Ellie Levenson: Better to have loved and lost, even on the internet

A quick look at any online dating site will tell you that everyone is lying

Monday 21 November 2005 01:00 GMT

The online dating world has been rocked by claims in Los Angeles that dating companies have been paying women to go on sham dates with male subscribers to make the men think the site is generating results and thus renew their membership fees.

A man in his thirties who signed up to www.match.com, a web dating service that claims 12 per cent of American weddings began with an online introduction has launched a lawsuit accusing the company of fraud. He claims to be the victim of a scam he discovered after a "buxom, dark-haired, younger woman" that he had taken on several dates confessed to having been paid to make contact with up to 100 members a month.

At least in this case the accuser had some dates. In a separate case, an online dating service run by Yahoo has been accused of making up profiles of people who don't exist to make members believe that there are more singles on the market than there really are.

These alleged practices may at first seem pretty dodgy. After all, if you can't trust the dating agency how can you trust the people they set you up with. But this is merely the virtual world catching up with real life, where lying is an everyday dating occurrence, from conveniently forgetting to mention you have a partner and children at home to adjusting the tally of past relationships or presenting yourself in a light that friends wouldn't necessarily recognise ("Yes, I'd definitely say I'm happiest when helping others.") It's the virtual equivalent of being chatted up by an attractive man only to spot the telltale line where the wedding ring has been hastily removed.

A quick look at any online dating site will tell you that the truth is being rather liberally stretched by nearly everybody. If the profiles people write about themselves are to be believed then the country is jam-packed full of unattached men who love travelling to exotic places, are equally at home snowboarding down a mountain or snuggled up in front of the fire with the papers and a glass of wine, and who love film, world music, art, theatre, literature and cooking.

You have to ask yourself why, if this is true, we are a nation of obese couch potatoes who only leave the sofa to put a ready meal in the microwave and who buy enough comedy records to ensure that cartoon characters frequently top the music charts.

There are two great literary works I refer to when needing dating advice, and, if this were an online dating profile, they would illustrate I have "both a love of history and a fondness for late 20th century films." Both illustrate that truth and traditional ideas of romance are not necessarily the way to a happy heart.

The first is Chaucer's The Wife of Bath. Now she's not opposed to a bit of lying where necessary, and she should know, having had five husbands - "And alle were worthy men in hir degree" - and eagerly waiting for the next one - "Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal." Her advice, and it's advice that has been repeated in women's magazines ever since, is to retain an air of mystery until you have them hooked - "Thow seyst we wyves wol our vices hide, Til we be fast, and thane we wol hem shewe." Roughly translated this is the medieval equivalent of shaving your legs every day in the knowledge that it's an awful bore but you will be able to stop as soon as you've signed the marriage certificate.

My second source for dating advice is of course the cinematic great, Pretty Woman. A friend of mine tells me that in China this wonderful film about the true love between a poor but intelligent hooker with a heart of gold and a rich but emotionally damaged businessman has been renamed for Chinese audiences as I Will Marry a Prostitute to Save Money.

If this is true then the Chinese title misses the point, which is that you might think you're paying money for some gratuitous sex, or in the case of this online dating scandal, making someone believe they have scored a great e-date, but you never know when or where true love will strike.

Which is why it doesn't really matter if the accusations against the dating agencies are true. For although the lonely men and women who sign up need to trust that everybody else on the site is really on the market for dates, or else there must be some kind of trade description offence, the money element may just be what it takes to get two lost souls together. If this happens and the paid women fall in love with their duped dates, the Hollywood title for the film will no doubt be something like Serendipitous Liaisons. The Chinese version on the other hand will be something like I'm Paid to Make Him Feel Wanted. Both, in their own way, will be correct, and both will have happy endings.

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