The quick on demand satisfaction of needs has been a growing trend in different areas. We have all kinds of quick solutions such as on demand food deliveries, on demand streaming movies and video content, on demand televideo medical visits, on demand office space, and on demand delivery of packages. A recent article in The Week illustrated the Japanese phenomena of on demand or rented friends, people who could be paid to play the part of a platonic companion when needed.
The article described the typical functions of these actors and actresses as providing the elements of an affable friendship such as companionship, listening, and empathy even if it is contrived. Sometimes a more active social masquerade may be needed such as pretending to be the girlfriend of a socially awkward, workaholic client so that his parents won’t be unduly worried. The author interviews the CEO of Client Partners, one of the largest rent a friend firms in Japan, who described some of the challenges facing Japanese culture such as loneliness, the lack of true engagement, the (discrepancy) between outward and inward identities, and the difficulty in dealing with overwork and many other national cultural anxieties while presenting the outward face of serenity.
It looks like this phenomena is not just Japanese but has been common for some time in mainland China especially during the Chinese New Year holiday when most people who are able, travel home to relatives and parents who may be unduly intrusive and concerned about their socially awkward son or aging daughter being single. Here are some articles that describe the appeasement of demanding parents, how February is the hardest month to be single in China, the benefits of a virtual girlfriend, and how renting a girlfriend can improve your self esteem.
I thought this might be a uniquely Asian cultural phenomena but it turns out that some enterprising entrepreneurs have already addressed this niche with on demand services here in the US such as rentafriend.com
Fakeinternetgirlfriend.com will even offer to create a fake “gamer girlfriend” who can over time integrate herself into your online gaming network.
Many of the sites explicitly state that they are not an escort service or prostitution ring and are purely platonic. Some of the articles about the rental services in China depict rental friends who have a slippery slope to more sexualized services. Where fantasy mimics reality, it’s not hard to imagine this being a universal temptation and danger for willing actors and actresses.
As a therapist, I sometimes work with clients who have social anxiety or who may have a history of some kind of interpersonal abuse. It is part of the reparative work to increase social skills and overcome past traumas to create real social engagement. This is not an on demand process and takes real time and real effort. We know real friendships and romantic relationships can be messy. There can be misunderstandings, conflicts, rejections, even betrayals, but also the reward of trust and shared experience that comes from working through these challenges. I can see how rent a friend services could be a potentially useful tool for a client to learn skills to use in real relationships. However the rise of these services is disturbing in that at their core consumers of the service essentially give in to the fear of confronting true loneliness, awkwardness, parental pressures, and social pressures for a temporary fantasy. The clear basis in treatments for overcoming anxiety is that the best long term strategy is to face our fears and to learn to overcome them. That’s the real solution.