Twenty-one-month old Caleb Taft may not know it, but he's one of a growing number of children who, when asked how his parents met, will answer, ``Through a dating service.'' His parents, Chris and Rod Taft of Medfield, Mass., met four years ago through The Couple Company (now People Network), a video dating service in Boston. Both worked in sales and were too busy to search for dates.
There are 60 million single, divorced, and widowed adults in the United States. Demanding careers, mobility, and the fraying of the family, social, and church lifelines that used to bring people together have left many singles stranded.
In step dating services. They're not Aunt Minnie keeping her eye out for a potential spouse for Helen or Ed. Today's matchmakers are corporations whose names -- Equal Partners, People Network, Great Expectations -- are as high-powered as the successful people they serve. And the matching is often done with the help of thoroughly '80s equipment -- computers and videotapes.
Although they have been around for 10 years, dating services are still struggling with an image problem. Observers say they're a ``loneliness industry,'' cashing in on the large, lucrative singles market. They've been confused with ``escort services,'' most of which, says Sgt. Richard Marcus of the Manhattan Sex Crimes squad, are legitimate services that provide escorts for an evening. But some escort services, he adds, ``are just fronts for prostitution.''
There are other problems. Originally some dating services were fly-by-night operations that took big bucks, promised big romance, and then left trusting customers high and dry. Disgruntled clients add that, with some services, pickings are slim: A bus driver in Los Angeles complains that the one he joined sent him dates as far away as San Diego and San Francisco, and ``after two or three duds, I quit,'' he says. A woman in Dennis, Mass., says, ``It's not what you dream about happening; it's an artificial way of going about finding someone.''
Some customers even take legal action. Together, a personal introduction service based in Boston, was sued last summer by a woman who was dissatisfied with the clients she met. She won the suit. Together's president, Brian Pappas, says that the company did provide the professionals she requested -- including a veterinarian and a biochemist -- and that one reason the client didn't meet with more success was that she lied about her age.
In spite of their problems, however, dating services are gaining a foothold in public acceptance. Major newspapers and television and radio stations, reversing previous policy, are now running their advertisements.
``There have been some complaints out there, but they tend to be isolated incidents rather than a trend,'' says Candace Von Salzen, vice-president of Standards and Practices of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va. The complaints, she says, stem from unhappy customers who want their money refunded but are instead offered only an extension of their membership.
And the services are sprouting up everywhere. Together has 30,000 members nationwide. Its parent company, Together Development Corporation, has grown from eight franchises in 1979 to 55 company-owned or franchised offices in 14 states. The Los Angeles-based Great Expectations, the country's largest video dating service, has 11 franchises that pulled in over $4 million last year. Six more franchises are due to open by June. The price is steep -- $250 to $1,500 will buy anything from three ``carefully selected'' dates to a lifetime membership.
A typical dating service interviews clients, asking them to fill out lengthy questionnaires stating their feelings about alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, hobbies, religion, and so forth. A counselor then matches clients, who are sent ``introductions'' -- basically a name, address, and phone number. The rest, as they say, is up to you.
Chris Taft used the video approach. First she made a five-minute videotape for the company's video ``library.'' From a list of basic information on the male clients, she requested a viewing of Rod's videotape. Then the company told Rod of her interest and he came to view her tape. Only after both parties approved were their names and phone numbers released. Five months later they were married.
``I was just hoping to meet some nice men to date; I never dreamed I would meet my husband,'' she says.
What makes people plunk down hard-earned money to entrust decisions of the heart to a microchip, the eye of a video camera, or the decision of a strange counselor?
``It was quite hard for me,'' admits Susan, a psychotherapist, who met her fianc'e through Together. ``I'm a specialist in family therapy, and it was hard to justify paying money to meet people. But I was very busy and not meeting the people I wanted to meet. It saved me time to have someone else do the discriminating for me.''
``It took me awhile to decide to use the service,'' says Frank, Susan's fianc'e. ``But I felt that these people had more resources, and that it really made sense for me to try something like this.''
The lengthy processing involved in joining a dating service apparently helps ensure the clients' confidentiality -- and safety. None of the services contacted had ever heard of a rape stemming from one of their introductions -- nor had police in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles.
``Someone who is going to do you damage isn't going to be inclined to put his face on a video tape for the police to see,'' points out Jeffrey Ullman, president of Great Expectations. This system also screens out married people who may be seeking a fling on the side, he adds.
Dating services stress that they are not guaranteeing marriages -- only introductions. ``People need to go into them with fairly low expectations,'' says Susan. ``If you go into it with the expectation of just meeting people, then you'll have a great time. If you go into it thinking you'll find your perfect mate, you'll probably be disappointed.''