At 3 o’clock one recent early morning, Jess and Ken Deckinger’s nine-month-old started crying, waking up the two others kids, and it quickly became clear that no one was going to get much sleep. And yet, the next morning at MassChallenge, a Boston startup accelerator, the Deckingers are glowing like newlyweds, sneaking flirtatious glances at each other across the table, completing each others’ sentences, giggling at each others’ jokes.
They shrug off the rough night so well, in fact, you’d never guess that the couple is hard at work building a new dating platform that will give single people a shot at their kind of sleep-deprived marital bliss.
In the $2 billion online dating sector, they know it will take something remarkable for their platform to stand out in the crowded marketplace, but they think they’re on to it: What heterosexual women want, they say, is to meet men who are pre-vetted by other women. On their new site, called Jess, Meet Ken, women can recommend eligible bachelors they know; single woman browsing the site can then either reach out to the man himself or to the woman who vouches for him. According to the Deckingers, this new platform accomplishes two goals: It provides women with a sense of safety, since men are not a totally anonymous on the site, and men are presented in their best light by their female friends.
“Online dating is largely about how a guy represents himself,” Jess says. “It’s about what he thinks a woman wants to see.”
“That’s why so many men post pictures of themselves shirtless, next to their car holding an enormous fish they caught,” Ken chimes in.
“But often,” Jess continues, “the things we love about the men in our lives are not necessarily the things they would tell us about themselves: that they have a good relationship with their mother or that they are color-blind and need help dressing themselves. A female friend is more likely to represent those things about her guy friend.”
The Deckingers believe so fervently in this platform because it is, in fact, how they met. A decade ago, a now-defunct message board along the same lines existed: Ken’s friend Adele posted his profile on the site. Jess reached out to Adele to inquire about Ken–and the rest is sleepless history. “We are so thankful for what we have and we want to make happily ever after happen for other people,” says Ken. “That sounds so corny, but it’s okay. I’m allowed to be corny about my relationship.”
The duo wants to re-create this experience on a larger scale and they have the resumes to back up their efforts. In 2001, Ken founded the first speed-dating website, HurryDate, which was later acquired by JDate’s parent company, Spark Networks. Jess is a marketer with a Harvard MBA. The platform is about to launch and it is still unclear how users will respond, but the Deckingers are betting big that they have what it takes to fill a major void in the online dating industry: a website that caters specifically to women’s needs.
This shouldn’t be such a radical concept, but it is. Many women say that the vast majority of dating services on the market don’t have a clue what female users are looking for. In the New Yorker, Ann Friedman described the average woman’s experience dating online as feeling “Overwhelmed and Creeped Out,” being forced to filter through an avalanche of inbound requests from unappealing prospects. She attributes part of this to the fact that the big players (OkCupid, eHarmony, Plenty of Fish, Match) and the majority of the niche ones (Skout, HowAboutWe, MeetMoi) were started by men.
Just this year, the world has seen exactly how male-dominated the culture at these dating startups can be. Tinder, one of the hottest dating apps on the market, had a female cofounder, Whitney Wolfe, but she filed a sexual harassment suit against the company after receiving abusive text messages from her cofounder. (The suit was recently settled.) Wolfe was driven to legal action because none of the other men in Tinder’s leadership were willing to intervene, even after she expressed her distress. With so few women in decision-making roles in the dating industry, female perspectives don’t often make their way in to the final design of these platforms. No matter how many focus groups male entrepreneurs might carry out, it is possible to miss subtle but fundamental qualities about what women need.
And women are noticing. I spoke with dozens of female online daters who told me about various shades of discomfort they had experienced while on these sites. Over drinks at a Boston bar with a publicist and a fashion buyer in their mid-twenties who are on OkCupid, Match, and Tinder–I’ll call them Kate and Talia, respectively–these women pointed out that the culture on these sites is for female users not to initiate contact, but to field hundreds of incoming–often sexually charged–messages. “Internet dating is so much work it sometimes feels like a second job,” Talia tells me. Yet, given that more than one third of U.S. marriages begin online, many single women feel they have no choice but to participate in this modern mating ritual if they want to find a man.
Kate says that the anonymity on these websites means that men often behave in inappropriate ways, saying things they would never dare say to a woman in a public place. “After responding to one guy’s message, he sent me a list of all the things he wanted to do with me in bed–and it was truly disgusting,” Kate tells me. “I immediately blocked him, but for days, I walked around with the fear that I might bump into him in real life and he would recognize me from my picture and personal details.” Many women told me how common it was for men to send unsolicited pictures of their genitals. “They don’t think it’s actually going to get them a girl,” Kate says. “It’s more of a power thing: They do it because they know it’s going to provoke a reaction. And it does. I sure know I feel gross when that happens.”
Talia tells me that while men can say they are interested in short-term relationships, it can be uncomfortable for a woman to say she is interested in dating casually. “There are times when I am just interested in a hookup, but if I am too obvious about it, I feel like I will be slut-shamed,” she says. “The guys messaging me treat me with even less respect.” Both Kate and Talia like the sound of Jess, Meet Ken because they think that men might behave better if they know that their actions might get back to the female friend who posted their profile. This mimics offline dating scenarios where a couple are introduced by a mutual friend. There can be more accountability when a third party is involved.
Stephen, a 34-year old actor and lawyer who was recently named one of Refinery29’s most eligible OkCupid bachelors in New York, tells me that the bad male behavior on these sites ruins the odds for men genuinely looking for a relationship. “The good guys are thrown into the same inbox as all the creeps,” he says. “Sending women a sexually aggressive message is the equivalent of cat-calling them on the street. It makes all men look bad.”
However, he acknowledges that these sites tend to favor the masculine approach to dating, which he says is generally driven by looks rather than by personality, at least at the beginning. And in my conversations with male online daters across the country, a theme that kept emerging is that looks are non-negotiable for them, while personality is something they can work with. Most dating sites are heavy on photos and Stephen says that’s just fine. “I don’t trust any of these matching algorithms,” he says, referring to the technologies deployed to pair couples, epitomized by sites like eHarmony and OkCupid. “I’ll message a woman if I think she’s attractive. We’re adults; we can decide for ourselves if we’re a good fit,” he says.
Stephen says that he’s been more likely to use Tinder, since it is so straightforward: If you like someone’s picture, you let them know and quickly try to meet them in person. In fact, his first reaction when I tell him about Jess, Meet Ken is that it sounds too complex: “That’s a lot of hoops to jump through, especially for a guy. Who has time for that?”
On the other hand, the women I spoke with seemed more willing to trade ease for security, since safety is a bigger priority to them. “The problem with Tinder is that you’re meeting a total stranger based on just one piece of information–how hot they are,” says Kate. “There’s no context. You have no idea if the guy is a serial killer or a rapist.” Clearly, the mechanisms that men and women prefer when dating online are very different. The question is, given that heterosexual dating sites require an equal number of male and female users to work, is it even possible to create a site that will be appealing to both?
The Deckingers sure hope so. Jess, Meet Ken is designed to redistribute power in online dating by requiring women to initiate contact: Men are not allowed to send unsolicited messages to women. “It’s run by women and used by women,” Jess says. It’s not the first site to put women in the driver’s seat. A popular French site called AdopteUnMec casts women as shoppers and men as products, but the U.S. version called CheckHimOut has not done well for reasons that are not entirely clear. Some users have bristled at the site’s trope of objectifying men, but could it be a deeper, cultural issue? Is it possible that Americans are less comfortable with the idea of women as the initiators? After all, even the few dating sites founded by women–like Coffee Meets Bagel and Three Day Rule–assume that women want to be pursued by men.
Over the last year, the Deckingers have been gathering users for Jess, Meet Ken by inviting women to post profiles of the single men that they know and thousands have already been uploaded, mostly from people located in Boston and New York. The site launches this week, allowing women to begin reaching out to men they find intriguing or the women that put them on the site. It is still too early to tell whether it will take off, but whatever happens, this platform may be a harbinger that online dating sites are beginning to cater more carefully to the needs of women. The age of female-friendly online dating platforms may be just around the corner.