Sex, Lies and Digital Dates

Posted Jul 15, 2004 by Mike Drach
Love or lust?
Love or lust?
- Illustration by Mirek Pieprzyk / Digital Journal
By Mike Drach
Digital Journal — I’m nearing the end of my tour of Lavalife’s offices, on the fifth floor of a glassy King Street high-rise in Toronto. Prominently featured in the reception area are a red lava lamp, a flat-screen monitor and a perky blonde receptionist, wearing what looks like an angora sweater. The room is painted as red as a Parisian bordello, circa Henry Miller’s time.
Despite the image that this online dating service portrays through its print ads — glamourous, wanton, almost phantasmagorically romantic — I’m slightly disappointed to discover that the rest of the office is rather typical, littered with boardrooms, cubicles and bottles of moisturizing liquid disinfectant.
Lori Miller (no relation to Henry) is Lavalife’s brand manager. She’s about to give me a demo of the site, though I’ve seen it before. She casually asks me if I’m single. I say, “Sort of.” Miller, an attractive woman by anyone’s standards, types in her password, explaining that her online profile is experimental and doesn’t include a photo.
She logs on. I notice she already has 30 new messages from would-be suitors. That’s 150 credits, or about $40 (US), according to Lavalife’s payment scheme: One “Mix & Mingle” package, topped up with a “Fun & Flirt” option.
Seconds later, she receives an instant message from someone named “honestguy03”: It’s a semicolon followed by a closing parenthesis. She smiles, showing a hint of compassion, and logs off. That’s about two honest American dollars tossed out the chat window.
Most stories about digital dating are written by women, with headlines like “Love Online: Join the Fun!” They tend to have positive spins. They are often laden with quotes from couples who went from exchanging emails to wedding vows within a few months, and they inevitably conclude with a bulleted list of dating safety tips.
But for the fellas who use these services — and there are about ten men for every woman in the online dating circuit — the experience is a little different. I’ve certainly never received 30 messages in a day; my most recent piece of mail was from Lavalife administration, telling me about its new mobile service.
I guess it’s my fault. I never put much effort into writing profiles or opening lines, and I don’t have any pictures in which I’m smiling or looking at the camera. Every message I send is half-assed, and my intrinsic dislike of chatting prevents me from being all that pleasant or garrulous.

An example:
Lavalife admin: Your opening line has been rejected.
Unfortunately, we cannot accept your Opening Line because it is too negative. We find that members have a much more enjoyable experience if they list what they DO want, as opposed to listing what they do NOT want. Please try to avoid generalities and insulting or offensive language, including comments about body type, race, religion or country of origin.
You stated: Screw an opening line, just read the damn profile.

Online dating services have become extremely popular and profitable in recent years. Whether you’re an awkward misfit, the proverbial bored housewife, or just sick of the singles-bar scene (do they still have singles bars?), online dating is always an option: Now with reduced stigma!
Society’s views of online dating, and dating overall, have changed. Modern divorce rates, jacked-up job demands and more guarded attitudes towards relationships have created a marketplace where more people consider themselves “single” than ever before. The typical urbanite can expect to spend most of his or her life alone, a far cry from the norm 50 years ago.
Thus, singlehood has been newly legitimized by society. How else to explain such wildly popular TV shows as Mr. Personality, Joe Millionaire or The Bachelor, wherein some Will Ferrell lookalike french-kisses enough women to guarantee a case of oral herpes, while female viewers swoon over his sincere guise?
It’s this culture that has spawned an online industry worth over $300 million (US) that services 25 million singles in North America alone, according to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. This makes it the most profitable paid-content category on the Web, and companies like Lavalife couldn’t be happier.
The Toronto-based site sprung up in 2001 and has since lured at least five million members. In 2003, it reported annual revenues of $313 million (US), bringing it just a couple of rungs below and Yahoo Personals, the current market leaders. Lavalife was recently bought out by MemberWorks Inc., for an impressive $156 million (US).
Lavalife’s founder, Andrew Conru, got his pedigree in telephone-based dating services with Telepersonals in 1987. This evolved into Webpersonals in 1997, back when online dating still had a reputation of being the domain of weirdos, stalkers and the pocket-protector-and-sweats set. Conru is also behind the FriendFinder family of sites, which, by targeting every demographic group imaginable (seniors, Hispanics and bondage enthusiasts no longer have to fraternize with each other, unless they want to), comprises the world’s largest online dating destination.
Though the numbers are impressive, there’s a snag: Out of all those eligible visitors, only a small proportion are willing to pay for the service, usually somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent. And if you happen to be a guy, you’d better get out the credit card, because sitting there looking pretty won’t cut it.

An example:
Lavalife admin: Your profile has been rejected
We’re sorry. We cannot accept your profile because it contained words that might imply you’re looking for a financially beneficial relationship. Avoid using words like “generous” or “wealthy,” as this will attract users who might believe you’re offering rewards of some type.
You stated: “I’ll buy you tons of stuff out of sheer good-heartedness with absolutely no obligation to you, because I respect you as a woman and a human being.”

That same method, on the other hand, will usually work for women. This was the most discouraging aspect of my online dating experience. Whether she has bad pictures, no pictures, clearly fake pictures, misleading pictures from her high school prom, the most mildly attractive woman will score a few hundred emails from intrepid, hot-blooded chumps.
Although I received some free “smiles” suggesting interest, I mailed out scores of messages and got silence in return. You have to account for substantial Alpha-Male competition, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tackle the frustrating and embarrassing process of “jazzing up” my profile, as most sites helpfully advise.
Lavalife is smart to prohibit things like solicitation. Although they don’t get much attention in the media, there are stories about men who thought they had met a nice girl online, only to get solicited and subsequently harassed by enterprising cyber-hookers. Others have been sucked in by personal ads that were nothing but shrewd window-dressings for 900 numbers.
And yes, there are still those horror stories, like the one last November in Toronto, about women getting attacked by creeps they met online. More common, however, are the ordinary tales of deception and disappointment that seem to emerge so naturally from this activity.
Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet Studies and author of Virtual Addiction, is a vocal critic of digital dating. He says the impersonal nature of online dating makes it less a tool for discovering potential love than an addictive new form of entertainment, where the process of cyber-flirting becomes an end unto itself.
According to his research, approximately 50 per cent of Web users admit to lying online, usually about physical characteristics.
“A human relationship, even the casualness of dating and early courtship, requires some presence and intention,” he writes. “Email cannot reveal context and facial cues, which can add to the richness of communication.”
Surely, he’s not accounting for honestguy03’s sassy little wink.
Adam Desjardins is a 24-year-old computer programmer who has used online dating services to what some would call “success” — that is, a series of one-night stands. He’s also experienced deception first-hand, more than once.
“This Lavalife girl sent me her picture, we chitchatted for a while and decided to meet up at some point. First, she’s freakin’ 45 minutes late; I was leaving just as she was showing up. Second, she didn’t look anything like her pictures whatsoever, and she kinda ‘had her chub on,’ so that was a turnoff.
“We started talking and I could tell she was hiding stuff from me. I said, ‘From the pictures you sent, I was expecting someone completely different.’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, they’re kinda old.’ I’m like, ‘Were they also kinda other people?’ We talked awhile longer, and I realized I hated this girl’s guts.”
Eventually, Desjardins excused himself to use the washroom. Then he left without paying the bill.
What’s the lesson here? Dishonesty can ruin the experience of online dating for many singles. Of course, the most common lie of all is claiming to be single in the first place.
According to Forrester Research, about 28 per cent of e-personals users are married. Yahoo Personals even features a “Married and Flirting” category, but most users prefer to spring that information at a more opportune time — like never.
Then you have Ashley Madison.
Launched in January 2002, the Toronto-based Ashley Madison Agency (“When Monogamy Becomes Monotony”) aimed for attached individuals already using online dating as a conduit for affairs. Since then, its membership has grown to more than 100,000 people, its staff has quintupled, its profits are spiralling skyward and it’s been running half-hour infomercials on late-night television.
Ashley Madison founder Darren Morgenstern launched the venture after a lengthy, calculated bout of research. His statistics showed that more than half of married individuals will eventually stray — and female cheaters are quickly catching up to their husbands.
“Because the Net allows women to behave like men, as ‘proactive initiators,’ it gives them that latitude, that flexibility, without feeling judged,” says Morgenstern. “It’s a huge ego boost to be hit on all day, it becomes like a drug, it’s very heady. And if your relationship is one whereby the woman is not getting the attention or validation she seeks, and then suddenly is able to realize it through dozens of people, they get to feel really good about themselves.”
Although Ashley Madison sustains the same 10:1 male-female ratio as most sites, I found its women were unusually responsive. They were also noticeably more mature, about 36 years old on average — at the “seven-year itch” phase of their relationships, according to Morgenstern. This site also has no qualms about explicit photographs, and its profiles don’t bother with smoking habits, eye colour or hobbies, as this user illustrates:

i am looking for a man who could love me for me and a very down to earth man he must have a big dick because if you can’t fuck me good i am going to leave you you should be able to make strong love to me and make me reach a climate...i am a very unique woman and the one you have been searhing for...

Morgenstern is often forced to defend the morality of his service, and he’s become quite good at it. He argues that his site doesn’t encourage infidelity any more than selling wine glasses encourages alcoholism.
“Marketers have a hard enough time convincing people to change brands of toothpaste,” he says. “It would be impossible to convince someone to have an affair; you either do it or you don’t. We haven’t created a market. We’re serving an existing one.”
To the outside observer — hell, even the inside observer — the idea still comes off as sleazy. But Morgenstern thinks it’s something which society will get used to eventually. In Europe and Asia, he points out, the concept of mistresses has been accepted for centuries.
“There are groups who hate us, say we’re the devil in disguise, scumbags who should rot in hell,” he says. “Others say, ‘Good for you, let’s not be hypocritically puritanical, let’s call it as it is.’ It all boils down to personal opinions, like abortion and Sunday shopping. Everybody thinks the world is crumbling and the social fabric is being unravelled, but even after Sunday shopping, we’re all doing just fine. The only constant in life is change, and society always reflects human nature.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe infidelity at least had a certain romance to it, back when it was confined to bars, bathhouses and brothels. Somehow, I think Henry Miller would agree.