Even though online dating is widespread and fairly socially acceptable these days, there is something a little humiliating to me about having succumbed to it. I still haven’t gotten used to the idea of putting myself out there in this, “Hey, look at me, don’t you want to date me?” way. Every time I log in, a little burst of shame rushes through me as I wonder, does this qualify me for the adjective “desperate?” Then there is the ever-present fear that one of my parishioners will come across my profile. It’s one thing for them to think of me as someone who dates, and yet another to find me being advertised on the internet meat market. None of these irritations, however, are the real reason I am seriously considering pulling the plug on my online dating life. The real reason is that I have come to a conclusion about internet dating for ministers (or at least for this minister).
It is impossible to let a relationship develop in a way that even vaguely resembles natural if you are clergy, because of one factor: sex.
If the indignity of the whole enterprise isn’t enough for you, when your profile lists your occupation as “Minister,” you tend to be subjected to a whole other line of questioning. Allow me to give a recent example from my own experience. I received a first inquiry from a fairly promising candidate. A quick perusal of his profile told me that he was able to construct a grammatically correct sentence, which automatically boosts him to the top 5% of online daters. His first message included topics of substance and reasonably successful attempts at humor, which easily raises him into the top 2% range. But there it was, mid-message, my favorite question: “What are your practices/guidelines for sex and sexual relations?”
Let me clarify, it’s not that this is an entirely unreasonable question. Sex is important, and I understand the desire not to get involved with someone who is going to turn out to be a nun. But did you maybe want to know my real name before you ask if I’d be willing to jump into bed with you? Even the infamous song asks if you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain before it gets around to making love at midnight on the dunes of the Cape.
This is the question that comes up every time, without fail, usually in the first communication, always by the second. Always before we’ve actually met, or even talked on the phone. Because they don’t know me yet, because the conversation is still an exchange of data at this stage, there is no opportunity for nuance in my answer. I can play coy or I can be evasive, both of which turn my stomach, or I can try to give the complete answer that is overly complicated for initial communication and makes it seem like I’m being evasive anyway.
Behind all of this lurks the additional truth that I’m not even sure I know what the answer is. The S.S. Premarital Abstinence sailed long ago, and it is not returning to port. I don’t believe sex that doesn’t happen in the context of marriage is necessarily sinful (nor do I believe that sex that happens within a marriage is inherently right). At the same time, I don’t share the predominant sexual values expressed by my generation: the almost predatory search to get it where you can, as often as you can; the assumption that “good sex” is about your repertoire of sexual positions; the incessant message to women that the only way to keep a guy is to have sex, a lot of sex, and really exciting sex with him. How do I say all of that to some guy online who is looking for a quick yes or no?
So I think about what I would say to the young women with whom I work, who struggle to have healthy relationships in a world that expects them to be sexually promiscuous, and labels them as repressed prudes if they put off sex beyond the third date – or sometimes the first. I think about the young men who want a meaningful, long-term partnership, but can’t respect the women they date because they jumped into bed before they even knew each other – which is what he said he wanted at the time. I wonder where they are to look for guidance in a Church that doesn’t seem to have realized yet that most of us don’t get married by age twenty anymore, that women are no longer property whose virginity needs to be protected so paternity can be determined, or that the old message we’ve given our teenagers of “Don’t have sex and don’t put yourself in a situation where you might want to” barely works when you’re a teenager, let alone when you’re twenty-five, or thirty-five, or seventy. How are they supposed to develop a sexual ethic that helps them on the path toward being whole and balanced individuals with a variety of healthy relationships? And once they have it, how are they supposed to communicate that to others who will likely assume that they’re either going to get it on at the first available opportunity or lock themselves up in a cloister?
I’m still pulling my online dating profile, but on second thought, maybe I don’t have it so bad. At least people ask me what I think about sex. At least being clergy gives me an “excuse” to have a set of values that wouldn’t fit into the pages of Cosmo. At least I get to talk about it before I’m being dumped because I won’t put out the second time we meet. Listing my occupation as “Minister” doesn’t make things easy or comfortable, but it gives me the opportunity to make a decision. I suspect most of the people behind those profiles are never even asked.