• Angad Chowdhry

You Know What is Cute? Consent.

“..I didn’t know you were not okay with it.”

“But, did you ask?”

This brief exchange in the viral film 'Closure’ reflects the complexities of consent. In the short film produced by Tinder, Through this, the popular dating app sent out a strong message— one that set the tone for umpteen conversations on what is a hard pass within romantic relationships (re: lack of boundaries).

With almost 270 million global users and an annual revenue of 3.08 billion dollars, a popular dating app needed to take this stance. Consent as a concept may seem pretty straightforward, but cues within sexual relationships can often be misinterpreted. Women especially are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment. They are also likely to feel uncomfortable reporting abusive matches online.

Young people use dating apps as an entry point to romantic relationships. In the United States, 35% of Tinder users are between 16-24 years old. In the United Kingdom, 28% of users fall in the 25-34 age bracket, while 27% fall in the former category of 16-24. On Bumble, 72% of users are below the age of 35. The incremental usage of dating apps set against the backdrop of #MeToo, make it essential to discuss popular ‘perceptions’ of consent. Added to this is the emphasis given to sex education in educational institutions and workspaces. (spoiler alert, it’s not enough)

The common barriers to normalizing consent include limited knowledge and the stigma surrounding sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Several organizations are leveraging social media platforms to bridge the information vacuum and break this silence. For instance, POV (Point of View), Agents of Ishq, and Let’s Talk About Consent use punchy language and catchy visuals to engage with people on SRH and consent. Several medical professionals and experts such as Dr. Tanaya Narendra (dr_cuterus), Dr. Shemeka Thorpe (drshemeka), and Julia Feldman (givingthetalk) educate their followers on essential topics related to consent, bodily integrity, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Over time, global events have also shaped how people discuss consent on dating apps. According to Tinder’s Future of Dating Report, the pandemic has led to more honest discussions around personal boundaries. People now use their profiles to communicate their expectations transparently. This can be seen in the 19% and 11% increase in usage of the terms “boundaries” and “consent”, respectively.

Considering the population demographics using dating apps and the importance of better SRH education, Quilt.AI set out to understand people’s views on consent with a closer look at popular dating apps. We analyzed 50 unique search keywords globally and used our proprietary Cultural AI tool to study 150 Instagram posts of 5 popular dating apps.

Through this, we aimed to answer the following questions: When it comes to consent and related topics, what are people searching for? Are dating apps contributing to the discourse on consent through their social media platforms?

To better understand search trends, the keywords were divided into four categories:

  • General Information: e.g. “consent meaning”, “define consent”

  • Legal Definition: e.g. “consent meaning in law”, “age of consent meaning”

  • Types of Consent: e.g. “verbal consent”, “consent in marriage”

  • Consent in Sexual Relationships: e.g. “consent for sex”, “sexual intimacy definition”

This is what we found:

Consent is key, and people recognize it through growing Google searches.

We found that searches for general information about consent are the highest (64.6%) among the four categories. While the keyword increases within this category are not as significant, the volume of searches over a year-long period (November 2020- November 2021) are important to note. Keywords such as “consent” and “consent meaning” had a total search volume of 3.8 million and 2.6 million, respectively. This suggests people’s willingness to educate themselves.

The keywords that saw an increase in the last year are:

  • “Age of consent meaning” (44.46%)

  • “Mutual sex” (18.75%)

  • “Consent in relationships” (16.30%)

These searches indicate an interest in not just understanding what consent means but how it plays out within people’s relationships, specifically sexual relationships. This also ties to the second more searched category, “Consent in Sexual Relationships” (27.3%).

To further investigate people’s quest for knowledge by country, we made a Google trends comparison between the search terms “age of consent” and “consent” There was significant interest in the term “consent” during the same period. Quantitatively, this translates to a whopping 98% in India, 94% in Nigeria, 90% in Saudi Arabia, 88% in Canada, and 86% in Russia. This alone tells us that people ‘want’ to know. Comparatively, the low interest in “age of consent,” e.g. 20% in the USA, 15% in Brazil, 8% in Indonesia, and 3% in Pakistan, indicate the need to unpack and uncomplicate various facets of consent.

Dating apps are talking consent on social media

The Quilt.AI team identified five of the most popular dating apps: Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, OkCupid and Grindr. With follower counts ranging from 79.5k to 557k, these apps have a prominent presence on Instagram.

Some of the most frequently used words across all brands include “bio”, “match”, “OKCupid”, and “dating” (see image below). Consent related posts account for only 2% of the posts studied, e.g. Bumble’s post on ‘ways to ask for consent’. However, terms related to consent such as “body” and “honor” are frequently used in posts. Using these terms is a good way of appealing to people, instead of directly talking about consent using complicated jargon. Normalizing such terminology while discussing topics of sensitive nature is essential.

Dating apps use positive emotions to connect to their users - and normalize conversations around consent

Dating app users feel safer upon explicitly stating the kind of sexual contact they are comfortable with. On social media, apps communicate with their audience in a language that the youth relate to (See Tinder’s post on paying attention to one’s feelings or Grindr’s post on Trans Day of Remembrance).

Images used by Tinder and Grindr on their Instagram profiles

Similarly, consent can be effectively spoken about using relatable terms through visually appealing posts. All the brands’ posts use positive emotions and punchy captions to talk to their followers. This is further validated by our AI, which identified the following as top emotions: “affiliation”, “creativity”, and “happiness”. Using similar feelings to talk about consent can be an effective approach in making it a part of people’s relationship lexicon.

Dating apps can change the way we talk and think about consent

Hashtags such as #LetsTalkConsent and #Consent on Twitter are being used to amplify the discourse on consent. Be it through infographics, short cartoon strips, or general informative posts; people are ensuring that the topic gains visibility and traction. People and SRH organizations are going above and beyond the “consent is important” narrative even within general informative posts. For example, this tweet on enthusiastic content - “Enthusiastic consent is displayed through verbal and nonverbal communication. Look for the presence of yes, rather than the absence of no.”

Given their reach and rapidly increasing presence on social media platforms, dating apps play a pivotal role in conversations about consent. They can leverage their social presence in the following ways:

  • Destigmatizing discussions on sex and intimacy

  • Using features such as Instagram live and AMA (Ask Me Anything) to talk to their followers about informed consent, sexual relationships, and the importance of respecting boundaries.

  • Utilizing hashtags, e.g. #breakingdownconsent or #consentisimportant, to create a pool of information related to these topics

  • Creating short and snappy videos or reels to bust common misconceptions related to sex and consent, e.g. ‘Tea Consent’ by Emmeline May and Blue Seat Studios, a 2.5-minute video that talks about consent by using tea as an example

  • Engage with people on legal definitions and terminologies related to consent

  • Build safer communities for people to discuss their concerns and enjoy responsibly

So, #LetsTalkConsent. If not now, then when?