Any Internet dater is familiar with the personal-ad format: You toot your own horn to the point of ridiculousness and then, just so the reader doesn’t think you’re completely egotistical, throw in a mildly self-deprecating comment for good measure. If the ads are to be believed, everyone who dates online is intelligent, fit, caring, sensitive, and, of course, unmarried. But the truth is, anyone posting a personal ad is acknowledging their own singlehood, so when we read those self-aggrandizing adjectives, we know they mask someone more vulnerable than the ad might have us believe.
Aware of this, some posters choose to undersell, mocking themselves and potential respondents at the same time. They see their dark worldview as something to be proud of, not to hide, and post ads like “In search of bird with broken wing,” “Total jerk seeks total bitch,” or “Damaged Goods.” The philosophy is that honest, if negative, ads will reach the right people. And if these ads attract more psychos than the positive ones, at least the psychos make for more interesting dates, these posters say.
My friend Tim, 43, a storeowner who looks like John Lurie, calls himself the “king of negative personal ads.” He’s posted negative ads for three of the four years he’s been Internet dating, with headlines like “Seeking pre-operative Jewish girl,” and “Ex-girlfriend look-alike contest,” and says he feels he’s found the G-spot. “I finally reached the demographic I was seeking,” he says. “I realized I was less interested in trying to impress them with a well-selected restaurant than in finding the right wavelength.” That wavelength, he says, is “a kindred spirit I can have sex with, a chick who likes Bukowski.”
When he posted an ad on Craigslist recently that said “I hate you already,” he got dates with two women. One was on crutches and the other had just had knee surgery. I told him that with an ad like that, he’d gotten what he asked for. “I’m not trying to woo innocence,” he says. “I’m not looking for someone to take home to Mama.” Then why not place an overt casual-sex ad? “Because I don’t want to have sex with someone I’m not interested in. I want to watch a Fassbinder film with a woman, pause, have sex, and then watch the third act with her.”
But a negative ad, no matter how clever, isn’t just a way of telling people who you are. It’s also a way to draw extra responses, like those flyers that scream, “Don’t read this!” When I first ventured into Internet dating, my confidence was so low that I chose as my headline “I’m still here,” from the Sondheim song. Unfortunately, instead of drawing Jewish guys, I got closeted gay musical-theater fans.
Tim’s posting worked better. He says he had sex with the knee-injured woman, a dark, edgy 19-year-old named Jeannette, on their first date. He met the woman on crutches, too, and though he wasn’t interested in sleeping with her, she liked him. “She had been on eHarmony for two years and met 100 people and said she liked me better than any of them,” he says.
My friend Kate, a financial reporter in her early thirties, has posted several negative ads, like “Help—you’re smothering me!” Though she hasn’t met any boyfriends that way, she’s been enjoying the dates more.
“Ads like that help weed out people who aren’t my type,” she says. “I saw an ad recently that said, ‘Seeking someone who likes to smile.’ That doesn’t tell me anything, so why would I meet that guy?”
By the same token, she prefers to answer ads that are negative, because she thinks it will yield more connections. She went on a few good dates with a guy who had posted “Let’s meet and then get off this thing forever” and was glad she met him, even though it didn’t turn into a romance.
When I point out that it has now become cliché to complain about Internet dating on an Internet ad, Kate insists it’s a cliché that appeals to her. “Someone who complains about it is much more fun to hang out with than someone really gung-ho. My way, even if we don’t connect, we can complain about our bad JDate ads.”
Still, there’s a fine line between negative cute and negative sexist. Browse through any personals site and you’ll find men railing against their past dates in ads they hope will woo other women. Their money would be better spent getting some therapy than a gold membership on FriendFinder. “There are a lot of guys,” says Kate, “who go on and on about how they don’t want to meet superficial women who only care about money, and then at the end they say, ‘And by the way, don’t be fat.’ ”