In response to a lawsuit by a woman who was sexually assaulted by her Match.com date, the dating site has agreed to screen its users against the sex offender registry. Other sites are following suit — is this about to become the industry standard?
Match.com issued a statement back in April outlining their intention to begin screening. But now it's official: according to the LA Times, the dating site has settled its lawsuit with former user and assault victim Carole Markin by promising to screen all members for previous sex offenses. And other sites might have to follow suit. Writes Carol Williams of the Times,
The availability of information on sex offender registries could create a duty on the part of the services to take at least minimal steps to bar sexual predators, legal analysts speculate. Liability experts predict that other online dating services will be obliged to follow Match.com's example to remain competitive.
Indeed, eHarmony says it already screens for sex offenders, and Zoosk is planning to start. Why the shift? As law prof Frank Zimring tells the Times, dating services aren't just clearinghouses for people — when they provide users a list of "matches," they're implicitly endorsing those people. Explains Zimring, "What Match.com is saying is, 'Have we got a guy for you!' It's a prescriptive rather than facilitative dating service." I once compared dating sites to bars, but bars aren't in the business of recommending people — and that may be where Match.com's liability comes in.
So what will happen if screening against sex offender registries becomes the norm within the dating industry? For one thing, sex offenders would be excluded from another sector of society, which, as Tracy Clark-Flory pointed out earlier this year, could encourage recidivism. This probably won't matter much to daters who would rather not take their chances with a convicted felon — but even with screening, they won't be completely safe. Checking users against the sex offender registry won't catch people who have offended but have never been convicted, or people who have done time for other crimes. Might sites begin screening for, say, criminal complaints as well as convictions? Drug charges? Marital status? As we noted a while back, it's a slippery slope.
Prior to the Match.com decision, online dating had a bit of a sketchy reputation, despite its increasing population. Users traded horror stories about dates who used pictures of completely different people, who stole others' profiles, who were still married, who turned out to be con artists. Sex offender screening won't change all this right away, but it could be the beginning. This will probably be good for a lot of daters, but it may well curtail the freedom of some. For those who do have something objectionable in their pasts, one dating site so far remains open — Craigslist didn't respond to the Times's request for comment, and warns users that it's not liable for anything that happens to them. Ah, Craigslist: sketchy til the end.
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