Dating and Relationship Advice

You’ve probably heard it before: the story of the senior guy who flirts with the first-year girl. Taylor Swift’s song “Fifteen” is all about it. The lyrics go like this: “It’s your freshman year, and you’re gonna be here for the next four years…Hoping one of those senior boys will wink at you and say, ‘You know I haven’t seen you around before.’”

The song is definitely relatable and cutesy. But, at its worst, what Swift is describing is something dangerous: sharking.

Sharking as an IRL (and virtual) issue

“Sharking is deceiving someone with the intention of gaining something in return,” said Chris Pleines, a dating expert with Datingscout.com. Often, it’s older college students, usually men, who prey on younger college students, usually women.

Sharkers are typically looking for sex. Their behavior may entail coercion, intimidation, and harassment.

At some universities, “members of all-male drinking societies” get points for sleeping with first-year students. They get bonus points if the woman was a virgin or if they stole her underwear.

In 2018, at the University of Warwick, 11 students were temporarily suspended because of perpetrator-like comments made in group chats. One text said “I cannot wait to have surprise sex with some freshers.” (Surprise sex is not actually sex.)

And even just searching “sharking in college” on Google will lead you to porn videos. It’s a disgusting, scary, and widespread issue.

While sharking is pretty common in college, it occurs elsewhere, too. “Getting ‘sharked’ can also happen in the workplace or in social circles outside the professional setting, especially in relationships where there is a strong presence [or] power dynamic,” Pleines said.

81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment or assault at some point, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Sharking is serious

So, how unsafe is sharking? What can happen?

“Getting sharked is very dangerous. It could give you trauma,” Pleines said. “It could also build trust issues in you towards people around you.”

Sharking can also lead to unwanted sex, or sexual assault. It can make you feel unsafe and lower your self-esteem. It can be an abusive cycle that progressively worsens both physically and emotionally.

Are you being sharked?

Worried someone may be sharking you or a friend? Here are some signs to look out for:

  • An age gap
  • Putting pressure on you or guilting you to have sex or do something you don’t want to do
  • Not leaving you alone or engaging in stalking behavior
  • Making you feel bad about yourself or your age
  • Isolating you from friends and/or people in general

What you can do if you’re experiencing it

If those signs ring true in your relationship, Pleines recommends you trust your gut. “When dealing with complicated social scenarios, always believe in your instincts,” he said.

Then, disconnect from the sharker and reach out to trusted loved ones. “Back off from the person and take a moment to process what is happening,” Pleines said. “If possible, talk to someone who can help you rationalize what is happening.”

You can talk to a gender violence services coordinator (who may be a staff member working with your university’s Women’s Center), friend, therapist, family member, professor, or another person you trust.

Let them know what you’re experiencing, how it makes you feel, and what you need support-wise. Maybe you could use some validation, encouragement, police back-up, help to make a safety plan, or someone to call when you feel unsafe.

While sharking is a serious and scary phenomenon, help is available. You’re not alone, and you deserve a happy, safe, and healthy relationship.

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment or other situations you aren’t comfortable with, feel free to call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or chat with RAINN support online at online.rainn.org.

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