Cover

INTERNET SEX unzpped

The young adults finding romance on the Web are helping to usher in a whole new casual sex revolution

JONATHAN DURBIN October 6 2003
Cover

INTERNET SEX unzpped

The young adults finding romance on the Web are helping to usher in a whole new casual sex revolution

JONATHAN DURBIN October 6 2003

INTERNET SEX unzpped

Cover

The young adults finding romance on the Web are helping to usher in a whole new casual sex revolution

JONATHAN DURBIN

IN CYBERSPACE anyone can hear you pant—if you want them to. And if you do, you’re not alone. The bunny rabbit-ish proliferation of Internet dating sites is one of this year’s big on-line trends. Aided by marketing campaigns that target young women, singles clearing houses like Toronto-based Lavalife.com, Dallas category leader Match.com, and Manhattan’s Spring Street Networks (which powers the personals for on-line media like Jane, The Onion and Esquire, and is a spin-off of Nerve.com) have nearly succeeded in ridding the personal ad of its stigma. No longer the icky, desperate realm of those who are looking for love and can’t find it elsewhere, these overly friendly sites feature postings from young urban professionals all over the continent. Some view dating as an extreme sport. “I’d call it a casual sex revolution,” says Andrew, a 27year-old San Francisco lawyer who’s cruised with the personals at several Web sites. During the past year, with consummate Colin Farrellship, he met 15 women and slept

with most of them. “It’s great if you’re unattractive or even mildly attractive.”

In 2003, discovering that Internet dating has gone mainstream is like realizing the tabloids obsess on J. Lo and Ben. The Online Publishers Association reports that singles sites accounted for the Internet’s largest consumer-spending category last year. Match hosts nine million profiles, and was ranked by the OPA report as the second most pop-

ular paid destination on-line. Yahoo.com, the Internet portal that offers personals of its own, was No. 1.

Though most sites still focus on the larger, more lucrative pool of those who want romance, on a street level what the numbers mean is that extreme dating is gaining acceptability, at least among the tech-sawy younger generation that watched word processors kill the typewriter. And while there are apocryphal stories of bunny-boiling females or vindictive guys on the rebound, these sites are increasingly populated by regular, non-sketchy people who aren’t looking for love—whatever their sexual preference. If commitment happens, the attitude is, “so be it,” but expectations are considerably less than marriage. And the genders are evening out: men still outnumber women, but not by much.

Debate has already been raging about why women are logging on. Last January, New York magazine argued that the Internet allowed females to behave like men, and that

MARRIED MAN, BORED, SEEKS SEX KITTEN

IF YOU WANT it, it's out there-even if you have a spousal impediment. The Toronto based Ashley Madison Agency (www.ashleymadison.com), which uses the comeon “When Monogamy Becomes Monotony,” is one of the more specialized entries in the Internet dating category. Developed exclusively for people who want to have extra-marital affairs, the site hosts around 60,000 profiles from members across Canada. Company founder Darren Morgenstern, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Tom Cruise circa Magnolia, says the site also gets traffic from spouses who suspect their partners are getting some on the side.

“We didn’t invent philandering." he says, citing statistics suggesting half of all married North Americans are unfaithful. “We’re not of the mind to glorify it, either. It’s a need in the market that we're trying to fill. Our customers don’t even have to meet each other—it’s flirtation that can make someone feel validated if they’re unhappy in their marriage. And you can be whoever you want-younger, happier, fitter.”

Although membership skews heavily toward men (about 90 per cent), Morgenstern plans a series of paperback romance novels to lure female users. They’ll go on sale on the site and on Amazon.ca before the end of the year. For Morgenstern, marketing to the female sensibility is paramount: Ashley Madison, a name that recalls the jodhpurs, deep tan and dangly earrings of a Jackie Collins character, is a fiction meant to intrigue women. The same goes for the novel's lead character. “She’s hip, brash and sassy,” he says. “She’s like the Sex and the City girls, only classier.” And if she happens to get married, that won’t mean she’ll stop fantasizing-or more. J.D.

for some, dating sites have fostered “the 2003 version of the zipless fuck, an unapologetically no-strings-attached, purely sexual experience.” Responding in The Sunday Times, author Naomi Wolf agreed that casual sex was indeed back on the market, but that its ready availability had sucked the soul out of relationships—that the on-line generation had reduced sex to a healthy activity you could do with a partner to alleviate boredom, sort of like going to the gym.

It’s too soon to tell if the Internet will be relegated to the faddish status of singles bars or whether it will restructure hookups the way the pill changed just about everything. But prevailing trends that promoted the rise of Internet meet-and-greets—long work-hours, marriage deferred for career, the loneliness of city-living—aren’t going away. And because the dating sites offer secure conversations where neither person knows the other’s contact information, many women say flirting with men via their keyboards is preferable to being bombarded out on the town. On-line encounters mean no sticky obligations, no awkward pauses in the conversation and no chemistry-crushing expectations. It’s an anonymous orgy of convenience that can translate off-screen and into your social calendar. For those who find inspiration in Sex and the City, there’s no need to envy Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte or Miranda their lifestyles when you can actually live, and love, like them yourself.

THE LOOK OF LOVE

Lavalife’s international headquarters are located on a desolate swatch of Toronto’s King Street West, in a vaguely suburbanlooking, steel-and-glass building that also houses an AT&T switching station. But the company’s interior decor is sexier, mirroring the Web site’s aesthetic. The walls are painted scarlet and lava lamps adorn the receptionist’s desk. A staff chill-out area features a crimson-felt pool table, pinball, and the sit-down version of Pac Man.

\No longer the icky realm of the desperate, these sites feature postings from young urban professionals all over the continent

Distinct from subscription sites like Match, which charges hopefuls US$19.95 per month for full contact service, Lavalife works on a pay-for-play basis. It’s free to post your profile, but it costs credits (a U.S. quarter each) to message others in the system. The site has over a million active members and 7,500 new people sign up daily; under the Lavalife brand, the company’s a young turk—it was founded two years ago, but was previously known as Webpersonals.com. Lavalife does about 70 per cent of its business in the U.S., and is available overseas. The split between the sexes is now 60 per cent male, 40 per cent female. “We want to build the Lavalife lifestyle as a brand,” says founder Bruce Croxon. Agneta Owen, vice president of marketing, says that young women power

Lavalife. “The site reflects our users—we’re driving for a fast, hip, younger demographic who have grown up on-line and want instant gratification. It’s almost like if you’re not Internet dating, you’re not cool.”

The site divides desire into three distinct streams. Users choose between subsections labelled dating, relationship and X-rated intimate encounters. They get equal traffic, though most new users go to dating. At

either end of the spectrum, declaring yourself a hard-core sex kitten or yearning for a soulmate still sounds lame.

“I was in the right head space for it,” says Michelle, a 37-year-old media director at a Toronto ad agency. After posting an ad in the dating section of Lavalife, she met 10 men she didn’t jibe with, but liked number 11. They’re getting married next year. “I was travelling through New Zealand and Australia for awhile—when you’re travelling, you meet people all the time, and I missed that energy,” she says. “So I used the Internet primarily to meet people who wanted to have fun—not to meet the man of my dreams. I had no expectations.”

That’s the sentiment echoed by many women who use the service. “The stigma that Internet dating is for losers is old,” says Kirsten, a 26-year-old teacher at a Toronto private school. Since registering with Lavalife earlier this summer, she’s seen six guys. “I wasn’t meeting anyone in the regular social situations, so I decided to go on-line. Because no one has to know about it, it means that no matter the out-

come, you don’t feel like a failure.”

Most matchmakers believe the relative anonymity of on-line meetings is the Internet’s most attractive feature. Because the interaction is, at first blush, based on how much personality a person can pack into a resumé—and an alluring photo—the Internet demands that even reserved people must come across as engaging. Selling yourself comes naturally to some—“I’m an attractive, tall, fit woman of 27 who will try almost anything once unless it involves heights or wild animals,” writes Lavalife’s Sexysweetsassy. Others have more difficulty. “I don’t like to waste others’ time,” says Sunchaserr. “I believe in getting to the point. I’m look-

ing for an attractive Caucasian male who is fit and does not smoke. If you do not fit that profile, don’t bother.”

The upside is that digital space allows for more expression than the classifieds ever did. “That’s where the negative stigma attached to personals came from,” says Rufus Griscom, 36, co-founder of Spring Street Networks. “Personals had to be short messages because they ran in the back of newspapers, and newspapers have limited real estate. You know, like ‘Minimalist Seeks Woman.’ It’s totally different on the Net. The anonymity provided in the on-line environment means that women can become more sexually assertive, without being judged ‘slutty’ by their peer group. There’s no doubt that women are the business’s key element.”

The downside is that everyone lies. Women regularly caution to subtract two inches off a man’s height, while men advise adding five pounds to a woman’s weight. And concerns about the differences between onscreen and in-person chemistry are not unfounded. Considered banter over e-mail is much different than meeting someone for dinner. “The first question out of the guy’s mouth was, ‘Do you have a car?’ ” says Risa Sloan of her first phone contact with one man. Sloan, a 36-year-old doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, cruises the personals at JDate.com (“The World’s Largest Jewish Singles Network”). “I told him no and he said, ‘Well, I’ll just wind up being your chauffeur. I don’t think I can date someone without a car.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think I can date someone with an IQ under 70.’ ”

Users can narrow their pool of potentials by searching smaller, niche Web pages that cater to specific interests. Non-carnivores surf VeggieDate.com, while those who hold their morals in high esteem stop the madness at SingleswithScruples.com. If religion is your bag, there’s JDate.com or JCupid.com, MuslimSingles.com,ChristianSingles.com— and far too many more to name. With the Internet’s space comes infinite marketers who’ve plugged every permutation of desire into their business models.

Penetrating the market means alerting the public, and Lavalife’s ads are as ubiquitous in Toronto as they are in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The thin, stylish cartoon girls, drawn by Toronto-based artist Marcos Chin, are meant to appeal to feminine

‘No one knows who you are you could be a psycho or a dog for all I know'

sensibilities and make the site a must-visit location for young, urban women who care about Manolo Blahniks and want their men to be metrosexuals. In one ad, a pleasantly surprised brunette doffs her umbrella to stand in the rain, because enveloped in each drop is a stylish guy. “Lavalife is like catalogue shopping for guys,” says Kirsten, and the fiction is made real. For some users, it is quite literally raining men. Hallelujah.

BE MY FRIENDSTER?

But if Friendster.com is any indication, Lavalife may have reached its zenith. Friendster —which in name and iconography recalls music industry demon Napster—is the brainchild of 33-year-old Canadian Jonathan Abrams. Located in Sunnyvale, Calif. (Abrams moved to Silicon Valley in 1996 to work for Netscape), the new kid on the dating block founded Friendster last August because “anonymity sucks. On the Internet, no one knows who you are—you could be a psycho or a dog for all I know. Friendster is more like a cocktail party than a singles bar because your friends are there, and meeting people is based on referral.”

Although the site hasn’t officially launched yet, its growth is viral. Increasing in size by about 20 per cent per week, it now hosts over two million profiles, up from 280,000 in March, with no advertising campaigns— just word of mouth. The company didn’t even have an office until July. Currently Friendster doesn’t cost, but it will begin charging in the next few months and plans on competing with dating juggernaut Match.

Basing the service on the six-degrees-ofseparation model, Friendster asks an individual to post his or her profile. Then that person invites their friends to join. Then the friends invite their friends, and their friends invite their friends, and so on. If you’re looking for computer companionship, it works. According to the site, I have accrued 514,410 acquaintances since logging on in July.

Dating is one of the site’s applications,

abetted by the testimonials users write for their friends—the idea is to present references from people who know you, up front, so there aren’t any surprises later. But critics say Friendster is less than perfectly designed and that using the site is like collecting baseball cards ofyour friends. For some, the idea is to amass as many cool friends as possible. Others have gone further by selling membership to their networks on eBay, effectively transforming their friends into commodities. There’s a thin line between metaphorically selling yourself on sites like Lavalife and actually auctioning yourself off to the highest bidder. The Internet is a great tool for those who want to conflate technology and sex to augment their self-image or make a quick buck.

Linking friendship, dating and sex to consumerism isn’t anything new, even if the willingness with which affluent urbanites sell themselves—whatever the reason—is now unparalleled. When shopping for a lover is as easy as, say, getting a good deal at a sample sale, the line between love and business is entirely erased. That said, who cares? Dating sites see separating the two as an old, thoroughly unhip necessity, irrelevant in the on-line revolution’s initial afterglow. If it’s out there, we will consume it. And to the generation that’s growing up now—the children who have never known anything but the Internet and are as comfortable with instant messaging as they are with the telephone—the old way of hooking up won’t make sense anymore.

“There’s a real split between people who are 27 or older, who will date on-line but not describe themselves as ‘on-line daters,’ and the 26 or younger crowd, who don’t get what the big deal is,” says Griscom. “Look, if I were to go to the library and say, ‘I’m not going to use the card catalogue. I’m going find the right book through serendipity,’ you’d say that was crazy. In 10, 15 years from now, refusing to on-line date will sound just as ridiculous.” ÏÏ]

SPECIALIZED DATES WITH A MOUSE CLICK OR TWO

ThirdAge Connections

www. thirdageconnections. com

Over 40? Lonely? Shop smart and leave the

kiddie Web sites behind by logging on here.

Suicide Girls

www.suicidegirls.com Essentially erotica for 20-something punks, this site also allows members to search for people with like interests (piercings, tattoos, hair dye), and has unintentionally become a dating site.

Love Me Love My Pets

www.lovemelovemypets.com PETA would approve. Animal lovers access an international database of singles on the prowl.

Way Too Personal

www.waytoopersonal.com The site contains real responses to personal ads-from the graphically sexual to simperingly needy. For anyone who’s been burned by Internet dates, this site is like a nice big hug from a friend who understands.

The Dating Wizard

www. theda ting wizard, com Toronto Don Juan Michael W.’s Web site offers advice to lovelorn guys. Fie promises to turn the most average male into an unstoppable force of attraction-yes, like the Death Star’s tractor beam.