* By Amy Sohn
Not all single people are looking to settle down, and the ones who aren't have finally found their heaven: the Casual Encounters page of online bulletin board Craigslist. If Missed Connections is the side of the dance floor where the wallflowers stare moony-eyed at the popular crowd, then Casual Encounters is the dank, smoky basement where the druggies and sluts party till dawn. Casual Encounters users post ads seeking sex, usually that same day, with come-ons like LET'S GET NAKED IN W'BURG or MUTUAL J/O TO STR8 PORN. Despite all the risks of trolling for sex on the Internet - disease, violence, a spouse who hacks into your e-mail - fans say they're thrilled, relieved to have found a place where a paramour can be at your door in less time than the Shun Lee delivery guy.
Craigslist launched Casual Encounters in New York in April 2002, sensing that people looking for a quick fix needed a haven. 'We only introduce new categories when we guess there's a critical mass for them, ' says founder Craig Newmark. "A lot of people are a lot more interested in something casual than I ever imagined," he says. 'And that's okay with me as long as no one gets hurt. Unless they want to be."
Judging by the numbers, interest is soaring. The monthly postings in New York have gone from about 1,000 in April 2002 to 14,400 in March, and the monthly page views have reached 3.2 million.
Not surprisingly, over three quarters of the posts in New York on a recent day were "m4w," men seeking women, with the next most popular group "m4m" (about 10 percent). Until recently, many of the female posters used phrases like "sensual massage" and "happy ending" to indicate that they wanted quid for the pro. In response to repeated complaints that the site was being corrupted (apparently even sex maniacs have limits), Craigslist started a category last month called Erotic Services, for 'professionals' and the men who 'love' them.
Now most of the female posters are "civilians." Debbie, 33, has slept with a few guys she's met on Casual Encounters and likes the efficiency. "It's the lazy man's bar," she says. "I can come home, put my feet up on the couch, go through a couple ads, and have someone in my house shortly. I answered one guy because he was eight blocks from my apartment looking for company, he sent me a photo, and was really cute! Those are the things that matter, that someone's close to you and cute."
Does she feel unsafe with strange men in her apartment? "I have dogs," she says.
She describes herself as "not the most beautiful woman in the world," but says she never had trouble getting laid the old-fashioned way. What she likes about CE is that people's motives are on the table. "What's more hurtful is when you think someone wants more than sex and then you find out they don't."
She’s been surprised by how normal the interludes seem. "The guys will come over and have a drink and sit and talk. It’s not as awkward as you would expect. And except for the fact that I'll come home late and have casual sex with men I met on the Internet, I'm relatively normal, too."
Lee, 24, a production assistant, began browsing CE posts last summer. One day he saw a post from a woman in the music industry who was looking for a friend. He works at MTV and thought she could be a good contact. She sent a photo, and though he didn't have one, she suggested they meet at Hooters. After beer and chicken wings, they went for a walk in Central Park and wound up on the stage of the Delacorte, where, he says, "it became a stereotypical casual encounter."
He's met four other women on CE, though Shakespeare in the Park's the only one he slept with. One time after posting an ad, he got a few e-mails from a woman named Adrienne. He gave her his phone number and a little while later it rang. "It was a guy. I asked who it was, and he said, 'I'm Adrian.' I said, 'Oh. I was expecting someone female.' He said, 'I'm bisexual, I hope you're not offended by that.' I told him I was looking for a woman, and he said, 'Well, you should at least give it a try.' I said, 'I'm sorry, my door doesn't swing that way.' "
Neil, a 54-year-old divorced father, first used Craigslist to sell an old Mac. After he posted, he started reading Missed Connections and Casual Encounters for the fun of it. One night he spotted an ad marked "w4m" in which the poster expressed a desire for oral sex and nothing more, and he saw that she lived not far from him, just outside the city. They exchanged photos, and he was happy to find she was attractive and over 40.
Over the next few days, they exchanged explicit e-mails. "She was very clear that all she wanted to do was have cunnilingus performed. I said I had to have kissing too, and she said she wasn't sure. The e-mails were whimsical, humorous, and sexual." They spoke on the phone and arranged to meet at a cocktail lounge. He requested she not wear underwear. She obliged.
"She was smart, charming, and gorgeous," he says. "After drinks, we went to the car. There was a lot of heavy touching, and there were orgasms involved." They've gone out twice since then. "I have yet to do what she asked, but only because it's not that easy in a car."
When Neil asked why she agreed to meet him, she told him he was among the first responders. His proximity helped, too. "She had answered a few others, and they had turned out to be jerks, but the thing that really interested her was that I lived so close. I told her I thought she was brave, and she said she based it on instinct." He thinks they'll continue to see each other, though neither is looking for a relationship.
Neil partied a lot in the eighties, and even went to Plato's Retreat a few times, but says this casual encounter was very different. "We are both adventurous and cosmopolitan people, but we are not people who are living on the edge. We have responsible lives, we did this, and it was fun. We're not wild. She's a single working woman, and I'm a single working father of two."
Do his kids know he's dating someone he met in a place called Casual Encounters? "They know I met her on the Internet," he says. "To them, it's totally normal."