Virtual lovers in demand, but some fail to impress

Virtual lovers in demand, but some fail to impress
A foreigner asks about the price of roses at Laitai Flower Market in Beijing on Friday ahead of Valentine's Day on Saturday.

Liang Shu applied for a very special part-time job when she was a freshman - being a virtual girlfriend, or paid online girlfriend, to total strangers.

"I thought it would be fun and make me some extra money as well," said the 19-year-old student in Shanghai.

"All the job requires is that we listen to clients and meet as many of their requests as possible," Liang said.

Clients can order specific types of virtual lovers. For example, there is "the gentleman", "the sunshine boy" or the "bossy lover". More specialised services include morning calls, the sound of a good-night kiss and other romantic offerings.

Clients usually communicate through instant messaging services such as WeChat and QQ. To protect privacy, buyers are not allowed to ask about real names, locations or photographs, or to apply for video chatting.

Online lover services, with charges ranging from 1 to 5 yuan (16 to 80 cents) per hour in most cases, have risen in popularity with the Western Valentine's Day, which falls on Feb 14.

Yan Ling, the owner of a virtual lover store in Anhui province, said it has received more orders in recent days.

According to the Taobao Index, which shows trends based on statistics from Taobao.com, the online marketplace owned by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, searches using "virtual boyfriends and girlfriends" as key words reached about 1,000 on Thursday.

More than 1,000 online stores are providing such services at Taobao.

Yan said, "People usually find it difficult to express their emotions frankly with friends or relatives, while the Internet is somewhere you can relax and relieve life's pressures."

He said he was motivated to do such part-time work to enable people to find "courage and hope".

However, the virtual lover services have drawn criticism from some users.

Li Xiao, 21, from Shanghai, said she used the service when she broke up with her boyfriend, but the chat with her virtual boyfriend offered her no comfort.

"We just talked total nonsense about each other for an hour. He was nothing like a boyfriend for me and not romantic," Li said. "I feel very silly and embarrassed to have spent money on chatting with a stranger."

Li said she will not use online services again but will try to find a real relationship in her life.

Liang, the student, also said she quit the job after hearing some girls were approached to do video chatting with pornographic content.

Zhao Jialu, a teacher at Beijing University of Technology's Psychological Counseling Center, said some people born in the 1980s and 1990s are single children longing for siblings or attention from friends, and as a result end up buying love online.

Growing pressure to strike a work-life balance is also a key reason for people to use popular online love services, she added.

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