/ 1 June 2018

Gay men stalked via dating apps

Beware: Dating apps can be dangerous.
Beware: Dating apps can be dangerous.

It was an impulsive decision but one that, more than a year later, Cheslyn Hendricks* still regrets.

“Look, I was on Grindr, just being jas [horny], to be honest with you,” says the Cape Town resident. “I was house-sitting for a friend and started chatting with this young guy — really attractive; about 24 I think. While we were chatting, he kept asking questions like ‘Are you alone?’ and ‘How long will you be alone for?’ I thought nothing of it and we spoke for a bit.”

Trusting the virtual stranger, Hendricks drove to his home in Elsies River, picked him up and brought him back to where he was house-sitting.

“But, when we got to the house, I could see that he was sussing out what was of value. But I put it down to my class prejudice … My intuition was telling me there was something about this guy but, I must be honest, my body was telling me ‘just fuck with this dude’.”

His intuition eventually winning the day, he drove the young man home. “Immediately after dropping him off, there was a car following me all the way back to the house. I was fucking scared. I ran in, grabbed my things and left immediately.

“The next morning I got a call from the security company saying the house had been burgled and that it looked as though the guys knew exactly how to get in and what to take.”

But what really stood out for Hendricks was that his visitor had spoken a lot about a gay man from Elsies River who had been murdered a few years earlier.

“He knew things about that murder that he could only know if he was there: how the murderers wrote on the wall in [the victim’s] blood; how they went back a few days after the murder to steal his things … When I looked back at it, I know that if I hadn’t left that place that night, I would have been slaughtered. They would have killed me, I know it.”

Other gay men have not been so fortunate, with online dating apps appearing to be the ground on which they are hunted.

In March this year, after weeks of messaging someone on the gay dating app Manhunt, Bradley Jorrisen* agreed to meet the person who identified himself simply as Martin.

“He invited me around to his place for coffee but when I got there I was surrounded by four guys. Three of them forced me into their car and the fourth followed me in my car,” says the 34-year-old Pretoria resident.

After a 20-minute drive, during which “I was told to be quiet or they would kill me”, they made their way to a block of flats.

READ MORE: No fats, no femmes, no blacks: The unbearable racism of Grindr in South Africa

“We parked in the basement and walked up to the sixth floor. I remember, as we walked in, there was a woman there with her child. They took me into a room — a very dark room — and told me to take off my clothes. Then there were six of them. I was begging them to let me get dressed. They took everything from me. One guy kept pushing a gun against my head. And every time my phone locked, they threatened to shoot me. I was so, so scared they were going to kill me.”

Having successfully withdrawn money from his bank accounts — “all my savings; everything” — he was instructed to get dressed and leave.

“I didn’t even have my underwear on when I left there. I just grabbed what I could in that dark room and left. I was in shock; completely traumatised.”

Lerato Phalakatshela is OUT Wellbeing’s hate crimes manager. In March this year, the organisation launched a website, report.lovenothate.org.za, through which people can report hate crimes. Dating app crimes can also be reported through the website as can “crimes motivated by racial, sexual, or other bias”.

The website has yet to see many people using it. Phalakatshela puts this down to people not knowing about it because the site is so new. But of the incidents reported so far, about 50% to 60% involve gay men falling victim to online-related crimes.

Phalakatshela says this could be because “the people who use dating apps would be more familiar with online tools”.

With crimes ranging from robbery and theft to racism and xenophobia, Phalakatshela says the high volume of online crimes being reported is of concern.

Juan Nel, a member of the Hate Crimes Working Group, says there is little, if any, research in South Africa into the number of crimes committed against gay men and men who have sex with men. But an article published in the British-based magazine, Attitude, in October last year found there was a “drastic” increase in the number of reported crimes involving online dating through apps such as Tinder and Grindr.

“New figures from UK police reveal that over 2 000 offences took place between 2011 and 2016,” Attitude reported.

There had also been a “whopping” 382% increase in crimes arising from dating apps from 2011 to 2016, said the article, with about 140 crimes recorded in 2011 and 676 recorded in 2016.

“Within the same period, the number of sexual crimes reported rose from 14 to 106, and violent attacks also went up, from 29 to 240,” the article noted.

Although gay men are not the only victims of these crimes, the article said the advent of chemsex had “undoubtedly … contributed to [this] rise”.

READ MORE: My hazardous journey into the complex world of chemsex

In chemsex, drugs are consumed with the intention of having sex. Meetings are organised primarily through dating apps such as Grindr, using keywords such as “Party and Play” or “chemfun”.

Clinical psychologist Itumeleng Mamabolo says victims of such crimes often have a sense of shame. “In a lot of these cases, though not all, people are meeting people for anonymous sex. So there is a lot of shame involved with that and one of the reasons people might find it difficult to report [it to the police]. There are these labels around this and possibly being seen as promiscuous.

“But also, there might be issues around people being uncomfortable with their own sexuality so not wanting to be shamed by the police for doing something that might be seen as ‘not okay’.”

He says survivors of such crimes often experience an added layer of trauma as a result of this shame.

The shame is misplaced because “internet dating is nothing out of the norm,” Mamabolo says. “It speaks to where we are in the world today. We all want the convenience of doing things instantly. People are taking advantage of what is available out there.”

The most important thing is to be careful and safe, he says.

Looking back at his impulsive decision more than a year later, Hendricks calls it his “awakening”.

“I stopped having risky encounters after that night. You know, a good friend of mine always said, ‘Us queer don’t die, darling — we get murdered.’ I always thought it was a warped thing to say.

“But now it makes me wonder what it is about us as gay men. Like, do we seek out such risky encounters or is it that we are just particularly vulnerable to these kinds of crimes? And, you know, the sex is not the issue. But rather that we could die — literally, die — in the process of seeking that affection, that intimacy.”

* Not their real names. 

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation