Footing the Bill on Friendship

man and woman at party Jessica Craig-Martin/Trunk Archive

Need someone to go to the movies with? Desperate to try that hip new restaurant but don't want to go alone? Need someone to gossip with during your next binge-watching weekend on Netflix?

Good news: There is someone who would love to do all those things with you...for a price.

In the past few years, online "friend rental" services have been growing in popularity, offering users a chance to pay for (nonsexual) companionship. The "friends" determine their rates, either by specific activities or for predetermined lengths of time, and users have the opportunity to choose the person (or price range) best suited to their needs.

RentAFriend, the most popular such site, claims to have much more than 500,000 friends available worldwide for everything from museum visits to skydiving. But in order to get in touch with them (and start the hondeling), users need to cough up a $24.95/month membership fee.

Helen White, a Boston-based friend, says she has been paid $20 an hour just for her company. "We went to a concert together," she says of one date. "All in all, I made $60, plus he bought my drinks. It was actually very natural; there wasn't any awkwardness, like you might expect. We had a great conversation."

David Bakke, an Atlanta-based friend, has had similar experiences. "The first time I had dinner with a woman who was in town for business, and the second, I went to a basketball game with a guy who I think had a friend cancel on him at the last minute." Both times Bakke, a freelance writer, waived his fee since the clients paid for the night's entertainment.

But not all users have such positive experiences. Mikey Rox, owner of the media and PR company Paper Rox Scissors in New York City, signed up for RentAFriend early on (the service officially launched in 2009), and says he has "never accepted a request, for a reason."

Rox, 32, says he would be happy to join someone for companionship but that the handful of offers he has received, all from significantly older gay gentlemen (Rox is gay), felt fraught: "It always felt like they had ulterior motives, and I was afraid that, by the end of the night, they would feel like it was time to 'get their money's worth' from me."

Though the site is very clear about its zero-tolerance policy for non-platonic requests, Rox's experience isn't uncommon. Helen, too, turned down one friend-seeker because she "felt he was basically asking for sex," and she uses a pseudonym on her profile (and in this article) in order to protect her privacy. While it's impossible to track the exact number of "suggestive" messages sent through the site (it's likely many users, like Rox, simply ignore them), the sheer number of warnings against non-platonic requests implies that they're a frequent problem for the site.

Beyond potential safety concerns, some mental-health professionals question the underlying premise: the idea that friendship is something that should, or even can, be bought. Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, says that the very existence of RentAFriend is "an incredibly sad commentary on the state of human relationships."

"Real friendship comes from shared experiences and values, and in true friendships, friends are equal," says Lieberman. "Renting friendship is by its very nature untrustworthy, unequal and temporary. Once you stop paying, that person will no longer be there for you; that's the antithesis of friendship, if you ask me."

Lieberman concedes that if a friend were to cancel last-minute for an event that required a twosome, the service could come in handy, but says she would never recommend it for a patient.

"People are more estranged from one another than ever before," she says. "They go out together only to spend the night glued to their phones. If I had a patient considering this, I'd work to find out what's preventing him or her from connecting with people organically in the first place, and work on solutions to that problem. This service is a Band-Aid fix for serious psychological problems."

Kathy Nickerson, a psychologist and marriage counselor based out of Orange County in California, originally felt the service could be useful, but has since come around to Lieberman's point of view.

"I had a client who wanted to try this service," she recalls. "At first I was skeptical, but the woman she connected with through the site turned into a true friend. Her outcome was so good, I recommended it to another client who was feeling lonely and isolated.

"It was absolutely the wrong fit. In the end, she wound up feeling more depressed, and questioning what was so fundamentally wrong with her that she would have to pay people for friendship," says Nickerson. "After that experience, I've become very wary of the site, especially for people who might seem like the best candidates: those who are in a bad place emotionally, and really need a friend. For them, I think the site actually does more harm than good."

Other services try to get around these pitfalls in a variety of ways. Rent a Local Friend focuses explicitly and exclusively on tourists, with friends-for-hire acting as tour guides for either a half or full day. The site emphasizes the fact that locals can show you a more authentic side of their cities than you'll find in a guidebook.

Lumelle is a friend-matching service exclusively for women. Upon sign-up, members answer questions about their interests, relationship status, and stage in life, and the service suggests members it considers most compatible. Members can also attend events in the hopes of finding a friendship "spark" offline.

Lumelle Founder Nermin Jasani launched the app based on her own difficulties finding female friends in a new city. "Friendship dating is so much harder than getting a boyfriend," she says. "I wanted to make it easier for women like me to find one another."

The service is free, something Jasani feels is absolutely essential. "Charging for Lumelle would inhibit many women from joining. And the fact that it's free means that the relationships that develop here are totally authentic," she says.

Though Jasani did not comment specifically on other friend services, the implication is clear: paying for friendship is, by default, inauthentic.

Given the potential pitfalls of some of these services, lonely types might prefer the original rent-a-friend: Ben Hollis.

In 1986, Hollis released a video titled "Rent-A-Friend," which allows viewers to "interact" with Sam, who chats about everything from the viewers' parents ("They're really neat people, aren't they?") to his high school crushes, pausing frequently in order to "listen" to viewers' responses.

The video is only 42 minutes long, and after a few viewings, Sam might feel a bit predictable, just like small talk with someone you don't know, or have rented.