Most of my single friends, who tend to be women of a certain (middle) age, a mix of straight and gay, professional and not-so-degreed, have pursued online dating experiences at some point or another. They’ve—we’ve— openly discussed our dating exploits, traded anecdotes about worst dates ever, cheered each other on just as we were about to give up, and offered condolences when things didn’t work out as we had hoped. Online dating sites are clearly the matchmaking tool of choice in my social world. It’s cheap, accessible, private –well, sort of– and efficient, if not exactly romantic.
In fact, my friends are in good company. A recent Pew survey suggests that the proportion of Americans who say that they met their current partner online has doubled in the last eight years; 5 per cent of all “committed” relationships in American today began online. While that number is still small, it will certainly grow over time. There are number of reasons for this: more and more people are single, while the desire, and cultural idealization of the couple remains as powerful as ever. Plus, the social stigma attached to online dating is fast declining. Eight years ago, 29 per cent of internet users said that “people who use online dating sites are desperate”; this year, only 21 per cent believed that, according to the telephone survey of 2,252 adults aged 18 and older, conducted this past spring.
Online dating is particularly attractive to gays and lesbians, and middle-aged heterosexuals, who have limited options for meeting people within their immediate geographic area or social circle. Since public spaces are dominated by 20- somethings on the prowl, if you’re a middle aged woman, there’s about as much chance of walking into a bar and meeting the man (or woman) of one’s dreams as there is of winning the lottery. And in the hetero marriage market of maturity, women are clearly disadvantaged: men are much more likely to find younger women to date, leaving many middle aged women vying for geriatric men. Little wonder that online dating is the new normal among my baby boomer/middle class/mixed gay and straight single friends: it enlarges one’s pool.
Everyone’s doing it, it seems. And few people seem to be hiding that fact. But that doesn’t mean online dating is necessarily easy. Finding a romantic partner online can be a bit like looking for a job, One friend of mine would get up each morning, answer emails from potential dates, and make contact with 2-3 suitable men whose profiles looked attractive to her. After screening them, she went on at least 3-5 nights per week. Restaurants needed to be booked, appointments made, clothing chosen, and a life story refined that would sell her virtues while maintaining a sense of authenticity.
Deception—lying about one’s age, class background, or prison record—happens, of course, as many researchers have noted. Among daters, it’s frowned upon, and often bites one in the butt. A 50-something heterosexual professional friend of mine recently dated a guy she met on the internet who told her that he had had once been married when in fact he had been married twice, and had two children with two different women. What else, she wondered, had he lied about? Biographic consistency is necessary for establishing trust, and trust is all-important when you have no other context for knowing someone—no mutual friends, family connections, or even common workmates.
Online dating follows the logic of a centuries-long process, documented by Anthony Giddens and others, in which our families have come to exercise less and less power over our romantic choices. Individuals are more likely to choose their partners; family ties or moral values (to marry “in the faith,” for example) hold less sway. Giddens thought this was profoundly democratizing. But Eva Ilouz, in her most recent book, Why Love Hurts, is less sanguine. “The search for love,” she writes, “is an agonizingly difficult experiences from which few modern men and women have been spared.” Romantic love, she says, “beautifies the deep inequalities at the heart of gender relationships.”
As love becomes much more important to one’s self-worth, family and morality have less power in determining our mates, and physical attractiveness and desirability play a much greater role. That’s liberating, to be sure, but women, particularly those of a certain age, are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. For many of them, the digital dating universe seems to offer an exhilarating sense of freedom, a dizzying array of choices, and more than a little misery.