Catherine Townsend: Sleeping Around

I found him in a pair of fishnets...
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The Independent Online

A few days ago, I started receiving flirtatious emails from a lawyer who I met in cyberspace and who described himself as being in his mid-thirties, with a top City firm. Despite the fact that my finger was hovering over the delete button, I was intrigued. So I did what all my twenty and thirty-something friends in the dating trenches do when faced with a new crush - I Googled him.

A few days ago, I started receiving flirtatious emails from a lawyer who I met in cyberspace and who described himself as being in his mid-thirties, with a top City firm. Despite the fact that my finger was hovering over the delete button, I was intrigued. So I did what all my twenty and thirty-something friends in the dating trenches do when faced with a new crush - I Googled him.

Within five minutes I had a detailed profile of his firm and client list. I also found out that he works for the same firm as one of my best friends - in fact, he's her boss. So much for the anonymity of cyberspace.

But in a culture where knowledge is thought to equal power, search engines have become a way to gain advantage in a dating scene fraught with the rules of game theory. These days, it's all to easy to spend hours scoping out the object of our affections to find out if they have ever been published, arrested, or posted anything on Busted's fan club page. One of my ex-flings was a hot but moody, painter who switched off his phone for days at a time to "find his creative head space." With a bit of savvy searching using his e-mail address, I discovered that he had active profiles on several different dating sites - with his girlfriend, and the screen name XTASY IS 3. Not a good sign.

Google would have saved me a huge amount of time when I was a fresh-faced teenager smitten with a gorgeous Frenchman. A 0.32 second search would have revealed that my mysterious lover had a desk job with a trade union, not the CIA

These days, I can't imagine my life without the addictive rush of the search button. Two hours after meeting R, he was shocked to find out that I not only knew about his company, but where he lived, who his flatmates were and his penchant for dressing up as a jungle animal for charity runs.

But there is a danger of being turned off too early by unearthing unflattering information. I once had a date with a very nice screenwriter, but it was very difficult to look him in the eye knowing that he was a member of a cross-dressing club. Things may have been very different if I had been slowly introduced to the idea rather than stumbling across a picture of him in fishnets and heels.

And once you start digging for details of someone else's life, when does simple curiosity become creepy? Recently, I went with a male friend of mine to a housewarming party for a couple he knows who, after bonding over a mutual love of collecting miniature figurines, just moved in together. When I asked how they met, he pulled me to one side and said. "Look, no one knows this, but he actually really liked her for a long time, so he hired a private detective to find out her hobbies." When I tried to contain my shock, he said: "Well, we all check people out don't we? He just knew what he wanted and didn't want to take any chances."

Surrounded by the glassy stares of the Lilliputian statues, I started to wonder if manipulating relationships was a good idea after all. After all, 50 years is a hell of a long time to fake an interest in glassware.

And it's easy to forget that search engines work both ways. Although in some ways I'm lucky because I have a very common name, I've had some embarrassing things come back to haunt me. One date teased me about cheesy pics of me wrapped around a tree that were shot for a New York dating show.

Another brought up the fact that I'm a member of a pug dog club - and appear on their website wearing an angel costume.

I think that The Litigator may be a bit annoyed about my vetting system - "It's not even possible to engage in a little speculative email flirtation in this town," he mailed back after getting teased.

Despite the fact that we now know far too much about each other, we're meeting mutual friends for drinks next week. I just hope he doesn't find those damned angel photos.

c.townsend@independent.co.uk

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