In many Asian cities, where the cost of living is high and careers often come first, it's hard for people to find a partner. Online dating has become accepted, but new solutions to the rising number of lonely singles have emerged.
In Singapore, men and even some women are choosing to rent a date instead of looking for long-term love.
This isn't prostitution, which has long been legal in Singapore. The businesses offering dates for rent go out of their way to ensure their services are squeaky clean - some agencies ban physical contact and encourage their girls to call management if anything goes awry.
Singaporean agencies such as Maybe.sg and SG VIP Escorts provide what is described as the "girlfriend experience", but the owner of one of the companies says some clients do expect more than just a platonic date.
Maybe.sg provides male and female dates, with its prices ranging from S$80 (US$58) to S$380 for a minimum of two hours. The site's members specify the age groups they will go on dates with - almost without exception people in their 20s - and suggest the kinds of outings they enjoy, with innocent activities such as escape games, karaoke and cafe hopping especially popular.
The company founder, a twenty-something who wishes to be known only as Sora, says he realised there was a demand for the service when his friends complained about not being able to meet potential dates in nightclubs and bars.
"Maybe.sg is like Tinder, but with a guarantee that you won't be catfished (lured into a fake dating scam)," he says. "Guys from all walks of life use our services.
"But sometimes the girls tell me that a particular client is married or has made sexual requests. And some clients are not just looking for a girlfriend experience, but hope that a relationship will result from these arranged dates."
SG VIP Escorts was set up in 2017 by a Singaporean man in his 20s who wants to be identified only as Richard. He started out by approaching women to work with his agency, but eventually managed to secure a solid stable of members through online marketing.
To them, time equals money and they don't want to commit to another person emotionally and financially, so they rent dates insteadRichard, SG VIP Escorts
His company's rates range from S$600 to S$1,400 for an hour, and can go up to S$10,000 for "special events", such as public events lasting four hours.
"The women who work with SG VIP Escorts are either Singaporeans or permanent residents who have experience as escorts or being sugar babies," he says, referring to young women who enter into financial arrangements with older men that typically involve sex.
"Most of them are working professionals or pursuing further studies. This part-time job allows them to arrange their working hours around other commitments," Richard says.
He believes the growth of the on-demand economy is driving the rent-a-date trend.
"My clients are mainly expats and career-focused locals in their 30s and 40s. Some people might think that men who rent dates are not capable of wooing women, but many of them are quite smooth," he says. "They've just made a decision to concentrate on work.
"To them, time equals money and they don't want to commit to another person emotionally and financially, so they rent dates instead."
Many of Richard's clients aren't ready for marriage yet and are "just like guys who head out with their friends, online gamers who form clans, people who use rent-a-friend services and men who become sugar daddies".
These niche businesses have come into being to cater to people looking for different forms of companionship.
"Most of my clients ask for someone who isn't too tall or too short. Slim, but 'slim' is relative. Some want a girl who feels 'unattainable', while others want a girl they can feel a human connection with right away. Most of all, they want someone with substance. Some of the women who work with me are flirty with clients and that helps," Richard says.
Asked whether many of his clients expected more than the girlfriend experience on offer, he says that some called to extend their dates and often requested the same companion again. Dates are urged not to provide their personal details to clients.
"My business is made up of people and my job is to provide the who, when and where that clients want," Richard says.
"I am frank with the information I share with them and if they have very specific requests in terms of appearance, I might advise them to wait until the right lady is available for booking. I cannot break that trust between agency and client."
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