to a Reuters survey. More than 40 million Americans reported using an online dating service in 2011, spending more than $1 billion on dating website memberships. One in five have dated someone they met online.
“For those who play it wisely and approach it wisely, it tends to result in a lot more dates than you’d get from mingling within various social circles,” Snell said, adding that for many participants, there are more positive experiences than negative.
“It cuts out the wondering, the waiting and the ‘are we friends or are we more’ part of dating and you know what you both want going into it and that is really nice,” said 23-year-old Jeannette Snyder. A friend coaxed her to join an online dating service earlier this year “to meet people” after moving to Salt Lake and to break out of her typically reserved personality.
In the last month, Snyder said she has been on dates with 10 different men. She said she has learned through trial and error how to protect herself from dating someone whose expectations aren’t aligned with hers.
“You do have to realize that you are putting yourself in a vulnerable situation,” she said, adding that she opts to meet someone in a public place for the first time and always keeps the first date short. “I haven’t met in person with anyone I’ve felt threatened by.”
While she has had a positive experience so far, Snyder acknowledged online dating isn’t fail-safe.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West,” she said. “You don’t really know what you’re going to get.”
Holly Mullen, executive director of Utah’s Rape Recovery Center, said disturbing things happen to online daters more often than anyone wants to admit.
“Women who go online to meet someone certainly feel like they are being as cautious as they can be,” she said. “In most cases, they thought they could trust someone and it ends up badly.” Mullen said there is no way to guarantee safety in those situations.
“If someone wants to rape a woman, they’re going to find a way to do it,” she said.
Of the women Snell has counseled over the years, she said many of those who ended up in dangerous situations with men committed the same “huge, fatal flaw” by voluntarily giving out their addresses or going to the man’s home.
“You do not go to their place, you don’t give out information on how to get to yours, you tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting with and you meet at a public place,” she said, adding there are also ways to recognize daters with potentially ill intentions.
"If I were a predator, I would send out multiple messages fishing for someone whose response would show they have poor boundaries," Snell said. In general, she said predators “make excessive demands, ask for swimsuit pictures early on, lead women into sexual conversations and often use sympathy to get information more quickly.”
Nielsen and Snyder said in addition to the way a person presents himself online, they also pay attention to how men look in their online dating profile photograph. While it can’t portray everything, Nielsen said sometimes “you have to go with your gut.”
“I think it really just comes down to being careful and having a good attitude and wanting to engage with someone genuinely,” Snyder said.