What happened to John Whittingdale is a cautionary tale for all silver surfers
John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, has confessed to finding a girlfriend on an internet dating site, who he discovered was a dominatrix six months into their relationship. Hearing this I have never wanted to date the 56-year-old Conservative politician more. I mean, I never previously wanted to date Whittingdale, so it’s fairly relative, but his story is so brimming with vulnerability that I feel my hand lingering over photos of his pillowy jowls, soft as an underbelly, tempted to swipe right.
It has every ingredient of a Richard Curtis romance: a befuddled British establishment figure, lonely in power, meets a woman also lonely, wielding her own kind of power. He says that when he courted her on match.com he did not know of her job in a fully equipped dungeon. When he did he says he ended the affair.
Cue much joking that she too must have wanted to end it with him as soon as she discovered his job bestriding Westminster. On the facts thus far it’s hard to know for whom to feel more sorry: the Tory MP who wanted a dignified alternative to leering at researchers in the House of Commons bar; or the ageing sex worker just looking for someone to love. It’s a tragi-comic Pretty Woman starring Bill Nighy and Olivia Colman. However, the real vulnerability of Whittingdale was not that he was looking for love online. It was that he was old.
Looking at this case cynically — and I know there will be romantics out there who find this extremely hard — what a vote-winner! There seems to be barely anyone out there who doesn’t have an internet dating deception story. More than nine million people in Britain have used an online dating site or mobile app and nearly a third of relationships start that way: even Adele went on eHarmony. Yet more than 80 per cent of those admit to lying on their profile. This ranges from common first date fibs — age for everyone, surveys reveal, height for men and weight for women — to people who construct new identities with the sinister care of a Patricia Highsmith novel, a phenomenon so common it has its own name, “catfishing”.
The idea of love as a form of mistaken identity isn’t new: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s version of a wild night on Tinder, so much so that it can’t be long before we get a sex app called “Puck”. But the difference here is that young people know they are likely to be duped. Whittingdale, in common with many of his generation, may be too credulous online. It’s not for nothing that the Nigerian phishing scams target pensioners. When Whittingdale was, several years ago, asked in an interview if he was disposed to be trusting he said “yes”, firmly and happily. “I mean, I genuinely believe, if someone tells me something — well, I like to believe that people are generally truthful unless I get evidence that proves something differently.”
No person under the age of 40 would speak like that. It is the old who are naive and the young who are hardened here. It is required, for example, that every single friend I know who is dating online talks about their prospective date as either being Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction or Ted Bundy.
Catfishers can be criminals — there have been numerous cases of online dating leading to rape, murder and robbery — but they are just as likely to be plain weird. One example: an American footballer, Manti Te’o, had an online affair with a woman who subsequently died of leukaemia, breaking his heart although they had not met in real life. “She” turned out to be fictitious, the creation of another man who claimed that he was “deeply, romantically in love” with Te’o.
“To realise I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was,” says Te’o, “painful and humiliating.’’
Another, and this is where the term comes from, was Nev Schulman, a photographer who started a relationship with a woman he believed was a gorgeous 19-year-old. When they finally met she was revealed to be a troubled middle-aged married mother, and he made a documentary about the phenomenon called Catfish. It turned into a successful MTV series, matching up real online daters with the fraudsters they have fallen in love with, and Catfish is now filming in the UK with no shortage of material.
So the younger generation have the advantage in two ways. First, they always google their date. “As soon as I have their first name and their job, I can track them down online,” says one internet dater. Mainstream apps, such as Tinder, won’t even allow you on unless you have a Facebook profile, and sites such as Hinge and Happn build in Facebook profiles to their matching. From there they may go to the “reverse image search”, to check whether the photos have been stolen. Second, this generation has a digital trail on social media and workplace websites that older people just haven’t built up, making them harder to verify and easier to scam.
By contrast, Whittingdale’s short statement, “she was a similar age and lived close to me”, hints at a simpler view of courtship. Barbara Bloomfield, a Relate counsellor, who has written books on dating in later life, says she has met many who have been scammed, including one widow in her sixties who had a whirlwind romance with a man she met online. “He moved in really quickly, borrowed money, and within a few months had cleared out her bank account. Older daters are terribly vulnerable. For men in particular I think when they get on social media they are not really looking after themselves. They are so delighted a lady is interested in them they jump at it, without any of that online savviness that comes with younger people.”
Bloomfield advises older people to get an adult child to help research potential dates. She also says internet dating is more necessary than ever for older people. This is borne out by research from Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford University who has been conducting a long-running study of online dating. Before internet dating lost its stigma, the naysayers believed meeting strangers off the internet would be less stable than through old-fashioned connections.
His research proved otherwise: internet dating was just as stable. This is because the internet gives a lot of information, and if it doesn’t that should ring alarm bells. “It turns out that Google and Facebook know a lot more about your potential partners than your mother knows,” he told me.
According to Rosenfeld’s research, it is those older people who may be more naive about internet dating who need it most. Unlike those in their twenties, who meet each other all the time anyway, older people are in a “thin” dating market: single peers are hard to meet. This is why “middle-aged heterosexuals are the most likely to meet their partners online, because it is difficult for them to find partners offline,” he said.
Schulman, who coined the term “catfish”, said his experience of being duped online was ultimately positive, and not just because it began his career as a host of a TV series. It made him realise the value of face-to-face relationships. The term “catfish” came from the husband of the woman who duped him. This man said that they used to transport vast tanks of live fish from Alaska to China. To keep the cod fit, they threw in a few catfish to chase them around: the fraudsters help us to stop being blinded by desire. So while it’s true that there’s always “more fish in the sea”, there are always a few more catfish in the sea too. I was duped too — by Andrew Billen
I know exactly how it is to be set up on an online dating site by a woman who intends to sell the story to a newspaper. It was ten years ago, almost exactly, that at my instigation I got in touch with — I shall call her Lucy, for that is her name — on DatingDirect.
I was 48, slightly older than she said she was looking for, but I explained I looked “preternaturally young” for my age. The first untruth was mine. When we met at Greenwich station she was shocked to discover my hair was no longer brown as in my profile picture, but grey. I’m a bit colour-blind and no candid friend had told me.
We went for a coffee, then a walk, then supper. Any date that lasts eight hours can be called a success. Not much later we were a couple. Things were going so well that we booked a week’s holiday in July in Sardinia.
It was in the Mediterranean heat — over, as I recall, a very spluttery meal of tomato pasta — that Lucy made what she knew was a potentially devastating revelation. When we met she had been working on a feature about online dating for the Daily Star Sunday. Indeed, the piece had already been published (as an irregular reader I had not seen it, of course). Could I ever forgive her?
There were mitigating factors. I already knew Lucy was a journalist, and I approved of the profession. Second, she had not used my name in the piece. Third, I kind of preferred that this attractive young woman was on a dating site for professional reasons rather than out of desperation (compare and contrast, me). Fourth, by now we were in love. Reader, I married my entrapper.