Chinese teen Robin spends hours online chatting to her man, who always has a sympathetic ear for her problems — as long as she is willing to pay him.
The 19-year-old pre-medical student has spent more than 1,000 yuan (US$142) speaking to “virtual boyfriends.”
These are not seedy sex chat lines, but men who charge for friendly and flirty online communication, from wake-up calls to lengthy text exchanges and video conversations.
“If someone is willing to keep me company and chat, I’m pretty willing to spend money,” said Robin, who did not want to give her real name.
The option for on-demand intimacy has gained popularity among China’s middle-income young women, who are often focused on careers with no immediate plans to marry and start a family.
Shops selling virtual friends and partners can be found on Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) or on an e-commerce site like Taobao.com (淘寶).
Several virtual boyfriends told reporters that most of their customers are single women in their 20s with disposable income.
By day, 22-year-old Zhuansun Xu is a foreign exchange trader in Beijing. By night, he chats with female clients who pay him to be their “boyfriend,” something he has done for the past year.
Girls come to Zhuansun with different needs — some want friendly advice, while others have more romantic requests.
“While we’re interacting, I tell myself: I really am her boyfriend, so how can I treat her well?” he told reporters. “But after we’re done, I’ll stop thinking this way.”
Prices start from a few yuan for a half-hour of texting to a few thousand yuan to keep a companion on retainer for telephone calls throughout a month.
“People have figured out how to commodify affection,” said Chris K.K. Tan (鄧國基), an associate professor at Nanjing University who has researched the phenomenon.
“This is a new mode of womanhood that is unprecedented in China,” Tan said.
Pursuing romance had not been available to many Chinese women in the past.
University of Hong Kong sociologist Sandy To (杜穎珊) said that marriage had traditionally been a “must” in patriarchal Chinese society.
However, Tan said that the one-child policy — which came into force in 1979 and limited the size of most families — has created “a generation of self-confident and resourceful women.”
A preference for boys meant a generation of sex-selective abortions and abandoned baby girls. Last year, China still had the world’s most skewed gender ratio at 114 boys born for every 100 girls.
For many women, the policy changed their family dynamics.
Parents of the female children “raised them as sons,” said Roseann Lake, author of a book on China’s unmarried women, Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower. “All of those things that traditionally you needed to find in a man — a house, financial security — they were raised with it.”
Lisa, a 28-year-old executive in Shanghai, has hired virtual boyfriends to act out romantic scenarios through text messaging.
“Of course, there were feelings of love, in letting myself feel like I was being loved,” she said, preferring not to use her real name. “Because I was just buying a service, I don’t feel any guilt towards real people.”
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, China ranked 103 out of 149 countries on the overall disparity between men and women. However, that climbs to 86 when ranked solely for economic participation and opportunity.
As their economic situation improves, fewer women are choosing to get married.
China’s marriage rate — the number of marriages per year — has been in decline over the past five years.
Last year, it reached 7.2 per 1,000 people, Chinese National Bureau of Statistics data showed.
Once their basic needs are guaranteed, more women are looking to satisfy their need for “emotional and self-fulfillment,” Lake said.
Although they are materially better off, the lives of many young urban women are “isolating,” Tan said.
Most have spent their teenage years studying for the country’s rigorous university entrance exams, at the cost of developing relationships outside of school.
Buying virtual boyfriends “is their chance to experiment with love and relationships,” he said.
For Robin and Lisa, virtual companions are appealing because the relationship was convenient.
“If I have serious psychological stress, this could make some people think I’m being fussy,” Robin said. “But because I’m giving [the virtual companions] money, they have to reassure me.”
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