[23 April 2007]
First, a confession: I am now and have for a very long time been an advocate of Internet dating. I met my ex-wife on the Internet, back in the seemingly prehistoric days of the late ‘90s, in a time before dating sites had become a fact of daily life and the notion of meeting—actually meeting a real life person—online was still an outlandish fantasy for most. Then a funny thing happened. In the last decade, computers have become so ubiquitous that they have infiltrated every aspect of modern life. What seemed, just a few short years ago, a distant futuristic gimmick has already become accepted practice. Used to be that if I mentioned the fact that I had met my wife online, people would look at me like an exotic zoo animal, but now, it’s more rare to encounter someone who hasn’t either used Internet dating themselves or knows someone who does. My wife and I divorced a while back, and in the few years between my marriage and divorce it was amazing to see just how far Internet dating had advanced. I’m happy to say that I make use of Internet dating almost exclusively in my perpetual search for a mate: computers have been a godsend for those of us not naturally endowed with gregarious, outgoing personalities (AKA shy sad sacks).
Sean Thomas’ story begins with a rather less sanguine approach to the subject. Alone and lonely in his late 30s, Thomas is cajoled into the world of Internet dating by his editor, who hopes not only for an article on the subject but to inspire some kind of romantic renaissance in his dejected employee. Thomas is skeptical: after all, what kind of women use Internet dating, anyway? The entire thing seems more than slightly dodgy on the outset. He begins tentatively, first dipping his toe into the pond before eventually wading in to the deep end of the pool. For those of us who have been in the trenches, all the hallmarks are here: the pointless dates without any chemistry, the good dates that eventually fizzle into nothing, the folks who simply disappear for no apparent reason, the folks who seem for a moment to be simply too good to be true (and invariably are).
It would be a mistake to pick up Millions of Women expecting a mere social study on the subject of Internet dating. The book is, most importantly a memoir, detailing not only Thomas’ current adventures in Internet dating but illustrating his entire dating history. These frequent digressions add something in the way of emotional heft to what could otherwise have been a fairly callow catalog. The portrait of Thomas that emerges from his own story is not entirely flattering. He has, over the course of a long and eventful life, had sex with far more women than you or I probably ever will (not even counting prostitutes, the subject of which gets a whole chapter to itself). He is such an oversexed specimen that there are many points at which the reader will be hard-pressed to muster any sympathy whatsoever, especially those of us men (probably the vast majority of us men) who will be lucky to ever see a fraction of as much sex as Thomas describes here.
Thomas’ arc is both inevitable and no less gratifying, essentially a Nick Hornby book masquerading as a memoir. Thomas is, over the course of the book, brought face-to-face with the shallowness of his own self-serving behavior, the shortsightedness of the empty pleasure-seeking that marked much of his life, and the universality of his discontent. Internet dating offers the user, among other things, a rather unflattering view of their own desires, by allowing a person to select for just those things which they personally are attracted to, at the exclusion of just about everything else. The picture of his own desires, which emerges from his experiment, is not flattering, but it is more or less honest. A date with a women measurably more intelligent than himself brings him face to face with his own intellectual limitations; a date with a women who prefers anal sex forces him to confront his deep-seated and uncharacteristic distaste for sodomy; a disastrous fling with a much wealthier professional woman places his own insecurities about money front and center. In the end, he—and we—are left wondering if all this enforced self-examination has achieved anything other than placing the bar immodestly high for his own prospective happiness.
The funny thing about Internet dating—which Thomas so ruefully illustrates—is just how fast these things happen. A good dating site can sometimes provide matches so quickly that the unwary dater can be fooled into thinking that the surplus of choice entitles them to be choosy. This is, of course, not true, and the flipside of this is an extremely unattractive desperation which Thomas encounters firsthand (in the form of a brush with a Chinese stalker). More than once Thomas is given to bouts of serious existential regret on the subject of his dating promiscuity: the potential field of millions of potential dates offers him such a staggering array of choices that, for the first time in his life, he has the opportunity to winnow his options. But, he wonders, is this a good thing? Does the fact that he can now specifically select for slight, pixie-ish women with submissive personalities and resolutely middlebrow tastes mean that he necessarily should? Is the love of his life waiting just behind the next door, a six-foot-tall Amazon intellectual?
If there is any saving grace to be found, it is in Thomas’ keen awareness of his own boorishness. As I said, the portrait is not entirely flattering, and Thomas’ own problems—in terms of his straightened intellectual horizons, his sexual adventurousness, his class anxiety and his occasional lapses into beer-soaked chauvinism—form the arc of his character. Most importantly, Millions of Women illustrates how it is possible for a man to change—to realize that his priorities in life have shifted, that his long held presuppositions have faded—and to act accordingly; in other words, to grow up. For all the times you find yourself staring in mute disbelief at Thomas’ foibles, there are probably an equal number of times you will find yourself nodding in agreement. Despite his enviously oversexed existence, there is something refreshingly universal about Thomas’ adventures. People do stupid things in the pursuit of love and lust, and if you haven’t then you’re lying.
As much as the subject matter held an innate appeal to me, Thomas’ narrative voice was strong enough to propel the book past the initial novelty. In my experience, his assessment of the online dating world, with all its pitfalls and shortcomings, is completely accurate. But more importantly, his glimpse of the world underneath the facade of millions of misleading personal ad photos is instantly recognizable: people, all kinds of people, just trying to get by and find something to give meaning to their atomized existences, albeit in the most divisive way possible. That he manages, by the book’s end, to find some kind of equanimity in the face of these (seemingly) overwhelming odds is a testament to just how hard it can be to break down the barriers of judgment and fear that separate us from our fellow humans, and serve to make love the most elusive goal of all.