The Venus Flytrap: Depression-Curing Boyfriends On Hire

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On Independence Day, Mumbai-based entrepreneur Kaushall Prakash launched an app called Rent A Boy|Friend, through which one can employ male company for brief periods. The line in their name between Boy and Friend is deliberate, suggesting the demarcation between physical engagement and what the app’s Instagram bio calls “Pure Friendship”. Physical intimacy and meeting in private locations are supposed to be prohibited on it. Intriguingly, the app states that its aim is to “eradicate depression”. The men whose company can be hired are expected to provide emotional support, not just attend functions or share meals with the customer.

Understandably but unfairly, this aim has been met with mockery in certain sections of the media. Reactions often fixate, in typically classist and conservative ways, on how the educational prerequisite for the gentlemen one can meet through the app is 10thor 12thstandard graduation. As though PhD holders are more likely to be thoughtful, sympathetic or have good listening and guidance skills (tell that to the erudite men on The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia).

While I’m in no hurry to give Rent A Boy|Friend a certificate of good intentions, there’s definitely something being added here to the conversation on depression, loneliness and the need for companionship. For the first time in India, an app connecting people on a personal level explicitly forefronts these issues instead of using oblique terminology about marriage or relationships. The app’s concept is not new abroad: in China, hundreds of services provide “fake boyfriends” whose time can be bought to take home to meet the family on holidays, or even for just a couple of hours to hang out with at the mall; a website called Invisible Boyfriend lets you co-create text message conversations as though you’re in a relationship; Japan’s kyabakura culture offers non-sexual, romantic company at clubs.

Rent A Boy|Friend only provides the company of men (for men and women alike). While the founder’s reason for this – “Rent-a-girlfriend sounds weird in India but it’s okay abroad.” – is a bit insubstantial, if the service’s condition that sexual contact is not allowed is true, it doesn’t in itself sound sexist to me. There’s an argument to be made that neither dating nor sex work are guaranteed to be safe or respectful for women in India at this time. As one of many women who downloaded then deleted Tinder, an app meant unambiguously for dating and hookups, I can only imagine how much worse the harassment, entitlement and abuse would be when the power dynamic involves a financial transaction.

As gimmicky or even shady as it may seem at first glance, tell any honest person who dates men in India about such an app and she’ll be curious – not interested enough to try it, probably, but certainly interested in the concept. Obviously, a “rented” boyfriend isn’t going to fix one’s mental health or loneliness. But naming the issues puts emotions, not only life goals or sexual availability, at the centre. No matter what our gender or orientation, and regardless of whether we think an app can fulfil our longings, that’s a change in perspective that would benefit us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 30th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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