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Dating columns may be a relatively recent introduction to New Zealand newspapers with The Blonde at the Bar creating a ripple in a teacup over at the NZ Herald website. However, single diarists have become an increasing presence in London over the past couple of years, with the sexual escapades of serial daters such as the Evening Standard's Laura Topham and various freesheet scribes providing commuters with some divertingly salacious reading on their tube journeys.

Britain's best and most controversial writer would have to be Catherine Townsend, whose column Sleeping Around appears in the more high-minded Independent every Thursday. With her frank sex talk, the 29-year-old, who was born in Arkansas and raised in Georgia, would make The Blonde blush.

She goes into even more explicit detail in her first book Sleeping Around: Secrets of a Sexual Adventuress, which follows hot on the heels of the published memoirs of internet sex bloggers Abby Lee, Girl with a One Track Mind, and Belle De Jour Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl.

"It's selling quite well," says Townsend in a gentle Southern lilt.

"Unofficially, I've been going to bookstores all over London, looking for it and in most places it's getting pretty low. My mum called to tell me that it's sold out at the airport."

Townsend's mother was in London for Sleeping Around's launch two days before our meeting at exclusive West End drinking den Soho House. Also in attendance were several of Townsend's numerous former lovers, which she admits was a source of anxiety.

"The launch party spoke for itself," says Townsend. "There were so many ex-boyfriends at that party and for the most part, they all got on. But I enlisted my girlfriends to make sure they didn't mingle and share embarrassing stories."

Or at least put real names to aliases as Townsend always changes the identities of her romantic partners in crime.

"I take their anonymity very seriously," she says. "I don't want anyone to recognise themselves. I'm really careful about it. I'm always really open and talk about what I do. Some guys can't handle it but I do reassure people that I will protect their privacy. I also wait a couple of months. Everything that I'm writing about now in the column - with the exception of the book and the party - happened a while ago.

"If I have a really funny story, I won't tell it straight away because I don't want to embarrass anyone, plus I'd never get a date."

Townsend moved to London in 2004 from New York - where she had worked for several years as a gossip columnist - and began writing about sexual issues for The Independent after noticing crucial differences between the two cities' dating scenes.

"I was freelancing and I wanted to write about sexual health and women's issues," she says. "One of the first stories I did was about STD testing because in New York, if you're with a guy and you've been dating for a while, you have a conversation about maybe you should both go and get tested. It's a really positive thing to do to cement the relationship. I mentioned it to a guy here and I swear to god, he's like `I don't know what you've been doing!' He really freaked out. So I wrote a piece about it."

Townsend prefers London's more relaxed dating etiquette to New York's more formal processes. "In New York, it's like a job interview," she says. "I've been on dates where people have asked me where do I see myself in five years.

"London is much better for that. The one thing that's slightly annoying here, which I get into trouble with, is the fact that in New York you can multiple date, whereas here as soon as you kiss someone you have to be monogamous. There could be a little bit more leeway with that but I love the way you can reinvent yourself in London."

Sleeping Around has been running in The Independent for two years and in that time Townsend has built up a loyal and mostly rational following. "Probably 80 per cent of the mail I get is positive," she says. "I get a lot less freaks than you'd think. I get really nice, good commentary from good people.

"Maybe five per cent is like `I'm from Nigeria, do you want to go out with me?' and I get email from this Anglican priest who is quite obsessed. I get a little bit of hate mail but it doesn't really affect me."

Along with an increasing openness about sexuality, the recent proliferation of dating columns can be attributed to the success of the Sex and the City television series, whose main character Carrie Bradshaw wrote about her hectic sex and social life for fictional newspaper The New York Star.

"The thing about Sex and the City is that it was fictional and there's no way she [Carrie] would have ended up with that man [Mr Big] and become a stay-at-home woman, and in real life she didn't," says Townsend, referring to Candice Bushnell, the author of the original Sex and the City novels.

Townsend is not such a fan of another famous singleton, Bridget Jones. "I liked the film but I did get annoyed with the idea that a woman is incomplete without a man," she says. "My friends aren't like that, crying into their drink because they're longing for this guy.

"I'm not one of those people who need to have a boyfriend. I love being on my own, I've lived away from home since I was 16. If the right person came along, I'd love to live with them but you've got to be complete in yourself."

- Detours, HoS