And so the “singles” of this world broadcast their dreams and intentions—not only to friends, but in print or online. Over the second half of the twentieth century, the personal ad industry has become economically buoyant and socially mainstream. It no longer hides itself. Online dating is a multimillion-dollar industry; in 2002 it grossed $300 million in the United States alone. Few Internet industries aside from travel and pornography surpass the dating business in revenue. A website like Match.com was visited by some twelve million people each day in 2007, and each month, some twenty to forty million Americans visit a dating website. In the United Kingdom alone, six million people had participated in one, and according to a U.K.-based study of the same year, 94 percent of those who had initiated a serious online relationship went on to meet in the real world, often after having chatted online and then spoken on the phone. The newest communication technology gradually leads back to the earliest, and then, if all goes well, to no technology at all. It is hard to calculate how many of these couples turn into long-lasting relationships, since no survey can predict future outcomes. But some do last a significant number of years. As for the marital success rate of relationships initiated online, the data are not clear. One can only presume that the percentage differs little whether one met in the street, at a party, through work, through friends or family, or indeed, online.
Anonymity remains, as always, the mark of personals: intimate qualities and fantasies can be broadcast to the world only insofar as the person they represent is invisible. There is a profound difference between the language used to attract a potential conjugal mate and that used to titillate erotic curiosity and initiate an exclusively sexual encounter—as a number of Internet dating sites put it, between those looking for Mr. or Mrs. “Right” and those looking for Mr. or Mrs. “Right Now.” The latter’s straight language is akin to that used by professionals of the sex industry, some less licit than others, who offer a commodity, a consumable product that feeds on ever renewable longing and need. One can offer, or sell, or cry out for “the right stuff,” “erotic therapy,” “full-body touch,” “uninhibited, kinky fun,” and “fetish and S&M,” as long as the ad reads, “Discretion assured.” On the other hand, highbrow magazine ads that participate in the effort to change one’s life by Meeting Someone can be notoriously entertaining for stray outsiders. Many readers of The New York Review of Books tend to hover to those famous last pages where, after the curt, to-the-point ads for the euphemistically named “personal services,” are novelistic self-descriptions of character and achievement that seem to reflect the ethos of success, self-sufficiency, and happiness in whose absence no appropriate partner would deign to respond, but whose presence often accompanies emotional and sexual loneliness. A majority of the advertisers are heterosexual women, often “sleek and strong,” “intelligent and witty,” “thoughtful and sensitive,” “fit and slender,” “striking and spirited,” enamored of “the arts and ideas,” “highly accomplished,” sometimes armed or burdened with Ph.D.’s, sometimes with divorce, sometimes with both.
Personals in London papers such as the Guardian are replete with acronyms such as “gsoh” (“good sense of humor”), while those in the London Review of Books offer a unique, popular read, displaying verbal articulacy and offbeat imagination rather than external achievement. Some advertisers may be looking for “afternoons of lusciousness” and nothing more (or less), but most thrive on the opacity of words, composing playful texts such as, “Newly divorced man, 46, looking for a woman to 50 who doesn’t conclude sexual intercourse with Queen Elizabeth I’s rebuke to Cardinal Wolsley.” Or, “Aardvark lover, M, 37. Not really. I just put that hoping to be at the top. Non-aardvark lover seeks F with similar interests.”
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