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A couple of months ago, I decided to sign up on today’s dating sites, encouraged by my friend Joan Price, a prolific and well-known sex educator. “It’s where the people are,” she said. I’m happy living alone now, but was getting stuck in my comfortable habits and wanted to loosen up my mind.

I was also curious how online dating had changed since the last time I’d indulged. In 2005, I leapt into the new online dating phenomenon. One way or another, I met dozens of men I would never meet in my everyday life: the mourning widower in rural Georgia, the oil rig worker who did gig work around the world, the researcher into gravity waves at the Goddard Space Center, a building manager in Glasgow, and many more. My first memoir, DARING TO DATE AGAIN, is all about that experience.

Today, I thought of myself as an investigator who could tell women of my age and status (82-year-old widow) what these sites are like. I signed up for three months on OKCupid,, Elite Singles, and OurTime.

In the first few days, I declined the propositions of two men, an emergency room doctor (66) and the supervisor of a large construction project (62), who proposed driving to my house RIGHT NOW!!!! One lived two hours away in New Hampshire, and the other two hours away in Vermont. They both wondered if they could spend the night because, you know, they couldn’t be expected to do all that driving in one day. My brain hasn’t yet completed the full list of reasons why I declined their offers.

Men in 2005 were often assertive, but they trod carefully. The 2024 men barged right ahead without so much as a by-your-leave. The ease with which they presented their propositions suggested that they had previously hooked up with female sex partners who didn’t care if you had anything in common, had been tested for disease, or had ever been arrested.

Age discrepancy apparently is not an issue in this casual network. Noting my age, the ER doctor queried whether my “feminine side was still working” (an arrogant question for a older male to ask) and entertained me with stories of his adventures all over southern Vermont, including a brief romance with a “hot 75-year-old retired teacher” familiar with coconut oil. (Some people consider that merely listening to such talk is disreputable, but I want to learn about all of life, not just what I approve of.)

I was raised with a set of “good manners” that often distanced and isolated me, but I find the “manners” of 2024 to be equally unhealthy. The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and that can go too far, but tearing down all the fences and wandering on your neighbor’s property at will is coarse, disrespectful, and dangerous.

After those initial experiences, I withdrew in shock, dubious that I was up to the challenges of online dating in 2024. But the arrival of a friendly message from “Peter,” a widower from Ottawa, reassured me, and I answered him. After a few exchanges, he revealed that he was a surgeon on assignment in Ukraine. If a military doctor had contacted me on Facebook, I would have blocked him instantly because fake military doctors are rife there, but Peter hadn’t baited me with his profession, so I took the opportunity to hear about Ukraine from the inside. Within a couple of days, I became suspicious of his preternatural dullness and asked him test questions that couldn’t be answered generically. Was it possible that this was an AI creation? He answered the questions I asked and posed a few of his own, but there was no spark of life in them.

I reported him to OKCupid who got back to me several days later to confirm that he was fraudulent. Our conversation was indeed an AI creation. Intellectually, being fooled by a robot, even if only briefly, was alarming. Emotionally, it affected me more strongly. Talking to a void is creepy. I still have my reaction to his cute dog in my head.

A few days later, informed me that “Philip,” was also fraudulent. Philip’s profile indicated that he was a widower and his “family was worried about me.” I am interested in sharing the unique experiences of widowhood, so I answered his “like.” He wasn’t as generic as “Peter,” so didn’t seem AI. I am left to conclude that there are many ways to be fraudulent. I’m told there are buildings full of fake humans in Ghana, or was it Nigeria, who are hoping that you’ll send them money. Nobody asked me for money; I was more suspicious they’d hack my systems and changed my passwords.

I later saw a photograph on another site that looked just like “Peter.” Who knows? He might have been real, but I had the feeling I was being stalked by phantoms.

The exploitation of online daters isn’t limited to fraud. There is a daily urging to “get out there,” “upgrade to see your messages,” “Don’t lose out on your 72-hour-window,” “It’s the weekend! The best time to meet someone new!” “It’s Rush Hour and you’ve got one Boost left!” and on and on. I ‘liked” someone today, and before I could see his profile, I was forced to exit two screens that invited me to spend an extra $9.99 a month to go to the top of people’s lists (whatever that means). Each site has figured out how to squeeze every last penny out of its subscribers. Dating is supposed to be fun. Turn it into a business transaction and all that’s left is the most coarse and crude segments of the dating experience.

These days, we’re all familiar with the feeling that we’re rats in somebody else’s experiment, but that feeling is extra unwelcome when it comes from a place where people are so vulnerable.

My bet is that many people besides me feel exploited on these online dating sites. Our dignity and fondest dreams are being manipulated. I’ve been around many, many blocks and have been wiped clean of many common illusions about Prince Charming, but I could not avoid being manipulated if I signed up. I was an unwilling training partner for an AI bot, a mark for increased profit, and a figure in a roving bordello. I’m 82 and remember the innocence of the first internet dating sites, but I doubt that younger people are inured to this kind of exploitation and manipulation.

There are a few great things about these sites in 2024. In 2005-2006 there was a binary sexual and gender spectrum; in fact, nowhere in public life was there anything other than a perceived binary spectrum. We’ve all learned a lot since then, and it shows. One man’s name (very blurry photo) is Brenda. James is wearing women’s clothes. Jeremy is delicate and polite as he gets to his question—Would I be interested in “cyberplay” with him and his girlfriend? Between 2005 and today, I’ve been educated about gender dysphoria and polyamory and welcome the broader spectrum on dating sites. I don’t have to connect with Brenda or James, and declined Jeremy’s polyamorous invitation. These people have always existed, and today, they are confident enough to announce themselves publicly, well, semi-publicly.

After a few months roaming around these sites, I’ve come to some conclusions. My bet is that more and more people are increasingly ready to search for their soulmate in person again. There are already many places to meet and have fun with new people, but they are filled with women. To resuscitate face-to-face encounters, more men need to show up. If they don’t like line dancing or pickleball or book groups or Sunday services, then I implore them to devise ways to fulfill their fondest dreams in person. The women will be there.