What's a 'boy|friend'? Apparently it's neither a typo nor a hybrid like 'Tinderella', spawned by the constantly evolving vocabulary of dating apps.
According to the makers of a new Indian app, the word stands for a boy who is available to be your friend for a price. And this, they suggest, would help people, specifically women, fight depression.
The app, which was released on Google Play on 23 August, has been downloaded at least 100,000 times since then, but has a dismal 3.0 rating. It claims to be a 'great platform to Eradicate Depression & Serve Pure Friendship'.
In the description section of the app on Google Play, the makers have written: "We initiated RABF(RENT A BOY|FRIEND) to create awareness about mental disturbances in people's daily lives. RABF believes in 'GIVE LIFE 1 CHANCE'."
And this rented 'boy|friend' will "take care of the lady & ensure their safety". The app also promises to provide free psychiatric consultation to people who suffer from depression. Three people identified as psychiatrists have been listed on the app. Details about their education or experience, which are present on apps such as Practo — meant to connect doctors with patients — were conspicuously absent. They were merely identified as 'MBBS'.HuffPost India could not reach two of them at the number provided on the app's website.
Co-founder Sonali Prakkash is also listed by the app as an "expert" with an MBBS degree. She told News18 last month that the 'boyfriends' for hire will be groomed by a "specialised team of doctors, life coaches and psychiatrists".
Prakkash also told the website that a 'boy|friend' who will be "trained" will let the team know if he senses that a person he is meeting needs help with mental illness and he or she will be 'steered' towards getting medical advice. One of the models told News18 that "the grooming he received taught him about depression, about how to speak to people with mental illness or stress, to identify signs and manifestations of mental illness such as depression, suicidal tendencies and then provide correct advice".
However, while speaking to HuffPost India, Prakkash insisted that the 'boyfriends' would not give any advice. Instead, she said, if he sensed that a person is grappling with mental health issues, he would encourage him or her to seek professional help. "It is not necessary that he will ask the person to seek help from our team. He can ask the person to go to any doctor of choice," she said.
That still doesn't answer how a man "groomed" for a while is equipped to comment on the mental health of a random stranger he is being paid to meet.
"Our boyfriends will merely help with loneliness."
When HuffPost India asked why an app that is being publicised as one that will help battle depression doesn't enlist women to speak to other women instead, Prakkash came up with a slightly confusing explanation. On the one hand, she said that the app could be availed by anyone to 'hire' a 'boyfriend' irrespective of mental health issues. Then she said if a woman approaches them seeking help with mental health, after doctors have treated her and she is in recovery, she could rent one of their boys in case she needed to speak to someone.
"Our boyfriends will merely help with loneliness," she said. She also added that the current crop of dating apps are full of 'fake profiles' whereas they would provide men who were "real".
The basic premise of the app is that, anyone can 'rent' a boyfriend, hang out at a public place, chat with him, perhaps grab a drink and get dinner and basically pay for his company. The app's description suggests it is primarily aimed at women. While women paying for a company of a man does not seem that outrageous, it's the approach and language of the app that makes a mockery of not just women, but also mental illness.
The first, and the most dangerous, aspect of the app is peddling the idea that an unqualified man with a few days' "grooming" can steer' a mentally ill person to seek medical advice.
The first, and the most dangerous, aspect of the app is peddling the idea that an unqualified man with a few days' "grooming" can steer' a mentally ill person to seek medical advice. A 2012 Lancet report says that India has one of the world's highest suicide rates for youth aged 15-29. A survey published this year showed that 47% of the sample group was mostly likely to judge people in a negative light if they knew about their mental health issues. The stigma surrounding mental illness in India is such that many people don't seek professional help.
Dr Anjali Chhabria, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, said that the text describing RABF's utility seems to emphasise a mothballed, parochial and inaccurate stereotype that a woman is depressed because she doesn't have a male partner or is sex-starved.
"This is demeaning not just to women, but to people struggling with mental illnesses overall. Depression is a strictly medical condition. It can be caused by hormonal imbalance and it can also be caused by a personal tragedy. There's a wide spectrum of causes of depression. And only a qualified medical professional should deal with cases," Chhabria told HuffPost India. Instead of sending confusing messages as this app does, she added that as a society, we need to emphasise the need to visit doctors if one is undergoing any psychological distress.
"You won't tell a woman suffering from dengue or malaria, "go talk to a man", right?"
"I mean, you won't tell a woman suffering from dengue or malaria, "go talk to a man", right?" she said.
The confusing and problematic narrative the app has started can further stigmatise mental illnesses, making it seem like a personal failure to have acquired friends or a romantic partner.
Prakkash couldn't provide a convincing explanation about why they did not launch two separate apps for the starkly different needs they seem to want to cater to — people looking for the company of men and people struggling with depression.
Prakkash couldn't provide a convincing explanation about why they did not launch two separate apps for the starkly different needs they seem to want to cater to.
In fact, when you try signing up for 'hire' a 'boyfriend', the app directs you to a form where you specify what you want in a boyfriend — this includes everything from whether or not he should have a beard and what religion he should belong to. For an app targeting to "eradicate depression", it asks no questions related to mental health.
If, at the end of the day, this is simply an app for women to pay to have male company, it's impossible to fathom why it has to be shrouded with misleading 'advice' on mental illnesses. Unless, thanks to patriarchal conditioning, the makers of the app think that women cannot and would not pay to seek the company of men simply because they want it, the app makes no sense at all. It is perfectly plausible that a financially independent woman hires someone to accompany her for dinner — men around the world do it all the time and apps catering to them don't feel the need to use misleading language.