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Inside China’s BDSM and polyamorous dating scenes and the technology allowing them to thrive

By TONG

Apr 28, 2021

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‘Dating in China’ is a three-part series created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG with the aim of providing our readers with an insider’s point of view into what dating in China is truly like from a young person’s perspective. In order to offer you the deepest insights into China’s dating culture, each piece is centred around the point of view of one Chinese citizen (and serial dater).

In the third and final part of our Dating in China series created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG, we look at China’s most stigmatised dating scenes such as BDSM (which stands for ‘bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism’) and polyamory (the practice of intimate relationships with more than one partner with the informed consent of all partners involved) as well as the technology allowing both communities to grow and connect them with like-minded daters. To truly get into the nitty gritty of China’s underground dating culture, we spoke to Lily, 25, about how she first got involved with this scene, the dating technology she used to explore her sexuality and the impact it has had on the way the country views and approaches these sexual preferences that are still deemed ‘unusual’ to this day.

Having touched upon the dating industry in China with a more global analysis in the first Deep Dive of this series and then shifting the narrative to focus on the perspective of the LGBTQ+ community in our second part, it made sense for Dating in China to end on a more niche dating culture in the country, one that can only grow from here. Although we live in an increasingly sexually liberated world, China’s culture added on top of its traditional government means that sexual self-expression and organised underground communities like the BDSM one have a hard time finding acceptance from the majority of the population.

That being said, all over the world, numerous kinks are still seen as taboo by many, leading them to remain stigmatised in most cultures. Kink, fetish and BDSM practices often involve consensual violence made up of both psychological and physical submission as well as domination and masochism, which can explain our society’s scepticism towards the community. According to an article published by Slate on China’s growing rope bondage community, until 2017, “most local bondage practitioners were self-taught, tying privately in their homes and relying on YouTube and Vimeo videos.” It should be noted that the two video-sharing platforms have been inaccessible from mainland China since 2009 because of their Western origin.

Until 2017, the subculture was not welcomed on China’s internet. In fact, still to this day, many BDSM communities choose to keep their circle as tight as possible—pun intended—in order to avoid getting shut down by the country’s government. However, slowly but surely, mainstream social and dating apps like WeChat and Tantan turned into breeding grounds for communities attracted to these somewhat unconventional sexual preferences. Here’s where it’s at in 2021.

Meet Lily, 25, living in Shanghai, polyamorous dater and member of China’s BDSM community

From the BDSM community to non-mono—polyamorous—meet up events, it’s safe to say that Lily has a lot to share about her involvement in China’s underground dating scenes. When she first got in contact with Screen Shot Pro, Lily explained a bit more about how her interest was initially sparked by the world of BDSM, “In the first place, it wasn’t through your typical dating app, it was on WeChat using a feature that allows users to find people that are nearby.”

WeChat is a multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent. First released in 2011, it quickly became the world’s largest standalone mobile app in 2018, with over 1 billion monthly active users. Famously described as China’s “app for everything” because of its wide range of functions, WeChat provides its users with an impressive range of features such as text messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, broadcast (one-to-many) messaging, video conferencing, video games, photographs, videos and location sharing.

At the time, Lily was a high school student living by herself in Anhui away from her family and friends who lived in Shanghai. She first started using WeChat’s “附近的人” feature (meaning “People nearby”) to meet new people in her area. “I didn’t know about any other social networking software, and since WeChat was something that everyone used, it was easy to download and convenient to use. Later on, I felt that WeChat’s ‘People Nearby’ feature showed very little content to strangers, as there were even fewer people I met that I could talk to and share common interests with. That’s when I discovered other social networking apps.”

From there, Lily turned to the dating app Tantan to connect with more like-minded people. One day in 2019, she matched with a man whose profile pictures “looked pretty interesting” and who openly shared his polyamorous status. Only then did Lily really decide to learn more about polyamory and shortly after, BDSM. However, it wasn’t the first time she came across these terms. Let’s rewind a little bit.

When asked about her opinion on BDSM and polyamory before she got involved in both, Lily admitted acknowledging their existence before actually experiencing them first hand. “I thought that there was nothing to blame as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone and respects the person’s wishes. When I was in college and heard that a student would play BDSM with his lover, instead of passing the rumour on again, I acted as usual, like learning from others what he likes to eat,” she shared.

When she ventured into the field of BDSM a few years later, Lily often thought of him and felt able to discuss some of the related issues with him. As for polyamory, she first learned about it through a YouTube video, “I thought that polyamory was a very difficult model of intimacy where you have to schedule it, deal with jealousy, and more.”

From a Tantan match to becoming an active member of the community

By the time Lily was back in Shanghai, which in turn led her to meet this mystery man on Tantan, she had been single for over a year and was yearning for intimacy. Although she had met a few people she liked, none of those had resulted in a serious relationship. “I just thought that because Shanghai is such a big city and people here are always moving, they might not be in the city for long. Actually, no one can be here all the time, and I don’t know why but the guys I met were not willing to commit to our relationship.”

After meeting this person who openly spoke about his polyamorous status and through learning more from him, Lily first decided to attend one of the polyamory guided discussions he had told her about. “I got the chance to be involved in the non-monogamy community and soon enough, I started my own open relationship with another guy I matched on Tantan.”

Speaking about the reasons why she chose to try polyamory, she reiterated the struggles she faced when dating people in Shanghai. In this light, polyamory seemed like a fitting solution, “so I wouldn’t be afraid that my lover would have to leave Shanghai, as I could still develop relationships with other people and not put too much pressure on each other.”

Only then did she simultaneously get involved within the BDSM community after learning more about it through, for example, the event mentioned above. “Trying something new excited me, and at the time BDSM was a mysterious new thing to me. At a non-monogamous party, I heard from seniors about their experiences with various BDSM relationships and their partners, and it was so interesting and new that I wanted to try it myself,” said Lily.

After matching with the second man she mentioned, Lily felt like she could share her newly found interest in polyamory as well as BDSM with him, who she thought seemed open-minded enough. “During our interactions, I found him to be polite and respectful of other people’s ideas as well as having his own. One night after hanging out for three months, we talked late into the night. I told him about my desire for intimacy and being part of a non-monogamous community, and after explaining to him what polyamory was, he expressed interest in trying an open relationship with me if I was serious, so we got together after that.”

A deep dive into Shanghai’s BDSM and polyamory scenes

Respect is one of the key values that keeps what kinksters do from being abusive. Similarly, in a non-monogamous relationship, all people involved not only need to consent, but feel respected too for it to work in a healthy way. According to Lily, that same key value is apparent through Shanghai’s BDSM and polyamory scenes, “The community I am in is mostly made of foreigners and everyone is quite friendly and follows the rules. Newcomers have to get at least three votes to join us after talking to ‘old’ members. We hold regular talks and workshops where people can suggest ideas for an event.”

Speaking of events, Lily went on to explain that no one will force anyone to do something they don’t enjoy. “If you want to play with someone, you have to ask them (and their partner) if it’s okay and what behaviour is not acceptable. It’s also worth mentioning that we have a girls’ group where girls can ask questions, discuss and share or complain about a man who has harassed or offended them online or offline, and depending on the seriousness of the behaviour, the person complained about can be warned or kicked out of the community.”

At the time of our interview, Lily had recently attended a ‘fetish ball’ in Shanghai with a strict dress code consisting of “leather, rubber, kinky, sm.” Most of the people attending the event were Chinese, and by looking at the posters, Lily expected a rope bondage show, “but I stayed until midnight and saw no sign of rope. Instead, there was a group of girls dressed in skin-showing clothes, breast patches, thongs, fishnet stockings, and collars in front of a DJ booth with a man spanking them with a long, loose whip.”

Inside China’s BDSM and polyamory dating scenes and the technology allowing them to thrive

Lily continued to describe the evening, “The audience just gathered around them, watching and dancing. The lights were dim, the music was loud, and the scantily clad girls looked a bit shy, pushing and shoving as they were pushed out by the uproarious crowd to receive spanking. I think this might have been from some local Chinese BDSM community, but I’m not a big fan of events like this, they’re too casual, not private enough, and can give the wrong impression to those who don’t know BDSM.”

As for polyamory and the scene she has been involved in as a result of her interest in non-monogamous relationships, Lily explained that polyamory comes in many forms. “One girl who has dated two boyfriends at the same time and has taken them both to meet her parents is a good example for our non-monogamous community and the three of them can occasionally be seen at events together,” she first said.

“There are also married people,” continued Lily. “There is a couple that likes to go to events together and hook up with people who are attracted to them, and it’s only okay that one of them does something with someone else under the other one’s watchful eye. There also may be a couple where two men are gay, or prefer men over women, and the girls are bisexual—their union is mainly for spiritual support.”

The most BDSM and polyamory-friendly dating apps

Although Lily mentioned Tantan as the main dating app where she met potential partners and other members of her community, she also shared that nowadays, she tends to avoid spending too much time online. “I use social media platforms and dating apps to meet new people and do interesting things together, so I don’t spend too much time on the internet and don’t look for people who are far away from me,” she explained.

However, if you’re looking for advice on which popular apps to use in China when on the hunt for some kinky and like-minded people to connect with, Lily has a few suggestions: “If you care about the looks of your date, then your first choice should still be Tantan because of its large user base.”

If you don’t care much about looks, then she recommends Soul, “Compared to Tantan, I feel like Soul is a really feature-rich and safe app because you can talk through video calls on it without worrying too much.” That is because when videoing on the app, users can choose their own animated avatars, just like Apple’s Memoji. “If you don’t set an avatar, then your whole screen will be made of mosaic and therefore won’t give away any information that might put your privacy at risk. If you want to speak to someone, both parties must follow each other first; the number of active users on Soul is huge too, so when you comment on someone’s picture or chat, your username is randomly generated by the system.”

All of these features offered on the Soul app mean that users have more freedom to express themselves as well as their sexual kinks without having to worry about how privacy issues could impact them in real life. And this is only the beginning for the app, as rumours have recently started circulating about the company behind the dating app confidentially filing for an IPO in the US, according to The South China Morning Post.

As Lily told us, she has Tantan, WeChat and even the video-sharing platform YouTube to thank for first introducing her to these two alternative dating scenes and helping her connect with members who are part of the communities surrounding them. But after making those connections, Lily explained that her interest in social and dating technologies has not expanded much further. “Both communities have regular get-togethers where you can bring new people and talk about whatever you want. Members of the non-monogamous group can add people directly, whereas to join the BDSM group you have to come to the potluck and get at least three votes from old members. Newcomers to the group will be given a document with some basic information about BDSM, including the principle of informed consent and safe areas for spanking.”

This ‘real-life’ aspect of the communities and the way they interact with each other highlights how little a part technologies play in connecting people together once that initial meeting has been carried out. Looking back on the two previous Deep Dives of Dating in China, Lily explains that both heterosexuals and gays can find what they’re looking for on dating apps, “The basic functions of the software are the same as any other dating app—searching for people nearby, looking at bios, matching and chatting—but the LGBTQ+ community is more likely to use dating apps in order to find similar people or circles and get a sense of identity and belonging.”

On the other hand, “For heterosexuals, the purpose of using dating apps is probably more realistic. They may want to date, start a relationship, find a marriage partner, find a playmate or something like that, so their bios will be more realistic, such as graduating from a prestigious school, workplace, spouse selection criteria, etc,” adds Lily.

When it comes to the BDSM and polyamorous communities of Shanghai—and probably the rest of the country too—dating apps (and social networking apps too) have only enabled more of the Chinese population to find like-minded individuals who they feel like they can connect with and share the same interests. That being said, dating technologies do not have much say in how these relationships are then maintained or how they evolve. That is left for members of those communities to figure out on their own, through real-life interactions.

Lily’s top tips on using dating apps in China

So, yes, dating apps are mostly used to create those very first connections, but how can users interested in BDSM or polyamory use them in ways that are as efficient as possible? Here are the last few tips Lily had to share, “Don’t chat online for too long. Instead, ask the person out for a meeting as soon as possible—an afternoon tea or dinner is a good option. When you’re face to face with someone, their appearance, dress and temperament will be very visible to you and this will help you to determine your feelings more. In the end, we’re all here to make friends with living, breathing people.”

What dating in China is like for members of the LGBTQ+ community

By TONG

Apr 16, 2021

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‘Dating in China’ is a three-part series created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG with the aim of providing our readers with an insider’s point of view into what dating in China is truly like from a young person’s perspective. In order to offer you the deepest insights into China’s dating culture, each piece is centred around the point of view of one Chinese citizen (and serial dater).

In the first Deep Dive of our three-part series Dating in China, created in partnership with cross-cultural agency TONG, we looked at dating technologies in the country and how COVID-19 impacted the way people use them. In this second Deep Dive, to shift the narrative and focus on the perspective of the LGBTQ+ community, Screen Shot spoke to Alfonso, 25, about what dating in China as a gay man is actually like and whether dating apps truly allow him to connect with a wider community.

Discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in China

Homosexuality has been legal in China for more than two decades and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry, which is the largest organisation for psychiatrists in the country, stopped classifying it as a mental disorder in 2001. But same-sex marriage is not recognised, and some LGBTQ+ people still struggle for acceptance, especially when it comes to close family members with traditional expectations.

Discussion of LGBTQ+ issues remains contentious, with activists complaining of tightened restrictions on public discussion in recent years. A 2016 report published by the United Nations Development Programme found that no more than 15 per cent of LGBTQ+ people in China had come out to their close family members.

As a result, in recent years, a number of big companies have shown their support for the LGBTQ+ community (and for the potential market the community offers). According to the BBC, in 2015, e-commerce giant Alibaba “staged a promotional event to send seven same-sex couples to the US so that they could marry.” Nike has also been known to sponsor t-shirts at the Shanghai Pride run.

But many Chinese citizens saw these pledges of support more as a consumer trap than genuine progress. “It’s not about LGBT issues. They know we have money and they want to take our money. We have no rights but our money is taken away by these companies,” said Fan Popo, a filmmaker, writer and activist from Shandong when talking to the BBC.

But that would be ignoring everything that Blued, China’s largest gay dating app, stands for.

China’s largest gay dating app

Through a quick Google search, you’ll stumble upon the dating app Blued easily, as well as all the hype that surrounds it. Described as “one of the biggest gay dating apps in the world” by The New York Times in 2020, Blued was founded by 43-year-old, ex-police officer Ma Baoli who, decades ago, had suffered from the sheer volume of online pages telling him he was a pervert, diseased and in need of treatment, simply because he was gay.

Launched in 2012, the dating app caters specifically to the gay community. In July 2020, Blued went public with an $85 million debut on Nasdaq—“a remarkable tech success story from a country that classified homosexuality as a mental illness as recently as 2001,” writes The Straits Times.

The app’s journey started in the early 2000s when Ma began writing on Danlan.org, a blog and forum about his life as a gay man, where he was known as ‘Geng Le’. At the time, there were few places in China for gay men to socialise. “Everyone was scared of being found out by others,” explained Ma.

As his blog gradually expanded into an influential online forum for LGBTQ+ people in China to share lifestyle articles, health advice and short stories, increasing media coverage of the website outed Ma to his co-workers. This prompted him to leave the police force in 2012 to focus on Blued, which was launched the same year as mentioned above.

To be more precise, in 2012, he first founded the company BlueCity (evoking memories of the coastal city Qin Huangdao where he trained and worked as a policeman). Then, in November of the same year, Ma launched Blued, his own dating app using smartphones’ GPS capability to find gay men nearby—think of it as the Chinese version of Grindr. As soon as it launched, Danlan members were quick to try it out.

Today, Blued has more than 58 million users in China and other countries including India, South Korea and Thailand, which put it beyond US-based Grindr.

Blued’s impact on China’s new generation of daters

Despite its predecessor being repeatedly shut down in the first few years of its existence, Blued has largely avoided conflict with the authorities. Its parent company, BlueCity, has managed to go for a cautious approach in raising mainstream awareness and tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community.

Among other things, BlueCity runs an online platform that sells HIV diagnostic kits and brokers consultations with doctors as a move to tackle the stigma around the virus, which has played an important part in the discrimination against gay men and prevented people from seeking medical care—something not so different from the way the rest of the world reacted to HIV in the 80s and 90s.

But the dating app still faced its fair share of problems. In 2019, it temporarily had to freeze new user registrations after local media reported that underaged boys had been using the app. From then, the company pledged to tighten age and content controls.

Overall, however, Ma’s app has helped build a brighter and healthier image of the LGBTQ+ community, in turn leading to more open-mindedness in the new generation of Chinese citizens.

Meet Alfonso, 25, Creative Project Manager living in Shanghai

Although Alfonso spent some years of his childhood in Shanghai, only to come back later on in his life, he was born in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, having also lived in London and Madrid. When meeting him, it’s clear to see how the diverse cultures he grew up surrounded by have impacted his own personality and character.

As a young gay man starting out in the fashion industry, Alfonso exudes creativity, ambition and enthusiasm—even, or should I say especially, when he agreed to speak to Screen Shot about his relationship with LGBTQ+ dating apps and online dating in general. “I’m a fashionista. I adore everything that is glamour and fashion-related,” shared Alfonso when introducing himself.

Because of his mixed cultural background, Alfonso explained that he primarily tends to go for Grindr and Tinder instead of more ‘local’ apps such as Blued. Speaking about the main differences between dating tech in China and the rest of the world, Alfonso said that “It’s mostly the same. However, when I lived in Spain and started using dating apps after I turned 18, it was such an exciting experience.”

“Well, I’m gay,” he continued, “and I had never had a gay sex experience before that. I started discovering these apps, along with my sexuality, in Spain. I finally felt like I could connect with many interesting people. But my usage of dating apps in Spain compared to China was not that different in retrospect. In both cases, it’s about connecting with like-minded people.”

“And sex!” Alfonso jokingly added.

How live streaming is taking over China

When Alfonso showed me his phone’s dedicated folder to his selection of dating apps, I listed apps such as Grindr, Tinder, ROMEO (also known as Planetromeo or Gayromeo), Scruff, Recon, and Blued. “It’s just the Chinese version of Grindr,” explained Alfonso, confirming what I had read previously.

“Grindr is my favourite,” he continued, “because it’s real-time, and you can set your perimeter to 5 or even 10 kilometres away if you want to search for people who are—or aren’t—around you. People on there are trying to find friends, relationships, or just a hookup.”

As for Blued, Alfonso shared that he is not a fan of the app. “When I came back to China, Blued was just a poor copy of Grindr. However, since then, our dating technologies have immensely developed, and Blued has turned into a live streaming platform, instead of what you would typically expect from a regular dating app.”

Indeed, Blued’s live streaming feature has gained enormous popularity recently, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic put the world into lockdown. Like many other apps trying to survive the coronavirus-induced dip in our dating lives, Blued put extensive effort into promoting digital ways of connecting and ‘meeting’ with potential partners. From its live streaming ‘broadcast’ feature to its standard video chat option, the app had to find new ways to keep its users engaged. To Alfonso’s dismay, it certainly succeeded.

“Live streaming is a huge trend here in China. All the popular people here are trying to set up channels on Blued in order to become KOLs [key opinion leaders] instead of connecting with someone else for authentic reasons. And I find that quite weird, which is why I don’t use the app that often.”

As reported by TONG, “2020 will go down in history as the year that—among other things—catalysed the development of live streaming,” adding that “well over half a billion Chinese consumers tuned in to a live stream at some point this year.”

Although the buzz surrounding live streams has not yet reached its full potential in Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated its trajectory. Slowly but surely, dating apps that are popular in Europe have started introducing the feature to satisfy their users. Hily introduced its ‘one-to-many streaming and speed dating’ feature, while Tinder promoted its ‘face-to-face video chat’ option.

Meanwhile, Instagram Live notifications ruined our WFH concentration on a daily basis, and Twitch became a second home to some.

“I enjoy live streams, however, in China, once people start live streaming regularly, they end up thinking they’re celebrities. So when people actually try to connect with them on dating apps, which after all is the end goal, they simply reject them. They don’t want to talk to them because they basically feel superior,” Alfonso further explained.

As a result, Alfonso feels like Blued has almost turned into a marketplace app where people use the platform’s popularity in order to sell users something completely different from what they came for in the first place. Looking back to what Chloe previously explained about dating apps in China being used as marketing tools for many, Alfonso’s point resonates.

Fashion bragging as a dating app no-no

When speaking about his dos and don’ts when it comes to building the perfect dating profile, such as tips like “always use a picture of yourself with warm tones” or “smile—show some teeth,” Alfonso was also quick to point out his most no-go ‘profile occurrence’, which he had to learn the hard way. “Do not wear anything that is too fashionable or stylish in your profile pictures.”

 

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Une publication partagée par Alfonso-Quan (@alfonsoquan)

“I have had some bad experiences with it. Once, I decided to change all my profile pictures to an editorial I worked on. Shortly after, I realised that no one wanted to start a conversation with me. I actually found out that there is a Chinese saying that goes along the lines of ‘the closer you get to fashion, the further love will go’, meaning that you’ll have a hard time finding real love if you’re too fashionable.”

While generalities should not be made, Alfonso further explained that most users on dating apps in the country act—and therefore dress—quite straight. Opting for something more flamboyant to highlight your personality on your profile could potentially translate into the wrong message. “All the accessories, the makeup, and out-there clothes will scare other people away and stop them from connecting with you,” said Alfonso.

Despite of the country’s emerging fashion scene as well as the crucial part it plays in the global fashion market, Alfonso’s argument clearly highlights the progress that is left in terms of what is acceptable to wear or not—something that can come as a surprise to those interested in Chinese fashion designers such as Samuel Guì Yang, Yushan Li, Jun Zhou or Xuzhi Chen.

Shanghai’s digital and real-life LGBTQ+ community

“Shanghai is very international, right? So the city’s LGBTQ+ community is very diverse—we have people from all over the world. But I have found myself that members of the community tend to only hang out with certain groups of people. They do not particularly want to welcome new members at first, or at least until they really get to know them,” explained Alfonso.

With almost 28 million citizens, Shanghai is not only China’s largest and most populated city, but it is also the most densely populated city in the world. Taking this into consideration, it can seem surprising that its LGBTQ+ community is not as welcoming as one might expect.

However, in terms of open-mindedness and mentality, Alfonso agrees that Shanghai distinguishes itself from the rest of the country, because of its foreign population. “This foreign influence on the city means that people can relate to each other more easily. What I should note though is that approximately 80 per cent of gay foreigners who move to Shanghai are what we call ‘rice queens’—Westerners who are particularly into East-Asians.”

“The reverse version of rice queens,” explained Alfonso, “would be ‘potato queens’.” Because Westerners eat potatoes, and Asians eat rice, get it?

Although Alfonso admitted to using dating apps mostly to meet sexual partners, he explained that on Grindr, users are free to customise settings depending on what they’re looking for. “Some people are only looking to chat, others are here for relationships, and some for hookups. So for some people, dating apps are a way to find new friends too, which for me seems near impossible, because when you want to meet a friend here in Shanghai, you’ll have to get drinks, have dinner—it’s all very time consuming, you know?”

While this approach to starting a friendship seems pretty standard, Alfonso further explained that in the largest city in the world, efficiency is key. However, he also added that dating apps are an essential part of his life, one he knows he can also use to help further his career path.

When online dating leads to online relationships

Alfonso met his first love, Shane, on Grindr during his sophomore year. They eventually separated when he was about to graduate in 2019 as Shane had to go back to Canada. After the tough breakup, Alfonso shared that his relationship with dating apps changed into something else, “a channel for desire release,” he told Screen Shot when first introducing himself.

Fast forward to 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic led to imposed lockdowns all over China. As a result, Alfonso explained how “less fresh meat came to Shanghai.” “Obviously, we got bored of what we could get within a 10 kilometres perimeter, so in order to kill time, I reinstalled Tinder and started swiping right again to match the hotties on there,” he added.

Thanks to Tinder’s paid Passport feature, Alfonso had access to people from all over the world, and the app’s algorithm made sure to show him its best ‘finds’ according to his taste and preferences. And it worked! A few weeks before speaking to us, Alfonso matched on Tinder with his current boyfriend, a Spanish man called Jon working in movie production and living in Canada—yes, like Shane.

“We got on so well, and I didn’t expect to have this déjà-vu feeling bringing me back to a time before the pandemic. I especially did not expect that I would end up in a virtual relationship.”

For many, the terms ‘online relationship’ or ‘virtual dating’ pop up in our heads along with the plot of the movie Her, which tells the story of introvert Theodore who falls in love with his virtual assistant, Samantha. Powered by advanced AI technology, Samantha is able to cleverly and considerately respond to Theodore’s emotional needs in ways no one else in his life had ever done before.

While Alfonso is dating someone very real, unlike Samantha, and Her is, of course, a work of science fiction, it looks like, in recent years, our own understanding (and acceptance) of the many romantic possibilities dating technology can offer users has evolved.

In China, this acceptance of online relationships and virtual partners—which are two different things—has come from the rise of an entire industry back in 2014. As virtual boyfriends and girlfriends emerged in the country, paying customers received emotional support, care, and the feeling of being loved over the internet.

“Known as ‘virtual lovers’, these individuals sell warmth and happiness to clients through platforms like e-commerce marketplace Taobao and internet forum Baidu Tieba, often via a virtual storefront run by an experienced retailer,” writes Sixth Tone. “Crucially, in this kind of care-for-money transaction, no one ever meets the other in person. Depending on the virtual lover’s comfort level, he or she communicates with customers via text, voice message, or video call,” the article continues.

Of course, when it comes to Alfonso’s online relationship, some slight differences are to be noted. Both he and Jon met on Tinder as he mentioned, and Alfonso didn’t intend to keep this relationship digital-based. In fact, he told Screen Shot that he fully intends on meeting Jon as soon as possible.

“For me, using Tinder almost feels like I’m the boss and I’m interviewing potential ‘contestants’. All you have to do is swipe right or left, and I actually accidentally swiped right on Jon. I didn’t expect much from Tinder. I was just bored and wanted to see how people interact on there.”

After swiping right on Jon, Alfonso started chatting regularly with him, and almost instantly, they connected. “The fact that he is Spanish helped us connect on a deeper level. He lives in Canada, and although I don’t particularly like that place because of my previous history with Shane, I find this coincidence interesting. We went on to share personal contact details, and quickly started FaceTiming almost every day.”

Although Alfonso has never met Jon face to face, he believes in their relationship’s potential and is thankful for the COVID-safe opportunity that dating technologies have offered him.

Our open conversation with Alfonso has allowed us to gain insight into China’s LGBTQ+ dating scene and how technology has impacted it in both positive and sometimes negative ways. As apps like Blued and Grindr open up new opportunities for the country’s LGBTQ+ community, they simultaneously help promote messages of acceptance, non-judgement, and freedom.

But just like the rest of the world, China still has a long way to go. “If I wanted to get married, I would do it in Spain, simply because it’s legal there,” shared Alfonso after explaining that his parents were not aware of his sexuality. The question that remains is whether dating technologies will be the last push China needs in order to allow same-sex marriage. For now, same-sex couples in China are only allowed a ‘guardianship appointment’.

 

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