Sex and the single hack

Dating columns have taken confessional journalism to a whole new level of self-exposure. But at what cost to those who pen them? James Silver finds out
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The Independent Online

Newspaper dating columnists secretly date their fans. So reveals Bridget Harrison, who has recently returned to the UK after a four-year stint at the News Corp-owned New York Post. She had been working as a crime beat reporter while simultaneously chronicling her search for love in a city teaming with sharp-elbowed singles.

"In New York it's very common to go on blind dates, so I went out with quite a few readers," says the writer, whose Sunday Post column became something of a cult hit. "I used to get loads of guys emailing me things like 'I'm a 5ft 5 fireman into jazz dancing and Italian cuisine. If you'd consider going on a date with me I could show you an amazing time'."

Newly single, Harrison's first taste of Manhattan's dating shark pool came when she received an email from an investment banker, who announced that he was a "GREAT DATE". Perhaps the rather excitable use of capital letters should have warned her off. However, his description of himself as "great looking, intelligent and a lot of fun" piqued her curiosity. When they finally met at a bar, Harrison reports that disappointment clouded his face (though this is hard to believe), as he told her she looked "kinda different" from her picture byline. She, meanwhile, was similarly underwhelmed, as she clapped eyes on "a stocky version of Nicolas Cage ... but more square, wearing a turtleneck". Later, over a pinched and stilted meal in a "fakey bistro", as she was mid-sentence, her date "leaned back, stretched out his arms and did one great big huge yawn". Needless to say, they took separate taxis home.

In this age of confessional journalism, where everything from trips to the supermarket to private infidelities are deemed fit for newspaper features pages, it's boom time for dating columnists, particularly in the US. Indeed, this newspaper's very own American sex-and-dating writer Catherine Townsend, who pens the Sleeping Around column, says she crossed the Atlantic, in part, because "New York is totally saturated with dating columns". Why are they so popular? "Twenty years ago there was a really definite trajectory in women's lives," she explains. "Now there's so much choice when it comes to love, it's overwhelming. Everyone's completely obsessed with finding someone. And even though some think it's frivolous, it's actually the most important decision you are ever going to make. Writers capitalise on that and readers like reading them."

Harrison, 35, has just published a book, Tabloid Love, based on her Post column. As a newcomer to the city, with an outsider's eye, she was able to explore New York's fraught dating rituals, addressing age-old issues such as how long men wait to call after they have taken your phone number. "I was at a birthday party with some girlfriends and all of us had met single men there whom we quite fancied and given our numbers to," she recalls. "The party was on a Saturday and unbelievably all three men called back between 3pm and 4pm on the following Wednesday.

"Since then, I've interviewed lots of people about dating in New York and they all say waiting three or four days is absolutely fine for the call-back; otherwise you look desperate. Calling back the next day, for instance, would be dating suicide as it would imply immediate commitment which no one wants to give. It's a city full of single career-focused people and as a result, people date in an incredibly cagey way. They become 'a couple' only once they have had a formal conversation about whether they are 'exclusive'. In London you know you've got a boyfriend when you have half your knickers at his place."

According to Harrison, the trick to writing a good dating column is to try, wherever possible, to make yourself, rather than your date, the butt of the joke. "I think why my column was popular was that it was about me being a fool, rather than me endlessly complaining about men. A column works when it's warm and has goodwill. If you are English, the self-deprecating thing comes very easily to us and American readers love it. It's also best not to get too self-conscious when you're writing, because if you do, you start holding back. I was aware that I was incredibly lucky to have 750 words in the New York Post every week and I shouldn't waste them. I had a duty to be entertaining."

Did that sense of duty ever tempt her to take revenge on callous or charmless dates by humiliating them afterwards in print? "No, I didn't really because it's a bit disingenuous to go on dates and just slag the date off afterwards. I think if you write a sex or dating column and it becomes a revenge thing, you just sound bitter, which is like listening to a friend moaning about her love life. After a while the readers think I just don't want to hear any more of this."

At the London Evening Standard, Laura Topham, 25, has been writing a wry dating column since the newspaper was overhauled last year. Single Life, which focuses on all aspects of being single including serial dating, has become, she says, "a great excuse in itself not to commit to men". After two long relationships, Topham sheepishly admits that the timing of her last break-up was "helpful" for the column. "I hadn't really been single before as an adult. The column is about finding out what it's like to be single for the first time and I really do want to date lots of people. Although I'd never date anyone for the sake of the column."

Writing about your love life, she says, can, on occasions, seriously harm it. "Men either love it and want to be written about or they shy away from it altogether. One bloke I dated - I really liked him actually - started freaking out over dinner. Every time he said something he'd ask whether I was going to put it in my column. It got to the point where we fell out. He said he didn't trust me and we didn't see each other again."

Branding herself as an antidote to Bridget Jones, she agrees with Harrison's golden rule that it's best for dating columns to steer clear of both rancour and self-pity. "I'm not malicious or spiteful so I won't take revenge [on a bad date] in a column," she says. "I think women generally don't embrace being single enough. Maybe it's because of my age, but I find being single is mostly so much more fun. I'm the total opposite of Bridget Jones, because she's so intent on finding a man and I'm so intent on not finding one - but having a good time while going about it."

Topham's column, too, revels in dating foibles and game playing, such as "the rules of cool", which can best be summarised as the etiquette surrounding texting and calling. She reels off examples. One man began sending hourly texts after a single date. Another would wait exactly an hour before replying to texts. A third took to calling her while drunk at 3am. "Initially it was novel," she wrote at the time, "until the next night when he called at 3am again... One Saturday I woke to find 22 missed calls, at five-minute intervals from 4am onwards. Men are far worse offenders than women, when it comes to not playing it cool. There have been a number of occasions I've written about men who literally obsess. I was on a second date with one bloke and he invited himself to meet my parents in Wales."

Sex, Topham decided early on, is off-limits as far as the column is concerned. "The longer you write a column, the more your boundaries stretch," she says, "but I won't go into graphic details." The Independent's Townsend - not surprisingly given her column's title - has no such inhibitions. "My main concern was about my mum reading it, but I think I've managed to convince her that a threesome is some kind of drinking game," laughs the 28-year-old, who comes from Georgia. "I'm happy to be open about sex. It's great that there are people who write columns that aren't so explicit, but there's also a point where the reader wants to know what happened next. The editors haven't taken anything out so far, although I'm aware that there is a taste boundary. I'm not out to be super-graphic, but sex is sex - it's messy."

Townsend, like all dating columnists, gets her fair share of emails from readers, some of which veer towards the downright bizarre. "I get the occasional guy from Nigeria who sends me a picture of himself with his shirt off asking whether I want to get married. I get a little misogyny too from men not entirely comfortable with a sexually adventurous woman. But I can deal with that."

For Harrison, emails from readers were a favourite part of the job. "It was very rewarding for me because I genuinely went on dates, hoping I would get a boyfriend. I didn't do them for the column, so when they didn't go well it was nice to feel there were other people out there who were having a similar experience. I once wrote about a wild holiday romance with an Argentine horseman and when I came back, I wrote a column entitled 'Holiday romance - is it worth pursuing?'. I had an avalanche of emails from readers the next day giving me advice. Everyone in New York has a dating tale to tell."

She concedes that Tabloid Love explores well-trodden terrain very familiar to fans of Sex and the City, but argues that the TV series' creator, Candace Bushnell, depicts a very different side of New York. Harrison says: "Candace wrote about a high-voltage, high-glamour New York. My book is much more girl-next-door. It was turned down quite a lot because they thought people had heard it all before. But I guess my answer is that if you go to a dinner party, by the end of the evening everyone is talking about their love lives.

"Bridget Jones was the first to show the angst that most single women have in their 30s and the worry about finding The One. Candace really celebrated the fabulous side of being a woman in your 30s, getting to the peak of your career and sexuality, with money to burn. My column was somewhere in the middle. Being single in your 30s in New York, you are either on an incredible high or there are times when you think you've missed the boat and maybe you should have married that wonderful guy you were going out with in your 20s. Instead you go home alone and drunk in a taxi."

Harrison vows her days of writing a dating column are behind her. "I've made a promise to myself that I would never again write a column about my love life. You have to come a decision that if you do, you may end up jeopardising it and at my age I can't afford to do that any more."

Tabloid Love by Bridget Harrison is published by Bantam Press