Most People I Know Date Online Because They Want Love, Not Sex

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Men and women alike go on Match.com and OkCupid to make real connections.

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As a single 20-something woman, I reacted pretty strongly, and negatively, to Dan Slater's "A Million First Dates." It just doesn't ring true with my own experience in the world of online dating.

The article profiles a young man named "Jacob," who Slater tells us has been called "lazy, aimless, and irresponsible with money." Jacob himself says, "I've never been able to make a girl feel like she was the most important thing in my life." Surprisingly, one woman stuck around for five years before she left. Not surprisingly, Jacob, in his early 30s, "felt he had no idea how to make a relationship work."

Jacob knew this about himself before he ever created a Match.com profile. But he says online dating made him more confident about his prospects. And that seems to have made him more willing to give up on a girl and quickly move on to the next.

This is where Jacob's story departs so dramatically from my own and my friends': Most people I know who have had a screen name on a dating site—male and female friends, some of them in relationships and some of them still single; most of the guys I've gone out with—have genuinely wanted to meet someone. If they're still single, chances are they're pretty tired of dating, especially online dating. They do not relish the chance to stay online even longer. (Apologies to the executive quoted by Slater who thinks "the process [is] so enjoyable, that marriage will become obsolete.") Online dating is a way to sort through a whole mess of people—or, as Slate's Amanda Hess calls it, in her great response to this article, a "horrific den of humanity." If one of those people is a good fit, you will take down your profile with some measure of relief, not regret. But thanks to sheer odds and chemistry and all that, most people are not a good fit, and so you keep dating.

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This has nothing to do with gender; if anything, the men in my informal sample group are far more eager to be in a relationship than the women. Moreover, I don't know anyone who would prefer to meet their future mate online. Meeting someone at a party or a "young professionals" event or what-have-you is always better, because you know going into the first date that you'll have at least something in common, some small measure of attraction. A set-up isn't bad either, because you at least have a character reference. You may, ironically, know more about an online date before you meet, but that's not necessarily an advantage: only online can you decide not to date someone for an incredibly trivial reason (he thinks flag burning is worse than book burning?!). If you meet in person, that information comes out later, in the natural course of getting to know someone, and by then, what looked to be a red flag turns out not to be such a deal-breaker.

But even though my friends and I live in major cities where we technically don't have to worry about the "mate scarcity" Slater mentions, the fact is, it's hard to meet people in person. It's easy to meet people online. That has zero impact on commitment and monogamy. Hell, I could easily argue that online dating makes people more likely to commit to a relationship early, so they can end their exhausting, time-consuming search for love. (Even someone who works at one of these sites finds online dating to be a tiring "means to an end.")

Another thing I found strange was that Slater and the men he interviews (the article exclusively quotes men) express some unrealistic and oddly outdated assumptions about women. "A woman might withhold sex so she can assess a man's intentions," Slater says. That's one reason, but I can think of plenty of other reasons a woman might not sleep with a guy she's dating. There are the obvious health reasons, of course. But maybe she hasn't been with anyone in a while, so she wants to go slow. Or maybe she's been with someone recently, so she wants to go slow. I wouldn't necessarily call any of that "withholding" sex. And, perhaps most important, I can think of plenty of scenarios in which the guy might be the one putting off sex. Lots of people prefer sex with someone they love over casual sex.

"A Million First Dates" contains some interesting theories and insights, and some truth. "Today, more people have had failed relationships, recovered, moved on, and found happiness," says one executive (of a cheating site, no less). "They realize that that happiness, in many ways, depends on having had the failures." Even Jacob acknowledges that "each relationship is its own little education." I agree. But this was true long before anyone dreamed up the Internet. Certainly the number of people messaging you online and asking you out, and asking you out again, can boost your confidence after a breakup, helping you realize that you'll do just fine. But throughout that process—dissecting your previous relationship, assessing new suitors—you are refining what you want in a partner, and getting better at seeking that out. Unless you just want to hook up. But you don't just want to hook up just because of the Internet. So by all means, use the World Wide Web as your wingman. But don't blame it when your relationship ends.

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Janice Cane is The Atlantic’s copy chief and editor of the magazine's Conversation section.

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