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Does Online Dating Still Have a Stigma?

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For many singles, Internet dating is a semi-shameful act, akin to a gourmet’s guilty desire for boxed macaroni and cheese or a hipster’s forbidden love for Coldplay. Yet, meeting mates in cyberspace has become so commonplace that even as of 2006, an independent study found that three million Americans who were either married or in long-term committed relationships had connected through a matchmaking site. Today, online dating sites log sixty million visitors each month and earned an estimated $1.2 billion in 2008.


And as times get tougher, more people are looking for that special someone—or at least a little distraction—on the web. Match.com, eHarmony, and PerfectMatch.com reported record new subscription rates in the fourth quarter of 2008. Match.com’s paying customers grew to 1.3 million in December—22 percent higher than the same time the year prior.


“We are hardwired to look for relationships at any time, but in a time of crisis, we really want someone to snuggle with,” biological anthropologist Helen Fisher told a CNN correspondent last month.


Others cite the cost-benefit analysis of dating online. Paying for a subscription can be a lot cheaper than sucking down drinks night after night in hopes that a knight in shining armor or beautiful princess will belly up to the bar next to you.


So with growing memberships and an upsurge in crisis-time coupling, has the stigma attached to browse-and-click romance been dumped? Most singles aren’t so sure.


A Better (but Not Perfect) Rep
Without a doubt, the perception of the industry has come a long way since emerging in the mid-1990s. The advantages are numerous: the array of available singles, the ability to search for someone with similar interests and values, and a reckoning before the relationship begins of what the other is seeking—ranging from the one nightstand on OnlineBootyCall.com to a life partner through eHarmony. Not to mention, when you’re in front of your computer, there’s a greater likelihood that when checking out those options, beer—or vodka gimlet—goggles won’t obscure your vision.


The drawback to online dating is the greater risk of deception. (One of the most common complaints among men and women is that their dates don’t look like their photos.)


Life_Changer949 described his decision to join Match.com the way that one might search for the perfect pair of pants. You look at the department store and you look online. “Just keeping my options open. I meet women all the time when I go out and throughout the day. I feel that I should cover all grounds so the one that I really want has a better chance of getting caught,” he wrote in an email.


But while the advantages are undeniable, scouting for a lover on the web is still decidedly uncool.


When asked if he tells people that he meets women through Match, the twenty-nine-year-old from Wakefield, California summed it up succinctly: “HELL NO!”


“Most people in America still associate online dating with geeks that are desperate,” he said. “Plus, my boys would laugh at me.”


Not all online daters are as image-conscious as Life_Changer949. Many do tell their friends and family. Match.com member Fashionate of Phoenix, Arizona had no qualms sharing her real name, Diana Gruenig. She tells all her friends that she is looking for love online.


“I think in the old days, you used your family network to hook you up with a ‘nice, respectable boy’ that was someone’s cousin, son, or nephew,” said Fashionate. “Now family members are so spread across the country—and in my case, the globe—that you don’t have the avenue to find someone.”


More commonly, however, online daters are ambivalent about acknowledging their method of scouting for significant others.


“Sometimes people are worried that online dating comes off as desperate. That others will think, ‘why can’t you find people in the real world?’” said Bonnie Zylbergold, sex educator and assistant editor of American Sexuality magazine.


 “The resistance to it is that people have this notion that love, like sex, is supposed to be spontaneous. If it doesn’t happen, then too bad for you.”


The Logistics of Romantic
That way of thinking, she said, is wrong. Finding someone, like relationships themselves, takes work. We cling, despite the odds, to the idea of a soul mate. You don’t go looking for “The One”—she or he appears serendipitously. The idealized notion of a soul mate clashes with the pragmatic approach of online dating. There isn’t an online dating equivalent to that moment of heightened attraction when first encountering the sight, smell, and sound of a potential mate. Reading a self-consciously written profile and looking at static photos wondering if that’s really how the other person thinks and looks, rarely has the same effect.


“You think consciously that this person is right, but you don’t have this chemistry going on,” said Kaiping Peng, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.


In part, it is simply acknowledging that you want a relationship—often considered a faux paus in a society that exalts self-reliance and independence. Admitting that you want something you don’t have is conceding that you are not completely happy being single. Not only that, but you are seeking help to fulfill that desire. For those reasons, many consider social networking sites a more acceptable way of meeting a date. The seeker has greater control and isn’t overtly advertising that he or she is on the market.


The Online Evolution of Love
Hollywood, of course, is also to blame for our romantic notions of relationships. Their idealized notion of a fated soul mate clashes with the pragmatic approach of online dating.


Pc288 tells his friends and family that he is trying online dating on Match.com, but says that “pangs of embarrassment still hit” him. He can’t quite explain his ambivalence to online dating. “I am at halves with it. Logically, it makes a lot of sense and there’s nothing wrong with it. Feeling wise, it’s still a little weird. Sometimes you just can’t help the way you feel.”


If it seems weird, that’s because evolutionary and biologically it is, according to Peng. Intimate relationships grow from real physical proximity. People are social beings that thrive from real world social interaction. But with younger generations growing up online, the sense of distance felt when communicating with others through the Internet will shrink. Peng predicted that in the next ten years online dating will shed any remaining social stigma.


If more people begin to consider online matchmaking with the same mix of practicality and romance that Postal9361, a forty-seven-year-old man from Parma Heights, Ohio does, online date seekers will be coming out of the closet in droves before 2020.


“If I met my soul mate (online), I would be honest and tell people. Why would anyone care how you met?” he wrote in an email. “If they are your friends and family, they should be happy for you.”


Tips for successful online dating:


  • Post an accurate photograph. You don’t want anyone to be disappointed when seeing you in flesh and blood.
  • Know your emoticons, otherwise half the conversation may look like Greek to you.
  • Less is more. Studies by dating sites indicate that the most coveted online daters are those who keep their profiles to a minimum.
  • When describing yourself, avoid that hackneyed opening line, “My friends say that I am …”
  • If you’re not funny, don’t say that you are.

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