March 22, 2023

For Serbian Women, ‘New Norm’ of Online Dating Brings Real Risk – Balkan Insight

A short-cut to love?

The idea that an algorithm might help find the perfect partner is not a post-Y2K phenomenon.

The first modern dating website,, went online in 1994, the year the Internet was born. Today, worldwide, the most popular online dating tool is Tinder, which by February last year had hit 500 million cumulative downloads.

Over the past four years, the popularity of this type of dating has doubled globally; we spend more and more time online, working, socialising, shopping, and the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated this shift. In 2020, the year the pandemic began, Tinder registered a record three billion swipes in a single day.

“Online dating allows you to somehow shorten the path in the whole process of dating, so you can see what happens there and whether it is worth allocating more time to a certain person or not,” said Selena Spica, a research assistant at the Institute for Sociological Research of the University of Belgrade and PhD candidate at the Laboratoire d’Études de Genre et de Sexualité in Paris.

One 32-year-old respondent from a rural area of Serbia said online dating was the only way she got to meet new people. For some millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, online dating is the new norm. “Everything we do, we do online,” said one. “So why not date online.”

“It’s a good way to get to know a person before you see each other in person,” said a 22-year-old respondent. But does such ‘filtering’ always work?

Victim blaming 

“Hit and miss,” is how one woman described online dating in the BIRN questionnaire. Indeed, some met their current partners on dating apps. For others, it’s a real ‘miss.’

“My background checks are better than the CIA’s!”

When it comes to safety, Meta and Tinder remind users of the need to protect their personal information and report all suspicious or offensive behaviour. For face-to-face dates, choose a public place, tell a friend about your plans and do not leave your drink or personal items unattended.

Many women, however, have developed far more sophisticated precautions, from researching their future date’s online identity to psychoanalysis of online chit-chat. One respondent said her background checks were “better than the CIA.”

Meeting in person, women choose well-lit, crowded places and share live locations with their friends. Friends are also tasked with making check-up calls during the date. Pepper spray is a common accessory; regardless of how the date goes, separate taxis are considered a must and women should be careful not to reveal their home addresses.

“Not great, not terrible. No, scratch that. Terrible,” said one 37-year-old woman. 

Another, 23 years old, met a man over Instagram. From their online chat he seemed “genuinely nice,” she said, so she agreed to meet him in person.

They met in a public place, but that did not stop him from trying to kiss her and force himself on her. The woman said she tried to walk away but he followed her to her car. She got behind the wheel and locked the door, but the man started banging on the window and trying to break in.

Two-thirds of respondents reported some kind of ‘unpleasant experience’. These range from receiving unsolicited explicit photographs and videos or unsolicited explicit descriptions of sexual fantasies, to blackmail, name-calling or threats. Offline encounters can lead to stalking, sexual abuse and physical violence.

Two in five respondents experienced impersonation, when the other person uses someone else’s name and/or photo and personal details; one in four suffered hate speech; one in five was threatened and/or blackmailed; 15 per cent were sexually harassed online and when online dating went offline one in four women was bullied, stalked or sexually harassed, with sexual harassment ranging from forced kisses to forced sexual intercourse.

Spica said that incidents of violence were representative of “the Serbian reality”, one shaped by a machismo in which men are perceived as beings of uncontrolled sexual desire and women as objects at their disposal.

“Depending on the strength of the representation of machismo, we will have different cases – a forced kiss, unsolicited photos and videos, attempted rape or some kind of disturbing comment,” she told BIRN. “It depends on how deep the macho principle is rooted in the perception of a specific man.”

Online dating, Spica said, is seen as “a man’s sphere, because men are the ones who have naturally uncontrolled sexual desire.”

So when a woman experiences some kind of violent behaviour, society asks, “what were you doing on that app? This isn’t your area; what did you expect? It’s not for women, it’s not natural.”

Andrijana Radoicic Nedeljkovic, a programme coordinator at the NGO Atina, which works with victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence, said that women who engage in online dating are seen by some in society as asking for trouble.

“It’s because she didn’t take enough care, she didn’t meet her partner in a conventional way, she wasn’t smart enough, with the idea that this would somehow prevent violence, which of course is not true; responsibility for the violence lies solely with the perpetrator,” said Radoicic Nedeljkovic.

Tinder: data unavailable

More than a third of women who participated in the BIRN survey said they use Tinder. Tinder, however, told BIRN it does not “have access” to data on how many women in Serbia use the app. It gave the same answer when asked about global data.

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