Outdated labels in online dating

To be more inclusive, online dating sites should stop limiting users’ identities to binary categories.

To be more inclusive, online dating sites should stop limiting users’ identities to binary categories.

The green light flashes on my cell phone with an e-mail notification that someone messaged me on OkCupid. Innocently enough, her alias is “plymouthmeeting.” Her message is a little too descriptive of her appearance, but she is nice, and her grammar is correct. I’ll look at her profile.

When I find she is happily married and looking for “new friends,” I don’t want to assume this person is alluding to a threesome, but I have my suspicions. The little green light flashes on my cell phone again. This time, “sexykinkycouple” has added me to their favorites. I don’t have to even assume what they’re after – it couldn’t be more clear.
samantha krotzer
Is this what users get for labeling themselves “bisexual” on OkCupid? An army of heterosexual couples looking for singles to be part of their sexual fantasies?

I do not identify as bisexual, but OkCupid gives me the options of gay, straight or bisexual to define my sexuality. Those of us who use online dating to find love or sex  should be able to define – or not define – our sexuality without limitations.

“Really, it’s an outdated system that is promoting sexual segregation,” said Margaux Cowden, the director of the LGBT studies program. “It’s a pretty homophobic system. They act like their goal is to break stereotypes, but they are actually enforcing them.”

OkCupid collects data based on user activity and interests, publishing its dating research in a section called “oktrends.” Once again, the little green light goes off on my cell phone, and I fear what I might see. It’s another e-mail from OkCupid sharing with me the latest oktrend: gay sex vs. straight sex.

The study is littered with graphs to show the personality differences between people who identify as gay or straight. It also provides lists of stuff gay people and straight people like. According to OkCupid, gay people like “The Devil Wears Prada” and Britney Spears, and straight people like cars. It doesn’t get much more stereotypical than that.

The data is cut and dry. People who identify as queer – meaning they do not label their sexuality in accordance with the gender binary – or bisexual were not included in this research. Just as OkCupid users have to define their sexuality, they also have to choose a gender, limited to either male or female, which excludes transgender, intersex or anyone who doesn’t feel the need to define their gender.

“There’s no option for queer, and there’s no option for differently gendered folk. It’s hard for the transpeople who wish to identify as such to use this site properly because you’re forced to pick ‘M’ or ‘F,’ and not everyone fits those roles,” said Jess Balick, a junior women’s studies major. “I have to pick ‘M’ and then immediately clarify, ‘I mean FTM [female to male].’ It changes who would be interested.”

Online dating aims to make meeting people easier. But if a website doesn’t allow users to comfortably identify themselves, meeting people with similar agendas is more difficult.

“I also identify as ‘queer’ when it comes to sexuality simply because, how can I pick ‘gay/straight/bi’ when my gender doesn’t fit in to either of the boxes that are presupposed with those labels?” Balick said.

While OkCupid provides a bisexual option, it clings to the gender and sexuality binary and leaves no room for middle ground. The site called “bisexuality” one of the biggest lies people tell in online dating. OkCupid claims that, according to its user data, people who identify as bisexual are either straight and trying to sound more adventurous or are gay and using bisexuality as a “hedge.”

For example, people who identify as queer may choose “bisexual” on OkCupid. By doing this, these individuals, according to OkCupid, are putting themselves into a category that is even further from their actual identities.

A little check box allowing users to opt not to define their sexuality or gender could make all the difference.

“The optional box would be a good start,” Cowden said. “It would be awesome if there was a paragraph box where users could provide their own self-descriptions with tags, kind of like Facebook interests. It would be a new way to conceptualize it. A queer language could be created.”

OkCupid does exclude sexual groups, but at least it makes an effort to include individuals who identify outside the straight ideal. On the other hand, eHarmony caters exclusively to heterosexual couples. If you identify as anything other than that, go ahead and try to fill out the start-up questionnaire. Once you finish, the site will say it couldn’t find anyone who matched your personality.

I have to ask myself, even if sites like OkCupid were to add a check box allowing users to more freely identify themselves, are people who don’t commit to the heteronormative lifestyle always going to be treated as outsiders on mainstream dating websites? Maybe I’ll ask the next woman who wants me to have a threesome with her and her husband what she thinks.

Samantha Krotzer can be reached at samantha.krotzer@temple.edu.


  1. Great article! You should always be concerned when going on a date, and it dosen’t matter if you met them through an online dating service or at a bar. bConcerned.com offers a free dating safety tool, that monitors and confirms your safe arrival home. The founder is a police officer and he offers valuable dating safety tips to follow.

  2. While I do think that allowing users more gender choices than male or female would be good, you have to be careful when you start leaving fields blank and allowing users to select their own keywords. OKCupid calls itself a dating site made by math nerds, and they use a lot of algorithms to match users. They aren’t asking you to choose your sexuality or gender to force you to fit into some societal norm. They don’t care about your personal identity. What they care about is knowing exactly what types of people you are willing to date, and exactly what type of person you are so that they can fit you into the search results of others. If you identify as “queer,” does that mean that you only date people of the same gender? Different gender? Both genders? Or does it mean you only date trans people? Unfortunately, for the general public, certain terms are too loosely defined to be useful when it comes to creating algorithms and search results.

    Remember that you have an entire profile to talk about your identity and what it means about who you are and who you will date. The checkboxes for basic information are not your identity, they are only a way to get started with search results. Also remember that there is a search box for keywords. Using terms like queer in your profile will lead other users who identify that way to you, just as you can use it yourself to seek out users that have similar identities and personalities.

    So, again, I do think that OKCupid should add a transgender box to the gender category because this can be an important detail that some may want to include or (more often, unfortunately) exclude from their searches. And perhaps adding an “other” box to the sexuality section would be a better fit for some users, as long as they understand that this will make their profile appear in fewer search results. Just don’t expect them to do much with all of the different sexual and gender identities outside of their basic keyword search. There are simply too many, often with too loosely defined structures, to make them useful.

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