From ‘flirt coaches’ and seminars on finding your soulmate to mail-order brides, falling in love has never been more commercialised
It is 7.30pm on a Saturday evening, and I am on my way to a seminar in a central London hotel about how to find the ideal partner. I pass a number of restaurants and bars, full of couples apparently in love, laughing and talking together.
The seminar I am attending is not speed dating or a singles event, but a course entitled “Love & Soulmate with Kathryn Alice”. For £75 a ticket, delegates are treated to a motivational talk from the warm-up act — a young man who explained to us how we could open our hearts to each other — and a seminar from the love guru herself.
Alice, a Californian, resplendent in flowing blonde locks, pale-grey linen and a fixed, serene smile, is the author of Love Will Find You: Nine Magnets for Bringing You and Your Soulmate Together (Avalon, 2007), plus a number of CDs and audio products. Alice lectures on love all over the world, and has, according to the delegates on my table, something of a cult following. “I was about to fly to California to meet her,” said Irene (not her real name), a middle-aged Asian woman who has been single since her husband left her a decade ago, “but then I saw an advertisement for this seminar. I could not believe it. It must be fate.”
Although the seminar is clearly a money-making event, Alice is not raking it in like a number of others in the “love for sale” market. The hire of the hotel ballroom on a Saturday evening, plus the DJ, warm-up act and administration and advertising costs, would not leave a huge amount of change out of the joining fee. Perhaps such events are seen as loss-leaders, there to promote supplementary materials and encourage people to sign up to the more expensive one-to-one sessions.
The UK organiser of the event, Gail De Souza, agreed to speak to me following my revelation that I was at the seminar to research an article on the commercialisation of loneliness. De Souza told me that she had made a financial loss on the event, but that she did it “out of love”. The room was only about half-full, and many of the people there were linked to the organisers, but nevertheless such an approach to finding your true love can be addictive. Many of those attending had been to several such seminars previously and said they would continue until they found their soulmate.
Some will acquire a taste for such methods of meeting a partner and will go on to hire personal “dating trainers” to help them with their online search skills; pay for advice from a “flirt coach”; or even travel the world to other events like “Love & Soulmate”, believing that, as they are about to be told by Kathryn Alice, “There is someone for everyone out there. You WILL find them.”
This event is one of many examples of the increasing commercialisation of loneliness. The advertising industry has capitalised on people’s desire to find their soulmate and live happily ever after, and it has gone way beyond online dating services.
The dating scene is getting seriously pricey. A year with bespoke dating agency Berkeley International will set you back £10,000. Then there are dating “boot camps” such as Kama Lifestyles, which costs £800 a day.
Not only is the online dating business huge, there are now virtual dating assistants such as Vida Consultancy that, as it claims on its website, “specialises in getting dates with women you want to date, does all the work. YOU get all the credit. It SUCKS sending message after message to women who never write you back. What’s worse is if you’re getting any messages at all, they’re probably not from the girls you want to meet.”
Then there is Sam Owen, one of a number of so-called relationship coaches, based in Cheshire. Owen offers sessions at £125 per hour. There are also “flirtology” classes, such as the course run by Jean Smith, who describes herself as a social and cultural anthropologist. Smith claims in her publicity that “flirting is a science”. The course costs £1,797.
How did anyone manage to date, fall in love, or find a life partner before these people began charging you money to achieve it?
Money and sex have long gone together. We only have to look at the scandal involving hacked and leaked information on its members from the online infidelity site Ashley Madison. “I only signed up to catfish lonely liberal women,” commented one former member below an online article on the topic.
Dr Catherine Hakim, in a report for the free-market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), recently argued that prostitution should be legalised and treated like any other financial transaction, such as paying to eat in a restaurant. In her report, Supply and Desire: Sexuality and the Sex Industry in the 21st Century, Hakim claims that the “sexual deficit” among heterosexual men (meaning that they want more sex than do women of the same age) can be addressed by legitimising the purchase of sex, and that decriminalising Britain’s £4 billion sex industry would increase protection of women. Despite there being no credible evidence for her claims, there are a number of countries in recent years, including the UK, that have had their GDP boosted by estimates of their economies that include the profit from the drug and sex industries.
In the past decade, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs have come up with new ideas for making money from loneliness: mail-order brides, dating coaches, synthetic “partners” such as RealDolls (life-like human dolls, created initially for sex, but also in more recent years for a type of faux companionship), and reproductive services to produce children to provide solace for the solitary.
Loneliness is a growing problem in the West, with some studies claiming it has become an epidemic among young adults in the UK. It is also a significant problem for older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1 million women over 50, and is set to get far worse as populations age even further.
Many of us live alone. According to the census, there were 7.1 million single-person households in England and Wales in 2011, an increase of 1 million from the previous decade. In the UK as a whole, 13 per cent of the population lives alone.
People spend money, join groups and organisations and put serious time and energy in the attempt to rid themselves of the feeling of loneliness. Surely, many would argue, finding a variety of ways to assuage loneliness is a positive thing, even if cash changes hands?
I have long been critical of commercialised sex and have spent decades, alongside other feminists and human rights activists, campaigning to abolish the international sex trade. The hostility I have had directed at me, by those on the liberal and libertarian Left and Right, has been extraordinary. My work on domestic violence, rape and child sexual abuse has left some men feeling defensive, and whenever I speak, or attempt to speak at universities these days I am more often than not “no-platformed” by the National Union of Students for, among other things, “whorephobia”.
“Because money is made out of prostitution, there are plenty there to defend it,” says Rachel Moran, a survivor of the sex trade and author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (2012). “Those shouting us down about how great selling sex is would not dream of defending domestic violence in this way, because it is not a commercial business, relying on good PR and advertising.”
My recent “no-platforming” was a few weeks ago. I was due to speak at the University of Manchester at a debate on feminism. My opponent was to be Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing commentator and professional anti-feminist. One of the justifications of banning me (but keeping Yiannopoulos) was the fact that I consider prostitution to be a cause and consequence of women’s inequality. It would appear that my critique of commercialised sexual abuse is more dangerous and unpalatable than misogyny spouted by men like Yiannopoulos.
Few would see the connection between the “Love & Soulmate” seminar I attended, and prostitution. But profiting from those seeking love is surely as unethical as making money from sexual gratification.
I wanted to find out from the delegates at “Love & Soulmate” whether paying money in the pursuit of love paid dividends. Jane (not her real name) is in her early thirties and works in the charitable sector in London. At the “Love & Soulmate” seminar I spotted her looking somewhat embarrassed when, as part of the obligatory ice-breaker exercise directed by the warm-up act, she was asked to turn to the person on her left, place her hand on his heart, and look directly into his eyes. (At this stage I pretended to be taking an urgent telephone call.)
Jane has been looking for a life partner since the break-up of a four-year relationship eight years ago, and had previously tried online dating. Having spent “hundreds of pounds” joining various sites and going on “pointless dates with unsuitable men”, she saw an advertisement on a women’s magazine website for the Kathryn Alice seminar and decided to try it out.
The seminar was at least two-thirds women. One woman was in her eighties, and had been looking for love since her husband had died some time ago. The majority seemed to be fairly young to middle-aged. The tables were set out in the style of a wedding breakfast and were littered with glitter and tiny red love-hearts. Red heart-shaped balloons decorated the room, and a DJ stood behind a deck in the corner, spinning tunes such as Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything”, and the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady”.
I met Jane, a conventionally attractive woman that I would have assumed would have no trouble in the dating world, during the break. Had she benefited from the advice given so far by Alice and her colleagues? No, she told me. “It was all about what we needed to do differently,” she said. “The problem for a lot of women is that many of the men out there are not very nice, and tend to be afraid to commit. Most women can get dates if all we are looking for is a fling or a one-night stand.
“We were told that the only reason we had not met anyone yet was because we had not opened ourselves up to the possibility of it yet, or opened our hearts. But the reason why most of us would have been there was precisely because we had been looking, had been open to it, but had not been able to find the right person.”
Although women dominate such seminars and the types of online dating sites and apps that are geared towards finding relationships as opposed to casual sex, a growing number of British and American men looking for a wife will access a commercial service rather than use the traditional methods. This is an expensive business, according to a Reddit thread earlier this year. Men can pay as much as $50,000 (£32,700) to meet a woman this way.
For the women in the Thai sex industry, the prospect of a foreign husband and a nice house in the West is a far better than dire poverty. But the fact that some women are desperate enough to sell themselves to such men is no excuse for us to accept the fact that thousands of British men take advantage of their lack of choice. If a man cannot acquire a girlfriend the old-fashioned way, he should accept that it is unlikely a beautiful young woman in a faraway country will desire him. The UK government should take a stand against men who travel abroad to buy sex, as it allows poorer countries to sell its women like cheap holiday tat.
In Russia alone more than 25,000 women per year sign up to the country’s 1,000-plus marriage sites. Only 5-7 per cent of the women who sign up eventually find a foreign spouse, according to a study conducted by an American university.
The mail-order bride industry, now linked to online dating, has roots going back to when early European settlers in North America requested wives. The Virginia Company of London sent several shipments of mail-order brides in return for payments in tobacco. The first documented mail-order brides started where so many now end up: London. Today, the mail-order bride business is huge and extremely lucrative, with men being far less stigmatised for finding a spouse this way.
Prior to travelling to the potential brides’ country of origin — often the Philippines or Russia — the customer will look through an online catalogue to choose women to whom he is attracted. I spoke to Jim (not his real name), a British Asian from London who had recently been widowed and wanted “a second chance of happiness”. He told me that he was “bombarded” with advertisements for mail-order bride services via his email and social media sites while linked to several internet dating services. “It would never have occurred to me to actually look to buy a wife,” said Jim. “I wanted to date lots of potential partners so I could choose from them. But I became convinced that it would be best if I cut all the middle stuff out and chose a bride in one go.”
First, he had to pay money to access the email addresses of the women he liked the look of from the catalogue, and then for their addresses in order to send letters and gifts, which the customers were encouraged to do. Most of the women do not speak English so Jim had to meet the cost of translators and interpreters whenever he wrote to one of them or when they spoke via Skype. “It ended up costing me £10,000,” he told me, “just to sign up to the service, make contact with the girls and send them gifts and money. And I never did find my bride.”
According to a study conducted in Hong Kong and published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2013, those who have few friends, feel alone at work, or are sad about a break-up are more careless with their money, because they associate being wealthy with being socially accepted. The study found that lonely people can be drawn to gambling. Online poker and other forms of gambling attract lonely individuals as they almost always include a chat facility where players can get to know those involved in the games. Often this can lead to addiction and, of course, excessive spending.
Then there is the “girlfriend experience”, where prostitutes are paid to pretend they are in love with the man, and do all the things with him, including sex, normally associated with a close and intimate relationship. These women can be rented by the week, the month, or even longer. These services can be bought from any brothel and escort agency in Britain, but many men choose to travel abroad for the “girlfriend experience”, maybe because it gives them access to subservient women. I have interviewed women who have provided these services. They each told me that having to pretend to be in love with the punter is akin to torture. But when love becomes another service provision or commercial exchange, the one handing over the cash has the power.
Disabled men, including returning war veterans, are the latest to be targeted by those with money signs in their eyes. TLC (Tender Loving Care) Trust, a service set up by former pornographer Tuppy Owens, is linked to a charity (Outsiders Trust). It is, nevertheless, peddling the commercial services of individuals and escort agencies advertising sexual services. Checking the websites of the escorts listed shows that they are not particularly targeting disabled men, but simply adding to their customer base.
In 2010 the Telegraph revealed, following Freedom of Information requests, that some local authorities in England had used taxpayers’ money to pay for the services of prostitutes to be delivered to the homes of disabled men, similar to the Meals on Wheels scheme, and occasional visits to lap-dancing clubs. One man who suffered from a brain injury had had “sex work” built into his council care package. I took part in a TV debate earlier this year alongside a women who had bought a brothel in the north of England for her disabled son after taking him to Amsterdam (where prostitution is legal) for his first sexual experience.
The financial exploitation of loneliness can lead to a view that those without pots of money are destined to remain without a partner. Last year, a study conducted by retail analysts Mintel found that just 4 per cent of those with an annual income of more than £50,000 had never found love. However, the proportion of the loveless increases as you go down the income brackets, reaching 17 per cent for those on less than £9,500 a year. The research also found that those with an income of more than £50,000 were most likely to have fallen in love five times or more during their lifetime.
But is this love, or a synthetic version that is more to do with the wallet than the heart? Take the boom in buying a baby via surrogacy services. Babies can appease loneliness, and today it is easier than ever to order one over the internet. All you need is plenty of money. First, you are supplied with a catalogue by the commercial service supplying the eggs. The women selling the embryos are typically young, highly educated and conventionally attractive. Once the eggs are purchased, a womb, usually belonging to a poor, desperate woman, perhaps in India or Ukraine, is rented. If sperm is required, another catalogue is produced, this time full of photographs and life histories of good-looking, high-achieving men. At the end of the process, the gestational carrier will hand over the baby to the purchaser.
Last month, an Idaho woman named Brooke who had served as a surrogate three times died while carrying twins for a Spanish couple. Surrogate pregnancy is illegal in Spain and other European countries. The European Parliament called surrogacy and egg sales an “extreme form of exploitation of women” in an official resolution.
I called Jane a few days after the seminar to ask how she was feeling. Depressed, she told me. “I feel I was told at that seminar that meeting someone right for me is not a matter of chance or good luck, or even going to the right places, but that it is something I am doing wrong,” she said. “I was left feeling like I had no further knowledge about how to find a partner, and more determined to go out and meet men face to face and be prepared for disappointment. I don’t believe that if you follow her advice it will happen as a matter of science. You can’t buy your way into a perfect relationship.”