Online dating has gotten a bad rap lately, from an Atlantic story profiling an indecisive serial dater to a Tumblr showcasing some of its more objectionable men. But rather than a wasteland of commitmentphobes and jerks, dating sites can actually be places where women can take control.
"It may give women more power than the conventional dating scene," says Jaclyn Friedman, a writer and sexuality educator who dated online for several years before meeting her current boyfriend on OkCupid. "You can set your terms," she says — Friedman was able to state up front that she was a feminist and anyone who wasn't okay with that might not be a match. She also "found it a great screening mechanism: I paid attention to things like, Do people listen to me when I say let's email first, or do they try to press past my boundaries?"
Dating sites may also remove the lingering vestiges of the stereotype (bolstered by the ever-reincarnating Rules books) that straight women should always wait for men to approach them. Says Friedman, "There's really no stigma at all online about a woman emailing a man. It all puts the control much more in your hands."
Diane M. Berry, a therapist and author of Romancing the Web, agrees that online dating may help women vet potential dates and set the pace of a relationship. She says if a woman uses a dating site to move slowly, messaging and talking on the phone before meeting, "she goes in with a great deal of information and because she's limiting her contact to online and telephone communication at first, she gives herself a chance to assess each new contact or piece of information without being pressured to move more quickly than she desires." This can be beneficial to men too, but women who have safety concerns may be especially interested in the ability to, for instance, run a background check on someone before agreeing to meet him. Friedman too notes that online dating can allow for more vetting than the in-person variety: "If you meet someone at a party or a bar you know nothing about them, and you're already in their physical vicinity."
Dan Slater, whose recent book Love in the Time of Algorithms was excerpted in the Atlantic to such fanfare, says he never meant to suggest that dating sites were just a playground for commitment-averse men. For the record, his research on online dating led him to believe its existence might help people in bad relationships work up the resolve to leave, but that it was unlikely to threaten truly happy unions.
And he says the sites have definite benefits for women: "They can look for the specific things that they feel that they want or need out of a relationship." He mentions one woman he profiled in the book who set out to find a single dad who was also an atheist, and succeeded: "She was able to go on OkCupid and prioritize her hunt for those things."
A common theme in his interviews with women was how easy online dating made it for them to proactively reach out to men: "It's breaking down a lot of the cultural or social script that has determined the pace of things for so long. Why shouldn't a woman be the one who chooses?"
Andrea Plaid, an editor and sexuality writer at Racialicious, had the opposite experience: "A man offline is easier to observe as to whether he may be approachable by watching his body language, interaction, etc." And she had some bad experiences, with men treating OkCupid and Plenty Of Fish like "their porn-fantasy playground" rather than a place to actually date.
This is a relatively common criticism — Maria Burnham wrote last year that listing herself as bisexual on OkCupid led to a raft of unwelcome threesome requests from men. She also noted that some sites can be limiting for queer people — Match, for instance, lets users list an interest in men or women, but not both. And Slater says he talked to more men than women who were using dating sites as an easy way to find sex.
Of course, women don't necessarily need or want lifelong commitment from everyone they meet online, either. Says Friedman, "While I was looking for someone to be monogamous with, I could have a whole range of pleasurable experiences with people, some of whom are now genuine friends of mine."
And while Burnham's experience is not uncommon, online dating can have upsides for some queer women too, according to relationship coach Linda Young. She notes that bisexual daters may encounter stigma, with men assuming that bisexual women are automatically up for a threesome. However, for lesbian women living in less-urban areas, "where there isn't a decent-sized lesbian population, where it's hard to know who is and who isn't and everyone is not out, you have a greater sense of freedom and choice when you go online."
Plaid ultimately had success on a site for interracial dating called AfroRomance: "I met two of my longer-term lovers (one four years older than I am, one about 13 years younger) in succession on the site. [...] Though the relationships I had didn't last longer than a year, I'd happily use the site again." She notes, "My success may be because I also became a bit savvier about online dating as well!"
Slater thinks such a learning curve can have other benefits. "Because online dating offers the opportunity for more interactions, I hope it's giving people the opportunity to learn more about themselves." He advises daters to embrace this aspect: "It can lead to some really humbling, embarrassing moments," he says. "But maybe try to laugh it off, with the knowledge that online dating makes it easier to move on."