Casual encounters among the online ads
Users of a Dublin-based casual-sex website describe their motives and experiences – and the addictions and hazards that are part of the scene
New ads seeking casual sex appear all day. They compete for space on the Dublin section of Craigslist, a classified ads website with a presence in 700 cities around the world, under the heading “Casual Encounters”. The posters vary from curious first-timers to the openly unfaithful. Their ages range between 18 and 67; the locations span every county in the country.
Some submit phone numbers and intimate images; others offer money or solicit payment. The messages are usually frank, sometimes graphic, and often contain acronyms such as NSA (no strings attached) and DDF (drug- and disease-free).
Unlike sites offering similar platforms for casual sex, Craigslist is instant and anonymous, and relies on its users to flag inappropriate content. Despite, or perhaps because of, this community moderation, browsing for a sexual partner is as easy as seeking a flatmate.
But what motivates someone to post ads on the site? Who responds? Is it safe? What goes through their mind as they step into a stranger’s home?
“These are not straightforward questions,” says Robert who, in an email conversation, describes himself as a 24-year-old from Dublin. “Depending on whom you ask, you may get a completely different picture about online connections.”
The lack of apparent identity online, he explains, allows people to get straight to the point: once someone reveals where they are and what they want to do, and gives a number to contact them on immediately, little more needs to be said.
Robert is right about piecing together a complete picture. Of the hundreds of posters contacted on an intermittent basis over several months, few welcomed the opportunity to shed light on the subject.
Of those who did, each had a different story – and on a site such as this, you’re never quite sure how much of a person’s story is true. They include the openly inexperienced 19-year-old from Longford who posts ads for sex on Craigslist because he needs money; the 37-year-old fetishist who’s had 32 affairs in 10 years of marriage; the fantasist who sees Craigslist as little more than a “talking shop” for gay men; the two friends, aged 57 and 20, who pretend to be father and son, seeing Craigslist as a cheap alternative to escorts.
Stepping into a subculture
Barry, a 26-year-old Dubliner, initially took to the site out of an interest in role-play – one he never felt comfortable discussing with girlfriends. It took time to summon the courage to post something and, initially, most responses were from either prostitutes or men. But stepping into this subculture made him feel less alienated. Eventually he began to offer money, reasoning that an open-minded woman of the same age would gain something from the experience even if she didn’t enjoy it.
“I’ve only met a few people, and most of them are very nervous and shy about this,” he says. “People are worried it could ruin their careers if someone found out. Most set up separate email addresses with different names so nobody really knows who they are.”
By Barry’s own admission, internet hook-ups are frowned on in Ireland whatever the circumstances. He doesn’t expect the general public to understand the nature of his encounters, and it’s something he’s worried about revealing in future relationships. But, for now, exploring his curiosity while single feels important.
“I would personally view it as [comparable to] people meeting in a bar and having a one-night stand, only both parties are honest and in agreement about what they are truly looking for. I doubt that’s the view most people would have, and perhaps I am just trying to justify this behaviour to myself. I think most people looking for casual encounters do it for similar reasons to me: they have something they are embarrassed about and will only reveal it anonymously in the hopes of meeting someone with similar interests.”
The 50 billion page views Craigslist generates every month place it among the world’s top 40 websites. Since its inception, in 1995, the California-based site has extended to 70 countries; it launched its Dublin site in 2004. But, as it is less familiar locally than other online ad sites, its traffic appears relatively sparse. The Casual Encounters section is a clear exception.
Across a one-week sample, 1,277 ads were posted (excluding those flagged for removal and deleted). Though many are clearly reposts by the same people, conscious of being washed away in the tide of new messages, about half were by men seeking men and almost 30 per cent by men seeking women. The next-largest quota consisted of group propositions, followed by those relating to transgender. Posts by women number as few as one or two a day and are often deleted quickly.
Richard says he is 35 and from Ballsbridge in Dublin. He believes that most men who post on Craigslist’s Casual Encounters are just like him: a bisexual in a heterosexual marriage. His partner is unaware, he says, as he plans these encounters in a way that doesn’t arouse suspicion.
“I first tried CL when travelling internationally on business. It is like popping into Starbucks or McDonald’s: usually every city has a branch with a varied consumer base.”
It’s mostly first-timers or “dabblers”, Richard says, and some will bend the truth about their age, marital status and experience to optimise results. When it comes to assessing replies, he typically filters out 99 per cent using his gut instinct. “I need to sense normalcy, respect, safety, discretion and maturity – in addition to any sexual attraction.”
He insists on a photograph or Skype video call beforehand and usually accommodates the meeting, itself a “huge gesture of trust”, either in hotels or his own investment properties. Richard doesn’t feel as safe travelling to someone else’s home and never gives his own phone number. Having once been pestered for money by a respondent, he knows there’s more than one way these meetings could backfire.
Abroad, crime has been a source of controversy for Craigslist. In the US the site has faced criticism for being perceived to facilitate prostitution, human trafficking and other illegal activity, particularly so-called Craigslist killings, where murderers allegedly met victims through the site.
Safety was not a major concern among those who shared their experiences for this article. Sandra describes herself as a 38-year-old woman from Dublin with a penchant for younger men. She says she receives dozens of respondents and believes that using Craigslist is quicker and easier than trying to meet someone on a night out. Asked how she gauges trustworthiness and ensures her safety, she replies, “Perhaps the risk is the attraction.”
It could be that knowing how to navigate potential pitfalls comes with experience. Dave and Selina are based in Meath. In an email exchange they describe themselves as aged 35 and 24, and say they turned to the site after two local sites stopped hosting personals. They see Craigslist as a playground where like-minded people can propose things they couldn’t broach in their local pub without fear of judgment or ridicule. Still, Dave believes it’s best to temper that openness with common sense.
“The internet can be a dangerous place, but as a couple, and me being quite a sizable chap, I’m not too concerned. But I would imagine a single female is at a risk posting for meets. We did at one point, while looking for a female for a threesome, get a reply from a 15-year-old girl who not only wanted to meet us but also had a lot of experience with meeting older guys. If we had been one of the many fake [personas], like a man pretending to be a couple, then she would have been at serious risk of God knows what.”
Dave says he tried to intervene, warning her about predators, but his advice felt futile. Craigslist is the kind of environment, he explains, where so many people are posing as someone they’re not that two men could easily be exchanging fake photos in the belief that the other is a woman.
Dave is also troubled by the number of people eroticising parental dynamics on Craigslist and by men placing the term “legal teen” in ad titles as a way, he suspects, of indemnifying themselves from authorities if caught interacting with younger respondents.
“It really is warped and somewhat disturbing to think there are real teenagers engaging with that.”
Scrolling through Craigslist’s Casual Encounters, with its endless appeals emphasised by capital letters and exclamation marks, the sense of urgency is hard to miss. Dave is inclined to put this down to inactive sex lives, but Richard, the 35-year-old businessman in Ballsbridge, is less certain.
He takes a day to ponder the question of compulsion, later admitting it made him consider his own behaviour and motivations. He has noticed self-esteem issues among some of those he has encountered and, on reflection, realised that his casual-sex habits tend to correlate with dips in self-worth or urges to escape his day-to-day life.
“It doesn’t get a lot of oxygen in the media, but I think that the internet facilitates and possibly accelerates [sex addiction]. It makes sex very easy to come by, via porn or hook-up sites, and not only feeds the desire but could arguably be seen as creating behavioural patterns. I think the urge to indulge in sex is akin to the urge to drink or take [drugs]; it’s about finding a distraction or solace in something else: instant pleasure, a thrill, an element of danger, etc.”
It’s been a year since Kevin – who is 32 and works in IT for a corporation in Dublin – realised he couldn’t live a double life any more. Last November his then-girlfriend discovered that he’d cheated on her with an online hook-up. The extent of the problem began to unravel over the next three weeks, after which he sought help and began attending a clinic for sex addiction.
Kevin had been acquainted with pornography and sexual acts from an early age. Though much of that was blocked out until he began therapy, it set off an addiction cycle that spiralled out of control during his 20s.
“Addicts, no matter what their medium is, have triggers,” he says, explaining that he had gone six months without turning to the internet for sexual gratification when he began his previous relationship. Over time, being belittled or verbally abused by his partner gradually pushed Kevin back into the cycle.
“Most are just out for fun,” he says of the women he’d secretly meet, distinguishing between those pursuing it “recreationally” and those with an addiction. Only one or two appeared to be in the latter category, but Kevin believes the symptoms are easy to ignore.
Now that he’s in recovery, he sees a dangerous link between the evolution of the sex industry and a gradual acceptance in society of behaviours once considered taboo. “Sexual boundaries and standards are being pushed very low, in my opinion, and I can only see it getting worse,” he says. “I think younger generations would not bat an eyelid at meeting people offline any more, whereas for my generation it was considered dangerous, but that was because it was a ‘new’ thing. It’s not new any more. We’ve seen it grow and evolve.”
Interviews for this article were conducted by email. Where possible, checks were made to ascertain that participants’ stated ages, genders and identities were genuine. No real names have been used
Intimacy and intensity: Crossing the line into addiction
“People using the internet for casual sex on a recreational basis is the equivalent of someone who goes for a pint and decides to go home after one,” says Austin Prior, head of continuing care at the Rutland Centre, an addiction rehabilitation facility in Dublin.
“For the compulsive addict, the same thinking applies, but they can’t always stop when they want to stop.”
The Rutland Centre has seen a steady increase in sex-addiction cases over the past four years. As with alcohol or substance abuse, Prior explains, the issue often begins as a way of overcoming social anxiety or filling an emotional gap, like replacing intimacy with intensity.
“The internet offers a way of doing this anonymously and risk-free,” says Declan Fitzpatrick of the Dublin-based Merrion Therapy and Counselling Centre. “It’s very different from approaching someone in a nightclub or asking someone from work out on a date. Some people find that quite difficult, so the internet provides this ready-made playground which can be very alluring.”
For most people, using the internet this way isn’t a problem. Among those seeking help for out-of-control sexual behaviours, however, Prior and Fitzpatrick say the difficulties can range from shame and secrecy to problems with relationships, finances and sexual health.
“The reality is, there’s a lot of it out there,” says Fitzpatrick. “The internet makes it so easy to engage with those compulsive behaviours because it’s instant, anonymous and cheap.”
“It’s very difficult for people to talk about,” says Prior. “But there is a growing acceptance of this as a real issue, and there is help available, from self-help groups on, just like there is for alcoholics and drug users.
“It’s important for people to understand that, if this is an issue, they shouldn’t be afraid to look for help.”