Saturday, November 3, 2007

The ins and outs of online dating

Some years ago, a friend with a dubious sense of humor mailed me a copy of A Consumer’s Guide to Male Hustlers – to my office, in an ordinary envelope. The secretary displayed the calm professionalism for which we had hired her by opening and delivering this, as it were, disrobed object with my daily mail stack, offering no comment whatsoever. The book itself is a perfectly straightforward overview of the mechanics of hiring pleasure-boys and the nature of their profession.

Although I have never been in that particular market as provider or customer (setting aside the time when I, a college student, was offered five dollars to perform an unlikely act), I have wondered from time to time just what the less visible side of gay male dating was like. The advent of large, Internet-based databases for gay men to join and use as dating services makes the world of dating exceptionally broad, whether you are looking for Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now.

I recently joined a number of these services to see how they work and how they differ. I also attempted to arrange meetings with two men who provide what Craigslist matter-of-factly calls “erotic services” in order to ask them how their profession works in the age of Internet-based dating. Historically, hookers and hustlers, mostly young, lurked on certain streets at certain times in order to find customers. Today it seems that at least the more upscale ones use the Internet to peddle themselves. Unfortunately one of the hustlers changed his travel plans and the other simply did not show up. I suspect that the latter was a student doing a research paper on people like me while I was doing one on people like him.

Joining the various services is easy. As a gay man, I only joined the ones that offered a chance to meet other gay men “in my area.” It turns out that some of the services interpret “my area” to include the entire northwest rain belt: they gladly sent me profiles of “local” men from Seattle to Eureka. Of the services I joined, Dlist and JustGuys are free, Manhunt has a nominal fee, a higher fee, Elitemate pretends to have no fee to start with but is all but impossible to use as a guest and has by far the worst signup process. Men4Rentnow, which might be called a special-purpose site, and which I didn’t use other than to look at its setup, has no fee. The general-purpose Craigslist is also free. There are lots of other services, but these seem to be the largest or most active ones.

These services vary greatly in purpose, ease of use and tone. Most of them are straightforward dating sites, though Elitemate seems to be mainly a bait-and-switch site designed to generate names and addresses for spam and the like, as is Naughtyornice. Both of these use bogus posts to Craigslist as bait. My test of their various signup sequences made that pretty clear, though I gave them mostly bad info and they are now sending a lot of messages into space, not to me. is one of the older sites and has a lot of men on it, but it is brutally commercialized, poorly laid out, has clumsy, sometimes nonfunctional controls for moving from page to page and includes a cute little trick in the registration process through which it hopes you don’t notice that it reinstated a fee that the registrant thought had been deleted through an opt-out. In short, lots of guys but a real hassle to use.

DList and JustGuys seem to be connected in some way, though I did not spend any time looking into that. Both are fairly easy to use basic services that have pictures, info about the guys and minimal advertising. However, they seem to add members rather slowly, which means that when I want to meet Mr. Right Now on Saturday night, the available faces are pretty much the same ones (in my “local area”) that have been offering themselves for some weeks or months. These sites are heavily used by college-age men, perhaps because they are free.

Manhunt is the best all-round service. For a small fee, you get a very well-designed, user-friendly structure that is all but adless, has plenty of people on it who really are in my local area (heck, I even recognized two of them), and does not seem to generate a separate spamflow. The site seems to have been designed by people who might actually want to use it, and flows wonderfully.

Craigslist is, in many ways, the most practical, and is an increasing favorite among both gay and straight people wanting to generate dates in their area. It is also becoming a favorite way for prostitutes and gay male hustlers to promote their wares, as was discussed in an Oregonian feature article this fall.

One of the main problems I ran into with all of these services is that I don’t speak the language very well. I’m a 51-year-old who does not own a television or a PDA and whose cell phone is rarely on and used with minimal competence. The combination of gay sex-term babble and text-message code shorthand (shortfinger?) used by twenty-somethings often produces a homotextual sputtering that reads the way my Scottish ex-boyfriend sounded when he got agitated: only half the words needed for meaning are present on a canvas of apostrophes, and they don’t mean quite what they would in standard English. Reading what people say about themselves (and what they want in a date) can be as clear to an amateur as FAA tower-chat or the more arcane marine forecasts of the National Weather Service.

But in all this world of linguistic obscurity, fake photos, unlikely measurements, no-show hustlers and unrealistic expectations, I did emerge from this experiment with one actual date, a perfectly delightful evening with a tall, dark, handsome 23-year-old. So my commitment to research has had, if you will, a result with benefits.

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