China’s Hormone Economy: Virtual Significant Others for Sale, Meeting Not Included
By James Franklin Whitehead
They are the band of online sweethearts roaming the social sphere, heating lonely hearts, and fueling China’s rising hormone economy: the untouchable lovers.
Recently picked up in parts of the media, these are the girls who sell “pretty online girlfriend packages” on the online marketplace Taobao (known as China’s version of eBay) to men lusting after pleasure of which they’re starved of in the physical world.
What’s been sidelined is the presence of their male counterparts, also investing tender sentiments for profit from girls who crave unfulfilled affection. A Taobao search from early October returned 95 boyfriend services for availability; three pages of choice. That’s compared with a list of 457 virtual girlfriends for hire, or 11 pages worth. It’s clear the hormone economy is propped up on the marketing for men, yet it shows that women are also emotionally dissatisfied in the physical world.
The most popular untouchable boyfriend service on Taobao returned a list of 6,504 virtual “flings” – 443 in a one-month period. However, in recent weeks the government has cracked down on this virtual phenomenon by censoring specific searches for untouchable “lovers”, citing the shady semantics of what the service actually is. To evade censorship, the untouchables’ guise has changed from “lovers” to “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”.
Untouchable lovers are a peculiar phenomenon here in China. Its recent presence doesn’t seem to be replicated in the West. Online dating websites have become more popular and less stigmatized in recent years, yet the intent of these websites is to log-off and meet up, hoping successful short-term virtual relationships can translate into the physical world. Besides, online daters are looking for mutual companionship, not the purchasing of sympathy or comfort. The buying of untouchable lovers doesn’t offer anything physical; it’s in an entirely separate service.
Lover service bundles include morning wake-up texts, a sympathetic ear to daily complaints, and a goodnight message. Aspects of the untouchable lover are up for modification. Choose a personality: a 19th-century romantic; a cute companion; cocksure chief executive; a lover in uniform; or gamer girl. Even the length of the relationship is flexible: 20 yuan ($3) for a one-day fling; or 100 ($16) yuan for a 6-day sweetheart. Boyfriends and girlfriends can come with add-ons. Messages and voice messages: 10 yuan ($1.60) per day. Phone calls: 20-30 yuan per hour.
Although these part-time relationships are founded in fiction, buyers are still able to find short-term satisfaction. While untouchable lovers remain nameless and anonymous, it’s up to the buyer to sketch the outlines and specifics of their lover with the brush of their imagination. The obscure and imaginative usually flirt more with attractiveness than reality.
Yet the untouchables have competitors on the hormone market: performers on video-based social network site YY. Founded in Guangzhou in 2005, YY has around 700 million registered users. Performers can earn virtual currency by hosting karaoke or tutorials, and then convert the online currency into real cash. The currency users exchange in is virtual roses.
YY consists of virtual rooms that allow users to connect – a significant number of which are young women hosting singing sessions. On average, each session attracts a couple of hundred fans. Yet others host virtual live concerts to hundreds of thousands.
Good performers can make around 1,000 yuan ($164), with elite hostesses receiving up to 1 million yuan ($164,000).
As daily life is becoming more digitized – conversation, hobbies, news and business – the way we experience the world is moving online. We advertise ourselves online through bits of data to friends and strangers. We’ve each crafted online-selves; our avatars.
We’re constantly connected online and touching technology, yet as we outstretch our hand to grab our crafted worlds, nothing but air passes through our fingers. Nonetheless, people dissatisfied in the physical world tend to transfer more of their time from offline to online. So it’s understandable that some forms of relationships have been digitally coded into the virtual world.
But any satisfaction online can simply be lost by a drained phone signal or drifting Wi-Fi connection. Disconnecting into the real world may continually seem a daunting reality for those who invest their emotions in a virtual world.
Roses have long been a symbol of love. In Chinese, the pronunciation of ‘nine’ (jiu) is similar to the phrase ‘long time’. To offer 99 roses signals eternal love. Buyers of untouchable lovers may feel the throws of roses by their online rental partner. Yet while online roses won’t wither, you’ll never get to touch the leaves or smell the scent of 99 virtual roses.
About the author
James is an English writer based in Beijing, China.
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