Adding to the already voluminous body of work dedicated to deciphering the strange and wonderful world of online dating comes a new analysis from the folks at Recovery.org — a clearing house for information on addiction — which concludes that, for many men at least, free matchmaking websites are little more than the cyber version of an after hours club in the wee hours of Sunday morning — where the end goal of every encounter is clear-cutting the quickest path to a busted nut.
Given what we’ve learned from the media’s recent fascination with the sexual norms of today’s young adults, that might not seem like much of a revelation; but, for all the work the report’s unidentified author seems to have put into his or her project, it would be hard to prove based solely on the material at hand.
The analysis in question was conducted over the course of a month using 40 fake OKCupid profiles evenly distributed across the five most unfaithful cities in America, as ranked by the cheating website AshleyMadison.com. (You’ll be happy to know Philadelphia isn’t one of them, and not surprised to learn that the nation’s Capitol is). The goal was to determine how a dating prospect would fare if they presented themselves as already being in a relationship. Stated plainly, the author wanted to know how many people would bite when offered a chance to participate in a bit of unbridled infidelity.
I won’t leave you in suspense; it turns out the answer is a lot. In fact, women perceived to be cheating on their significant others received nearly 100 messages more than if they had presented themselves as single after just one week online. (The same thing was true for men, but unlike the ladies, most of these messages involved ripping the cheating bastards a new one or questioning their sincerity).
The takeaway, according to the report’s author, is simple: Men are dogs, especially when let loose into the free-for-all of cyber dating.
If that seems a bit simplistic to pass as social science, it’s probably because it is. I don’t doubt that there are a good many men trolling online dating sites for easy sex, and probably more than a few women too. But human behavior is far more nuanced than Recovery.org gives it credit. And there’s a funny thing about survey data: The story it tells has a lot to do with who is doing the listening.
For one thing, being a cheater and being with a cheater involve two fundamentally different dynamics. While data on the prevalence of infidelity is notoriously unreliable – estimates range from 15-70 percent depending upon what study you cite – most suggests that men are only slightly more likely to cheat; single women, however, are more likely to be with an adulterer than single men, even if they are less inclined to hit them up on a dating site. That could be because women in general tend to be much more discreet with their affairs. And they are better at keeping secrets, even from their best friends, according to some behavioral psychologists. Given that women who engage in affairs tend to fare worse in the court of public opinion than men, it’s not hard to understand why that is. Polls also show that women are considerably more concerned about protecting their privacy online than men, making it less likely that they would engage an adulterous affair in a “public” forum – even one that presumably guarantees their anonymity.
Then there’s the issue of expediency. It’s commonly reported that palatable men on Internet dating sites get one message for every 10 that the average female gets. An analysis of online dating by the website BusinessInsider.com found that for a woman to be 99 percent certain she’ll receive a response, she’d have to send 25 messages to men her own age, while a man looking for the same return would have to send out more than 100. That could help explain why men tend to be a lot less discerning about who they will reach out to online.
But I guess the more important question is what we hope to gain from overly simplistic analyses of online dating (and if you haven’t noticed, there are lots of them.) My guess is that the goal of a site like Recovery.org – which probably spies an addict around every corner – is to raise public awareness of sexual dysfunction. That’s a noble goal, but it’s counterproductive to use such a broad brush to paint a unflattering portrait of the millions of individuals who now go online to find their mate — especially when there is just as much research that seems to contradict, or at least complicate, the site’s fairly narrow findings.
So what can we really learn from all this conflicting data? Probably not much. Humans and the relationships we choose to nurture are exceedingly complex, and the norms and rituals of courtship have been changing – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – for decades and continue to do so. Digitization has amplified these changes and made them easier to spot – just like it has for lots of other aspects of our lives – but it would take much more than a month on a single dating site to begin unraveling them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I met my wife on OKCupid (I’m pretty sure neither one of us was cheating). I’m certainly not here to defend Internet dating or to claim that my experience is the norm. To be honest, as a closeted traditionalist, the whole thing gives me a bad taste in my mouth — my own success with it notwithstanding. The sterile mechanics of window shopping for people is a reminder of just how much of our lives we’ve allowed to become commoditized. But with a third of relationships now beginning in cyberspace, for better or worse online dating has become the new normal. I didn’t spend much time on OKC (just lucky I guess), but if I learned one thing about free dating sites it’s that they are populated with lots of different people with lots of different views looking for lots of different things. In other words, a lot like real life.