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The commodification of intimacy

By Millsom Henry-Waring - posted Monday, 9 July 2007

The increasing popularity of online dating is self-evident. We live in a global consumer-oriented world. We appear to be comfortable with the idea of effectively shopping online for love. Yet something remains missing.

Instead of offering radically new options for connecting, online dating merely reinforces traditional forms of intimacy, where “man still meets woman” according to explicit and implicit social criteria. Some innovative online dating technologies can offer us a real opportunity to reshape the ways in which we connect intimately, but so far, any developments have been curbed primarily by the commercial interests of the online dating and to a lesser extent, technology industries. And this is a real failing.

We all know someone who has dated someone they have met online. Yes, we do. It is OK to own up - really. Everybody’s doing it. Online dating 21st century style might create an occasional titter or a knowing look, but there is no longer a deep-rooted social stigma attached to finding a partner online.


Unlike traditional forms of dating via newspaper ads, or introduction agencies, online dating is no longer viewed as an activity of sad, lonely, or desperate people. Such unflattering perceptions are firmly a thing of the past. More often than not, the image today is more likely to be a professional, mobile, technologically literate person who may be time and “intimate network” poor, but who has a thoroughly postmodern, consumer, criteria-driven idea of what to look for in a partner.

As a consequence, there has been an exponential rise in the number and type of online dating sites to meet and connect individuals with each other, both locally and globally. Today, most people meet and connect with someone through specific online dating sites such as RSVP, and LavaLife.

Many of these online dating sites charge an average monthly subscription of between $40-$50 for members. Members have to place a brief written profile (usually with a photo) of themselves online, based on a prescribed set criteria such as age, gender, “racial” heritage and occupational status. Members can then browse and search through the site to find likely matches. In addition, members can then contact each other via the sites’ many interactive communication tools such as email, chat and SMS services.

This is where online dating sites make money. It is big business. The online dating industry is a major global commercial enterprise. According to Jupiter Research in 2006, the online dating industry had a turnover over US$649 million.

As with most market-driven enterprises, the online dating industry has responded to demands from people with a diverse range of needs. There are now a plethora of niche or speciality sites, which attempt to cater for a wide range of preferences such as “race”, religion, sexuality and disability - such as,,, Planet Sappho or CupidCalls.

In addition, a number of online dating sites which claim to be more selective have emerged. These include sites such as eHarmony which aims to attract singles who are serious about finding a long-term partner based on highly selective and detailed compatibility measurements. And the site which endeavours to ensure that members are bona fide single people of good repute, with warnings about being sued if they are not. And more recently, the rise of online dating sites like Meet People With Herpes (MPWH), or Prescription4Love for people facing the stigma of special conditions, such as HIV or Herpes.


While all of these sites appear to be responding to demand and supply in the marketplace, they do raise more serious questions about the lack of any liberating or emancipatory vision for online dating. More on this in a moment.

Recently a number of economic commentators have claimed that the online dating industry has reached its financial peak. This is linked to the variable nature and quality of dating online and the unwillingness of singles to pay to remain online for the long-term. In addition, the emergence of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Udate, Club Intimate have enabled people to find, meet and connect, intimately or not, for free.

So what are the factors that have led to this change in perception and behaviour? They are many, but the key drivers are the developments in new technologies alongside fundamental global changes in our economy which are impacting not only on the ways we trade, but also more crucially on the ways in which we live. Sociologists such as Ulrich Beck, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and Anthony Giddens, have pointed out that there are now many more risks and far less certainties, in both our public and personal lives.

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About the Author

Millsom Henry-Waring is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne. Millsom's research and teaching interests are based around notions of visibility, difference, otherness, blackness and whiteness, specifically in the areas of identity, intimacy, popular culture, new technologies, nationalism and multiculturalism.

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