Gender Differences in Personal Advertisements

Gender Differences in Personal Advertisements

Morgan Duchesney: 03/1999


This paper is a critical analysis of gender differences in personal advertisements appearing in recent issues of the Ottawa Xpress, an alternative weekly newspaper published in Ottawa by Jim Cresky and Ross Dickson. It is alternative in the sense that it is unfailingly critical of the Harris Conservatives, Conrad Black, transnational corporations and the rest of the neoconservative establishment. The paper is activist in nature, appealing mainly to liberal-minded individuals and offers a genuine “alternative” to the predictably bland fare served up in most of the mainstream press. However, its portrayal of gender stereotypes is quite traditional and surprising in such an avant garde and otherwise progressive publication.

The main purpose of this paper is to provide an analysis of the stark differences in the way men and women present themselves in their personal advertisements.

“Men in our society are free to define themselves confidently and boldly, while women generally present an idealized and vague self-image which is largely mediated by the roles the men in their lives and in society around them have encouraged them to adopt.” (1: Eve Boyle, personal communication, March 1, 2000.)


The Ottawa Xpress has been chosen because it is the only publication that caters to all tastes and sexual orientations. Papers like the Ottawa Citizen and even the basic gray Globe and Mail do have personal “connections” sections but, compared to the Ottawa Xpress, they provide little variety and little ammunition for this paper.


This paper will also establish that the aforementioned gender differences are culturally-mediated by the way men and women are conditioned to view themselves in Western culture. This phenomenon is often called gender stratification. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology, stratification is:

“…usually applied to studies of socially structured inequality, that is, studies of any structured inequalities between groups of people…”( 2: Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology, pg. 512)

This conditioning is mainly the work of men and men have held the upper hand in Western society for a long time and so have been free to impose their ideas on the rest of the culture. During the 20th century, the vast majority of political, military, business and academic leaders have been men. Though the situation is slowly changing, most of the leaders still are men; and the women who succeed in politics, business and academe are still in the minority. Men are encouraged to be aggressive and dominant and women are encouraged to be sexy but demure and innocent. This in itself is enough of a contradiction to cause problems for young women who quite rightly, can’t figure out how to be a vamp and a virgin at the same time. As Jean Kilbourne writes in Deadly Persuasion:

“They know it is good to be considered a little wild and sexy, in a cute and impish way, but unspeakably terrible to really cross the line. They see all the time what happens to the girls who are labeled sluts, the girls who are raped, the girls whom even other girls turn viciously on.” (3: Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion, pg. 174)


Yet the aforementioned contradiction is the twisted message the advertising industry sells through the mass media. This phenomenon is amply reflected in the personal advertisements in the Ottawa Xpress. The personal advertisements in the Xpress are the print extension of their telephone connection service, which is where they make their money from the lonely hearts and/or the merely lustful in their reading audience.

Of special interest is the fact that women can register for the telephone connection service free of charge while men, straight or gay, must pay a substantial fee for the privilege. It could be said that the popularity of personal connection services is a natural outgrowth of the frenetic pace of modern urban life but the author of this paper suspects that this is only part of the answer. The level of trust in urban Canadian culture has decreased steadily over the last decade as the mass media have promoted the idea that crime is increasing. Whether or not all types of crime is increasing is debatable, put public awareness of crimes of violence against women is definitely increasing. Witness the recent rise in women’s self-defense courses and the efforts of institutions like the University of Ottawa regarding sexual harassment on campus.

There is a great deal of fear, especially among women, that they may become the victims of date rape, other sexual assaults or spousal abuse. This very real fear is amply borne out by statistics that are beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say that women today are using shelters, rape crisis services and court-sponsored victims’ services in record numbers.

This well-justified hesitancy on the part of many women to become involved with total strangers without a safe period of telephone interaction is a tendency the publishers of the Ottawa Xpress and other publishers of personal introduction services must be well aware of.

As mentioned before, the purpose of this paper is to provide a critical analysis of gender differences in the personal advertisements in the Ottawa Xpress. In addition to the personal advertisements per se, there are also numerous male-targeted advertisements for phone sex, both gay and straight; “massage services” and escort services for men and women.

Escort services:

Before this paper turns to the topic of personal ads proper, it will first address the above categories, most of which are widely regarded as a thinly disguised form of prostitution, the majority of which are directed at men both gay and straight. While there may be escort services offering male escorts for women; the ones offering the services of men are either clearly homosexual in nature or are very ambiguous. The ones that mention both male and female escorts don’t specify the sexual orientation of the escort. The following are two examples from the Xpress. The first is ambiguous and the second is clearly aimed at gay men:

“1.CHRIS, handsome bodybuilding model, professional exotic dancer, parties, dates, fantasies and escort, home/hotel, 24 hours, pager: 597-O382.
2.MAN TO MAN, muscled, tanned, smooth, clean, safe, and discreet. The best outcalls. 762-5910.”(4: Ottawa Xpress, pg.36, Feb., 4, 2000)

The following quote from a March 11, 2000 issue of the Ottawa Citizen clearly illustrates why there would be a public perception of escort services as prostitution operations:

“On Aug. 28, police began an undercover investigation after they received a report of an escort at an escort service whose newspaper advertisements promised the finest and best college ladies 18+,’ being paid $130 for a sexual act involving urination, said Det. Rick Macintosh of the community Response Section.”(5: Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 2000)

The vast majority of escort advertisements offer the services of women of all ethnic backgrounds. The very fact that these advertisements appear in a ostensibly progressive newspaper leads the author of this paper to believe that the publishers are unconcerned with portraying women as sexual objects available at a price for the amusement of any man with a valid credit card. This negative portrayal of women as sexual servants is demeaning at best and utterly abusive in that it blatantly reinforces traditional patriarchal ideas about the place of women in society.

Phone sex:

The phone sex advertisements are touted as an erotic adventure with a hot-blooded young woman but the reality is that the lady on the other end of the line probably has a sexy voice but lacks the lurid, visual sex appeal of the panting model in the advertisement. These advertisements are abusive of both women and men. Again, women are portrayed as people whose purpose is to provide verbal coaching for a lonely act of masturbation. It is prostitution without the physical contact and is just as offensive. The same could be said of Internet porn sites but that is beyond the scope of this paper. The common offense here is the commodification of sexual relations, taking it out of people’s bedrooms and bringing it out in the public, to be sold as freely as shaving cream or pencils.

The following is an example of a phone sex advertisement that plays on the "barely legal” fantasy that every man is supposed to entertain. As an aside, it is ironic that in our culture, older, powerful (rich) men are free to seek sexual relationships with much younger women but the few women in this affluent category rarely engage in public dalliances with younger men. It is culturally-mediated as somehow wrong. It doesn’t matter that there is no logical basis for this bias. The silver-haired stud (i.e.Sean Connery) is revered and the menopausal woman with a lover many years her junior is snickered at behind her back and considered desperate. In a world where men still make most of the important decisions, this situation is not surprising. Hollywood’s current rejection of older women as star actresses doesn’t help this situation because so many people in Western culture tend to idolize and emulate movie stars.

The chosen telephone sex advertisement in the Ottawa Xpress reads as follows: “HARDCORE GIRLS! Down and dirty! Live and hungry! I’m just 18! $15 per call. 18+.”(6:Ibid ,pg. 37) These “hardcore girls “ are as likely to be middle-aged housewives as nubile young women dripping with the desire to arouse strangers over the telephone. There is something so desperate and pathetic about the whole thing that makes the author of this paper feel sorry for the poor souls who are either lonely, withdrawn, drunk or depressed enough to pick up the phone and make that call. It must be an empty feeling when the call is completed.

The massage service advertisements are another thinly-veiled prostitution pitch. These outfits are busted constantly and are often suspected of links to organized criminals like the Hell’s Angels. Last year in Ottawa, Ottawa-Carleton Regional Deputy Police Chief Alex Mackey was at the center of a “rub club” scandal. The RCMP found his name on a rolodex at a massage parlor rumored to be controlled by the Hell’s Angels. The hooker sting case of Dr. Wilbert Keon falls into the same category because they are both glaring examples of affluent, powerful, middle-aged white men acting or being accused of acting in a sleazy manner and being utterly exonerated and forgiven by their peers.

The most disturbing aspect of both these cases is the fact that no one, including the press, seemed too concerned that these men were involved in dangerous, abusive activities(in Keon’s case) or that they apparently placed themselves in a situation where their names would wind up on the client list of a massage parlor with dubious associations. The common thread here is that both men are socially-dominant and they were never really called to task for their involvement in activities that hinge on the abuse and objectification of women. The population in general seemed to approve of their actual or alleged activities. When women teachers have sex with their teenaged students or dominatrixs' are caught at their “naughtiness”; they are publicly pilloried and held up as objects of moral degeneracy. Men are simply not treated as badly when they err in these ways and bondage games are hardly illegal. In order for a man to be censured by our society he must commit a really brutal act of sexual violence against a woman or a young child. There is always some judicial confusion when the case involves a mature man and a teenaged girl other than his daughter. “Did he or didn’t he know she was only 17?” This is the type of question defense lawyers ask at statutory rape trials.

Massage parlors:

The following is the text of an advertisement for a massage parlor in the Ottawa Xpress: “ALLURE RELAXATION: All new beautiful models. Come enjoy the best! @1-871Somerset St. West. 232-7399. Now hiring.”(7:Ibid. pg. 37) The main difference between such an advertisement and one offering the services of a Registered Massage Therapist is the mention of the beauty of the models. They make no mention of their massage skills so it must be assumed they either possess this skill or it isn’t really relevant because it is widely-accepted that men who want a genuine massage don’t frequent such places. There are definite sexual undertones in these advertisements and while the average, uninterested observer of the pages might disregard the subtle proposition, those who seek what the “models” offer, are fully aware of the reality of the situation.

Personal connections:

The personal advertisements proper are quite a bit tamer than the escort and massage advertisements but they generally indicate that men and women present themselves in very different ways that are, as previously mentioned are culturally-mediated. The following are random samples from each category of personal advertisement.

Women to men:

“COMPASSIONATE AND INTELLIGENT: Autonomous, educated, slim, fit, professional female, 45. Searching for a companion who is at peace with himself for intimate, committed, long relationship based on honest friendship.”(8:Ibid, pg. 36) This sample is representative of most of the women to men personals because it is reserved and fairly ambiguous. This may be because women in our society have traditionally been encouraged to allow themselves to be defined by men and thus often leave much to the imagination rather than being explicitly self-laudatory as the following men to women sample so obviously is.

Men to women:

“AUTHENTICITY: I am attractive, enthusiastic, educated, playful, tolerant, intelligent, affectionate, tall and healthy. You are like-minded, expressive, articulate, physically demonstrative self-aware and wanting an egalitarian relationship.”(9: Ibid) This man obviously has no problems with self-identification. He is also extremely sure about what he wants in a partner. There is something a little cold-blooded about this approach. It is like shopping for a car or a new coat. He seems to quite confident and compared to the women in the previous advertisement and is completely willing to provide a detailed picture of himself that leaves little to the imagination. However, as with most things in life, people often are not what they seem and this is especially true of personal advertisements. It is a rare personal advertisement where the individual makes light of their looks or personal habits and when this happens, it is probably more of an attempt to establish a humorous persona to attract like-minded people.

Women to women:

“25-year-old, single, bisexual female, clean, safe and discreet, looking for same. She is passionate, safe, affectionate. Looking for female for intimate sexual encounters. No couples or attached females, please.(10: Ibid) There is much to be said for the concept of free love and it has all been said before. It seems to be a terribly risky thing to do in these days of fatal STD’s to advertise for sexual relations with a total stranger. How does an individual determine whether another person is “safe, discreet and clean.” It seems like a tremendous leap of faith but it may be an example of a young person’s sense of invincibility and it could well be asked,”how long will someone remain ‘safe, clean and discreet’ if they continue down this road?” This type of high-risk behavior is demeaning to the individual and reduces the two participants to the role of anonymous sexual athletes who exhaust each other’s libidos and move on to the next lover. There is no mention of spiritual intimacy and this advertisement was chosen because is not a typical lesbian one. In most of them there is mention of trust and some level of commitment.

Men to men:

“ORAL SATISFACTION: 30, 5’8. black hair, brown eyes, moustache. Very interested in providing oral service to nice-looking, slim, smooth young guy. (11: Ibid.) This is a typical gay advertisement if it can be assumed that the people who place these advertisements are actually gay men. The author of this paper once placed an advertisement in the men to women section and was rewarded with a response from a gay man. Maybe it was because of the author’s androgynous name. The dynamic in male gay sexuality seems to revolve around a physical preoccupation with sexual acts while the lesbian dynamic is generally more concerned with emotional exchanges. There are occasionally requests by “hairy bears” for “smooth young things.” This “sugar daddy” scenario is one of the more common ones. Generally speaking, the gay male advertisements are the most direct of the gender-specific advertisements. Trying to apply traditional gender roles to homosexual men and women is a complicated task.

The wildside:

“STACKED AND SLIM: Handsome, fit, generous business executive seeks intimate, discreet encounters with a stacked and slim young woman in her 20’s. “(12: Ibid) This advertisement is a glaring example of patriarchy at its worst. An established business executive cynically advertises for the sexual services of a “stacked and slim” young woman. The type of woman he wants is the kind of unnatural beauty who might be a version of a Victoria’s Secret cover girl. Stacked and slim are sort of contradictory terms but so is the basic message from the fashion industry regarding female beauty and sexuality.

The mention of generosity here implies that the lady in question will be compensated in some way for her company and her favors. This fellow is participating in the commodification of a human being but he would probably not see it that way. It is like that horribly patronizing magazine advertisement for Delta Hotels with the Mike Harris lookalike who smugly declares, “I can afford more.” Indeed, our culture encourages men to treat women like objects to be categorized, bought, rented, exchanged or sold.

So often, young women are taught to comply with the wishes of men and be agreeable. This is still often the case but the situation for women is slowly changing.


The advertisements chosen for analysis in this paper represent but a small slice of an aspect of interpersonal communication that has grown as technology has elbowed its way farther into peoples’ lives. Beyond providing excellent examples of the different ways men and women (both gay and straight) present themselves for examination and possible selection on a printed page; the proliferation and sophistication of personal advertisements is an indication that people, are, as usual, adapting to changing conditions that are artificial, technologically-mediated and certainly less than ideal. This is one of humanity’s enduring traits.

What is surprising and disappointing is the continued existence of the gender stereotypes that have traditionally been a burden for women but a boon for men. As mentioned at the start of this paper, it is rather surprising to encounter these negative portrayals of women in a newspaper that otherwise is very socially and intellectually progressive. Perhaps sexism really is the last truly socially-acceptable “ism.” There is a preponderance of evidence to support this conclusion and very little available to refute it.

Works cited:

1. Baca Zin, Maxine. Hondagneu-Sotelo. Messner. Micheal A. Through the Prism of Difference. Allyn and Bacon. Needham Heights, MA. 1997.
2. Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion. The Free Press. New York. 1999.
3. Marshall, Gordon. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford. New York. 1994.
4. Ottawa Citizen. Southam. Ottawa. March 11, 2000.
5. Ottawa Xpress. Ottawa Xpress Publishing Inc. Ottawa. Feb. 24, 2000.


1. Eve Boyle, personal communication. March 1, 2000.
2. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology. Pg. 512.
3. Deadly Persuasion. Pg. 174.
4. Ottawa Xpress. Pg. 36, Feb. 24, 2000.
5. Ottawa Citizen. Pg. C8, March 11, 2000.
6. Ottawa Xpress, Pg.37, Feb. 24, 2000.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.