Judy Conti, of Alexandria, Va., is a pro-life Democrat and a lawyer who runs a nonprofit organization advocating for low-wage workers. Frustrated with the Washington-area dating scene, she was definitely ready for marriage in 2002 when she considered online personals. Several acquaintances had tried them; some had explored specialized race--or faith-based dating services.
"I knew four different people who married folks they met on J-Date [a Jewish singles site], and a few who met on Black Planet, a few on Match.com," she said. "I had doubts, and thought, 'You have to be desperate to look for a date on the Internet,' but by that time it had lost the negative connotation because it had been around for a while."
After six months on Match.com meeting men who grilled her on her SAT scores or detailed the playlists from every Bruce Springsteen concert they'd ever attended, Ms. Conti quit Internet dating--or so she thought. By 2003, Ms. Conti, then 34, was considering Plan B: adopting a child on her own. She gave Internet dating one last try, and this time she signed up with Catholic Singles, hoping an affinity site would help her meet prospects whose values were more closely aligned with hers.
"Affinity" or "niche" online dating sites target people seeking others with similar ethnic, professional or religious backgrounds. Catholic Singles, Catholic Match, Ave Maria Singles and Catholic Mingles are four Catholic dating sites with varying degrees of emphasis on the faith.
After corresponding with a handful of the men she met, Ms. Conti narrowed down the serious prospects to two. One was Dave Dunn, a sales manager for a construction equipment company, and the rest is history.
"None of our friends would have put us together because of our politics," said Mr. Dunn, who is a pro-NRA Republican. Though the two may disagree in a big way about politics, they found common ground in their similar views on faith and family.
The most ironic aspect of the couple's story is that they had lived about 10 minutes apart and attended the same parish for eight years without ever crossing paths. The couple , married on April 2 after what Ms. Conti calls "a fairy book romance" that defied her previous approaches to dating.
"I spent my life telling everyone I know, 'You should never get engaged to someone you haven't known for a calendar year,'" she said. "I broke all my rules for this guy."
Affinity sites, and online dating in general, have become increasingly popular. First, there are simply more , singles out there--approximately 80 million in the United States, said Dr. Christine Whelan, an expert on changing relationship and dating patterns. Second, more people are staying single longer and marrying later. And about half of them, by some estimates, have browsed online personals.
But for every success story like Ms. Conti's, there are others who find the Internet dating experience a little less than storybook-perfect. Browsing online personals can feel voyeuristic. Patrons fill in the blanks with their preferences in a potential partner: "blue eyes," "loves sports," etc., and see who shows up on the screen. But the fantasy can fade when a cyber-friend suddenly ignores them or they try site after site, finding friends and fellowship but no fiance.
"I think the whole idea of a Catholic Web site tells us one message: Finding someone who shares your faith is a priority ... but then the format doesn't lend itself to real relationships," commented "Daniel-48875," AKA Daniel O'Mullane, a youth minister from Mountain Lake, N.J., in a real-time online chat with a reporter on Catholic Match, to which he's subscribed for 15 months. He likes the site's technological user-friendliness and sense of camaraderie. But, while he's …