If you think unwed Western women feel pressure to marry, spare a thought for our sisters in China, where the stigma is so bad women are actually starting to rent boyfriends. As might you, if the state media in your country blithely referred to single ladies over 27 as sheng nu, or "leftover women".
The term is widespread in China, and the generally accepted theory goes like this: Hoards of women born in the 70s were too picky when it came to choosing a mate, and now they sit on the shelf getting old and even more unmarried as the months go by. It's their own fault for thinking too highly of themselves, and therefore they deserve their fate, and to read astonishing headlines such as: 'Do Leftover Women Really Deserve Our Sympathy?'
Hence the rentals. According to ABC news, Chinese shopping website Taobao.com has witnessed an 884 per cent rise from this time last year in searches that translate as "Rent a boyfriend". More than 2000 results come up, with rental options and a sliding scale of prices:
"Those prices depend on what the customer wants," says the ABC. "For instance, just going to a movie can cost 50 RMB (about $8) an hour, but that price doubles if it's a horror movie. Different rates apply for simple conversation, a dinner party, going out for drinks or meeting the parents."
Some other services are wakeup calls (US $1.45); shopping expeditions (US $6.42 per hour); party going; dinners; "just chatting" and/or "drinking partner". All-inclusive deals sit at around US$128 a day. And "Handshakes, hugs and goodbye kisses on the cheeks or forehead" are complimentary. Which, inexplicably, I find quite sweet.
There's a "no sex" clause, which distances the activity from escort service connotations, but if the boy and the girl do like each other a matchmaking fee is charged.
It's not Internet dating though - it's for show. The spike in demand was caused by Chinese Lunar New Year, when young people return home and are met by frantic enquiries from their parents about their love lives. Says a Chinese friend of mine: "It's really common. I'd do it in a heartbeat if I returned to live there. It's just to get your parents off your back."
The fear of having a spouse-less child is rife in China, regardless of the offspring's gender, with some parents even matchmaking
their tiny oblivious babies.
For men-children, parents' fear centers around the gender imbalance: There are 118 men to every 100 women in China. (When ultrasound technology took off in the 80s, millions opted to abort female embryos in favour of having a boy instead.)
Still, if young men in China have a harder time logistically, young women in their 30s have a far worse time of it being openly shamed by the media - and society as a whole.
Quite apart from parental pressure, the '3S women: Seventies, Single, Stuck' (as they're also known) also have reality TV series based on them - Old Women Should Get Married was a hit - and government statements dole out admonishment.
According to a 2011 column by China's state "feminist" agency, the All-China Women's Federation, "Pretty girls don't need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult.
"These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don't realize that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls."
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