Up north in personals

🕔Sep 22, 2005

If the following characters found themselves at a dinner party for six, they might wonder where their common ground is: A construction contractor from Prince Rupert, who is crafting a novel when he’s not playing music. A systems analyst from Houston who dabbles in international business. A pretty young mother from Prince George whose gothic aesthetic and dark humour infuses every website she creates. A gregarious engineer from Terrace who snowboards at every opportunity. An administrative worker/mother from Kitimat who considers herself reserved, spiritual and romantic. And an articulate woman from Smithers who does secretarial work and has never been in a committed relationship.

A capable hostess and a bottle of wine could probably pry loose the secret that these real people, interviewed for this article, all share: they’ve joined the millions of Canadian singles who are using web-based dating services.

Online dating has been around since at least 1997—but this industry’s growth over the past few years is nothing short of phenomenal. Although Canada-specific data is scarce, we do know that U.S. consumers spent $214.3 million on personals/dating content in the first half of 2003, up 76 per cent from the same period in 2002. Industry research says North American consumers now spend more on online personals than on any other type of web-based content. Thirty per cent of North American singles have used them. If you’re not among them, you can bet your friend, your brother, your employer, your ex, or maybe your future lover, is.

Skeptical? Enter your postal code into the search engine of a major dating website like Lavalife or Match. You’ll find dozens of personal profiles of people within 200 kilometres of you. They’re searching for casual dates, soulmates, or discreet sex for three tomorrow night.

If you don’t hear much about it, it’s not just because people aren’t always anxious to discuss their romantic quests. People are hesitant to admit they use dating services.

“Because others think, ‘what’s wrong with you that you can’t find someone in your community?’” explains Gina Brais, the Kitimat romantic—and the only person interviewed who let me use her real name.

And online dating sites have an image problem. News stories about online dating often focus on the dates you least want to bring home to Mom—like the man in Rotenburg, Germany, whose online personals ad in 2001 successfully found a date who agreed to stay in to eat, or more precisely, be cannibalized—while being videotaped for posterity.

But online daters say you don’t need to get wired to get weird.

“That guy you met at the sports bar, he seemed so thoughtful, charming,” says Brenda, 38, a Smithers secretarial worker who’s hoping to meet her “wingman” online. “It turned out later in the relationship that he was abusive, an alcoholic. Some people hide a lot of their personality from the public, period.”

The Prince George mother and web designer, who I’ll call Gothica, agrees. “My mom used to get worried that I’d meet a weirdo. But I explained to her that I have as much chance of meeting one walking down the street.”

Gothica, 23, encountered dating sites at age 16—when she and a friend posted whacko, fictional profiles just to amuse themselves: “Under ‘hobbies’, we’d put, ‘looking for snacks between the cushions of the couch.’” She also frequented online chat rooms—which led to several in-person meetings, a few relationships and some solid friendships.

“I don’t really see the big deal with meeting someone in the flesh,” she says. Recently, Gothica posted a serious profile on a dating site. She prefers this to hanging out in bars, or having to hire a sitter—and she likes viewing photos and reading about potential dates before meeting them.

It beats blind dates, she says, where “you find yourself sitting at a local diner thinking, ‘Oh, my god. Did this person eat paint chips as a kid?’ All you want to do is escape, but you stay because you don’t w.ant to be rude, right? This way, you’re less likely to get into that situation.”

Still, concerns about freaky dates aren’t baseless: just ask Brais, who turned to online dating at age 42, following the end of a live-in relationship and before that, a marriage. She quickly connected with a man from Winnipeg, and after a month of intense conversations, she was in deep.

“My friends and family thought I was crazy when I agreed to let him fly me out there to visit him,” she said.

That visit went swimmingly; they spoke of a life together—until Gina came onto proof that the man was whispering similar sweet nothings to not one, but five other women. Things went from bad to over when Gina presented the evidence to all the others.

A couple of years and dates later, Gina fairly sparkles when talking about a new man she’s met through a dating site. “I’d always hoped for a success story. Maybe this one will be it.”

To Gina, openness about who you are and what you’re looking for is critical—and so is the guts to post a photo of yourself. She sees a lot of online profiles from locals—but very few with photos. “What are they hiding?” she asks.

Some have good reasons; for example, legitimate fears of homophobia exist among gays, lesbians and bisexuals. And people of all orientations sometimes seek uncommon experiences or partner qualities, but don’t want to fuel ruinous gossip.

Consider a mid-30s, attractive and confident systems analyst for a resource industry company in Houston, known online as Too Hot to Handle. His erotic life makes most people’s look like a school board meeting. “Let’s see: swinging, swapping, sex clubs… threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes,” he grins.

“Adult” websites enable these connections—but some mainstream sites, whose larger memberships promise more locals, offer a more understated presentation and also make this easy. Lavalife, for example, offers users three sections for profiles: dating, relationships and “intimate encounters.” In the latter, users select turn-ons from convenient drop-down menus: order up a little domination and submission? a side of fetishes? “It’s almost too easy,” says Too Hot.

For him, online dating offers a discreet, efficient way to find partners with similar tastes—and to have some straightforward, no-strings-attached fun in between relationships. And he will share his photos—but only when he’s sussed you out.

Photo or not, everyone agrees that profiles are key. Littered with spelling errors and clichés, they’re like showing up at a cocktail party in a food-spattered shirt.

“Profile writing is an art,” says Daniel, the engineer from Terrace. He’ll look twice at funny, original profiles without photos, but he’s creeped out by ones “which go on and on about things anyone should take as a given: honesty, respect, no head-games, etc.” He pictures a person offering this information to someone just met at a bar or social gathering: “You’d look like you are carrying a lot of baggage around with you.”

Daniel started browsing personals sites and hanging out in online chatrooms just for fun—and found himself conversing with people whose paths he might never have crossed otherwise.

“It’s bizarre,” he muses. “You can get to know a person intimately online—in everything but a physical or social sense,” he says.

Daniel’s experience shows how location can be more important for people in “remote” northern towns. It was partly why he took his sweet time getting to know people he met online before arranging meetings. When he finally did meet a woman he’d exchanged photos with and come to adore after months of phone conversations, he was a little surprised when physical sparks weren’t immediate. But because he’d driven across the province to meet her, he stuck it out for a few days, rode out those initial feelings of awkwardness and joyfully rediscovered the woman he’d already come to know.

“It’s important to manage your own expectations,” he observes.

Northerners in particular may have to contend with the reality Daniel did: opening the door to long-distance relationships can mean significant upheaval. He’s pulled up stakes and moved to her town.

But not everyone gets lucky.

Joe, the construction contractor in his late 40s from Prince Rupert, has yet to connect with his elusive ideal: “a little bit of a hippie type, with a bit of a country bumpkin too even if they live in the city.” His battle-weary estimation of the odds of finding her is, “Oh, maybe a billion to one.” Although some research suggests that older people are among the fastest growing groups of online daters, Joe’s not optimistic. “I think it’s more geared to people in their 20s and 30s,” he says.

And Brenda from Smithers, who has profiles up on three sites, mostly hears from “guys that hardly put any info in their ad, live too far away, or are more than 10 years older than me.” It’s produced a few coffee dates, but no real sparks. “Finding online two-way attraction is a lot more difficult than exchanging glances across a crowded room,” she adds.

Online dating appears here to stay—and for many northerners, it’s opened up new doors. Has it really changed our landscape of love?

“It’s just a different way of meeting people,” concludes Daniel, pointing out that relationships have long been mediated by matchmakers, letters and distance. “Two hundred years ago, we had arranged marriages, overseas pen pals. Well, now you don’t have to wait for the boat to arrive with that locket of hair.”

Check it out online

Larger, more general sites promise more members, and thus more likelihood of finding local dates.

  • ca.personals
  • yahoo.com
  • lavalife.com
  • match.com
  • eharmony.com
  • date.ca

But if you’re pickier, or willing to ‘go the distance’, there are specialized sites such as:

  • bigchurch.com
  • seniorfriendfinder.com
  • lovemelovemypets.com
  • gaycanada.com
  • manline.ca
  • womanline.ca
  • greensingles.com
  • adultfriendfinder.com
To Read:

Online Dating for Dummies by Judy Silverstein, Michael Lasky 2004 Wiley Publishing

Meeting, Mating, and Cheating: Sex, Love, and the New World of Online Dating by Andrea Orr 2003 Prentice Hall

©Larissa Ardis