Internet hook-ups are risky affairs

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By Siri Agrell

Michael seems perfect. He’s six feet tall, thin and athletic. He’s an investment banker with an apartment in Toronto’s West end. He quotes Dylan Thomas and enjoys cultural and intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, because Michael is advertising his wares on the Internet, there’s a 25 per cent chance that he’s lying, a 43 per cent chance he’s only looking to get laid, and an 18 per cent chance that he’s married, according to a report released two weeks ago called Love On-line: A Report on Digital Dating in Canada.

The study, compiled by University of Toronto sociology professor Robert Brym and his wife, McMaster University sociology professor Rhonda Lenton, was sponsored by MSN Canada and Webpersonals, a Toronto-based dating service.

The service is free to customers who fill out a detailed survey specifying their likes and dislikes, physical turn-ons and emotional preferences. The clients are charged $10 when they send a confidential e-mail to another member of the site.

Out of the 6,500 Webpersonals’ users that took part in the study, 63 per cent had slept with someone they met over the Internet and more than half were looking for a long-term relationship.

The respondents overwhelmingly claimed that the Internet has always had a lot to do with sex. At first it was seen as an easy way to view pornography, but it’s not being used by people to forge sexual and romantic relationships.

Over the past few years, the popularity of Internet dating has exploded.

In 1998, the North American online dating industry was estimated to be worth $1-billion (U.S.) and it’s expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2003. People of all ages, races and sexual preferences have embraced the Internet as a new romantic and sexual oasis.

Now online dating services are trying to make the Internet a safe and accessible place to meet people.

Looking at the Webpersonals site, the concept seems foolproof. If candidates are screened according to such specific criteria, the chances of them being undesirable should be minimal. So why does dating Michael seem more dangerous than picking up at the Peel Pub?

The negative stigmas associated with Internet dating are deep rooted — even though meeting people online is easy in today’s wireless world. While Canadians are the world’s most frequent web surfers, many are still nervous about the concept of picking up online.

According to the study, these fears are unwarranted. From the sample group that Brym and Lenton studied, they found the majority to be highly educated, gainfully employed and surprisingly “sociable and self-confident.”

But convincing people to pursue love online is harder than getting them to use the Net to buy concert tickets. While hired sociologists, day-time talk shows and magazine articles revel in unlikely Web-romance success stories, the majority of their audience still view cyber dating as desperate, delusional and dangerous.

The survey downplays the fact that 26 per cent of respondents reported being “pestered” after meeting someone online and 10 per cent said that they had been frightened.

Because clients use email accounts, there is no way to track down or police dangerous daters. If a Webpersonals client feels threatened by someone, the only resource available on the site is customer service.

The owners of Web-based dating sites — many of which grew our of traditional phone and newspaper services — are trying to dissolve the fears and inhibitions surrounding safety on the web.

Peter Housley, CEO of Interactive Media Group, which owns Webpersonals, says that negative stereotypes are limiting the scope of their audience.

“How do we make the online dating service hip and cool, that it is a positive thing to do as opposed to being a thing that losers do?” he asks. “That is the challenge to make us successful.”

Housley hopes the study will change the way people regard online dating, and that it will be accepted as an appealing alternative to traditional techniques.

The challenge is becoming more difficult as web-dating horror stories permeate the media, are discussed around the water coolers of North America and become fodder for urban legend.

The fears are most pronounced among female Internet users. Only a third of online daters are women, even though women make up over half of all Canadians using the Internet.

The owners of MSN Canada and Webpersonals say this trend will shift over time, and in the future more women will feel safe using the Internet to meet people.

But for now, most women who read Michael’s online personal ad would probably be worried that he’s too good to be true. And according to the statistics, it looks like they’d be right.

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