WhatsYourPrice.com, which claims 50,000 members, is the eBay of the dating world, with bids averaging $138 - of course, that's the more cordial of descriptions. Some relationship experts have likened the site to an escort service, or to old-fashioned prostitution.
Other experts, however, say such sites speak to our need to find ways to connect even as we struggle to communicate with each other in these times of tweets and texts.
Medina Jones, 23, of Doylestown, who has received several winks and completed one date for $120, said she likes the site and does not think her payment comes with salacious strings attached - at least no more than any first date, arranged on- or off-line.
"It's just how you go about it," said Jones, a college student whose profile name is DirtyDiana and shows a buxom Jones. "If you're saying, 'Hey, let's meet in a hotel,' yeah, that's about sex. If you're saying, 'Let's go to dinner' and make the boundaries clear, then it's fine."
Her lawyer date took her to dinner at the Freight House in Doylestown and paid the agreed-upon amount up front (as well as for dinner). "He was a gentleman about it," she said. "He put the money in a card."
How did it work out? It didn't. Jones said he wasn't her type. But because of the money, "I felt like I didn't lose anything."
Singapore native and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Brandon Wade founded the site out of his own experiences. "I consider myself a pretty nerdy and geeky guy," he said. "I'm shy. . . . I certainly don't know how to go up to a woman at a bar or public setting and pick her up."
But Wade, 40 and an entrepreneur, said he hadn't had much luck with landing first dates with desirable women online, either. At traditional sites, such as Match.com, he knew attractive women got inundated with inquiries. Whatsyourprice.com levels the playing field.
"The purpose of this site is to break the ice," he said of his business, based in anything-goes Las Vegas. Money gives one side access and the other side control, he said. So why not call the site BuyAFirstDate or something else less titillating? Wade, who is divorced but now in a relationship established off-line, makes no apologies. The site's name is intended to generate publicity, he allowed.
Still, Wade also claims a higher purpose. He really wants to help out the financially stable guy who doesn't look like Prince Charming but has high standards and can pay for a date with someone who might be considered out of his league. In other words, guys like him.
For a couple of hours over dinner, the gawky get a chance to make an impression that "goes beyond the superficial picture and profile," said Wade, who has launched other matchmaking websites, including SeekingMillionaire.com and SeekingArrangement.com.
In this latest venture, generous members on WhatsYourPrice.com purchase credits - which is how the site makes its money - that are spent to unlock e-mail conversations with attractive members. The number of credits needed depends on the bid price, but on average, about $50 a month will get a generous member access to about three to five dates. What those members end up paying their date is a separate cost.
Attractive members pay no fees to join the site, and post provocative, blush-worthy pictures with minimal clothing (so much so, some pictures have faces blurred out) in an obvious play to raise bids, which can range from as low as $10 to as high as a few hundred dollars. The site, Wade said, monitors for X-rated content or posts that sell escort services. He said hundreds of profiles have been removed from the site for inappropriate material.
Who decides who's attractive? Anyone can put a profile on the attractive side for no charge. But the bidding tells all. "That's the free-market principle," Wade said. "If you have a profile and you're not too attractive, then your bid is not going to be too high."
TV relationship expert Michelle Callahan hammered the site in an April blog post, calling it nothing more than an escort service. "You're kidding yourself if you think that this type of first date arrangement leads to a relationship," she wrote. "It might sound like a novel way to meet for a first date, but in the end, when you're thinking about settling down, making a commitment or even marriage, you won't seriously consider someone who values themselves so little that they charge for first dates or someone so desperate that they would pay for one."
George James, a marriage and family therapist at the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia, also voiced concerns. What is the exchange of money really buying? he asked. "Do I believe you owe me?" he said. "I paid for dinner, you pay for 'dessert'?" And if the attractive member is seeking a partner with money, what happens to the relationship if finances should change?
At the same time, James said the site's popularity confirms what he sees in his counseling practice. Many people struggle with finding ways to succeed in social situations, and anything that can help the process along has some value.
"There's evidence people's ability to interact and communicate with each other has decreased," especially in the age of social media, he said. The site also allows people to interact more casually, without the pressure of making a match. "Maybe you're not at that place where you're trying to meet your soul mate."
Julee Eisenkart, 38 and divorced these last five years, said dating for her is no longer only about finding Mr. Right. The nurse with two kids just wants to meet new people and have an enjoyable evening out. And why not make a few bucks along the way, especially given the high probability (based on past experience, she says) that the date could be a dud? "If it's going to be a big, huge waste of time, at least I'm going to get paid for it," she said. "A lot of these guys are wealthy gentlemen, and I think my time is as valuable as their time."
So far, Eisenkart, who lives near York, Pa., has had several bids, including ones for about $300. But all of her arranged dates have fallen through at the last moment.
"I don't know if people are taking the site seriously," she said.
One "generous" 33-year-old, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and did not want to be named, is a writer who has worked on political campaigns. He said he joined the site out of curiosity about whom he would find there. He has gone on five dinner dates, including with women from the Philadelphia area, paying out $200 over a couple of months. "It's a relatively trivial amount of money," he said.
While he said he's not all that socially awkward, the site definitely makes it "easier to get attractive women to go out with you."
Twice, he said, the date has gone well enough that the woman returned his money. "I think the money is a lot more important," he said, "if the date goes badly."
Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Lkadaba@gmail.com.