The term "alternative dating" can mean a variety of things. It can refer to gay, lesbian or bisexual dating, or it can refer to dating among transsexuals or transvestites. S&M/bondage is a big part of alternative dating, as is swinging. And according to various people interviewed for this article, alternative dating has been increasingly popular in the 2000s.
As the president/founder of the Palo Alto, Calif.–based FriendFinder Network, Andrew Conru oversees some of the world's largest alternative dating websites – a group of sites that ranges from the swinger–friendly AdultFriendFinder.com to Alt.com (which describes itself as "the world's largest BDSM & alternative lifestyle personals") to gay sites that include OutPersonals.com and GayFriendFinder.com.
Conru told XBiz that since founding AdultFriendFinder.com in 1997 and Alt.com in 1998, he has seen more and more interest in alternative dating among Internet users. Alt.com, according to Conru, now has more than 3.6 million active members, while GayFriendFinder.com has 961,811 – and he attributes that to alternative lifestyles in general becoming less of a taboo.
"Like most of the adult–oriented dating sites," Conru noted, "Alt.com has been coming more into the mainstream, whereas back in 1998, people thought you were kind of out there if you joined a site like Alt.com. In the last couple of years, we have seen more people embracing that type of lifestyle and realizing that it is simply an alternative – not something they need to be scared of."
Conru went on to say: "The people who were embracing BDSM 20 years ago are what people are now calling the old guard – they were the groundbreakers when it came to that type of alternative lifestyle. And now, people want to put a little more kink into their sexual lifestyle – and one way to explore that is through a website like Alt.com."
Erotic photographer Gerry Kohler asserts that alternative dating sites have become so popular because mainstream dating sites fail to adequately address gay, lesbian, bisexual, swinging, S&M/bondage, fetish, transvestite, transgender or Goth needs. Asked how useful sites like Match.com and eHarmony.com are for alternative dating, Kohler replied: "Useless. That's why alternative dating sites emerged and seem to be doing well – mainstream sites are for mainstream people. It's funny to look at some free sites like CraigsList and check out the hetero ads, where it's common to see women asking for 'normal' men and not someone who has a foot fetish, or who likes to be pissed on or who enjoys cross dressing, etc. If you do a search there for leather, bondage, BDSM or any similar keyword, you'll be disappointed to find nothing – other than perhaps a few gold diggers looking to expand their market."
Kohler added: "Dating sites in general have sprouted up all over the place, and that can mean only one thing: They are a money maker, which means that people use them. I think that alternative dating sites are less common than the big ones like Match.com and Yahoo because they cater to specific groups rather than the general population, yet if you look at the amount of members, the numbers are impressive."
Social interaction in the S&M/bondage community is something that Jefe of Society of Janus (a San Francisco–based BDSM organization that goes back to 1974) has been observing for a long time. Jefe was the brains behind the events that SOJ calls "munches"– gatherings in which people who are interested in BDSM get a chance to meet other people who are interested in BDSM. Jefe, who now lives in Seattle and no longer coordinates SOJ's munches, told XBiz that while he knows people in the BDSM community who have found dates through sites like Alt.com and Bondage.com, he doesn't recommend that people who are interesting in alternative dating rely on websites exclusively. Alternative dating sites, Jefe said, are only one of the tools that kinksters should use.
"I think that the people who are the most successful at almost anything in this world are going to be the ones who try to get to their goal using variants and alternate paths," Jefe said, adding that he was only expressing his own personal views and was not speaking to XBiz as an official SOJ spokesman.
"The people who are successful are the ones who try a variety of avenues, and that means not relying strictly on Internet dating sites. They also do things like going to public events. I started this thing in San Francisco called a munch, which is an event that is specifically designed for people to network and meet one another. For example, I met my submissive in person for the first time at a munch, and it has worked out very, very well. We've been together about six years now. But one of the nice things about the dating sites is that if you meet someone in person at one of these events, you can say, 'Hey, check out my profile on Alt.com or Bondage.com. The dating sites should be used as a supplement but not as the whole meal."
Kohler emphasized that anyone who is using an alternative dating site – be it a site with a gay or lesbian, swinging, S&M/bondage, transvestite, transgender or Goth focus – needs to keep in mind that alternative dating sites can have many of the same problems as mainstream dating sites. For example, some people will be less than honest about their appearance.
"Given people's innate tendencies to lie," Kohler warned, "you can pretty much bet that many of the pictures will be outdated, if not totally fake. I have seen pictures on ads that I know for a fact were taken over 10 years ago. A balding man or a 300–pound woman might be very tempted to post an older picture that shows them in a much more favorable shape, and if they lie about their image and age, they may just as easily lie about their marital status, health or any number of other items."
Kohler added: "Common sense tells us to meet potential partners in a public place, so if things don't work out or the person is creepy, it is much easier to escape safely."
Jefe urges anyone who meets someone on an alternative dating site to check him/her out thoroughly. "The precautions that are appropriate in any kind of dating also apply on an alternative site," Jefe explained. "And I think that with a BDSM dating site, those precautions may apply even more for submissives who are putting themselves in a position of vulnerability. I think that statistically, the number of genuinely psychopathic predators out there is very, very small. There aren't a lot of full–on psychopaths who will use the BDSM sites as a cover, but there are psychopaths out there – and they're real."
Jefe continued: "As a man or as a woman, I think it is appropriate to get some kind of references, to check up on people. Even if you're being given an opportunity to do things that you have only fantasized about, it is appropriate to take a step back and proceed slowly. You want to be a part of a network that can check up on people."