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Guest Editorial:
eHarmony - Niche Service or a Business that Discriminates?

by James Houran, Ph.D.

(December 2008) This holiday season has brought an interesting “gift” to the industry. eHarmony, the long-term relationship/online dating website, has agreed in a civil rights settlement to give up its heterosexuals-only policy and offer same-sex matches. The dating site must also implement the new policy by March 31st, 2009 and give the first 10,000 same-sex registrants a free six-month subscription. The settlement, which didn't find that eHarmony broke any laws, called for the company to either offer the gay matches on its current venue or create a new site for them. EHarmony has opted to create a site called Compatible Partners. This news has the industry and general media abuzz, so I thought I’d weigh in.

This development is nothing sort of ridiculous, and I feel sets a bad precedent in the industry. EHarmony is arguably a niche site – a dating site for heterosexuals (Christian in orientation) who are interested in finding marriage partners. The site was heavily promoted by Christian evangelical leaders when it was founded, and their stance against same-sex matching is well known to anyone who knows about the differences among online dating sites. Now eHarmony’s niche is definitely large – the site dominates television advertising and their service has become part of pop culture to a large extent. Of course, the same can be said of Apple and Microsoft, even though not everyone has or uses computers or other such electronics. Now to be fair, I certainly understand why some people might be confused by eHarmony’s makeover of their image over the past few years. In the past, eHarmony’s commercials and media interviews – in fact, its very persona – was centralized on its founder psychologist, Dr. Neil Clark Warren. Dr. Warren is an elderly, soft spoken man with clearly idealistic views on love and romance. He’s definitely a traditionalist on marriage and the company used to have an unmistakably Christian slant. There’s nothing inherently wrong about those things, as eHarmony should be allowed to serve the market sector it wants. But a few years back, eHarmony received hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment and now Dr. Warren is conspicuously absent from the company’s advertisements and media work. In short, Dr. Warren caved to pressure from its new investors and perhaps management to widen eHarmony’s commercial appeal.

The problem of image is also compounded by a wee bit of insincerity on Dr. Warren’s part. He has said in past interviews that he didn't want to feature same-sex services on eHarmony, which matches people based on similarity between people on their responses to a long questionnaire concerning personality traits, relationship history and interests, because he felt he didn't know enough about gay relationships. Really… a so-called compatibility expert isn’t aware of the research on gay relationships? That’s hard to believe given that it’s been long known that the matching principle of homogamy (the mating of similar individuals) is not limited to traditionally married partners, but also applies to heterosexual cohabiting and even homosexual couples(1). So we have the situation where Dr. Warren looks to be academically incompetent or disingenuous about his company’s agenda. The fact is that eHarmony simply wasn’t interested in serving that particular market segment, just like other companies who select a market niche to maintain a competitive advantage in the market.

The reaction to the eHarmony development has been puzzling. Some gays are overjoyed with the result, since they feel it helps advance their political agendas in this highly charged political climate. I personally feel that the settlement and the general lawsuit itself trampled on rights – the rights of eHarmony to serve the market it wants. Why was this lawsuit launched in the first place? – eHarmony makes it clear on its site that its service market is heterosexuals, the online dating industry is filled with hundreds of niche dating sites that inherently exclude groups based on a number of different characteristics and the market already has a number of dating sites that cater specifically to same-sex relationships.

Worse yet, this recent legal development sets the stage for all sorts of other ridiculous challenges based on extreme political correctness. I mean, one astute industry insider rightfully asked, “When is manhunt.net, outpersonals.com and other gay dating sites going to be forced to cater to heterosexuals?” Or, now can any and all niches site be sued for not being 100% inclusive with its services. I personally don’t know any business that’s 100% inclusive.

Here’s a thought… maybe someone should sue the person who brought this lawsuit against eHarmony. I mean this person has unapologetically stated that he’s looking for a gay partner, but in the process, he’s definitely and undeniably discriminating against heterosexual women who might want a chance at a relationship with him.


Related Links:
» eHarmony to Match Gays and Lesbians
» eHarmony Same Sex Matching Settlement Agreement

References

1. 1Kurdek, L. A., & Schmitt, J. P. (1987). Partner homogamy in married, heterosexual cohabiting, gay, and lesbian couples. Journal of Sex Research, 23, 212-232..


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