The Problem With ManServants

How exactly is “enslaving” men a source of empowerment for women?

ManServants is not an escort service, in the traditional sense, a cadre of male strippers, a dating website, or a means by which lonely straight women might find love. Instead, ManServants is a San Francisco-based Internet startup—recently launched by two women, Dalal Khajah and Josephine Wai Lin, both advertising copywriters—which allows fantasy-seeking women of relative socioeconomic means to rent the company of men, trained in the art of chivalry.

When you hire a ManServant, you are buying a novelty, a daydream, a temporary companion, as a means of achieving empowerment. Indeed, according to the ManServants website, the entity’s vision is to “Empower women to make their own rules. Rules a ManServant may then follow.”

What, some might ask, is wrong with that?

It is not the notion of buying companionship that I find galling. The power dynamics that come into play where relationships depend on economic transactions notwithstanding, we need not decide here whether it is ethically problematic to pay for another person’s time, attention, affection, or services. I will save that question for another day. Nor do I have it in me to engage debates about the politics of this outmoded dynamic, whereby, according to the service’s website, a “…code of modern-day chivalry is tattooed onto every ManServant’s heart.”

What blows my mind about this “service,” what I find so appalling about ManServants, is its very premise: the idea that “enslaving” men is somehow a source of empowerment for women.

I believe in empowerment, and central to this belief is the principle that it is not for me to tell anyone else what to find empowering. That would be disempowering. The world is wide and our preferences as humans are also far-reaching; what empowers one person, another is bound to reject as fundamentally disempowering.

We see this in matters of style and substance, in fashion, in politics, in religion, in relationships. Nevertheless, the definition of empowerment deployed here—which women ostensibly achieve by paying men to behave “chivalrously” toward them, at an hourly or daily rate—is critically lacking. I’m no Oprah, but the last time I checked, empowerment never happens on the backs of others, as a financial transaction, or by way of dabbling in a self-indulgent, overpriced fantasy.

Furthermore, there seems to be something inherently contradictory about “enslaving” another human being as a means of achieving self-empowerment. Enslavement, of course, is an attempt to strip another person of their humanity—an ultimate act of disempowerment. And of course, the ManServants who perform the labor of this service are not actually enslaved, they are being compensated for their efforts, so there’s an argument to be made that this has nothing to do with the actual practice or conditions of slavery.

But in my opinion, one’s opposition to enslavement, as a matter of principle and practice, must extend from its material reality, as inflicted on millions of people across time and space, to the realm of overpriced play-acting. A business model that demands men-for-hire play the role of indentured servants for the purposes of “empowering” women, is not only wildly out of touch with both empowerment and with what women actually want, it is also offensive to men and women, as it simply flips deeply problematic gender stereotypes in a way that is actually disempowering to both.

It is telling, of course, that ManServants is easily taken for a joke. If the entire premise is not completely ridiculous, it is certainly outmoded. And the website’s copy reads like satire. ManServants know “it’s never out of style to lay his coat on the ground for a lady, even when her path is clear of all obstacles.” ManServants must address clientele as “My lady,” pay compliments “every quarter hour when” in the lady’s company. Why any woman would want such things, from a man(servant) or otherwise, I cannot tell you—but for a cost of $80/hour or $300/day, this experience, nauseating though it is, can be yours.

From where I sit, though, nothing could be less appealing, and nothing could be less empowering.

Adina Giannelli’s writing has been featured in publications including Babble, Feministing, Salon and the forthcoming anthologies Book Lovers and Three Minus One Equals Zero.

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