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.
Instead of hiring a male stripper to awkwardly gyrate for a party full of women, they 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.
- ManServants launched three years ago.
- On its website, it states: “Served hot daily.”
- Sales doubled in the past year.
- In the process, Khajah said, the company has inadvertently 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, she said, not because of self-importance or laziness, but because of something else entirely: “emotional labor.”
The concept of emotional labor has been floating around the Internet for several years now to characterize relationships with unequal distributions of effort.
In a recent Harpers Bazaar article that went viral, author Gemma Hartley detailed her ongoing struggle to convince her husband to recognize the concept in action. Even if both people are participating in household labor, Hartley argues, the person who takes on the responsibility of managing and delegating said labor is expending a degree of energy that is rarely acknowledged or understood by the other party.
It’s this thankless emotional labor — coupled with the everyday stress of modern households and careers — that overwhelmingly falls to women.
“Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labor 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 labor 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.
- 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 not only encouraged to outsource those needs, but to demand them from men, allowing them to be themselves.
- Men are hired for $125 per hour.
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?’”