Internet dating is putting a growing number of women at risk of abuse or assault, a leading sexual health doctor says.
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Jane MacDonald, who does forensic examinations for Wellington police in sexual assault and rape cases, said she believed the popularity of dating websites and chatrooms was a factor in the noticeable increase of sexual assaults in the past year.
In the three months since May there had been 22 cases reported in Wellington – almost two a week. Usually there were about 50 a year.
Dr MacDonald, who is director of the Wellington Sexual Health Clinic, said women often felt they could trust men they had never met because they had shared personal information online.
They left themselves vulnerable to sexual attacks or coercion by inviting a man into their home while they were alone, or going to his house, rather than meeting in a bar or cafe.
"They lower their guard, feel they’ve got to know this person and end up being assaulted," Dr MacDonald said.
"It can be young girls meeting men who’ve lied about their age or young girls who’ve lied about their age and said they’re older.
"Or it can be perfectly sensible middle-aged women coming out of a long-term relationship, feeling lonely, and advertising through the Internet."
Dr MacDonald had spoken to teenage girls who had climbed out their bedroom windows at night and into taxis paid for by older men they had arranged to meet through the Internet.
In some cases they were being forced into having sex, or the sex was consensual but they were underage. Gay men were also getting into risky situations.
The majority of people using the Internet to meet potential partners were doing it safely, Dr MacDonald said. "But the minority are the ones I see and it’s a concern for me."
In July, Paraparaumu man Donald Alistair Ralph Pyatt, 41, was jailed after he used the Internet to groom a 14-year-old girl for a sexual relationship. The judge said the technology had given him the opportunity to dupe his victim.
Detective Senior Sergeant Shane Cotter said alcohol consumption was a more worrying factor than Internet dating in sexual assaults against women in the capital.
Internet-related assaults might be happening, but they were not coming to police attention.
Internet Safety Group spokeswoman Rachel Harrison said people who used dating websites should be cautious about face-to-face meetings and arrange them for a public place during the day.
"Anybody may be using the website to hook up for sex or to offend. We definitely would recommend that people have some safety strategies in place. Everything you think you know about that person to date may in fact be wrong."
In May, a Wellington jury acquitted a man, 44, who had been accused of sexually violating a woman at her house after they met on a dating website.
In 2004, former doctor Matthew James Boyd was convicted of indecent assault and having sex with underage girls he had met in Internet chatrooms.