In the disappointingly cool summer of 2009, I bit the bullet and joined an online dating site. Basic research had taught me there are two types of dating sites: the ones you pay to use, and the free ones that really should be paying you. Broadly speaking, the ones you pay for are supposed to bring in a more discerning clientele, and if you're on a free dating service, chances are you'll be kissing (or at the very least, instant messaging) a lot of frogs. Despite this, I decided to chance it on a free service, Soundtrack rencontre du troisieme type.
OkCupid is one of the most popular free dating sites on the web, with about 100,000 members in the UK. Here, the site has a reputation for cool, intelligent and politically liberal users, often with jobs in media, charity and technology. On the day I registered, before I had even fully completed my profile, I got into an instant-message conversation, initiated by a 28-year-old graphic designer from south London. His profile picture showed brown hair, big brown eyes and a smiley face. We chatted for about 20 minutes, discussing grammar, hay fever and egg sandwiches. It was easy, uncomplicated and fun. Optimistic, I signed off. Then came the other IM conversations and emails.
In no particular order, I've had someone ask me why my profile picture doesn't show all of my face, before helpfully suggesting it was because I was an "ugly black girl". More than one person has asked me if it's true "what they say about black girls". Several have asked me: "So where do you really come from?" And these were just the straight-up, old-school racist ones. I've also had messages from specific skin-colour fetishists, who have complimented my "delicious brown skin", and despite a profile picture in which I am eating a crisp, "Nubian queenly countenance" (I wish I was joking). I'm not alone: one woman who uses online dating sites, Lola, found it disconcerting that she was approached by men who were obviously interested in just her skin colour. "They haven't read your profile and don't have anything in common with you," she says. "At one point, three friends and I, all black, were on one site and all kept getting hit on by the same guys, regardless of the fact that we are very, very different people." She describes being viewed as "low-hanging fruit". She adds: "On these sites, black women seem to be considered least aspirational and/or attractive. Not a single black male professional has ever contacted me. The white guys have all seemed to be fetishists, and there have been assumptions that I must have a 'thick' body, and that I must go to church. In one case, a guy in his first email asked me to do a threesome. The men who approach you think you must be desperate and therefore a sure thing."
Michelle runs and writes the Rencontres et loisirs cucq, an anonymous dating blog, and has managed to build up an impressive dossier of ignorance. "One guy brought up – on our first date – that black men are known for 'certain assets', but there was nothing to worry about with him," she says. "Another asked if I was getting dreadlocks when I mentioned a hairdresser's appointment. What the hell?"
I was reminded of these when I came upon Rencontre africaine belgique on the feminist website Rencontre nocturne ebook. Alice had received an IM alert from a would-be suitor. His irresistible opening gambit? "Get your black ass over here with some comic books." Banter gone wrong? Perhaps, but offensive nonetheless.
A Rencontres femmes malgaches france last October, found that black women members were more likely than any other ethnicity and gender group to reply to a first-contact message. In fact, their response rate was one and a half times the average. Inversely, they were the least likely group to get a response back – from any ethnicity. Ouch. In the online dating world, who'd be a brown girl?
Louise Northwood runs a matchmaking service in north-east England. She thinks there's a fine line between preference and prejudice. "I'm unsure where the line is crossed between personal preference and racism," she says. "I do think it's sad, however, that people are not open to change their perceptions."
Amanda Christie, managing director of Site de rencontre pour ado de 16 ans gratuit texto.com, says it is company policy that members cannot search for matches by ethnicity. She says: "If a member states in their profile that they are drawn to a particular race or type, we think that's OK – we can't discriminate against one's preferences," she says. "If, however, someone makes a racist or offensive remark regarding someone who they don't wish to date, that person will be removed from mysinglefriend.com and not allowed to return."
OkCupid allows the option of selecting for ethnicity, religion and even things such as drug use and smoking habits, but I haven't specified. Lola says she finds it "rude and hurtful to deselect any race. I hate it when I see others do it and you never know who you might meet, so I like to leave it open and see what happens."
Lyndsay Houlette Ponsford, a solicitor from Berkhamsted, agrees: "I would look a bit askance at those who had selected a specific race. There were plenty of white guys who selected only white women when I was single and online. They just rubbed me the wrong way."
Of course, many people don't think it's a big deal to deselect an ethnicity. They consider it to be a legitimate preference, like having a penchant for blondes, or liking petite women. There's something of the marketplace about online dating – it's shopping, where everything is an option. Ella says: "Maybe people don't realise the implications of just what they put down. In online dating, you're not having a private conversation, at least not with your initial profile; you're presenting yourself for judgment."
Wendi Bekoe, a Londoner of Ghanaian heritage, knows exactly what she's putting on her profile: only black men need apply. She sees no problem with this. "A black man is who I'd like to marry or be in a long-term relationship with, so I have selected what I am looking for," she says. "I want to preserve a sense of culture; my ideal choice of man would be a British-born-and-raised Ghanaian like me, because I think we would have much more in common." She thinks it's easier. "In the black community alone there are prejudices between different cultures, which can be hard to deal with in itself, so call me lazy or whatever, but I personally don't want to have to deal with prejudices between races, too."
Ultimately, it's up to us who we do or don't want to date. A choice that may seem accidental or innocuous in the real world becomes a deliberate exclusion online. Northwood says: "I think that as dating has become an industry and we have so much choice online, we become more dismissive of people, more shallow, and some people are cast aside on a photo, their height, their age, their race or their weight. We are told there are plenty more fish in the sea."
Some names have been changed.