Virginia Vitzthum does a wonderful, comprehensive, entertaining job of exploring the benefits and consequences of looking for sex and relationships via the Internet. In an engaging style she tells the stories – some inspiring, some dismaying, and some thought-provoking – about individuals and couples who have used Internet sites to hook up. She then dissects what went right and wrong in the hookups. Some of the people profiled are looking for love, others for sex. Some find it, some don’t. Many lie. Appropriately she begins and ends the book with her own experiences.
During this two-part interview I wanted to explore some of the concepts raised in her book, which comes out this month.
Some writers when talking about subjects like deceit online can seem quite stuffy. If you don’t want to take my word for it that this is the not the case I then direct your attention to a YouTube video, she wrote, directed and stars in.
She is the second writer I’ve encountered in two months who has a promotional video for her book. But I’ll save the topic of whether that is a positive or negative trend – if it is indeed a trend – for another day.
On with the interview…..
Scott Butki: How did this book come about?
Virginia: I knew so many people who were online dating, and all of us exchanging similar stories – often over e-mail! Online dating was part of this huge change in social life in general, where work, friendship, and now romance is conducted over the computer, from your home. It's especially different for people who live alone and freelance, to be so isolated in some ways, so connected in others. Like now, I'm typing you, and i-chatting with a friend and catching up on e-mail, waiting for another friend to call. Still in my robe at 12:35 on a Saturday, but socializing up a storm.
Scott: Are you still an online dating and/or sex columnist? How does one get a gig like that?
Virginia: I am not a columnist now. I got the Salon sex columnist gig, which I had 1999-2001 by sending them, in the fall of '98, a couple unsolicited pieces about the Starr Report and impeachment proceedings. I lived in DC at the time, and everyone there was even more obsessed than the rest of the country.
Salon was the coolest thing going then, and my first national exposure, then they started a sex section called Urge and meanwhile I'd had this experience I REALLY wanted to write about. I tried dramatizing it in a play, but that didn't work, and so I decided I needed to just tell it first person. So I sent this over the transom to them, wondering as I hit send, did I just make a huge mistake? (Warning: The story linked to is VERY mature.)
But they loved it, it ended up being one of the most-read stories of the year, and I found it wasn't unbearable to have people know private stuff about me. So when Salon said, "do you want to be the regular sex columnist?" I said yes.
So I guess the short answer is, Write about what intrigues you, take risks, and send things that are already written. They say journalists shouldn’t do that, that they should send pitches and clips. But every magazine I've gotten into, I did it by sending them something ready to go. Which makes sense; editors are busy, and this makes their job easier.
The book required personal/emotional risk, too. I wanted to be true to the experience of being lonely and longing to have someone and how much is at stake when you online date. I find the end a little naked, but I think it had to be. When I feel exposed and uncomfortable, it usually turns out I took a risk I needed to.
Scott: You make an interesting comment that jumped out at me: "Sex on the first face-to-face date often signals it will be the last date." Can you elaborate on why that is?
Virginia: It seems to be some sort of unspoken rule, that if you're interested in the person as a boyfriend/girlfriend, you'll make a second date rather than sleep together. I suppose it's to do with women not wanting to be seen as sluts and men wanting to show respect.
Scott: You make a telling observation about what happens when one tries to quit a site like eharmony, namely they give you a guilt trip implying you are giving up on seeking a relationship and thus are going to be an angry hermit with many cats living an unhappy live. Is this guilt trip intentional marketing crap or do those running the site really believe this?
Virginia: I can't read minds and tell you what people believe, but it makes sense that a business would tell its customers "You need us." If you have cats, I think you'll be less angry. That's how it works for this hermit anyway.
Scott: As I read of the various prices of the various sites I wondered how does one quantify how much – in dollars – one wants to spend to find a companion. What do you think?
Virginia: It's an icky thing to contemplate, isn't it? You'd like to think that's one of those best things in life that are free. I never minded spending for Nerve, I felt like I was paying for good access, and I liked that I paid for each contact, not by the month. Paying by the month makes you feel like it's a job, you HAVE to be online dating even if you don't feel like it. I only like to be guilt-tripped and pressured like that by my monthly gym fee and my unlimited subway card.
Scott: You refer to some sites like eHarmony as "nanny site." Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Virginia: eHarmony tells its customers that they're helpless, that they need to be managed and guided through every step of dating.
Scott: For what is worth, After the first 50 pages I wrote: "For what it's worth I'm single and you made me decide to choose Nerve for placing my next online ad, something I do for about one month each year." Then after the next 50 pages when I read about women concluding lots of guys at Nerve just use it for sex, not relationships, I decided maybe Nerve isn't right for me. I'm not sure what I'll decide after the next 100 pages.
Virginia: Well, if you're a nice guy on Nerve, you should clean up! It does seem like the site of artsy, bohemian, Web-savvy, not-mainstream people, and lots of them want relationships. I have cool friends who've met their mates on match.com, too, so I know that can happen.
Look out for part 2 of this interview, coming soon…