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The questionable case of eHarmony’s discrimination against gays and lesbians

gay-marriage.jpgEarlier this year, Linda Carlson wanted to sign up for eHarmony, an online dating site. However, she was disappointed to learn that the site only matches heterosexuals, leaving lesbians like her out of luck and out of love. She wrote to the company, but it said that it was not inclined to offer its services for matching up gay and lesbian couples. So Carlson has now sued the company for sexual-orientation discrimination.

She wants to make her lawsuit a class action, on the basis of eHarmony denying its services to gays and lesbians. She wants an unspecified amount of money, of course, plus she wants the site to change its wicked ways, saying the website is engaging in “outright discrimination” which is “hurtful and disappointing.” For its part, eHarmony says that her suit is junk and it doesn’t match up gay and lesbian couples simply because “the research that eHarmony has developed, through years of research, to match couples has been been based on traits and personality patterns of successful heterosexual marriages.” That is, eHarmony claims that it’s ill-equipped to match up non-heterosexual couples.

Other blogs have already talked about the fact that this case is a bit unique in the fact that Carlson isn’t claiming that the website flat-out prevents gays and lesbians from using it but; instead, she claims that the site doesn’t offer the same services to homosexuals which are offered to heterosexuals. As David Bernstein discusses over at The Volokh Conspiracy:

Eharmony does not technically prevent gays and lesbians from using its services; rather, it provides services for people looking for partners of the opposite sex. Assumedly, any self-identified homosexual who decided to look for an opposite sex partner would be able to use Eharmony’s services. Is this a distinction without a difference? I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t think that a strip club featuring nude females could be sued for sexual orientation discrimination simply because few gay men would be interested in utilizing its services. On the other hand, if the club excluded gay men who did wish to ogle nude women (or hang out with men who did), that would clearly be discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This eHarmony situation sure sounds more like the example where a gay man can walk into a strip club, but isn’t likely to be interested in the female dancers/services, at least to me. But even more interesting is Bernstein’s thought that a win by Carlson could actually backfire, because it would not only require websites like eHarmony to offer services beyond the scope of what it claims it’s capable of (although I’m not so sure I buy the fact that it can’t apply its compatibility test to homosexual relationships), but it would also require dating sites that cater to homosexuals to open their doors to straights.

I am a lefty-liberal at heart, so I’m all for the strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. But at the same time, at some point don’t you have to take a step back and say that the best result isn’t always for the law to intercede? Isn’t the market sometimes capable of taking care of things on its own? My gut tells me that the online dating world, to the extent that it works, works much better as it is now, than it would if specialty sites are forced to cater to all, as Bernstein suggests would be the result of a win for Carlson in this case. Not to mention, do we really want our government and laws mandating that businesses like eHarmony must offer services which it isn’t interested in and/or isn’t capable of properly offering (again, I’ll admit that I’m not so sure its services aren’t easily applied to homosexual relationships), when it’s not a case of those business actually preventing protected classes of people from participating? I’m not so sure the answer here is yes.

| Comments (10)


Comments

If eHarmony was the ONLY website out there to use, Carlson might have a stronger case but other websites like Chemistry.com (who accepts all of eHarmony's rejects, regardless of sexual orientation) are already saying "Hey, use us, we can help you" - If they succeed, well, then eHarmony *might* be changing its ways just to stay competitive.

And that's exactly my point, Monica, about this being an instance where, in my mind, maybe we should just let the market settle things on its own.

Carlson has claimed that other sites don't provide the same high level of quality that eHarmony does. Then again, if she's the only lesbian on eHarmony she's not going to get very good matches anyway. I'm not in favor of discrimination, but not all discrimination is created equal. If a specific Starbucks refused to serve a gay patron, should they bring a lawsuit when there's probably another one across the street that will serve them? Or if that became a general Starbucks policy, there are plenty of other places to get coffee. Granted, if a doctor refused treatment to Carlson or if the police refused to help her in a crisis (which could and does happen to gays and lesbians) then it's serious and punishable discrimination. eHarmony, on the other hand, may or may not change their policies, but forcing them to is only going to create more problems.

What a frivolous lawsuit. If they don't like it, there's plenty of other websites that cater to homosexuals.

This is completely different from Starbucks not serving a gay patron: Starbucks sells coffee. The issue instead is whether eHarmony is providing the particular service the plaintiff wants. It's like walking into Starbuck's and asking for Chinese takeout. They don't happen to do that.

I do agree that the market probably does take care of this problem to an extent. However, I see the problem more like country clubs that discriminate against certain people. Yes, those organizations are private, too, and you can take your business elsewhere. But there is a reason that the PGA doesn't host its tournaments at discriminatory clubs.


I think perhaps you need a bit of further information.

It's not possible to state on e-harmony that you are a male, looking for a male. The options don't exist.

This case may be a 'bit' on the frivolous side, but it's rather interesting, and perhaps not as frivolous as this article claims.

BTW, E-harmony is run by crackpot Neil Clark Warren, who happens to be a devout, politically connected, evangelical christian with strong views against homosexuality. The whole matching system he uses trivializes the human relationship model, and it total junk science. He's not well respected by many of his peers because he's a religious psychologist, and not a psychologist who happens to be religious.

-dr

Very interesting Mr. Rebel. Are you a psychologist? Perhaps one who's a scoatch more "spiritual" than "religious"? I admit I don't have a subscription to Psychology Today, but I was unaware of an anti-Neil Clark Warren movement. Is there one? I think eHarmony is successful because people sign up for it believing they'll meet people who want relationships not hookups. Based upon what information do you premise your proclamation that it's junk science?

kitty- fyi, i've got me a psych degree and yes, i've heard of this guy's wacky religiosity before. perhaps the anti-neil clark warren movement hasn't yet started holding parades, but the conventional wisdom is that he's not exactly obsessed with science or equality, for that matter.

as far as the issue at hand, a few thoughts:
-if a company is incapable of performing duties adequately for a customer, they should be honest about that and the customer may have to go elsewhere to seek appropriate service. sometimes a job is too big, too obscure, too whatever.

-however, if a company is incapable of performing duties for a certain type of customer because they outright choose ignorance and refuse to learn how to serve specific individuals on the basis of some characteristics, that is clearly discrimination.

-if eharmony wasn't discriminatory in its philosophy, it would have at least started trying to do some research on same-sex relationships

My friend who is a pagan, tried to use eHarmony and said she got almost no matches, too. The men who did contact her were devout Christians wanting a Christian based relationship.