Singles bent on redefining companionship

While most people use Singles Day, which falls today, to shop for material goods, some young moderns are shopping for ways to redefine love with the help of modern technology.

Singles Day in China originated almost a quarter century ago as a campus celebration of being single. Nowadays, there are still plenty of young people who revel in being unattached, and modern technology feeds into the trend.

A visual reality game called “VR Girlfriend” recently came out with a Chinese version praised as “gospel” for single men ─ especially otaku, or men who are obsessed with animation, games and manga.

With a visual reality headset, this adult game, released by Japan-based Illusion, places male players in a domestic environment where a pretty, young girl lives. The player takes the role of “tutor” with the girl.

“You can determine the appearance of the girl in detail down to the style of her eyelashes,” says Kevin Tang, a player. “It is quite fun as a game, and if you are feeling very lonely, it can be a good escape.”

A sequel for women, called “VR Boyfriend,” is expected to be released next year.

The game is technically illegal in China, but that doesn’t stop players from downloading it at Illusion’s official website.

However, a similar gambit from a Chinese company called “Sharing A Girlfriend” has not been so lucky. A day after its launch, it was banned for being “vulgar and immoral.”

The project was launched by Touch, an online company selling sex toys. It promoted “Sharing A Girlfriend” on several college campuses in Beijing, providing sex dolls for people to share and charging 298 yuan (US$45) for one night, 698 yuan for three nights and 1,298 yuan for a week.

The company said the idea was inspired by the popularity of the “sharing economy” and it believed that the project would garner a big market.

Police weren’t buying it. The Sanlitun Police Station in Beijing fined the company for “disturbing the public order” and banned the company’s dolls from the capital.

“We are sorry to exert a negative influence on society,” the company said in a statement. “Our original intention was to spread the idea of spicing up life with sex toys. We never think of sex toys as vulgar or immoral, but we were wrong.”

Sociologists studying the trend of young people postponing marriage in favor of a “no strings attached” single life said the existence of substitutes – virtual or real – such as adult movies, toys and games is probably one of the reasons behind delayed nuptials.

“It is believed that people, especially women, will be more constrained after marriage, and those who want a diversified lifestyle are tending to get married later or not at all,” says Hu Shensheng, a professor and sociologist at Shanghai University. “Meanwhile, fertility may drop for the same reason.”

Although the mainstream of Chinese society remains quite conservative ─ at least on the surface ─ there are definitively undercurrents. On, China’s largest e-commerce platform, more than 4,000 search results for sex toys are available. Meanwhile social apps like Momo are nicknamed “Tinder in China.”


A man browses through information on a young woman available on the "Renting Friends" website.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs data covering 2005 to 2015 shows that the rate of first marriage in Shanghai and Beijing has dropped by 10 percent in the decade. In Shanghai, the average age for men marrying for the first time was about 30 years, and for women, 28 years. Those ages are much older than China at large.

Hu says the current marriage rate in Shanghai, as well as in China, is still in the “safety range,” but the scale is very likely to tip out of that zone in the near future.

“This is a common problem facing developed countries, along with low birth rates,” says Hu. “I believe that trend will also affect China.”

Hu, as a conservative, says he still believes that 20-25 is the best marriage age, especially for women.

“The biological clock ticks faster for women than men,” he says. “I suggest that women consider the marriage issue as soon as they graduate from college. It would be too late for them if they go on to obtain master’s or doctoral degrees.”

Hu’s opinion echoes that of China’s older generations, which means that young people reluctant to tie the knot often feel intense pressure from their families to get married and have children.

Many have concocted ingenious ways of forestalling their parents and relatives.

Dahlia Chen, 33, found the website recently. While the services listed on it were what she called “eye-popping,” the Shanghai white-collar worker found a straw there to grasp.

The name of the website is “Renting Friends,” and the “friends” in question mean boyfriends or girlfriends to hire for occasions like family reunions, meeting parents, dining out or just watching movies together. Sexual favors are not part of the service.

“As the end of the year approaches, I’m considering ‘renting’ a boyfriend to take home during the Spring Festival, just to shut my parents up,” says Chen. “I guess it is a bit like a contrived marriage between gays and lesbians, but this is a one-time thing. I’ll just tell my parents later that I broke up with the guy, and they won’t say much.”

The service, however, has hidden risks, especially for women.

The website doesn’t provide a formal contract, but only an oral agreement between the two parties. There have been complaints on the website’s consumer services page about fraud and sexual assault related to the “rentals.” Most of the victims choose not to report the incidents to police.

“Users need to be very careful about the person they ‘rent,’ I guess,” says Chen. “As for me, I will limit contact with him as much as possible.”

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