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Features

Somewhat dated

In a wired world, the way we meet partners or lovers has changed beyond recognition in a generation. Maddy Fry offers some practical advice for believers from the world of internet dating in all its mainstream, Christian or occasionally esoteric variations.

 

After several months of singledom, I'm straying back into the world of online dating. Like many Christians, I'd welcome the possibility of meeting other believers online. Yet popular websites like Okcupid. com, although they provide a range of options when it comes to listing your religious persuasion on your profile, come with the implication that being open about your faith will put people off.

The less said about other websites I've tried, including Mysinglefriend.com and Guardian Soulmates, the better. The implication in particular with the former, which operates a system where your friends extol your virtues to would-be suitors, is that if you are religious it will be a challenge preventing you from coming across as a Bible-thumper.

Okcupid.com offers the option of describing your religion as 'Christianity and laughing about it,' which is essentially a fudge. It leaves the potentially awkward issue of being a church-goer as something to be addressed casually in conversations later on, in my case in the hope that it will largely go unnoticed.

So far, I've found my best bet has been to label myself as 'Christian' on mainstream dating sites, mention next to nothing about it in any of the boxes containing descriptions of tastes, interests or aspirations, and pray I might stumble across someone who at the very least can admit there are factual flaws in God is Not Great.

 

THE NARROW ROAD

However, fleeing to Christian dating websites is rarely a straightforward alternative, as they are frequently hidebound by narrowness. Despite being heterosexual, on principle I'm uncomfortable with using sites that don't provide a space for gay and lesbian believers, which is the case with popular websites like ChristianMingle.com, LoveandSeek.com and ChristianFreeandSingle.com.

I'm also uneasy with the subtext underlying such sites, which is that the users will generally be drawn from quite specific branches of Christianity - more than likely the kind that frown not just on gay relationships and women priests, but also on pre-marital intercourse. As one wry review of Christian dating from a Daily Telegraph hack put it, "Don't expect sex on a first date."2

This was further illustrated by a recent study in the Christian Post, which claimed many Christian women attempting to find love online still complain that on non-religious sites, men expect them to flout their adherence to pre-marital abstinence and often choose to break off a relationship if the woman doesn't yield.3 Christian dating sites therefore seem to exist primarily for anyone wanting to completely shun everything the secular mainstream might have to offer.

Yet the same study in the Christian Post also showed that 61% of users on Christian Mingle felttheir beliefs didn't forbid pre-marital sex.4 For women on Christian dating sites who aren't waiting until marriage, this doesn't seem to be reflected in the men they encounter. While the dark stories of abuse and harassment that some women endure online have sadly become a routine risk of dating in cyberspace, the main gripe in the world of Christian dating seems to be, in the words of one journalist, that it's a universe populated by men who are "banal, pleasant and utterly devoid of irony or character," and who are "saving their first kiss for marriage."5

 

WIDENING THE PLAYING FIELD

There's arguably nothing wrong with strict parameters being in place if it's what you're looking for. After all, much like the brothel of Lord Baylish in the series Game of Thrones, the world of online dating exists to cater for almost every kind of preference so long as, in most instances, you can pay. Nowadays there are websites appealing to tastes as esoteric as uniform dating, for people wanting only to date those in the police/military/medical services, and pagan dating for practicing shamans, wiccans and druids.

Yet the choices are limited if, like me, you fundamentally want the same thing from a dating site as non-religious users do, just with the difference that you'd rather not be judged for wearing your faith, overtly or otherwise, on your sleeve any more than your political beliefs or opinions about music. In other words, if you want to meet other Christians who also like alcohol and sex, neither Christian or general websites are where you would go.

 

ANTI-GAY

The reasoning behind the exclusionary religious dating world often isn't even ideological. The website Christian Mingle is run by the commercial dating company Spark Networks that includes sites for Mormons and Jews (the latter of which does allow for gay matches). The decision to not make the Christian arm of the business open to same-sex soul-seekers was reported to have been the easiest way to avoid alienating believers opposed to homosexuality, which the Jewish corporation assumed was the "standard" demanded by the wider Christian community.6

In the case of the website eHarmony, CEO Neil Clarke Warren, a former member of the conservative US-based pressure group Focus on the Family, was forced by a court order to open up his dating service to lesbians and gays. The barrage of hostility eHarmony then faced as a result from conservative Christians led him to claim the emphasis on marriage equality had hurt his business financially.7 The message this seems to send out is that the sexual politics of religious online dating is a minefield best avoided.

Not all Christian dating websites take this approach, such as Christian Connection, which was launched at the Greenbelt festival in 2000. Yet the representation of gay believers on sites like Christian Connection is sparse, even though the website's founder, Jackie Elton, was keen to stress that they don't exclude gays.8 There is little about their advertising that isn't rigidly heterosexual, with all the photos on the homepage showing glitzy photos of straight couples with an emphasis on meeting in order to get married.

The same is the case for sites like Faith Dating, which despite allowing search options for gay and bisexual users, have no pictures on the website to support this. It's an approach that also holds little appeal to Christians who might want to meet either in a more casual capacity, or be seeking a long-term relationship without necessarily having a view to marriage.

 

FEW & UNIMPRESSIVE

A small number of websites marketed specifically at gay Christians do exist, but several prolonged browsing sessions showed them to often be poorly designed, kitted out with garish rainbow colours and sending my browser into spasms of protest over the amount of blocked pop-up adverts they generated. A former user told me he had been driven back towards mainstream online dating by sites such as Rainbow Christian, which would still charge a fee for sending messages, but were hampered by subscribers rarely logging in, and without offering a wide range of people to choose from. The latter in particular is one of the most basic selling points of dating in cyber space.

For those interested in trying to vary the selection on offer, the main stumbling block ironically seems to be that more gay and lesbian-friendly sites like Christian Connection are seen to have cornered the market in catering for every religious viewpoint. Commercially it therefore can appear to make little sense to invest in a project as niche as gay Christian dating. An illuminating example of this was when a friend of mine complained that the top options for any websites aimed at gay Christians would be full of his ex-partners.

 

VARIED PREFERENCES

Yet the reality is that Christians have as many romantic and sexual preferences as secularists. While there are many who wouldn't be comfortable expressing or acting upon them, in today's interconnected world, those who are have the ability to meet others like them more so than ever. Yet even Christian websites that claim to be broader in their appeal still opt for the 'safe' option of trying to appeal to traditional views of relationships, with the implication that for most believers it is the default option.

Similarly, although there are many online blogs discussing the theological underpinnings of 'Christian Kink,' as it's often referred to, the only website I could find for matching people up had been discontinued and archived several years ago.

The issue of trans-gender Christians, while still only cautiously being debated compared with LGBT believers, has an even smaller presence online. One of the few dating sites I could find contained little more than lists of links signposting to areas where cross-dressing and trans-gender Christians could find support, in an area labelled 'gay Christians' - even though issues around homosexuality and transgender identities are often separate and highly complex.

 

KITSCH OR SLICK

Other websites worked - that is, failed to - in similar ways, as well as often being clunky in structureand overly-reliant on gimmicky flashing banners and kitsch rainbow colour schemes. this was in stark contrast to the slick design of sites like Christian Mingle and Christian Connection. Sadly, the implication continues to be that those seeking love on the Internet are forced into choosing between their sexual preferences and their faith. Even in the 21st century, it seems as if the two are destined never to come together.

So what should the response be from anyone who might be wishing to broaden this particular area of cyberspace? The incident with eHarmony suggests that dating websites can change in response to external demands. If people feel that a Christian site is not providing a sufficient service, writing to it, and in the process requiring them to listen to the needs of their potential customers, is a positive step. After all, they are commercial operations like any other.

Furthermore, demand for specialist Internet dating services might indeed be lower from non-mainstream Christian groups; ignoring this, however, still makes little commercial sense, as it's now become widely accepted that dating websites can offer very specific niche products and services. If the online dating world can cater purely for those who love horse-related sports, or spouses who wish to cheat on their partners (see lovehorse.co.uk and ashleymadison.com respectively), professional services for a range of religious persuasions is an untapped market - whether simply for churchgoers with a more liberal attitude to sex or for committed believers from historically marginalised groups.

Ultimately, being bold enough to launch initiatives that effectively fill the gap in the market is key. Those willing to cash in would be wise to take advantage.

 

NOTES

1 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jun/03/society

2 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/reviews/4592706/ Valentines-Day-the-20-best-niche-dating-websites.html

3 http://www.christianpost.com/news/christian-datingculture- part-3-women-struggle-in-dating-scene-that-expectsopenness- to-premarital-sex-114465/

4 http://www.christianpost.com/news/christian-datingculture- part-1-majority-of-single-christians-reject-idea-ofwaiting- for-marriage-to-have-sex-114422/

5 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10920241/ Why-these-Christian-Muslim-and-Jewish-women-despair-atreligious- dating-sites.html

6 http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-02-28/ at-christianmingle-and-jdate-gods-your-wingman#p2

7 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/02/14/ christian-eharmony-founder-gay-marriage-damaged-ourcompany/

8 http://www.irishmirror.ie/news/irish-news/believers-makebetter- lovers-irish-5715217

 

Maddy Fry is a freelance journalist who has written on religion, politics and technology for the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman and Time magazine, and has appeared on Sky News, Channel 4 and Radio France International. She previously worked as a researcher for the religion and society think-tank Theos.