Lauren Kennedy has come to view dating as something of a burden – something she’s not sure is worth the bother right now.

The University of Southern Maine senior is disturbed by some of the dialogue on social media about the #MeToo movement, where critics personally attack women who have gone public with accusations of assault or harassment.

“The reason I haven’t been dating lately is because of all of this,” said Kennedy, 24, of Portland, pointing to a lack of respect for women, fostered by public figures, including the president, who have been accused of harassment.

“At the same time, it’s liberating,” she said. “I realize I don’t need to date to be happy.”

Chris Allen
AGE: 46
HOME: Portland
OCCUPATION: Graphic artist
“It’s helped me so much to understand what women go through.” Staff photo by Ariana van den Akker

That’s one way to deal with the tense dating environment that’s resulted from an impassioned public discussion about sexual misconduct, harassment and what is or isn’t appropriate behavior. The highly charged climate has been fueled by the Hollywood sex scandals of last fall, the #MeToo movement and the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump, as well as online dating sites and apps that can embolden crude or belligerent behavior.

In the relatively small dating pool that is Maine, some singles have reacted by dating less or worrying more about whom they’ll meet and what they should or shouldn’t say. Some women say the current climate has prompted them to stand up to unwanted advances and be more selective when choosing dates. Some men feel unfairly persecuted by the current movement, while others say they are glad to get an understanding of the humiliations so many women have gone through.

“It has changed the dates I go on because we talk about it every time. I’ve heard some horror stories from women about some of their dates,” said Chris Allen, 46, of Portland. “It’s helped me so much to understand what women go through.”

FROM HOLLYWOOD TO THE WHOLE COUNTRY

While “Me Too” was first used as a way for women to promote awareness of sexual assaults or harassment nearly a decade ago, it became a widespread term last October, after a series of shocking accusations against powerful entertainment figures, including movie producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K. and actor Kevin Spacey. Weinstein was accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women, including actresses he held power over, while C.K. was accused by five women of exposing himself or masturbating in front of them or over the phone. Many other allegations against powerful men were made public around the same time, ranging from verbal harassment to rape.

Soon after Weinstein was publicly accused, actress Alyssa Milano promoted #MeToo on social media, asking women to share their stories of harassment or assault on Twitter; more than 1.2 million tweets featuring the hashtag followed.

The movement spread around the country and prompted very public discussions on what is or isn’t appropriate behavior at work, in public, on dates and in budding romantic relationships. The issue has garnered much coverage in the media, including an ongoing New York Times online series called “The MeToo Moment.” In Portland, the well-known co-founder of a business accelerator, Jess Knox of Venture Hall, admitted in January he behaved inappropriately toward two female associates and resigned. In February, AFL-CIO lobbyist Sarah Bigney testified in Augusta, before a committee considering a stronger sexual harassment training program for legislators, about harassment she experienced while working in the State House, including groping by a lawmaker.

Lauren Kennedy
AGE: 24
HOME: Portland
OCCUPATION: Senior at the University of Southern Maine
“The reason I haven’t been dating lately is because of all of this.” Staff photo by Ariana van den Akker

The #MeToo movement has been criticized by some as using a witch-hunt mentality to create distrust toward all men. Robert Kamilewicz, a 36-year-old firefighter from South Portland, said he’s definitely felt that distrust on dates in recent months.

He says that he’s just “being a nice guy” when he pays for a date’s dinner, but increasingly he feels that women are suspicious about his intentions.

“I just had a woman tell me, ‘I really like you, and you’re super nice, but I always feel like I owe you sex,’ ” said Kamilewicz, who has been divorced about 10 years and was in a long-term relationship for more than three years afterward. “I guess we are being put in our place after years of repressing women. But I want to be viewed on my own merits, on what I do and how I treat people.”

In the past few months, he finds he’s dating less and less, maybe going out once every couple of months, rather than once a week, like he was a year ago.

DATING APPS ADDING TO THE PROBLEM

Kamilewicz is trying to maintain his sobriety, so going to bars to meet people is not a good option. Like so many singles today, he uses dating apps and online dating sites to meet potential romantic partners. They’re quick and easy, and allow people to browse pictures and basic facts about dozens of nearby singles without leaving their couch. But the convenience of being able to start a conversation just by swiping your screen can also lend itself to crude or forward behavior.

“The anonymity on dating apps allows people to push and test somebody, by saying something offensive, and I don’t think that’s changed” since the #MeToo movement began, said Karen Goodwin, 47, of Saco. “Sometimes they seem to be having a normal back-and-forth with you, and then they want your number, and then you get texts asking for pictures.”

A little more than a decade ago, dating apps were basically nonexistent. But by 2015, about 15 percent of American adults had used a dating app or online dating site, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 2,000 adults. The survey found that, between 2013 and 2015, the use of dating apps and sites by those 18 to 24 had tripled, while the use among those 55 to 64 had doubled. There are dozens of apps and sites to choose from, ranging from the well-known site Match.com to newer but increasingly popular apps like Bumble, Tinder and OK Cupid.

Karen Goodwin
AGE: 47
HOME: Saco
“The anonymity on dating apps allows people to push and test somebody, by saying something offensive, and I don’t think that’s changed.” Photo courtesy Karen Goodwin

Goodwin, who has never been married, said she started using Match.com more than a dozen years ago to expand the pool of people she might meet. Even before #MeToo, Goodwin said she was starting to develop a “high filter and low tolerance” for men being crude or offensive on dating sites and apps. So she dates less and has met only two men from dating sites in the last year or so.

She’s tried meet-up groups for singles, who get together for social activity, but has found that attendance and interest usually wane after the first meeting or two. She also joined a Facebook group for singles 18 and over, but was “disgusted” by some of what she saw.

“Girls were posting pictures of themselves with cleavage. … This whole thing with selfies online has really changed ideas of self-respect,” said Goodwin. “Things like that give men the chance to be obnoxious.”

Allen, who works in graphic arts in Portland, has been divorced for three years, after eight years of marriage and 17 years with the same partner. So, it took him awhile to learn how to date again, how to meet people online, and how to be comfortable talking to people.

Allen says he likes the ease of using dating apps, like Bumble, which is set up to give the woman more control. A man can swipe a woman’s picture to show he’s interested in her, but no online conversation can start unless the woman initiates it.

But from talking to female friends and women he’s dated, he feels the #MeToo movement has caused a backlash among some men, leading them to be more confrontational on dating sites.

“I think some guys are frightened by #MeToo and feel like they need to be the alpha male,” Allen said. “Some just seem to be looking for sex on the first date. I’ve heard of things like, if a woman doesn’t message the man back right away, he’ll respond with something like, ‘That’s so rude. What’s your problem?’ ”

CHANGING ATTITUDES AND HABITS

There is evidence the current movement has changed the way many men think about how they treat women for the better. In December, MTV Insights Research surveyed about 900 men and 900 women, aged 18 to 25, to find out how the #MeToo movement has affected them. The results, released in late January, show that 32 percent of the men were “worried something I’ve done could be perceived as sexual harassment” and that 40 percent said the movement had “changed the way I interact in potential romantic relationships.”

Robert Kamilewicz
AGE: 36
HOME: South Portland
OCCUPATION: Firefighter
“I want to be viewed on my own merits, on what I do and how I treat people.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

About 25 percent of the men said they had shared a post in support of the #MeToo movement.

“I think it’s quite remarkable that so many young men have joined the conversation. A generation ago most guys wouldn’t touch this discussion with a 10-foot pole,” said Alison Hillhouse, vice president of Youth Culture and Trends at MTV, which has also done surveys on political issues, including race and gender bias.

Hillhouse said the online survey didn’t include very specific information about how the current climate was changing dating habits, but that men and women were certainly thinking more about how they approach potential romantic partners and dates.

“In the open-ended part, some young men wrote that they feel they need to be more careful about how to approach women, that they probably need to spend more time listening,” she said.

While there’s been a chilling effect on some people’s dating habits, business for Maine-based matchmaker Jill Hinckley of Hinckley Introductions has heated up. She says she’s seen about a 20 percent increase in the last year or so in people interested in her personal yearlong service, which involves her finding potential partners for her clients and finding out about their interests before any dates happen. The service starts at about $5,000 a year.

“More people have called me recently. They don’t want any surprises; they don’t want a text to be misread or misinterpreted,” Hinckley said.

Kennedy, the USM senior, says she thinks young singles might start going back to the practice of meeting people through friends, being set up on dates, so that someone you know can “vouch for” the person you’re dating.

But for now, Kennedy has no plans to date. She’s a photographer for USM’s newspaper, the Free Press, and is focused on a project on the subject of vulnerability, photographing people who have gone through something that makes them vulnerable, including giving birth, an illness or surgery.

Kennedy says she feels like, right now, work that might help people be more tolerant of one another is more important to her than dating. She continues to feel upset that so many women are being criticized or made fun of online for coming forward with stories about how they’ve been treated over the years by men, ranging from objectionable statements to unwanted physical contact.

“So many of us women, in one way or another, have had something happen to us. Then you see people shamed for coming forward, or blamed for being the victim,” Kennedy said. “For me, it’s more important right now, as a photojournalist, to try to give voice to people who are vulnerable than to waste my time on trying to meet someone.”