ONCE upon a halcyon time, if you wanted to meet a partner you’d hang out at the village square. Or perhaps your parents would hook you up with someone eligible.

A little later, you might have met potential partners at work – although reams have been written about the downsides of office romances, and as the veteran of one or two in a different lifetime, I might add a story to the innumerable that have already been written on this syndrome.

Or, if you were a follower of The Man in White, you might find divinely ordained love at church.

Or you could trawl pubs and clubs in the hope of meeting a soulmate – although detractors are wont to speculate that anyone you meet in a dop-and-debauchery dive is going to be a bit dodgy.

Then came internet dating.

This was a good thing. And a bad thing.

With sex in all its almost infinite and improbable permutations being the king of the interweb, it was only inevitable that internet dating would have sex-soaked, seedy connotations.

Think paedophiles. Think drool-soaked old men whacking off in bedsits. Think whores peddling their wares.

And it might have been like that at first. I really don’t know.

But I do know that over the past decade, internet dating has rapidly shed any perceived image of being the reserve of the dirty and desperate. Now it’s mainstream.

In the US it’s said to be a $2.1bn (R16.3bn) industry, and America has more than 1 500 dating sites, while around a quarter of all Australians have apparently tried it.

Even people who cherish an aura of normality and conformity openly indulge in it.

Over the couple of months I’ve met – electronically and then physically – a nurse, an attorney and a policewoman. The last disappointed me slightly by not arriving for our coffee date in uniform.

And they’ve all been remarkably, well, normal and nice. Although every single one of the scores of women I know who practise or have practised internet dating says they have been approached by at least a couple of men who are After Only One Thing. Many, I’m led to believe, have been “just weird”.

When I pointed out to a lady friend that I’ve encountered a singular dearth of “just weird” people on internet dating sites, she pointed out that’s because I am one of the “weird ones”. No matter. She was joking. I think.

But people do lie. Many are the men, I’m led to believe, who paint themselves as single and sensuous but turn out to be married, wheezing, leering, sclerotic sacks of shit.

I’ve had the same problem with this paucity of truth.

But luckily I’ve cracked the code females use on the internet. To the uninitiated, it is every bit as complex as a cryptogram out of The Da Vinci Code. More specifically, in listing their “body type”, among reams of other useful information for the perusal of potential suitors, subscribers can choose between a wide variety of options, ranging from “slim” through to “large,” with the likes of “curvaceous” and “a few extra pounds” listed in between.

And at first I naively took these descriptions to be literal – however, after setting up a few coffee dates, I very quickly realised that “curvaceous” really means “quite fat”.

“A few extra pounds” means “breaching Southern Right whale” and “large” presumably means “main battle tank”. Another thing I quickly learnt is that the posting of head-and-shoulders pictures only on these sites means there’s very likely the body of the next Mrs Zuma attached.

But enough of that.

That I feel quite comfortable telling you about my forays into internet dating – although admittedly I ceased caring what anyone thinks some years ago – is itself more proof of the acceptance of these sites.

When I first signed onto the local site, Thunderboltcity, which is networked to other sites here and abroad, giving you a vast range of more than 100 000 potential playmates to choose from, even if your search criteria are specific indeed, and you’re looking for a harpsichord-playing, 21-year-old Ukrainian, at least a couple of the girls who I took out for coffee squirmed with giggly embarrassment at being on “an internet date”.

These days I notice a far greater acceptance of internet dating – among both its adherents and those who I secretly suspect would like to indulge but haven’t got around to doing so.

But the real beauty of it is that it transcends geographical boundaries, while allowing you to select from a pool that, unlike the village square, runs into thousands, even tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, depending on the site.

This growing acceptance is not just a product of my imagination.

In 2002, a Wired magazine article forecast that, “Twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love without looking for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalogue to instead wander the stacks because the right books are found only by accident.”

On Thunderboltcity and its linked sites, you can post your profile for free, listing a vast range of information, including a category called: “Why Should You Get To Know So-and-So?”

Mine, for instance, reads:

“This isn’t easy, is it? Well, I’m a bachelor, a journalist (both of which could, I suppose, be taken as negatives), living alone with my dogs. And as they only have a limited vocabulary, and all my friends are married, I could do with some company. Does it count that Cosmopolitan once voted me a bachelor of the year?”

An awful lot of individuals, however, do go on a little bit too much about “romantic walks on the beach” – and if you tried that here in Durban, you’d end up mugged, raped or with an e-coli infection, perhaps all three – and “sipping red wine by the fireside”.

The catch is if anyone writes to you, and you want to respond (and trust me you will want to) – or if you simply want to write to someone whose profile appeals – you need to subscribe.

This costs R159.95 for a single month, through to R959.40 if you subscribe for a year to Thunderboltcity.

Even if you don’t really want a relationship – and I certainly don’t – it provides inordinate entertainment, and I’ve made at least a few female friends who I occasionally meet for coffee.

But if you really are looking for love – as opposed to merely satiating bestial old lust – the most potentially crippling drawback to the whole affair as I see it is that you’re going to end up a little like F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby who “believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning – “

In other words, such is human nature that you may always be wondering, worrying, wishing, that there’s something even better a mere mouse-click away.