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Farmers, Sea Captains, and White People

Tech & Innovation | February 8, 2016

“Online dating for beautiful people only!”

“Meet divorcees, single moms, and sexy singles looking for a young stud.”

“Everybody loves a clown…let a clown love you.”

If any of these sound appealing, you are like millions of other Americans who have found niche dating sites like DarwinDatin.com, CougarLife.com, ClownDating.com, or FarmersOnly.com. You can be sure that each one of your matches will be much younger than you, or really into fitness, or also a clown like you.

In recent years, the use of niche dating sites has been growing. Whereas a traditional dating site may leave a user feeling overwhelmed with options, there has been a rise in online platforms that prioritize specific traits including religion, political beliefs, dietary restrictions, sexual preferences, or any other number of “niche” qualities someone might desire in a partner. Of the 1500 plus dating sites that exist today, many cater to a specific customer base.

What niche sites provide is a trimmed down, less diverse field of matches. It seems as if Tinder gave us the world, and then the market asked for less of it. Generally based around a single trait, these sites theoretically eliminate a user’s chance of running into a mate incompatible with their major interest. For example, those who feel that marijuana usage is a defining part of their life may use 420dating.com to connect with a partner who also has a love for weed.

Given the diversity of human interests, there are an incredible number of different niche dating sites. According to Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine, one reason for this variety is that these niche sites are not necessarily competitors with the large market share sites. This makes the sites seem like a more reliable investment, since their user base is usually dissatisfied with the bigger websites.

“The typical profile on Match.com or eHarmony says, ‘I like long walks on the beach, and I want to find my soulmate,’” said Spencer Koppel, founder and owner of Geek2Geek. “Geeks really want to know, ‘What kind of video games do you play?’ or ‘Do you go to Renaissance fairs?’” And so arose sites like DateCraft for World of Warcraft players, and Cupidtino for Apple enthusiasts.

There are sites for almost any demographic you can think of. What began with religion-based sites like JDate in 1997 and ChristianMingle in 2001 has expanded to include Veggie Date for vegetarians, Purrsonals.com for cat lovers, and the self-explanatory, if slightly confusing, SeaCaptainDate.com. If it’s your partners’ political ideology that matters most, go to DemocraticSingles.com, ConservativeDatingSite.com or even Atlasphere, for Rand thumping libertarians. Or, if you want to prioritize your sex life even more in your dating, there are (or were) Ashley Madison and its likeness, Gleeden.com, or WaitingTillMarriage.com, or KinkyDatingSites.com.

The appeal of these dating sites seems very, well, human. In a survey conducted by the Tufts Observer, students at first were very averse to the idea of a niche dating site. When respondents were asked if they would consider signing up for a niche site, 36.8 percent chose “HAHA no” and 47.4 percent chose “maybe when I’m like 30 and lonely.” However, when presented with specific names of niche dating sites, students were more open to considering them. It seems that idea of these unique sites is more intimidating than the reality.

Further survey responses indicate why this is the case. “People are attracted to similar people,” wrote one respondent. “People are lonely and don’t get enough exposure to people like them,” wrote another. These rationales make sense, especially when one considers the potential isolation of some careers—farming, sea captaining, flight attending—and how these people might look for the advantages of a niche site.

While such expansion in dating variety certainly provides an unprecedented freedom of choice, it also raises new questions of ethics. This summer, Ashley Madison became even more of a household name when the names of users were leaked. The existence of a niche dating site for those looking to have extramarital affairs shocked the American public. More shocking was that this preference is not so niche, as over 30 million user accounts were leaked this past summer.

As with other niche dating sites, signing up for Ashley Madison means consciously acknowledging that one factor of a relationship is more important than the rest—in this case, the chance to have an affair. As opposed to a rather benign site like Geek2Geek, Ashley Madison didn’t seek to connect like-minded individuals—it streamlined, and perhaps encouraged, extramarital affairs. Such widespread acknowledgement forces us to question the reality of societal opinions on cheating—are we really against it, or do we all say we’re against it because this is the status quo?

However, the use of niche dating sites doesn’t counteract a common phenomenon on Internet dating sites—lying. Since lying on the Internet is so thoughtlessly easy, some users of niche dating sites have chosen to misrepresent themselves. A 2014 article from The Atlantic reported several instances of what the author calls “interloping”—creating an account on a niche dating site whose niche does not really apply to you. Many of the examples cited were of white men in heavily white areas joining BlackPeopleMeet.com in order to meet black women. The author also found examples of users without children joining sites for single parents, and Catholics signing up for JDate.

This masquerading in order to access a distinct group of people for your dating life hints at one of the larger problems with the proliferation of niche sites: they create and maintain expectations and stereotypes about demographics and groups of people. The white man who signs up for BlackPeopleMeet.com clearly has some expectation of what black women are like, and feels that somehow his needs will be met only by people who meet that expectation. This fosters a particularly unhealthy view of society, one where the box you check on a census assigns you not only a racial identity but also a set of personality and character traits.

These problematic assumptions of potential partners presents another ethical issue surrounding niche dating sites—racism. WhitePeopleMeet.com exists. To sign up for WhitePeopleMeet.com is to consciously decide that a partner’s racial location is the most important. This general exclusion of all people of color, because it is so sweeping, must rely on unfavorable stereotypes and a misguided belief in the purity and endangering of the white identity.

“These white people might feel the need to make things ‘fair,’” said one survey respondent, “What the users of this site and others don’t realize is that, in reality, they will continue to dominate most dating sites and spaces, unless people of color carve out sites for themselves and create their own power.” This is why WhitePeopleMeet.com and blackpeoplemeet.com should not be treated as separate but equal—one continues a system of power, and the other subverts it. It is very possible that our subconscious racism plays into our every Tinder swipe or romantic decision because of how deeply ingrained they are.

So how do we, Tufts students, approach the world of niche dating? Most of us seem happy to stick to Tinder for a while. In the Observer survey, Tufts students seemed lukewarm to the idea, citing in their responses their age and apathy towards finding a lifelong partner at this point in time. Others thought the whole idea was pretty weird. As one respondent wrote, I would only consider a career site because perhaps that is something where I would have something already to talk about with a partner. Everything else just seems crazy.”