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Was companion-sharing an app too far?

The embarrassingly short story of a failed “shared girlfriend” service, promoted by sex-toy retailer Taqu (Touch), will be likely remembered as yet another example of China’s chaotic sharing economy crossing the boundaries of good sense. “Oversharing,” quipped the AFP headline; others wondered what the company was thinking.

To recap: Taqu’s proposition was an app that allowed customers to rent one of five “fully functional” silicone dolls for 298 RMB per day, plus an 8,000 RMB refundable deposit; the dolls came in Russian teenager, Chinese model, Korean housewife, and Hong Kong cheerleader versions, plus a Wonder Woman lookalike with a sword and shield. The lower halves were detachable, and Taqu expressed its commitment to hygiene by assuring customers that these would be thoroughly cleaned between uses.

A few days later, Taqu’s service was taken offline, a decision followed by a typically groveling self-criticism from the company for its “negative impact on online discourse at a time of major meetings” and harm to the national psyche (“We express our deepest apologies for the bad influence the shared girlfriend had on society”).

Originally, the Xiamen-based company’s stated mission was to “provide love and companionship,” adding “sex itself is not vulgar. Making more Chinese people experience the pleasure of sex is still the goal we strive for.” These are comments that even the most squeamish progressive would find difficult to disagree with. There are some arguments that dolls could reduce violence against women, and prostitution. On the other hand, advertisements touted the dolls, which come with optional whips and handcuffs, as having “perfect bodies, [and] are totally submissive,” suggesting gender relations were not a priority. So the question still remains: What were Taqu thinking?

There’s no question that demand for such products exists in China, where a generation of some 30 million perpetually single men is predicted by 2030, due to a gender imbalance from family planning policies. During last year’s Singles’ Day, an online shopping event similar to Black Friday, one vendor reported selling one high-end doll every minute, mostly to men aged 18-29.

Taqu has said its target customers are particularly these lonely males, known as “bare branches,” who may be demographically doomed to a lifetime of potential celibacy, as well as businessmen or others who have to spend long periods working away from their family. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of “adult health shops” in mainland towns and cities has helped make adult toys almost as acceptable and unremarkable as chain smoking, even while sex education, on a national level, remains largely ignored.

Theoretically, then, the dolls could help relieve tensions in areas with large populations of unmarried, frustrated young men, curb infidelity and the sex industry, as well as reduce the spread of STIs, particularly HIV, through unsafe sex—all highly desirable outcomes for a conservative government that intensely focuses on social stability, promotes family values, and hopes to see a healthier, happier population. Yet by promoting its products so flagrantly, Taqu unwittingly crossed an invisible red line—you may perhaps do something, but not necessarily advertise it. And prudish officials are loath to confront issues of sexuality unless they are couched in the most asexual terms possible, such as the Guangzhou Sex Culture Festival, which is officially backed by local health and family planning departments—not exactly sexy.

Taqu’s app touches on the tip of a problematic iceberg; the vast majority of bare branches, for example, are rural men who are unlikely to be swapping high-end silicone humans on apps requiring an 8,000 RMB deposit. But the point is there was a lot of thought given to Taqu’s scheme, and a lot less thought that went into quashing it.

“Guys and Dolls” is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.


Han Rubo is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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