(Washington Post) - 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. 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, she 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 characterise relationships with unequal distributions of effort.
In a Sept 27 Harpers Bazaar article that went viral, author Gemma Hartley detailed her ongoing struggle to convince her husband to recognise the concept in action. Even if both people participate in household labour, Hartley argues, the person responsible for managing and delegating said labour is expending a degree of energy that is rarely acknowledged or understood by the other party.
It's this thankless emotional labour, coupled with the everyday stress of modern households and careers, that falls overwhelmingly to women.
"Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labour in a household is frustrating," Hartley writes. "It's the word I hear most commonly when talking to friends about the subject of all the behind-the-scenes work they do. It's frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation."
But according to many women, emotional labour extends far beyond domestic settings into public spaces and workplaces, where it reinforces gender inequality. In male-dominated industries especially, they say, women are under pressure to perform an awkward balancing act, one that requires them to maintain a desirable degree of femininity while simultaneously showing they are strong and independent enough to be "one of the guys" and a competent employee.
Defying gender expectations can lead to conflict or marginalization, women say.
Need an example? Hillary Clinton deciding that - to offset the perception that she was cold and uncompromising - she would pour coffee for male colleagues as a junior senator, as the Atlantic reported in 2006.
"In workplaces you are checking yourself constantly to make sure you are making others feel comfortable with your presence," said Gabriela Del Valle, a staff writer at the Outline who penned an article about the widespread toll of emotional labour on women. "As a woman, from a young age, you are constantly aware that you are being watched and aware of how your actions and body are being perceived by others."
Managing yourself as a means of managing other people's emotions, Del Valle said, is a form of emotional labour that also isn't limited to gender and often dictates the experience of people of colour and other minorities.
The ability to flip that dynamic on its head, even for a few hours, is not only enjoyable but also liberating, and explains why the feeling of relinquishing emotional labour is a driving force behind ManServants' success, Khajah said.
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 also demand them from men, allowing them to be themselves.
But the notion that hiring a man for US$125 (S$170) per hour might lessen the burden of emotional labour 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 towards 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 labour that women regularly take on as anything but absurd."
She added: "No one chuckles at a woman cleaning the house or comforting a male friend over a breakup or serving her boss his favourite coffee order. There's no novelty in the unpaid emotional labour that women quietly perform every day."
Khajah and her co-founder 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 labour woman carry is an obvious one to us, as is the need for ManServants," Khajah said. "Women almost always get it; it's men that usually follow up with, 'Are you sure there's no sex involved?' "