Love Online, first published in French as Sex @mour, seeks to document people's experiences, post-millennium, with respect to the rise of internet-mediated dating. Sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann provides very rich vignettes of experiences throughout the text, and these, coupled with accessible language and the compact nature of the book, mean that it is relatively easy to get through from cover to cover. We hear about people arranging first dates online and being stood up. We also hear about characters such as Marion, cast effectively, in the words of Nelly Furtado, as a man-eater. But unfortunately, by the end of the text, if, like me, your tastes and experiences go beyond the missionary position and/or you have any academic interest in the internet, you will find yourself somewhat frustrated. It is all a bit Mills & Boon coupled with Jilly Cooper, and topped off with a good dollop of technological determinism.
I found no serious theorisation of gender or sexuality, and gender and sexuality issues are inevitably pinned on women. My interest was raised at one point when I read of men that "They put their masculinity on display, tensing their muscles in their swimming trunks or proudly showing off their leathers as they pose on their bikes" - only for the whole area of gender performances to be left unanalysed. I would have liked Kaufmann to take the time to discuss these issues in more depth.
And with respect to the "online" promised, I had one question - where is it? There are some interesting points that could have been taken further - such as the role of text messages during the journey to a first date - but data such as these are not pursued. I was also surprised, given the apparent basis of the study in France and given Anna Livia's related work, that no mention is made of the social uses of the Minitel system. The internet and the software used to enable dating fall very much into the background here and are not taken seriously as mediators in these contemporary processes.
The literature base rests very much on 1990s assumptions regarding the emancipatory potential of the internet, seen as a "parallel universe" where you can be anyone and say anything you want. Indeed, a large amount of the literature regarding love, sex and relationships, where the internet is concerned, is simply missing from this study. Kaufmann tells us that if someone does not appeal, you don't have to reply to his or her overture. But in taking this position, he overlooks the inherently social nature of internet dating, even though we are told of cases of people who were stood up who then went back to chatrooms to challenge non-attenders. Internet dating is not, for most people, a one-time thing; there are repeat "purchasers".
In its attempt to argue for the de-stigmatisation of internet dating, it is unfortunate that Love Online homogenises its users: internet daters apparently all live in cities, are highly educated and aren't desperate. But we have only to look at the work of scholars such as Mary L. Gray to see how important a role the internet can play in dating for people outside big cities - and indeed I have seen in my own work how educated city dwellers can perform desperation. Look in the right places online on a Friday night and you will see shouts of "WANT A MEET NOW!" - and it isn't just in those sites populated by gay men, either.
Despite its limitations, Kaufmann's text does provide rich narratives of straight people's experiences of internet-mediated dating practice in France. Furthermore, even without the theory, it demonstrates the inherent problems that many women still face when it comes to navigating romantic and sexual relationships, whether or not the internet is involved.
By Jean-Claude Kaufmann. Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780745651835 and 51842. Published 14 February 2012