Everyone knows someone who has tried online dating. Was it fabulous for them? Perhaps from the outside looking in. From inside, it can be rather dingy and depressing. Speaking personally, there may be other 65-year-old women who are having a blast. I am not.
It’s been a year since my last online dating experience. A promising (somewhat younger) man who was clearly turned on to me, disappeared in a puff of smoke after a very brief affair.
Here’s how it works. You begin with a profile, trying to make yourself stand out from the crowd—cheerful, attractive and interesting. You are encouraged to post pictures of yourself doing fun stuff. In my age bracket, there are lots of photos of men with their cars, their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. Of course, when you begin to read through the profiles of the potentials whose photos are appealing (in my case, no dogs or cars), they seem dismally similar. Comfortable in a tux or jeans. Loves to cuddle by the fire drinking wine (does everyone have a functioning fireplace?). Works out every day, cycles, skis, loves to travel…
Then, if you finally find someone literate and interesting, you work up the courage to send a message and… Well, like my last go round, it may result in a rushed first coffee date with enthusiastic follow-up. Or, you get nothing. If you’re lucky, you get a civil “thanks, but no thanks.” What feels worse is a flurry of messaging back and forth, and then nothing. I am told that the lack of etiquette is the etiquette of online dating.
Sometimes you get a date—or a few with the same person. Sometimes you have a short-term or even longer-term relationship; and then it’s back to online dating, unless you meet a real, honest-to-goodness long-term partner, which for some is the ultimate, seemingly unattainable end game.
So what does all this have to do with sexual health?
Well, for one thing, it can be very hard on one’s self-esteem. Unless you have a very thick skin, being ignored—or worse, rejected—can be hard to take. Some people check their sites obsessively to see who has looked at their profile, or to scroll through potentials; others casually take a peek from time to time. Lately, I’ve been weaning myself off, only checking in when there is some action (So and so wants to meet you! You’ve got a new message!).
The other issue is safety. I don’t mean avoiding axe murderers or con men/women, but sexual safety. If you do meet someone, and go the “first base, second base” route ending up in bed, there is the tricky question of protection. Being a sexual health educator, I am more aware than most of the risks of non-condom use. Having preached communication for my entire career, I can finally discuss both condom use and testing with someone quite easily. I can also weigh the risks of activities like oral sex without a condom. I doubt that this is the case for most women who are relatively new to the dating game.
As I explained in my article on older women and sexuality, while it is hard enough for younger people to negotiate safer sex because of embarrassment or an inability to assert themselves, an older woman whose long-term relationship ended because of separation or death, has not had to deal with STI prevention for years, if ever. One cannot make the assumption that this previous long-term relationship was necessarily mutually monogamous. That, and a newly discovered zest for hanky-panky have resulted in an increase in STIs for baby boomers.
One should not entirely dismiss the potential for sexual assault or emotional abuse. I shocked a friend once by putting myself in a risky situation. Google can give you some sense of a person after you meet on a site and you eventually exchange full names and e-mail addresses. I recently visited a potential’s Facebook page and discovered he was a right-wing racist. That certainly killed the mood. Of course, a really good con man or woman can create a fictional bio with relative ease. There are many cases of people being bilked of their pensions by imaginative suitors. It can be hard to find a reasonable balance between vigilance—watching for red flags—and relaxing into what seems like a trustworthy relationship.
It isn’t easy to meet a potential partner offline—as in real life. You have to ascertain that the person is interested at some level and then figure out if they are attached. Attempting to find that out can be embarrassing and tip your hand. And while you may want someone to “fix you up” with their dentist, for others it’s the kiss of death.
Yes, it sounds like a game and I suppose, in some ways it is. But games are supposed to be fun. The online dating game: not so much. The bottom line is that you already have a life. A partner will not create your life, although they may enrich what you have. So, approach your keyboard with caution and a sense of irony. Getting lucky may end up being no more than maintaining your status quo.