In an uncharacteristic display of concern, my brother had called to tell me to be safe. Craigslist shut down its personals section last spring after passage of legislation aimed at ending sex trafficking that would find websites hosting prostitution liable. Webcam services such as Chatroulette continue to offer free or paid chances to interact virtually one on one with people across the world, but for many American consumers, their reputations are largely linked to pornography.
Platonic companionship, on the other hand, has yet to enter mainstream American consideration as a product that can be bought or sold. Not so for the rest of the world.
The platonic companionship market is more established in Japanwhere companies like Family Romance and Client Partners offer customers the chance to rent professionals to stand in as friends, partners, or even parents for special events, sessions of catharsis, or just an afternoon visit. RentAFriend is a bare-bones site built to do one thing: show paying customers a list of potential rentable friends so they can get in contact as quickly as possible.
Members can peruse the profiles of local friends, check out their pictures, and read their bios. They can see a list of their preferred activities and of physical traits, including height, eye and hair color, and body type. This is where RentAFriend diverges from standard expectations of a platonic relationship and veers closer to a dating app or site.
The presence of physical data points in each profile has a distinctly meat-market vibe that felt far removed from how I personally find real-life friends — or even date. Rosenbaum founded RentAFriend in to fill a hole he perceived in the market for platonic company.
I wanted to give renting friends as fair a shot as possible. That meant choosing activities that I already knew I enjoyed and, more importantly, that I have ly done alone and with friends and knew definitively that I enjoyed more with friends. I also wanted to minimize as many potentially negative variables as possible, so I sought out friends whose ages were within three years of my own — a range where the majority of my actual friends lie.
Additionally, I wanted to feel genuinely lonely before our meeting to increase the opportunity for my friend to fill a friendship void, so I avoided seeing real friends in the preceding five days and scheduled the meeting close to my birthday, when I am most likely to have some sort of existential emotional crisis that forces me to seek the solace of companionship.
This is on top of the hourly fee, which friends can either list on their profiles or reveal after being contacted.
Friends are paid in person, in cash. No money is exchanged through RentAFriend.
So what exactly are the strictly platonic activities that RentAFriend recommends you do? Lyla was very friendly and generally seemed much more comfortable than I was. I was anxious throughout the movie about how to interact with a friend-for-hire, and now that we were finally talking, I found myself hiding behind the pretense of needing to write an essay about our experience. I spent the first 15 minutes asking her rapid-fire questions, trying to write down her answers while we walked. Lyla spoke with a calm, measured voice that stood in contrast to my more performative, inquisitive tone, and as the afternoon went on, I gradually began to match her style.
Lyla described her role as a friend-for-hire as a kind of training toward becoming a life coach.
The majority of her RentAFriend sessions which she tends to do every one to two months involved her listening to the problems of the person paying for her time and offering them advice. Her renters are almost always men, she said, and they often seemed lonely. She told me that many of these men ended up becoming her real-life friends, and that she never charged them to hang out after the initial session. For Lyla, being a RentAFriend was analogous to providing a sort of wellness service, and she took it seriously.
At one point on our walk, she pulled out a vial of frankincense essential oil and offered me a sniff. Per our agreement, I paid. Eating food and spilling it all over myself while standing in a corner of Chelsea Market is an activity I do with some regularity, both alone and with friends, and it is definitely something I enjoy more with company.
Eating tacos with Lyla was no exception — we had an interesting, if unexpectedly heavy, conversation about what it would take to restart our lives and embrace uncertainty and risk by pursuing big personal goals. All of this was good. It felt a bit like talking to a new therapist, or talking to the only stranger you like at a party filled with people you hate.
I was also constantly conscious that this was a person whose company I was paying for, and the feelings that realization provoked were not normal friendship feelings. It left me with two distinctly unpleasant tastes in my mouth: It made me feel creepy, like I was being deceitful by walking around in public with someone who was paid to appear as though they chose to be with me.
It also made me feel like a ruder person. Instead, our time together reminded me of a date I once had with a man who made a big show of telling me upfront that he was going to pay for everything.
He then proceeded to buy the worst food, the worst drinks, choose the worst venues, all with the utmost confidence in his decisions and a total lack of interest in my opinion. Money can facilitate the act of being a jerk, and that truth extends itself to commercial friendship. Toward the end of our friendship appointment, I asked Lyla about some of her experience as a rented friend. She recounted a time she traveled to New Jersey to meet a RentAFriend member who brought her to a family gathering, introducing her to his relatives.
I asked if the member seemed to have been presenting her to his family as his romantic partner. To her, this was just another example of providing a therapeutic service. When I asked if she thought RentAFriend was providing a useful service overall, her feelings were more mixed.
Technology is making it worse. A debate is still raging over whether technology has really made us lonelier. There have been clear developing trends over the past decade that correlate smartphone and social media use in teenagers with loneliness and depression.
This may be due in part to the fact that excessive time spent using a smartphone means less time spent interacting with people or with a community — activities that tend to drive decreased feelings of loneliness. But I would be lying if I said I left my time with Lyla feeling robbed of a positive experience. Renting a friend felt worse than regular friendship — it lacked its ease, the mutual respect and comfort that familiarity allows, and the certainty that it will last longer than an afternoon — but it also felt better than being lonely.
But even with her guarded endorsement of the company, Lyla admitted she has to be pretty choosy about which members she ends up meeting.
She grinned. The nervousness has diminished over time.
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