Computers: Sex, lies and cyberspace: Mike Hewitt looks at the severe imbalance of the sexes and truth in the world of on-line dating

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Cyberspace may well liberate man's mind from the constraints of body and national borders. However, it often seems to have the same effect on his libido as a life stretch in Parkhurst.

The shortage of on-line women is so acute - males outnumber females by more than 20:1 on some systems - that frustrated men sometimes switch straight into Lothario mode whenever they see a woman's ID, or even an ID they just suspect might belong to a woman. Yet for all this, people of both sexes log on to conferencing systems seriously looking for love and companionship. So what are their chances, and what are the drawbacks?

A number of 'dating' services exist. Information networks such as The Well, Compuserve and Cix all have singles sections which operate in much the same way as personal ads in newspapers. In other words, you exaggerate your physical attributes, claim to be sensitive and caring and hope any respondents are more honest. Until recently, the Internet had an automatic system, perfect@match. com. Here, lovelorn the world over entrusted their personal details to an on-line computer system which tried to match them based on responses made to an E-mailed questionnaire. Unfortunately, a rather severe imbalance of the sexes - about 800 men to five women - limited the usefulness of this global matchmaker.

Anyhow, having indicated your availability and requirements, the next thing to do is sort out any gender ambiguities that your desideratum might exhibit. The Ascii computer text persona may not be all that it seems. In many instances, for example, Sally, the blonde-haired PR executive from Hampstead may turn out to be Mortimer, the balding rodent operative from Croydon. Virtual cross-dressing of this kind is particularly prevalent on some US systems, where it's reckoned more than 60 per cent of 'female' IDs are in fact male.

'It's not that I have any deep- down desire to be a woman,' one such transgressor said, 'I'm just intrigued by the different way in which men react to me when I assume a woman's ID as opposed to when I log on under my own name. I'm not talking about being hassled - though, of course, this does happen. I mean that people are more patient with me and more revealing when I ask questions of them.'

On-line harassment is, however, a problem for many women. Some cite it as being the main reason for not using conferencing systems. 'Even bandwidth cannot lessen the anger and, sometimes, humiliation you feel during these situations,' says one. 'The mere fact that I'm a woman makes me 'fair game' in the eyes of many. I can't tell you how many times I've been harassed, asked for 'phone sex' and badgered for what is known as 'hot chat', until I've finally logged off in disgust.'

Women are not the only victims. 'Some guys see my (somewhat ambiguous) on-line ID and immediately jump to the conclusion that I'm a female named Maureen,' one terminally harassed man says. 'It's amazing what some of these clowns do. One of the frequent opening lines is 'R U Hot' or 'R U Naked'. I can't believe that they actually think they'd have any success approaching a woman in this way.'

Fortunately, the identities of these people can usually be determined by their IDs. So those who are subject to harassment should complain vociferously to the network administrator and have offenders expelled. In the US, there are even moves afoot to have the same sort of 'anti-stalking' laws that cover obscene telephone calls and harassment by mail applied equally to on-line pests.

But assuming the above difficulties have been bypassed and the couple have 'clicked' in Cyberspace, the next big hurdle is the in-the-flesh meeting. Will the reality match the virtual? 'On-line she described herself as being attractive,' one disgruntled ex-suitor complained. 'When we met in the restaurant, she turned out to be less than five foot, tongue-tied and a bit of a frump. We ran out of things to say after five minutes.'

An equally disgruntled woman reports a similar experience: 'His on-line personality was totally different from the reality. It could have been a different man. He was ineffectual and, frankly, very, boring. The fact that we met in real life ruined our on-line relationship.'

There are success stories, though; The Well has reported a few marriages. On the downside, it has also hosted the on-line acrimony of divorce proceedings. And on CompuServe a couple of years ago the CB Channel hosted an on-line marriage. Other CB members witnessed the ceremony and threw virtual rice at the happy couple.

But when these sorts of things do occur, the network where Cupid's arrow struck usually goes out of its way to publicise what has happened, which suggests it is about as common as a successful Blind Date.

In fact, given the number of weirdoes on-line, the disparity in numbers between men and women, and the impersonal nature of Ascii communications, it is wonder any romance can blossom. For the moment the real life singles bar seems a better bet than the virtual one.

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