April 5, 2019

On one of those late-night sojourns through the strange corners of the Internet, I stumbled upon a post in a Reddit sub called “r/Trufemcels”. It was innocuous, just 17 upvotes and only 3 comments were received but the YouTube links it referred to sparked my curiosity. There were two videos made by “Round ASMR”, a Korean YouTuber who makes videos of himself talking softly to the camera and/or making exaggerated versions of everyday movements. They’re a part of the ASMR community; people listening to and being soothed by videos of other people whispering, crumpling plastic, clattering their nails, or just chewing loudly on pickles.

In the r/Trufemcels post, the videos are used to deal with the poster’s state of being socially rejected and involuntarily celibate[1]. Round ASMR, at least in some of the videos he uploads, provides the Boyfriend Experience.

It is disarmingly intimate, you first hear the end of a shower and then a man pads into view, snuggles up to a pillow on a bed and faces the camera. He asks you, the viewer about your day, utterly standard humdrum conversation but one that would be expected from a caring boyfriend. All in Korean, with helpful Spanish and English subtitles. Several in the comments section expressed their desire for him to be their actual boyfriend or claimed that they are soothed and comforted by his voice.

There are many iterations of the Boyfriend Experience, these YouTube videos are merely a more accessible and cheaper way to get it. For a price, you can be entertained by handsome men at your beck and call in the Japanese Host Clubs. In the States, you can rent-a-gent for whatever occasion you’re too afraid to attend alone and if a wingman or a groomsman for gate-crashing is what you need, you’ll have options in Singapore too. A company in India has just launched a rent-a-boyfriend app whilst China—ever at the forefront of mitigating the problems of its one-child policy—has renting arrangements every Chinese New Year where you can bag a partner for your homecoming, at elevated CNY prices.

In some articles on these modern transactional relationships, you will detect a note of slight pity, or a lament over the loneliness of this world. Outside of the phenomenon of renting other people, phrases such as “epidemic of loneliness” have been much bandied about in the media recently, pointing to culprits like the isolation of social media addictions and the stresses of modern life eroding people’s ability and chances to connect with others.

But this is not entirely new. One could make the argument that being human means being well-acquainted with loneliness, it and the frightening temporariness of existence are inescapable in life and countless philosophers through history have grappled with questions about man’s place in existence and his relation to others.

There is another argument I proffer instead. But first, consider these illuminating quotes from this fascinating interview with a CEO of a company that rents out professional actors to fill any role you request for:

“Yuichi: It’s a business. I’m not going to be her father for 24 hours. It’s a set time. When I am acting with her, I don’t really feel that I love her, but when the session is over and I have to go, I do feel a little sad. The kids cry sometimes. They say, “Why do you have to leave?” In those instances, I feel very sorry that I’m faking it—very guilty. There are times, when I’m done with the work and I come back home, where I sit and watch TV. I find myself wondering, “Is this, now, the real me, or the actor?”


Yuichi: The women typically say that in a real relationship, you’re slowly building trust. It takes years to create a strong connection. For them, it’s a lot of hassle and disappointment. Imagine investing five years with someone and then they break up with you. It’s just easier to schedule two hours per week to interact with an ideal boyfriend. There’s no conflict, no jealousy, no bad habits. Everything is perfect.”

Not being a father himself, Yuichi crafts his character by watching films about fathers and tweaking his character’s personality based on the requirements listed by his clients. He does the same for the other roles he plays, sometimes enlisting the work of his employees to complete the perfect wedding set. His company’s motto is “more than real”:

“Morin: What does it mean to be “more than real”?

Yuichi: There are less concerns. There is less misunderstanding and conflict. Our clients can expect better results.

Morin: You’re offering a more perfect form of reality?

Yuichi: More ideal. More clean.

It is a question of appearance and expectations, rather than loneliness alone, that drives the seeking of transactional relationships and temporal modes of being. The rental of human beings in the examples above are attempts at obtaining the relationships that the buyer otherwise does not have in his life. They are moving towards verisimilitude, but in a form of idealised reality that they have in mind. Some of those desires are derived from expectations learnt from growing up in a pressure-cooker society. You know what they are: go to school, get a good job, meet someone amazing, get married in a stunning wedding, have a beautiful house and car, create an amazing family. These are features of what’s typically considered to be a good life, with some variation depending on culture. To not have these things would make you a failure or an outcast. The femcels mentioned at the start feel apart from the main society because they are deemed too unattractive to accomplish any of these milestones.

Others may have simply absorbed the media messaging they are exposed to 24/7. Aside from humans, you can also rent jets for your Instagram photoshoots, buy clothes and then return them just for the ‘gram, and you can pay someone to tail you on holiday to capture what you want your holiday to look like. It’s all about the flex, if you go by the activities of much-lauded celebrities whose inescapable gossip you know about even if you don’t actively consume it. So you flex too, on a smaller scale: your Rolex may be fake, and the car may be in a showroom, but you appear to be loaded and happy so that’s what matters.

Everything, ultimately is temporary. These rental arrangements are providing convenient avenues through which people can experience moments that are fleeting or otherwise inaccessible for whatever reasons. They are solutions in a capitalist world where money can buy virtually anything. Happiness is entangled with the appearance of it and if you can construct a picture of joy, you too can temporarily fill the void inside. All of life is but a flash in the pan, in the grand scheme of things, secured only by photographs and digital records so it makes some sense that we would expend so much energy into keeping up appearance even if they too will be meaningless in time as the people involved become forgotten once there is no one else left to remember them. But while you’re alive, at least there is something you could pass for real.

Would we eventually only resort to paying for ersatz living rather than truly living? I think the fears are unfounded. These arrangements may assuage the discomfort for a while but anybody who watches mukbang videos, or porn for that matter, knows that nothing really knocks reality off its well-deserved pedestal.

[1] “Trufemcels” refers to female “involuntary celibates”, a benign and decidedly less hateful subculture whose male counterparts are more well-known (examples include school shooters like Elliot Rodger).