Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd leads the internet charge against lewd images

Mobile phone with a dating application on the screen.
Lisa Portolan
Tue 17 Sep

On the 1st of September the state of Texas passed bill HB 2789 making it illegal to send nude unsolicited photographs. This might within itself seem unremarkable to many of us in Australia where the practise has been illegal for some time, however it does signpost a milestone moment: a greater focus and acknowledgment of the ubiquity and normalisation of the circulation of sexually explicit images particularly in relation to dating apps, and the need for a solution. Creator and CEO of feminist app, Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Herd had been passionately campaigning for the legislative introduction in her home state for over a year and indicated via her Instagram account, “This means sending lewd photographs via text, DM, AirDrop, email - any form of social media or dating app, will be punishable in the same way that exposing yourself on the street would be.” She continued, “We at Bumble believe that if it isn’t appropriate “IRL” It shouldn’t be tolerated on your devices.” 

Earlier on in the year Bumble also released AI technology to scan for unexpected nudes. Labelled the “dick pic” guard, the AI “private detector” was introduced to Badoo’s stable of dating apps, including Bumble. 

These changes come as long required acknowledgments (and answers) for a persistent dating app peccadillo – the receipt of unsolicited explicit imagery, which is often boiled down to the unwanted and unwelcome dick pic. For those of us who have not had the pleasure of a dating app rendezvous, unsolicited images are a regular occurrence, spoken of at times in gest, and on other occasions with disgust: but until now, the practise hasn’t been fully examined, nor have actions been taken to prevent the unsavoury behaviour. 

Curious, given that dating apps have been around for close to a decade. Whilst the genesis of online dating occurred in the mid-nineties via websites like match.com and RSVP.com, the ubiquity of online dating occurred the world-over over some ten years later via the mobile dating app. Leading the dating app charge was Grindr, a geosocial and networking dating app released in 2009, which is available on Android and iOS and can be downloaded from the app store. The heterosexual market’s response to mobile dating apps was quick to follow with Tinder released in 2011. Less than three years later (2014) the platform had registered over 1 billion users. Today tinder.com boasts that it reaches 190+ countries (of a potential 195). Since then a proliferation of dating apps have flooded the market (Hinge, Scruff, Happn, Coffee meets Bagel etc), tailored to different groups and preferences. 

The relationship between often highly criticised “bro-app” Tinder, and self-proclaimed feminist app Bumble is an interesting and regularly ignored one. Tinder was founded by Sean Rad, Jonathan Badeen, Justin Mateen, Joe Munoz, Alexa Mateen, Dinesh Moorjani and Whitney Wolfe Herd. Familiar name, if you’ve been perusing this piece carefully. Wolfe Herd went on to develop Bumble, alongside Andrey Andreev (founder and owner of Badoo) and filed a law-suit against Tinder for sexual harassment enacted by her co-founder and ex-boyfriend Justin Mateen. The case was settled outside of court for reportedly $1 million US. But the bad blood between the two companies has continued, with Tinder filing against Bumble relating to patent infringement, and Bumble counter-suing. Leaving the two companies still at logger-heads. 

Wolfe Herd pioneered Bumble, a ladies make the first move app, with the value of female empowerment at its core, and has continued this dialogue throughout the life of the business. Using the platform not only to create match opportunities, but female networking prospects and friendships. Most recently, she has crusaded against the ever intrusive, dick pic, or more broadly, unsolicited explicit imagery. 

Whilst most apps have some safety mechanisms in place relating to the circulation of explicit image (for example the user can report the receipt of the image, or block the sender), this is one of the first pre-emptive dick pic strikes. Incongruously, the receipt of unsolicited dick pics via dating apps, DMs or social media more broadly has come to be normalised by users as part of the dating experience and neglected by contemporary dating app research. In fact, the receipt of an image is often categorised by some level of humour. A casual brushing of the behaviour aside, and an interjection of an explanatory, “men are obsessed with their member” statement, followed by an eye-roll. 

But does this dismissiveness of a sexually explicit image, a behaviour which wouldn’t be tolerated IRL signal something darker? The imbrication of macho code in the digital arena, and the reinforcement of normative beliefs that heterosexual men can’t develop intimate relationships with women that are nuanced and respectful? 

Academic Rosalie Gillett from Queensland University of Technology writes, “Intimate intrusions in mobile dating contexts are a pressing social issue given the high uptake of dating apps and frequent anecdotal reports of abuse …. It is important to pay attention to the normalisation of abuse in mobile dating contexts, particularly as a factor that may reinforce a culture that supports violence against women.” 

Wolfe Herd’s spearheading of this issue is not to be overlooked or be denigrated with the ubiquitous eye-roll which goes along with the advent of any dick pic discussion. Indeed, it is an important landmark to signal the acknowledgement of a pressing, disturbing and unacceptable online behaviour, as well as the advent of a much required solution which demands similar action legislatively world-wide and from other dating app platforms.