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According to a report from AFP (via France 24), there’s a new growing trend in China: single women hiring “virtual boyfriends” online. These online-only affairs usually aren’t sexual at all and instead more about companionship and emotional attention.

For example, women might instruct a virtual boyfriend to message them in the morning with a sweet “wake up” text or ask them to message periodically throughout the day to ask how they are doing. They also might want their online-only partner to give them words of encouragement.

A 19-year-old pre-medical student in China has dished out more than 1,000 Chinese yuan (~$150) on these kinds of services. “If someone is willing to keep me company and chat, I’m pretty willing to spend money,” she told AFP.

There are real men on the other end of the conversation, too. Zhuansun Xu, a 22-year-old foreign exchange trader in Beijing, acts as a virtual boyfriend in his spare time. “While we’re interacting, I tell myself: I really am her boyfriend, so how can I treat her well?” he told AFP. “But after we’re done, I’ll stop thinking this way.”

Women can find virtual boyfriends online fairly easily on WeChat or on an e-commerce site such as Taobao.

Related: WhatsApp vulnerabilities allow others to fake messages

Why is this happening? One theory is that Chinese women spend much of their early lives working hard and studying to pass the rigorous Chinese university entrance exams at the expense of learning social skills and gaining relationship experience. Once they leave university, they enter high-stress jobs. With money to burn but little free time — and few relationships in their past, if any at all — a “pay as you go” online boyfriend fits right into their lives.

On the flip side, another theory is that Chinese women are more self-sufficient than they have been in the past. Traditionally, women would look for financial stability, housing, and other tangibles from a male partner. With these things already taken care of by their own hand, women are seeking out the one thing they can’t give themselves — romance and companionship, even if it is just online.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see if virtual boyfriends (or girlfriends, for that matter) become a fad in countries outside of China.

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