Sex & Relationships

A Surprising Number of Men Are Renting Digital Girlfriends

Is the future of online dating... just dating virtually?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Patterns in dating have remained relatively stagnant over the years. We meet and we connect, or not. If all goes well, we start looking toward the future. But there’s been one big change in recent years in how we define the term “meet.”

A 2016 report put together by the Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of U.S. adults have used an online dating site. Out of that group, a third never actually made it to an in-person date. That hesitation is understandable. The Internet provides a pretty open window into our past. If we take a moment to Google a potential date, it's possible we'll uncover something we wish we hadn’t. (As someone who has her name linked to articles on prostate-assisted orgasms and penis-crushing kegels, I imagine I fall on the flip side of the coin every now and again.)

Of course, the end goal of most online dating endeavors is to meet up in real life. But not everyone is ready to step up to that scary real-life plate. What these sites do provide are the digital tools needed to kick off the conversation. For some folks, it begins and ends there.

In 2008, a couple of guys named Stefan and Brian decided to launch a platform called Mygirlfund. The idea was to form a community that fulfills everyone’s intimate and adult needs without ever having to log offline. There, guys can “connect one on one” with real women. In exchange for their flirtatious services, the girls are able to pocket some extra cash. Part camming platform, part social network, Mygirlfund provides a space for some sexy stuff to take place, but perhaps more interestingly, it invites users to dive headfirst into the realm of virtual relationships. 

“We’ve had some relationships last up to seven years," Stefan told AlterNet. "They’re the real deal. These are people sharing very intimate parts of themselves with one another. We felt the future of adult entertainment wasn’t really about the content, but about the relationship and the intimacy you can share with someone over the Internet. That’s what people would pay for.”

He appears to be on to something. Since the launch, more than 10,000 women have signed up for the site. According to a report put together by Business Insider, some full-time users can earn up to $55,000 a year on Mygirlfund. Apparently, the idea of being alone without “being alone” is an experience people are willing to pay for.

The platform allows users to communicate through text messages and live video chat. There’s also the option of exchanging photos. The social network angle is played up by the fact that it’s a relatively porn-free space, meaning no ads and no pop-ups. Under the “tips section” girls are advised to use a face shot for their profile picture. Those deemed too porny will be flagged. According to Brian and Stefan, this setup allows relationships to flower in a way they wouldn’t on the cam sites.

“This isn’t really about content or cam shows, or any of that. All that stuff does happen on the site, but it’s really about the relationship and the bond that two people form,” Brian says.

“By never meeting, you’re always in a heightened state of titillation. You get to live in a fantasy world,” Stefan adds.

“LovelyLondon” signed up around six months ago to help pay off some debt. She told us, “It's just really enjoyable getting to know people from around the world. There’s an emotional attachment that forms here.” She added, “I don’t like being on camera and not knowing who’s on the other side.”

So who is on the other side? Who spends his time scouting out a virtual girlfriend, and why? “I have come to realize that every guy is different,” LovelyLondon says. 

It’s true. In the world of love and sex, generalities don’t always hold up. If you thought human behavior was complicated to begin with, just try decoding the many motivations behind the pursuit of sexual gratification. There are, however, a few points to consider. Digital relationships don’t take too much out of us. They allow us to get our needs met without having to tend to another person. In a word, they’re easier. They’re also entertaining. Nothing helps remedy a boring night like diving deep into naughty content. And there’s also the fact that sometimes, it’s nice going to bed knowing there will be a friendly text waiting for you in the morning.

Stacy (a pseudonym) signed up for the site around six years ago. When asked about the guys she tends to encounter, the married mother of two told us, “Some of the guys pretend to be different people. They use different names. They can be anybody they want to be on the site. Maybe that helps them feel more comfortable talking to girls.” Stacy has around 20 “regulars,” some of whom she speaks with daily.

“In a virtual relationship, we can imagine ourselves as we’d like to be forever. That bubble is never broken,” says psychotherapist Michael Aaron.

Of course, there are also the virgins.

LovelyLondon told us, “Some of the guys are 40-something, 50-something and they’ve never had sex. I think a lot of them have some social anxiety... I think it’s difficult for them to go out and get a girlfriend."

Stacy says, “I think some of these guys are drawn into the digital relationship because they don’t feel comfortable with themselves. They don’t talk to women at all. This way, they get to.”

“Anonymity liberates people,” says Stefan. “It allows them to explore certain sides of themselves that they haven’t yet explored or haven’t felt comfortable exploring in real-life relationships.”

In London’s experience, a lot of the guys logging on are looking to explore their kinky side, specifically. She says, “I’ve realized there are lawyers, doctors, firefighters and other professional people walking around in pantyhose. Some of them wear butt plugs wherever they go. Chastity belts, nipple clamps. There’s a real array of sexual things that I think are misinterpreted by society. The guys are scared they’ll be judged.”

Psychotherapist Aaron says, “A lot of men may feel ashamed or embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about or revealing certain sexual fantasies that they have with a partner. For a lot of men, porn is a private way to explore their own sexuality. It’s nonjudgmental, and it’s not shaming. I think that’s a big draw.” According to Aaron, landing a virtual girlfriend provides the same kind of appeal.

And it’s not just about the guys, either. London tells us, “I’m a very quiet person. I don’t go out much. I get anxiety around people, but online I feel completely free.”

Some research conducted by Marta Meana and Esther Perel, a New York-based couples therapist, might point to what motivates the women in these exchanges, apart from the money. According to them, a major part of female sexual arousal relates to an urge to be uniquely desired; to be chosen as “the one.”

Stacy says, “Being a mom, I don’t have a perfect body or anything. It’s one thing for my husband to call me beautiful every day. Hearing other men say it gives you an extra boost in confidence. It makes you feel pretty.” She notes that the job gives her a good excuse to ditch the “mom clothing” for something a little more rewarding. “I love dressing up. It's not something I get to do all the time."

Of course, it’s not all so rosy. Both Stacy and London reminded us that while they have enjoyed the relationships they’ve developed on the site, they’ve also had to sort through their share of schemers; guys looking to get content from the girls without having to pay for it. This seems to be a fairly standard industry hazard.

“Some guys want to take it to the friend level so that they can talk to you and get pictures from you and not have to pay anything. That’s when I have to remind myself that this is work,” says Stacy. According to London, sob stories are a common ploy to get a free show.

There’s also the issue of demography, and just plain old racism. London explains that while the men who typically log on to Mygirlfund vary in terms of age, location and profession, there is a major demographic missing.

“The black community is very small,” she told us. “I’m mixed race. A lot of guys don’t seem to like that. You get some nasty comments." It's worth noting that similar patterns have presented themselves on the mainstream online dating sites. After analyzing 120,000 messages sent by OkCupid users, sociologist Kevin Lewis determined racial prejudice has a fairly significant impact on dating decisions. He told the HuffingtonPost, “Most men (except black men) are unlikely to initiate contact with black women.”

So what is a good recipe for success on Mygirlfund? What does it take to be a truly great virtual girlfriend?

“The guys are trying to seek out someone who seems realistic in their own mind as a girlfriend," says Brian. "They don’t see that '10' or model look as someone realistically being their girlfriend. The girl who does very well in porn or camming won’t necessarily do well on Mygirlfund." 

“The ability to carry on a conversation, to relate to somebody, and having an interest in getting to know somebody, those are actually the key skillsets and qualities that make a girl on Mygirlfund successful,” he added.

A little bit of research bore that out. After I signed up for a free account, the messages started coming in. And while the occasional X-rated comment made its way into my inbox, the majority revolved around asking me how my day was, or if I was in the market for “new friends.” 

If there’s one generality we can throw toward the women of Mygirlfund it's that they’re masters of digital communication, and that makes a lot of sense. It’s 2016, and much of our correspondence takes place somewhere in cyber space. But for the ladies over at Mygirlfund, being able to communicate clearly and effectively online isn’t just a skill worth sharpening; it’s their livelihood.

Stefan says, “You have people in their early 20s now, they grew up on the Internet, and their first sexual experiences may have been virtual. Virtual sexuality is something they’re very well versed in. They’ve been doing it for years. They’re sort of experts at it."

Still, it seems fair to assume that sooner or later, the digital exchange is going to get old. Exploring one’s sexuality is fun, but even more fun is the ability to test it out on another real-life body in the flesh. We know our dating lives have largely moved online. But those who don't want them to stay there might consider outlets other than Mygirlfund.

“They’ll never meet them in real life,” says Stefan. “That’s a big rule we have on the site. You can’t share personal contact information. The relationships that develop online are explicitly online relationships.” 

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.