Online dating agency is positive about love

Published Sep 26, 2005

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By Wilson Johwa

Real love, as they say, can be hard to find. And, the odds of coming across a caring partner are even slimmer if you're open about being HIV-positive.

But, what if you confined your search to a group of people who had also contracted the virus? Would this increase the chances of finding a significant other?

These questions prompted Ben Sassman to set up an online dating agency in South Africa two years ago, for people living with HIV/Aids.

The Internet enthusiast, who works at an international recruitment agency for medical personnel by day, says his HIV-positive friends would complain of how prospective dates tended to slip away the moment they disclosed their status.

"They were saying that when they meet people and disclose their status they don't get a second chance," he said.

As a result, www.thepositiveconnection.co.za, was born - apparently the first online service of its kind in the country.

"I thought it would add a little class to how they (HIV-positive people) can meet new and interesting people," said Sassman.

Has the site lived up to expectations?

On the financial side, Sassman said he's disappointed that the flurry of media attention that accompanied the agency's launch has not translated into corporate support.

"They (large firms) do not want to associate their brand names or company names with my site. Even your big drug companies, they all told me the same thing," he said.

This has put a spoke in plans to conduct an online marketing campaign to attract more visitors to the site.

Membership has yet to hit the 300 mark, when Sassman plans to introduce a fee for joining the agency.

At present, signing up is free - and he uses his own time and resources to keep the site running.

The agency also has to contend with South Africa's gaping "digital divide".

While there would appear to be no shortage of clients for thepositiveconnection.co.za in a country with a 21.5 percent HIV-prevalence rate according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, a hefty proportion of those living with HIV/Aids are simply too poor to log on to the web regularly - if at all. This puts Sassman's site beyond the reach of many of the country's 6.2 million HIV-positive people.

But, those who have access to the agency, are confronted with an array of personalities.

The site's homepage features images and links to tips on condom use, getting tested and information about HIV. Subscribers can post personal ads, upload photos and chat instantly with other members.

"MC", one of the women registered with the site, described herself as light-skinned and hazel-eyed. The Zambian health worker, 29, "would really love to find an honest loving man to share my love and life with".

Critics of agencies such as thepositiveconnection.co.za claim they isolate HIV-positive people, thereby strengthening the stigma.

Others beg to differ. "Stigma is already there, I don't think it reinforces it," said Aids activist Connie Setjeo.

For Richard Yell, a gay motivational speaker, the possible social impact of online sites matters less than the benefits they can deliver.

"We all need someone to love - and to be loved by somebody gay or straight, black or white, HIV-positive or negative," he said.

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