Paying the price for love Singles ISO romance turn dating into big business

November 05, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

An article in the Today section last Friday incorrectly reported the effectiveness of natural lamb condoms in protecting against the human immunodeficiency virus. They are not recommended.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In the pursuit of love, no one has been more devoted than Paul Schoen.

He's attended singles hayrides, singles hikes and singles house parties. He's answered personal ads for athletic women (his preference) only to discover they considered shopping their most aerobic activity. He's hired a matchmaking company, revealing to strangers his marital ideal: a woman (ages 21-42) who loves nature, simple pleasures and friendship. And he said it again, while the camera rolled, after joining a video dating service several years ago.

The grand total so far:

* Lasting romantic relationships: 0

* Cost: $10,000

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"Maybe it's worth it to other people," says Mr. Schoen, 44, a businessman who lives in Towson. "But at this point, it hasn't been for me. It's expensive, and I'm still single."

You want to meet your soul mate? Fine. But know this: In today's world, it will cost you, particularly if you opt for one of the many services or clubs that cater to the unattached.

Started more than a decade ago, the singles industry has expanded, matured and become highly specialized. Along with this growth, though, has come criticism from dissatisfied customers and some consumer groups.

Fueling these businesses is a simple fact: There are more single people out there. More than 80 million people are divorced, widowed or have never been married, according to the 1990 Census. That's an increase of nearly 18 percent from a decade ago.

At times, businesses have raced to meet singles' needs. In the past six months, two new offices of Together Dating Service have opened in Maryland, bringing the state total to eight. Personal ads now outrank employment ads in the City Paper. And so many singles have attended the Baltimore Museum of Art's Casino Ball in past years that on Jan. 29 the BMA is sponsoring a pre-gala mixer for singles, appropriately called the Solitaire Affair. (For information, call [410] 396-6323.)

Single people, often facing more work pressures and less interest in the bar scene, are turning to services, ads and clubs to do the legwork for them. Technology has increased the ways they can be united, too, through, say, video, voice mail or computer match-ups. In addition to convenience, single people believe they're buying safety, security and the chance to meet high-caliber people.

Sometimes, though, they don't get results.

Ace Alascio spent $2,600 to join a matchmaking service several years ago. In the end, he met 10 women, none of whom even remotely interested him.

"The ads on TV made it look so attractive and easy," says Mr. Alascio, 51, who lives in Glen Burnie. "I had high hopes of meeting people. I was ultimately disappointed."

In the past year, the state attorney general's Consumer Protection Division has received nearly 50 complaints about dating services. Most often, they are of two varieties: singles who have second thoughts about contracts they've signed; and others who believe they've paid for something -- usually the chance to meet bright, attractive singles -- that's not being delivered.

"We encourage people to go in, get information and take time to think about it before they sign a contract," says Rebecca Bowman, assistant attorney general. "There's no offer that's so good that you have to take it on impulse. . . . And if someone tells you it's a one-day opportunity, that should be a red flag."

Emotions conquer reason

But when it comes to affairs of the heart, romance-hungry singles often let their emotions rule.

"The same people who comparison shop for a stereo or car come into a dating service, and if they feel comfortable, sign up. Men who make their living on sheer logic say, 'What the heck? It's $1,200. What do I have to lose?' " says Sharon Silver, author of "Singleland: Living It, Loving It, or Leaving It."

"I've had so many people come into my office heartsick. They've spent beaucoup bucks to find Mr. or Ms. Right, and every time they looked at a picture, they heard, 'Oh, I'm sorry, he or she is not in our service anymore.' "

Columbia psychologist Marvin Scherr has faced a similar problem working with singles. "People are willing to pay any price for the promise of meeting somebody," he says. "Sometimes they throw caution to the wind."

Cheryl McGee took out a $2,500 personal loan to afford a membership with Great Expectations, a video dating service in Towson.

Prior to that she had tried answering and placing personal ads with little success. "You'd meet for a cup of coffee at some place like Denny's. And you'd rarely go out more than once or twice."

But it was only after her worst date in 1992 -- set up through a personal ad -- that she decided to try a different option.

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