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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Steven and Tara Minert pose for a photo at their Centerville home on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Flashback: Imagine it's 1954. Charles and Shirley meet at a church dance, introduced by friends, where they sway to Dean Martin's "That's Amore." After several dates to the drive-in and school sporting events, they actually fall in “amore.”

Flash forward: It's 2018. Steven and Tara match on the dating app Tinder. After first meeting up to go snowshoeing, they soon become "inseparable." Eventually, they're an embodiment of #relationshipgoals, Instagram-style.

Love may be the same, but the way many people go about finding it has changed.

But with more and more people using online dating sites comes rising concerns about personal safety.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Minert family, Steven, Tara and their daughter Sage talk while gretting dinner ready at home on Monday, March 5, 2018.

According to Pew Research Center, 45 percent of those who use online dating apps and websites believe that it is a "more dangerous way" to meet people than traditional methods.

While there are no U.S. statistics that explore the relationship between online dating and assaults, several Utah cases in the past year of men accused of sexually assaulting women they met on dating apps have caught the attention of police and a victims advocacy group.

Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, believes the prevalence of social media and online interaction in our lives "changes our understanding of what consent is."

"You're more able to erase boundaries between you and another person," Bitton added.

'Swiping' a soul mate

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Tara reads to their daughter Sage while Steven finishes preparing dinner as the Minert family spends time at home on Monday, March 5, 2018.

Tara and Steven Minert found each other among the millions of people who signed up for Tinder in the early days of the dating app craze.

Tinder allows users to "swipe right" on the profiles of people they may be interested in and "swipe left" on those they are not. If both people "swipe right" on each other's profiles, a "match" is made.

The Minerts met in March 2014. She needed to find a date so she wouldn't be "the fifth wheel" with her friends while snowshoeing. She perused her Tinder matches to find someone who might be up for the adventure.

It turned out to truly be a match. "We were pretty much inseparable after that," Tara Minert said. "I am forever grateful to Tinder and this crazy idea that brought him into my life."

They have now been married for more than three years and have a 1-year-old daughter.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Minert family — Steven, Tara and their daughter, Sage — pose for a photo at their Centerville home on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

It's becoming increasingly common to hear about couples like the Minerts, who met online. According to Pew Research Center, 15 percent of adults in the U.S. have used dating apps or websites. And the number of 18- to 24-year-olds has nearly tripled since 2013, becoming the age group "most likely" to use online dating.

The Knot, a wedding-planning website, polled 14,000 engaged and newlywed brides in 2017 and found that the greatest number first met their fiancés or spouses online. Nineteen percent of couples found each other on the web, surpassing the 17 percent who met through friends, the Knot survey said.

Cooper Boice, founder of Mutual, told the Deseret News that the LDS singles-focused app has led to "hundreds of temple marriages" in the nearly two years since it was launched.

Risks

Statistics documenting any correlation between dating apps and the number of assaults against women are not separated out by the FBI, but the bureau did note that in 2016, there were about 5 percent more reported rapes in 2015, and 12.4 percent more than in 2012.

The United Kingdom, however, has been looking at the issue.

The country's National Crime Agency published research in 2016 that describes online dating as a new "serious threat," citing an increase in the number of sexual assaults committed in the country.

According to the agency, there was a "sixfold" rise in reports of sexual assault perpetrated by people victims met online — 33 offenses committed in 2009 compared to 184 in 2014.

"Early analysis indicates that the online dating phenomenon has produced a new type of sexual offender. These offenders are less likely to have criminal convictions, but instead exploit the ease of access and armchair approach to dating websites. This is aided by potential victims not thinking of them as strangers, but someone they have got to know," the report says.

Kortney Hughes, victim services program coordinator for the Provo Police Department, believes this is a trend in the U.S. and Utah as well.

"We have experienced an increase in sexual assaults that are related to online dating apps," Hughes said, but added that she does not have specific numbers. "These apps are just another tool that perpetrators use to commit these crimes."

Utah has seen multiple cases in the past year. Among those:

• Former Utah State linebacker Torrey Greenwas charged last year with six counts of rape, two counts of object rape and two counts of forcible sexual abuse in cases involving seven women between 2013 and 2015. Four of the women claimed to have met Green on Tinder.

Samuel Heber Butler, 21, was charged with raping a woman who agreed to meet him for coffee near Dixie State University after they met on Tinder.

• And just last month, James Matthew Cheshire, 30, of Murray, was charged with three counts of forcible sodomy and four counts of forcible sexual abuse involving a woman he met on Mutual. During the alleged assault, he told her, "I think you like to be forced," according to charging documents.

According to Bitton, of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, "new forms of victimization" have also arisen, including online sexual harassment and revenge porn.

Many cases of sexual violence or harassment "result from people with unhealthy or unrealistic expectations," he said.

Mixed reviews

Dating apps have been beneficial for Nat Harward, a Salt Lake podcaster and blogger. He first matched with his current girlfriend on Mutual.

Harward says using the apps has been "educational," and he learned to use several strategies after "a lot of practice."

After matching with someone, he said he would suggest meeting somewhere public and casual within the first few messages. He and his current girlfriend met over pizza in November.

For others looking for love in the Beehive State, the road has been rocky.

Scott Tikalsky, a St. George resident who says he has used various dating apps for seven or eight years, recalls meeting a woman who lived in Las Vegas through Mutual.

After speaking to her on the phone “every day for probably like a month straight for two hours," he decided to make the two-hour drive to Las Vegas and meet the woman in person, he said.

However, after the two met, he later discovered that she was married when she posted about her husband on Facebook, Tikalsky said.

Jessalyn Wood remembers a time when she dated a man she met on Tinder for about eight months, though the relationship got off to a rocky start.

"He brought his mom on the second date," Wood recalled.

"That happened with a lot of different people, of me overlooking the things I wouldn't want to date in someone, just trying not to be judgmental and shut people down before I know them," she added.

Another time, she and her best friend both used the same dating website. Comparing their matches, they discovered they were communicating with the same man. When talking to Wood, the man made "dirty" and inappropriate comments about her body, she said.

However, he carried on "actual conversations for weeks" with her friend.

When in doubt, Salt Lake resident Misty Copland recommends "Facebook stalking" potential dates, noting the way many apps allow users to see each other's mutual friends on social media.

"If you’ve got legit Facebook stalking skills, you’re able to find out more about the person beforehand," she said.

Though she hasn't felt unsafe dating online, one match asked her to meet him at a TRAX station after dark, Copland said.

She said she "cut contact then and there."

Improving safety

To mitigate risks, Bitton recommends "being mindful of what our expectations are, what we want to come from online dating, and how we're interacting with other people."

Hughes encourages people not to give out their addresses or workplaces early on and to keep private information off of their dating profiles. She also urges people to provide their own transportation to dates, meet in public places, share plans with friends or family and to limit drinking, which she says is still the most common factor in sexual assaults.

Many companies offer safety suggestions such as Hughes' on their websites, as well as an option to report users for bad behavior both online and offline.

Mutual administrators encourage users to report those who behave inappropriately, so that "they won’t be able to harass anyone else, and your friends and others won’t have to deal with them," according to the app's creator.

"We review every person who gets reported within the app, and may ultimately remove people permanently for violating the rules. We really do kick out the creeps," Boice said.

Similarly, Shannon Smith, public relations manager for Plenty of Fish, says the dating website appreciates reports against "bad actors," because it can then take action, including removing users from the site.

Bumble administrators also say they take reports of bad offline behavior seriously.

"We think it’s important to listen to people’s stories and if someone reports bad behavior, it’s something that our team investigates internally and takes action against," said Alex Williamson, Bumble's head of brand.

Bumble has even posted open letters to users who have treated other members of the app disrespectfully, Williamson said.

"We are serious about creating a safe, empowered and respectful platform for our users," she said.

Other dating apps including Tinder, OK Cupid and LDS Singles — all popular in Utah — didn't respond to a request for comment about users' safety.

None of the apps disclosed how many reports of abusive behavior they get or the number of users they suspend from their sites.

The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Violence director recommends "just maintaining open and clear communication with the people that you're dating, with the people that you're communicating with about your expectations about what you want and your needs and really just engaging in good common sense," Bitton said.

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The group recently launched an app called You Are a Survivor that provides resources, information and insight for those seeking help.

Risks aside, 79 percent of online daters feel that it is an effective way to meet new people, according to Pew Research Center.

“You always get the creepers (online), but the creepers are always there no matter what avenue you pursue in dating," Copland said.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Tinder users swipe up if interested in a profile and down if not. But with that app, users actually swipe right to approve and left if not interested.