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Calculating the risk: Online dating becoming a reality for African women professionals?

“I’ve just sent you an e-mail with the title “for our eyes only,” in the subject box, tell me what you think,” Menyiwe’s friend Emily whispered excitedly as she picked a document from the shared printer in their office.

Being a busy day Menyiwe had no time for personal mail and simply nodded before burying herself in work again. Three hours later, she got a moment to spare and respond to Emily’s barrage of follow up questions by looking at the e-mail. It was an advertisement for an online dating site. Naturally, her curiosity got the better of her and she was immediately tempted to survey the male subscribers.

“Mmmmmm, what kind of people subscribe to this?” she wondered as she tried to access the site’s database. Unfortunately, it was only accessible to members and her curiosity pushed her to apply for membership. She just could not resist the urge to look at these men who purported to be single and available. Perhaps Mr. Right was floating in cyberspace and just needed to be located.

A few hours later, Emily asked again, “have you seen my e-mail?” to which Menyiwe responded that she had even gone a step further and requested membership. “What? You’ve created an account already?” asked a surprised Emily, wondering if that was the reason Menyiwe had appeared so busy all morning. She was shocked but their collective curiosity spurred them on to the next steps. Two days later, their membership was approved giving them full access to the online dating site and its database of single men. Although payment was required at a later stage, while debating whether to pay or not, they at least decided to make full use of the available service.

Like children who had just received a new toy, they voraciously feasted their eyes on the site, not quite sure what to expect but hoping it would be good. There were some good looking men who seemed credible, although they appeared somewhat boring sitting behind desks in their suits.

“Probably the reason they need assistance through cyberspace,” Emily remarked as she surveyed the profiles. She noticed that Menyiwe had become rather quiet and serious. “Well?” she said, urging Menyiwe to share what was on her mind.

“What if it works? What if the boring look is a sign that this person is worth taking seriously? Perhaps one can settle for a boring looking guy then introduce him to more exciting activities,” Menyiwe replied.

The profiles on the site were sobering and triggered some serious evaluation of the ladies’ views and values on matters such as dating in general and online dating in particular. Beyond looking at the men’s profiles for potential dates, they looked at those of women for comparison and as a point of reference. They wanted to see what kind of women subscribed to the site before risking their reputations. The duo was stunned when they realized they could identify with the women on the site and reading their profiles was like looking in the mirror.

It seemed these were perfectly normal people who just wanted someone to love and share their lives with just like Emily and Menyiwe, which was perfectly normal. Most of them were clearly high achievers who were probably top of the class at school and were likely to receive the worker of the year award. So, why were they not hitched? Probably for the same reason as Emily, Menyiwe and their whole list of friends who lived at work, had very busy schedules and had few chances of meeting eligible partners.

The question though, was how seriously could one take online dating? How much information could people give without putting themselves at risk in case things did not work out? How safe was it to post one’s photograph? What if someone who knew either of them picked up their profile and decided to play silly games? These were matters of the heart – a rather delicate organ which could not be tampered with – so how much protection did they really have? Was it really possible to meet someone credible through an online site? What if the two girls were serious and were taken for a ride by people who just wanted to have a bit of online fun? How much could you trust someone you met through an online dating site? What if the other party was just good at marketing but turned out to be a pervert, stalker or human trafficker looking for prey? These were all valid questions that arose as the two friends pondered on the issue.

Yet, at the same time, there was a world of possibilities. What if they met people who were as sincere as they were and ended up in happy relationships? Surely, they had heard and read some good stories on the positive outcomes of online dating - just as they had come across some harrowing accounts too. Life was, afterall, a gamble and there was a 50/50 chance of either outcome.

How different was an online date from a blind date if one removed the aspect of cyberspace? Menyiwe recalled how she had sampled some blind dates organized by her cousin when she needed a date for the school leavers’ dance. Similarly, how different was meeting online from bumping into someone at a party and exchanging contact details then getting to know each other from there? Surely, this was no different.

The world had evolved and perhaps it was time for the girls to wise up and embrace change. As their years multiplied, prospects of meeting potential suitors dwindled and now they were prompted to seriously re-examine their perceptions and values on dating. There was a time when neither of them would have considered dating sites and they still had friends who would scoff at the idea. The very act of viewing an online dating site was seen as a sign of desperation and considered an embarrassment among their circles. Yet when Emily and Menyiwe considered their reality and thought seriously about their empty love lives, online dating seemed to be a viable option.

Most of their friends had met their spouses at school, in college or through work. However, after the age of 30, the pickings had become trimmer and the majority of men they met were already committed. In addition, the two ladies’ lifestyles created very little room for social interaction. Like many single professionals, Emily and Menyiwe spent most of their time online, so perhaps this was a practical platform to meet potential partners.

Their present reality did not offer too many spaces for single people to meet, converse and discover common interests, an opportunity that one could get from scrolling down a profile online. Their predictable routines, marked by late hours during the week, a girls’ outing on Saturday and Church on Sunday virtually made it impossible to meet people. Chances of meeting someone at work were pretty slim, most of their associates were married and it was probably difficult for the few single ones to broach the subject. Besides, it was generally assumed that women their age would be married with children. The two ladies suspected that single men found it difficult to approach a woman in a group during the girls’ outings and on Sundays at church, the men were too busy being holy to notice them. So, that left the ladies with no choice but to be resourceful and try other avenues like the world wide web.

The two friends concluded that in life one must take calculated risks. Life is a series of decisions – most of which are sometimes risky but you never know until you try. In all this, there was always the probability that things would either work out or fail drastically. They figured that anyone who was willing to put some money into online dating by paying a membership fee surely must have a degree of seriousness. So, with this in mind, they calculated the costs, paid their membership fee, updated their profiles and took the plunge. They would give this online dating a chance. After all, what could they possibly lose?

By Matilda Moyo
3 June 2010

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