BEIRUT: Under the guise of an Internet pseudonym, the country’s online daters have the freedom to solicit whatever they want: true love, life-long companionship, a quick hookup, a forbidden tryst or just a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.
Over the past several years, online dating websites have grown, as have the variety of smartphone applications that make the singles search easier than ever. There are about half-a-dozen homegrown Lebanese dating sites, ranging from standard guy-looking-for-girl formats to those with a denominational focus, such as Lebanese Christian Singles.
On international dating page Badoo, Beirut, despite its comparatively puny size, has regularly ranked in the top 10 of various sitewide studies: as the seventh most flirtatious city in the world and the third most nocturnal site users.
In spring 2013, a burst of university “crush pages” drew thousands of local college students to scour designated Facebook sites for missed connections and post about burning admirations. Similar to online dating, site administrators told The Daily Star back in April 2013, those crush pages gave young people courage to pursue a love interest in a culture wary of unmonitored romance.
Users on a variety of local online dating platforms cited reasons for joining as diverse as finding a nice girl to settle down with to looking for a gay hookup. In some cases, Lebanese were looking to ignite a flame outside of their community by searching for Lebanese abroad or among the minority of foreign profiles.
On the Meet Lebanese site, for example, about 80 percent of its users are Lebanese and the other fifth foreigners from more than 200 different cities, said Bachir al-Hage, the page’s general manager.
A user on Meet Lebanese, who asked to remain anonymous, said meeting foreign women and male friends was the main reason he joined the website.
“I love knowing more about their style of thinking,” said the user, who plans to show around some visitors he met on the site. “Some people are coming to Lebanon, and we’re going to see each other.”
In fact, Meet Lebanese’s website stats reveal that while the users are mostly Lebanese, most of the profiles getting clicks – 65 percent – are those of foreigners, mainly from the United States, Germany and France.
International members who spoke to The Daily Star said they joined the site specifically to meet Lebanese people or because they were part of the nation’s massive diaspora. A user from France said she wanted to meet people here because of her own Lebanese origins.
A more recent development in local Internet dating has been the use of smartphone applications that enable discreet meetings. Grindr, for example, is one of the leading apps worldwide for finding gay, lesbian and bisexual users and has enabled locals to find each other in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by law.
“It’s a challenge to meet a guy in our society if you’re a discreet gay man,” Grindr user Marcus told The Daily Star. “Grindr just makes it a bit easier.”
Another Grindr user, an 18-year-old who asked to remain anonymous, also expressed difficulty in meeting other gay men outside of the app. Even using Grindr in the country is risky, so the user said he was careful about whom he talks to.
“Sometimes it’s dangerous,” he said. “But it depends on the region; in some places, people don’t care about it.”
He said he felt most comfortable searching for nearby users in areas such as Jbeil, Jounieh and parts of Beirut, but avoided chatting with people in more conservative parts of of the country.
Online dating is not only about skirting social constraints, however. Ghida Husseini, a counseling psychologist at the Lebanon Mental Wellness Center, said talking to people online could be less threatening than face-to-face encounters because it largely eliminated the fear of rejection.
But she echoed Grindr’s anonymous user’s sentiment that starting a relationship on the Internet had its risks, as chatting online eliminates the possibility to read body language and tone of voice.
“You don’t know how they are reacting. You don’t know their gestures,” she said. “There is a lot of communication that is lost when we are not in front of the people who we are dealing with.”
For better or worse, the importance a Lebanese user places on religion can oftentimes reveal the kind of relationship they seek. On Meet Lebanese, when asked how much religion mattered in searching for a relationship, about six people said it did not play any role, while two said religion was important to them.
For instance, user Leb961 on Meet Lebanese said religion was vital when looking for his “other half.”
“Religion is important for many reasons. Real Muslim girls don’t drink alcohol and they don’t wear immoral clothes, also they pray [to] God five times per day,” Leb961 said. His search for that kind of girl online has so far proved unsuccessful, but when it came to starting casual friendships, religion was a nonissue, he said.
Husseini said religion was still an essential factor for people searching for serious relationships, even online. “Religion plays a very, very, very big role,” Husseini said. “I can’t stop emphasizing the ‘very’ part.”
There were users, such as Joker82, who said religion did not matter at all, and instead, insisted that a person’s education level was the determining factor.
Whatever role religion plays in online dating, Hage, Meet Lebanese’s site manager, said he tried to keep his site a positive environment for those of all sects.
“I don’t want Meet Lebanese to become a religious or political website,” he said, adding the most important was that users respect each other.