The Arousal Industry

"It's nice to be naughty," claims the buxom hotty in a certain widely disseminated ad for True.com, one of online dating's biggest players. It's the sort of oxymoronic sentiment that encapsulates, at least in spirit, the seemingly two-faced practices of a company that has been raising the hackles of its competitors in an industry struggling with stagnant revenues.

True Love

"It's nice to be naughty," claims the buxom hotty in a certain widely disseminated ad for True.com, one of online dating's biggest players. It's the sort of oxymoronic sentiment that encapsulates, at least in spirit, the seemingly two-faced practices of a company that has been raising the hackles of its competitors in an industry struggling with stagnant revenues.

As the name would suggest, True strives to distinguish itself as the lone bastion for honest and safe dating in an online world full of liars and cheaters – "dedicated to maintaining an ethical environment for serious singles to meet," as their marketing copy puts it. To that end, it conducts background checks on new members to ensure that they are neither married nor felons. It has also been a key mover behind efforts to get US state legislatures to compel social networking sites to declare whether or not they perform similar checks.

At first glance, this sounds noble enough. Competitors like Match.com and Yahoo Personals, however, have been lobbying against the proposal on the grounds that the background checks are ineffective and create a false sense of security, since it is too easy to provide false personal information when signing up. Since True is the only major service that runs the checks, they are the only party that stands to gain from any such legislation.

Moreover, True's incongruously sexual ad campaigns – one web banner offers a pair of generous jugs accompanied by the caption "dive into love" – has drawn extensive popular criticism, particularly among users of MySpace, where the ads are common. Members of True have also voiced their dismay with the company's policy of automatically generating "winks" – the industry jargon for messages of interest between members – that appear to come from a prospective date, but that are actually sent without that user's knowledge.

The founder of True, Herb Vest, recently defended the fake winks to a New York Times reporter. "We try getting people who otherwise might be very retiring or shy to meet each other and fall in love and have children," he argued. "We are just trying to do our job as a matchmaker."

Female Arousal

With all of the extravagant efforts to debut a "Women's Viagra" currently caught in approval limbo, consumer-product conglomerates like Johnson & Johnson have stepped up to promise on-demand female arousal in the form of new-fangled personal lubricants. The company's venerable K-Y brand has enjoyed a four-fold increase in sales over in the last three years, in large part on the strength of its Warming Liquid, which delivers the sensation of heat when applied to the genitals of either sex. J&J's competitors have offered up scores of similar warming products – along with a more recent array of mint-based "tingling" lubricants – all of which depend on mild tissue irritation to achieve their curious effects.

Seeking to differentiate itself in this newly crowded market, one upstart US company is making a slippery splash with a $10 million ad campaign for Zestra Female Arousal Fluid. First made available to the public in 2005, the oil is made from botanical oils and extracts that Zestra Laboratories claims can "naturally stimulate the body's own sensory nerve conduction," rather than merely irritating the genitals.

Although Zestra is not a drug and thus does not require clinical research trials, one double-blind trial published in 2003 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy did indeed find that Zestra fared better at arousing women than a placebo oil.

That should go a long way in guaranteeing Zestra Laboratories a spot in the emerging female-arousal industry, which is widely expected to rival the male-arousal industry in a few short years.

Already available without a prescription in North America, Europe, and several countries in Asia, the oil will run you a few bucks or more per individually foil-wrapped hit of "enhanced intimacy." C.D.

J-Pants

While Iranian women are being punished for violating Islamic dress codes of modesty, a small segment of women in Japan are pushing the extremes of provocative fashion. Touted as a new summer fashion trend, the "ultra-low-rise jeans" (a.k.a. "bikini pants") are the latest items to be marketed to fashion-conscious youth. The equivalent of shock-jock statements in clothing design, the pants have caused a minor uproar among bloggers and web pundits around the world. While Japan's mainstream fashion remains decidedly tame, its fringe trends reflect the shifting sexual mores among the youth: sexual activity rates among teenagers have shot up to 40 percent in 2006, unthinkable for a nation once renowned for its conservatism.