(CNN) — Months after Crystal learned that her boyfriend had been covertly dating at least two other people, she began warning women on TikTok to be cautious of dating him.
“I wanted everyone … to see this man’s face. Beware of him, he is a manipulator, he is a gaslighter. He is a grifter,” said Crystal, 38, in one video, in which she explained discovering the names of the other women on the various streaming services he was using. In another post, she said: “He told all of us that he was not sleeping with anyone else. Mhmm. Multiple times.”
Crystal, a hairdresser based in New York City, has posted about her ex, whom she met through Hinge, on TikTok more than a dozen times since late 2021. Her top post has garnered more than 2 million views and some others have received tens or hundreds of thousands of views.
She is one of many people leveraging online platforms to seek or share information about specific men and their questionable dating behaviors. The services they use range from public TikTok profiles to private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, some of which have tens of thousands of members. The goal: to warn and protect others who may encounter the men on dating apps.
While women aren’t alone in using online forums to post about connections from dating apps, a Pew Research Center study found that young women are much more likely than their male counterparts to report having their safety threatened when online dating, whether that be receiving unwanted communications or unsolicited sexual images, or being berated. While some opt to share experiences with specific men in private online forums hoping to carve out a safe space for women online, others are going public by sharing their stories on TikTok. Some of these efforts are fueled by the political environment, including the stark new reality women face after the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Their efforts — while not without flaws and some controversy — build on a string of attempts spanning more than a decade to hold men accused of mistreating women accountable using digital tools, including social media posts, shared Google documents and an app for anonymous reviews. Earlier this year, #WestElmCaleb made clear the power of women sharing information about a bad date on TikTok. The hashtag originated after one woman posted about a 20-something employee of the retailer who’d apparently exhibited poor dating behavior, such as ghosting, which led to allegations that he had been lying to numerous women in New York City. It inspired a conversation about whether he was deserving of such attention, both on TikTok and the resulting news cycle. The phenomenon became a proof-point for some about the ways in which women can get the word out about bad dates.
The stories from women in online groups run the gamut from ghosting and cheating, to so-called “stealthing” (the act of non-consensually removing a condom during sex), and misogynistic comments that one might expect on certain corners of the internet but not necessarily from a new connection made via a dating app. In their accounts, they provide varying levels of personal details about the people involved, such as first names, ages, screenshots from dating app profiles and other information.
But women who attempt to protect other women in this manner also open themselves up to backlash, including legal risks, even if they don’t fully identify the man. In one of Crystal’s most recent TikToks on the topic, she begins: “Today, I received a cease-and-desist in my inbox about my TikToks.” A copy of the document viewed by CNN Business calls on Crystal to refrain from “further defamatory conduct on social media” of her ex, including posts about direct messages “intended to cause reputational injury” or videos of him.
The apparent legal threat Crystal received — which is from an attorney in the San Diego area who said she was representing her ex — came against the backdrop of the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The case drew significant attention in part because a woman was being held legally accountable for a public allegation about an intimate relationship. It centered on a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which Heard described being a victim of domestic abuse, but did not name Depp in the piece. (A jury found both Depp and Heard liable for defamation but awarded more money in damages to Depp in a win for the actor.) Following Depp’s lead, Marilyn Manson, the musician who is also the actor’s friend, filed in March a defamation case against his ex, the actress Evan Rachel Wood, whose sexual abuse and intimate partner violence claims were the subject of the recent HBO documentary “Phoenix Rising.” The suit is ongoing.
Some women view such cases as cautionary tales for how men may seek to quash women’s speech about the nature of intimate encounters that they believe is untrue and damaging. Women who spoke to CNN Business about sharing about bad dates online, whose last names are being withheld to protect the privacy of parties involved, recalled anonymous comments in response to their posts threatening legal action. There has also been at least one lawsuit, in the case of a journalist who started a now-infamous list of allegedly bad men in the media industry.
While Crystal hasn’t used her ex’s full name, legal experts say there could still be risks to this kind of posting, as underscored by the Depp-Heard defamation trial.
“Even when you speak literally true statements, the fact that a man can say, ‘People are going to draw inferences about this …,’ it’s incredibly chilling,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Law.
The Depp-Heard verdict, Franks said, “really seems to be sending a message to women that they’re just not allowed to speak about abuse anywhere, in any form — whether they name them or don’t name them, whether they’re specific or not specific, it doesn’t matter.”
Crystal, however, told CNN Business that she doesn’t believe she has overstepped: “This is the beginning of the movement and I’m so happy I’m on the forefront.”
In search of a safe space for women online
For years, women have tried to find ways to create tech-enabled whisper networks that could serve to protect other women from bad experiences with men they’d encountered — with mixed success.
In the fall of 2017, with disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in the spotlight, writer Moira Donegan started a Google spreadsheet devoted to doing just that among some men in media. It was called the “Shitty Media Men List,” and allowed women to anonymously post the names of men and their alleged negative experiences with them. It included misconduct allegations ranging from the more specific such as “rape accusations,” and “hitting women, secretively removing condom during sex” to more vague descriptors like “workplace harassment.”
While intended to stay under-the-radar, it quickly spiraled beyond its original purpose and Donegan took down the document after 12 hours. “In the beginning, I only wanted to create a place for women to share their stories of harassment and assault without being needlessly discredited or judged,” Donegan wrote in 2018. One of the men listed on the sheet, author Stephen Elliott, is suing Donegan — now a writer at The Guardian who covers gender and politics — for libel. In a July 1 court filing, the parties indicated their intent to settle; a hearing on the matter has been scheduled for this fall. Counsel for Elliott did not immediately return a request for comment.
Attorney Roberta Kaplan is representing Donegan in her case. Kaplan is the co-founder of Time’s Up, the organization which grew out of the “Me Too” movement , but resigned from the group in August 2021 over her ties to former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Kaplan did not respond to a request for comment. According to court documents, Donegan sought protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (often referred to as a liability shield for tech platforms), claiming that she cannot be held liable for the allegedly defamatory content as she did not solicit allegedly false statements or create the content in question.
Years prior, Alexandra Chong started an app called Lulu, where women could anonymously rate and review men. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, controversial; one article in New York Magazine’s The Cut from 2013 detailed outrage on Reddit over the app. Lulu was acquired in 2016 by Badoo (now part of Bumble) and essentially shut down. Chong did not respond to an interview request.
Now, this mission lives on through both public and private social media efforts. In these groups, women seek support after painful experiences, warn others of predatory behavior and ask for advice on everything from safe locations for a first date to dating app opening lines.
Such groups may have unintended consequences, such as other group members taking matters into their own hands to track down a person to send critical messages or men losing privacy when they are proactively posted about as women seek to ensure they will be safe should they go on a date with them. Still, some online safety experts say the groups can act as a stop-gap measure for when dating apps — which still struggle to address harassment and other problematic behavior, such as the creation of multiple profiles under different names — fail to keep women and other marginalized groups safe.
“You see a lot of mischief online in ways that torment and exploit the privacy of women, girls and minorities … [and yet] we’re gnashing our teeth when people are using online tools to protect themselves,” said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and director of the LawTech Center. “I’m not saying that this is the way to do it … but when you have no other alternative, when you don’t have accountability, people take self-protective measures into their own hands.”
In general, dating apps have long failed to adequately screen or vet who signs up to use their services. They require little information to create a profile, making it difficult to pre-screen accounts before they’re able to begin connecting with others. While some have introduced varying measures intended to crack down on bad actors, much of the content moderation happens after accounts are created, and it is based, at least in part, on user reports. (Garbo, a newly-launched nonprofit background check provider, which has received funding from Match Group, is trying to change that. Recognizing the trend of TikTokers sharing details of their bad dates, Garbo’s corporate TikTok account re-shared one post and commented: “This is exactly why we exist.”)
In some cases, women may prefer to warn other women directly about violent experiences with men rather than alerting law enforcement, because of low rates of arrest and conviction.
Paola, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy and safety reasons, said she was motivated to create private online forums to help facilitate this type of information-sharing about dating experiences among women. Some of these groups count thousands or tens of thousands of women as members. Due to the nature of dating apps, she said, people “can easily get away with … hurting girls, cheating, lying and all that stuff.”
“It’s very needed, something to prevent that,” she said. But as more and more women join her groups, some men have learned they’ve been the subjects of some of their posts. . Then come takedown requests and legal threats, directed at both members and the groups themselves.
Risks for women from posting, and not posting
In May, a woman named Eden posted on TikTok about a man her friend had dated. After briefly ghosting her friend and following a text conversation about the status of their relationship, the man is said to have sent Eden’s friend a video of himself buying another woman a bagel and the emergency contraception pill, Plan B. Neither of their faces were shown in the video.
“Girl, I don’t know who you are in this video but run,” Eden said in the TikTok, which has roughly 70,000 views, noting that not only was the woman in the video being filmed, but the video was also being sent to other women whom the man had recently slept with.
Eden made clear in a follow-up post that she never intended to “out” the guy, but rather wanted to warn others with just enough information to glean who he was if they were already interacting with him. This is often the approach such online whisper networks take — share information (age range, neighborhood, job industry) with which someone who knows the person could identify them, but others couldn’t.
Still, someone purporting to be the man in question commented on Eden’s TikTok, threatening legal action. “You leave me little choice but to levy in brutal legal retaliation,” the comment said.
Her friend, who also spoke to CNN Business about the TikToks, said having Eden post about her experience provided a “protective barrier” to backlash but she felt it was important to make the incident public. “I hated the idea of knowing that [the woman in the video] had no idea what was going on behind the scenes or how he was treating other people,” she said.
“Men can do really sh***y things and we have to question ourselves like, ‘Is it worth speaking up about?'” Eden told CNN Business. She said it is an example of how women often must weigh the risk of legal, reputational and other potential consequences against the various reasons they might want to share their personal experiences, including to help other women.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a backlash — almost guaranteed,” said Eden.
Crystal, the hairdresser, similarly told CNN Business that the intent wasn’t to blow up her ex’s life but rather to prevent other women from experiencing what she had with the same person.
She said she was careful not to share too many details about her ex, such as his full name or where he works, but enough information that she feels she’s doing her part to warn others, which she sees as the only real solution.
“I have only told the truth. I will not stop telling the truth,” Crystal said in her TikTok about the cease-and-desist letter. But she has not posted any videos about her ex since she revealed she’d received the apparent legal threat more than a month ago. She told CNN Business she isn’t scared or backing down, though. “Accountability isn’t linear,” she said. “As information comes to me, I will still be posting.”