When I first started meeting dates online, it was still the '90s. People still used AOL and dial-up. Any time I said I was "meeting a guy from the Internet," friends told me they feared for my life. They figured my dates would turn out to be sex offenders. Instead, I met two of my first boyfriends online, both of whom were generally normal, somewhat geeky, smart, and sweet high school guys. I continued doing the online dating thing for years -- through college, after college while living in both LA and NYC, and in 2006, I met my now boyfriend on JDate. My story isn't an anomaly; we're friends with several other long-term, engaged, or married couples who met online. Nowadays, most 20-something singles meet their significant others online. What can I say -- I was an early adopter! That may be a big reason why it drives me nuts that online dating is getting such a bad rap from a recent incident in which a woman was sexually assaulted by a man she met on Match.com.
What happened to the woman, publicly identified only as Jane Doe, is horrific.
Long story short -- she claims she had no reason to believe that the guy she met was a predator, but on their second date, once she went back to his house, he forced her to perform a sexual act. The man turned out to have a track record of sexual violence. Later, "Jane" filed a civil lawsuit asking a court to force Match.com to install a sex offender screening program. They have since complied and claim the screening process aimed at weeding out sex offenders -- while imperfect -- will be implemented in the next two or three months.
Now, screening for registered sex offenders can't exactly hurt dating site members. Unless they think that the coast is completely clear simply because the site screens. As Match.com president Mandy Ginsburg warns:
We want to stress that while these checks may help in certain instances, they remain highly flawed, and it is critical that this effort does not provide a false sense of security to our members.
But, all in all, online daters should NEVER blindly believe that any person they meet is going to be an upstanding citizen. Probably better to err on the side of skeptical at all times. (Hey, it works for New Yorkers.) Strangers are strangers -- it doesn't matter if they're online or next to you in your spinning class. I really don't think the incidence of sexual predators is higher online than anywhere else. It's just that some sites like Match.com are sooo populated with date-seekers and are so easy to sign up for, that yes, I'm sure there are one or two REALLY bad seeds in your mix of matches. Just like if you walked into a crowded dance club one night, there's a chance you could end up engaging with a man who could later turn out to be a scary creep.
Not to belittle what happened to "Jane," but from experience, women who date online are more likely to meet horndogs, sociophobes, closet cases, snobs, commitaphobes, and liars (from the tame: A guy who chatted me up on JDate turned out to be Catholic with a "thing for Jewish girls," to the ridiculous: A date told me he worked in sports marketing, when in reality, he worked as a peanut guy at Yankee Stadium) than legit sex offenders. But for every, say, 50 wacko men, you'll find a gem. It ends up being worth all that painstaking time you spent weeding through the weirdos.
Bottom line: Despite the (rare) horror story in the news, I highly doubt most online dating sites are infested with sex offenders ... or even have a handful lurking around. And unfortunately, many sex offenders who do go online will figure out a way to circumvent any mediocre, "flawed" screening process. That's why all you really can do is take safety precautions when you meet up with anyone, use common sense ... and keep him at an arm's length until you run your own Facebook stalk/Google check/meet-the-friends screening!
What do you think about online dating sites -- are they good for meeting your soul mate or do you think they could very well be overrun with sex offenders?
Image via Rochelle Hartman/Flickr