Sick of the clubbing-to-meet-a-soul-mate scene last summer, Emily Peters and Janette Naveran decided they needed a website that catered to lesbians seriously looking to connect. Many of the women's dating sites they found were riddled with pornography or infiltrated by men, so they created their own.
Advertised entirely by word of mouth, SheDate.com has grown to 23,000 members since its October launch. About 10 percent are from Florida, with 3.5 percent from Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
The Fort Lauderdale-based website is strictly for lesbian and bisexual women seeking community, friendship, flirtation and love. Allison Van Buren, a friend of Naveran's who does background work for the site, found a private investor willing to back the venture with $2 million for its first two years.
SheDate.com sets itself apart by banning distracting outside advertisements, suggestive user profiles and pictures -- and men.
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``You talk to a man of any age and what's their fantasy? To be with a lesbian,'' Van Buren said.
``Yeah, I get it with my girlfriend all the time,'' said Naveran. ``Oh, you're lesbians? Can I join?''
Transgender women are allowed, but SheDate.com is vigilant about ferreting out men with prurient motives who try to finagle their way onto the site.
``It's ridiculous,'' says Van Buren, the gatekeeper. ``Sometimes they post that their name is Lucy Love, but their e-mail is John Smith.''
Brenda Buck, who joined SheDate.com three months ago, says she finds its approach refreshing.
``They are better than eHarmony and the others,'' said Buck, 39. ``They screen their people and don't allow stuff that's inappropriate.''
Working in a South Florida office lined with Warhol-esque prints of Angelina Jolie, Marilyn Monroe and J.Lo, Van Buren vets 150 to 200 new user profiles a day to ensure the content is PG-13. In addition to correcting typos, the petite blond screens for profanity, sexual innuendo and suggestive pictures.
Various safeguards are intended to ensure a worry-free, woman-only community. For example, last names and contact information is excluded from public pages.
``We also keep out content that involves children,'' Peters said, including photos of members with their kids.
SheDate.com members range from women just emerging from the closet to lesbians with rainbows tattooed to their foreheads. Their average age is 38, Van Buren said, but a member is as likely to be a 49-year-old searching for a life partner as an 18-year-old looking for something less serious. Membership is $34.95 a month, with discounts for longer commitments.
Melissa Lyn Lee, 28, says she tried at least five other websites before finding SheDate. After bad encounters with men posing as women and women who seemed unbalanced (one faked her death and had mock photos sent to Lee), she sees SheDate as a necessary change.
``It's not just little girls looking to hook up for the weekend but people who are in college or have businesses or run companies,'' Lee said. ``It's more adult friendly, it's more mature, and it's set up very well so that it's easy to communicate with icebreakers on the main page so you can flirt.''
Naveran handles programming and Peters is responsible for marketing. Over the next six months, they hope to expand SheDate.com beyond dating and make it a hub of lesbian social networking.
``We want it to be like Facebook,'' Peters said.
Naveran envisions online ``cocktail parties'' where members can ``buy'' each other drinks or flowers and nonmembers can pay a small cover charge to drop in for a few hours.
Hoping to make SheDate.com a ``one-stop shop for the lesbian community,'' Naveran and Peters are adding a blog, a magazine and a shopping site called SheAvenue.com featuring both feminine attire and a ``butch'' line called SheBoi.
``We've met the dating site role, and now we want to move forward,'' Peters said. ``We wanted full communities, especially for women who were not comfortable coming out to their family. We wanted a safe haven where women could build up strength. A place to come together for lesbian rights.''