Grindr was sued on Friday in California for more than $66 million in damages by a Canadian teen who was raped by four men he met on the platform when he was underage.
According to the lawsuit filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the now-19-year-old from Nova Scotia — referred to in the lawsuit only by the pseudonym “John Doe” — was raped by four men over a four-day period in April 2019 after connecting with them on the gay hookup app when he was 15.
The suit accuses Grindr of actively attempting “to recruit children to use its product” through marketing and then connecting them with adults for sex. It also says the company willingly ignores the presence of underage users on the app.
“If Grindr’s going to claim that it's a safe space for the LGBTQ community, then it needs to actually be one,” Carrie Goldberg, a New York City attorney who specializes in sex crimes and the nonconsensual sharing of sexual materials who is representing the plaintiff, told BuzzFeed News. “That's the whole gestalt of this case.”
Grindr spokesperson Patrick Lenihan condemned the lawsuit as being without merit and drew parallels to current right-wing rhetoric that accuses LGBTQ people of “grooming” children.
“These meritless and obviously homophobic accusations against our company are rooted in historical bigotry toward the LGBTQ community and we won’t stand for it,” Lenihan said in a statement.
In response, Goldberg said she was “dumbfounded” and “rattled” by Grindr accusing her firm and her client of employing anti-gay rhetoric. “This lawsuit … was about protecting the rights of gay people to be able to date safely,” she said. “Any suggestion otherwise is just wrong … and it’s below the belt.”
According to its terms of service, Grindr users must be 18 or older in order to create an account. New users must attest to their age, but there is no requirement to submit identification for verification. Last year, Grindr partnered with an artificial intelligence company to moderate content on its platform in part to try to detect underage users.
“Grindr is an industry leader in protecting LGBTQ people online and across the world,” Lenihan said, “and we will continue to advocate for best practices and industry alignment to defend our users’ safety and privacy.”
One 2018 Northwestern University study, which Goldberg cites in the lawsuit, found more than half of sexually active gay and bisexual adolescent boys under 18 used Grindr to find partners.
In 2017, Goldberg represented another client, Matthew Herrick, in an unsuccessful lawsuit against Grindr. Herrick, a New York City resident in his 30s, sued the platform after he said his ex-boyfriend pretended to be him on the app over a six-month period and sent more than 1,000 men to his home with the expectation of sex and drugs.
Herrick’s lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court in 2018. The US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit subsequently ruled against his appeal, finding that Grindr was protected by Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code, which generally protects tech companies from liability over third-party content generated by users of their platforms. The Supreme Court also declined to review Herrick’s appeal.
Goldberg told BuzzFeed News that she believed Doe’s case differed from Herrick’s because it fell under a sex-trafficking exception to Section 230. She also suspected prior California case law would prove more supportive in this instance.
The lawsuit filed Friday describes how Doe, then a high school student who was not yet out as gay, downloaded Grindr in order to make friends with other underage boys. He then exchanged explicit photographs and messages with the four adult men, who raped him in their homes or in parks, according to the complaint.
After the teen testified at their criminal trials, three of the four men were subsequently convicted of sexually interfering with a child and imprisoned for periods ranging between 24 and 54 months, per the lawsuit. The fourth has not been located.
Accusing the company of being aware that its product is facilitating children being raped, the lawsuit equates Grindr to other organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church that have “turned a blind eye on systemic child sexual abuse exploitation.”
It accuses Grindr of marketing to children by virtue of maintaining accounts on Instagram and TikTok, social media platforms where many brands — from other dating apps to alcohol companies — also have accounts.
The lawsuit also highlights two TikTok videos, which have since been removed by Grindr, in which adult content creators pretend to be students outside a high school or in a physical education class. The lawsuit claims the latter “explicitly takes place in an elementary school, middle school, or high school” class.
“With this video on TikTok, Grindr is directly marketing to children and targeting them with messaging that indicates both that Grindr should be used in school, and that it should be used by children,” the lawsuit states.
Grindr’s TikTok account, which has more than 138,000 followers, is routinely taken over by adult content creators who post videos on the company’s behalf.
The lawsuit claims Grindr could have prevented Doe’s abuse by employing a third-party age verification service, requiring a government ID to use the app, or blocking its use at schools, among other things.
Lenihan, the Grindr spokesperson, said Apple, Google, and the entire tech industry need to work together to develop better age gate technology that also respects user privacy.
Doe is suing Grindr for defective design, defective manufacturing, defective warning, negligence, and negligent misrepresentation. He is also bringing a claim for civil action under a section of the US Code that deals with human trafficking.