Washington - When Dala Khajah and Josephine Wai Lin co-founded ManServants - a company that lets women hire attractive men as personal assistants, stand-in boyfriends and bachelorette party butlers - their goal was to give women a fantasy on their own terms.
It turns out that instead of hiring a male stripper to gyrate awkwardly for a party full of women, the women had their own fantasies in mind:
- An attractive man who shows up to your office to work as your assistant for the day. He is, of course, highly competent.
- A dapper stranger who interrupts a bachelorette party with a flutes of champagne and a passionate urge to give skillful massages.
- A dutiful, well-dressed man who follows you around holding a parasol over your head and saying "no pictures" to strangers.
Since its launch three years ago, ManServants has fulfilled all of these fantasies and numerous others, with sales doubling in the past year. In the process, Khajah said, the company inadvertently has amassed the "largest database of nonsexual women's fantasies ever" - a sort of Kinsey Report minus the dirt.
"We've stumbled upon an interesting sociological experiment that has begun to show us what modern women really want from the opposite sex," Khajah, 28, said.
"Broadly speaking, women prefer emotional stripping versus actual stripping," she said. "They want to feel connected and catered to, and they also want to have a good time with their girlfriends and to feel like queens for a day."
The crux of that fantasy, the part about being catered to and feeling queenlike, is the part that men struggle to grasp, Khajah said. The female fantasy revolves around being pampered, because of not self-importance or laziness but something else entirely: "emotional labour."
The concept of emotional labour has been floating around the Internet for several years now to characterize relationships with unequal distributions of effort.
Once hired, the men - many of whom work in the service industry - undergo training to turn them into respectful "party hosts" by building up their emotional intelligence and teaching them to anticipate their client's needs.
Women, in turn, are encouraged not only to outsource those needs but demand them from men, allowing them to be themselves.
The notion that hiring a man for $125 (about R1 800) per hour might lessen the burden of emotional labor strikes some women as misguided, even absurd.
After watching a video advertising Manservants, Hartley, the author of the viral Harpers Bazaar piece, said creating a role reversal with a "gross imbalance of power" is not a step toward gender equality but a retreat from it.
"Why is the ad for 'Manservants' so funny when a similar service for a 'womanservant' would be horrifying?" she said. "It's partly because we still can't accept the idea of a man doing the emotional labor that women regularly take on as anything but absurd.
"No one chuckles at a woman cleaning the house or comforting a male friend over a breakup or serving her boss his favorite coffee order," she added. "There's no novelty in the unpaid emotional labor that women quietly perform every day."
Khajah said the word "ManServant" is sometimes misconstrued as demeaning, but she and Wai Lin maintain that their male employees are trained to put a woman's needs before their own and understand how to lighten a female client's "mental load."
"The mental load and emotional labor woman carry is an obvious one to us, as is the need for ManServants." she said. "Women almost always get it; it's men that usually follow up with, 'Are you sure there's no sex involved?' "