How fake dates help Indians find love and intimacy

time:2023-06-02 12:16:51source:Al Jazeera author:Press center5

Akansha* could feel anxiety well up inside her as she sat opposite her date. So the 26-year-old began fidgeting with the cutlery on the table and avoiding eye contact.

But then her date leaned in and told her that it was okay to be anxious, and that she could steady herself and appear less nervous by clasping her hands under the table and taking a deep breath.

The person opposite her wasn't a real date, but a "dating surrogate" - someone hired to go on mock dates with her, observe her behaviour, and share tips and insights in real time to help her deal with anything preventing her from enjoying herself.

Akansha says she turned to a dating surrogate, a service offered by the Intimacy Curator - an online platform providing "dating, relationship and intimacy coaching services" - about three months ago.

It's among a bunch of firms and apps - such as Dating Accelerator andhaveyoumeturself - that have come up in India over the past few years, pointing to a shift in the way relationships are formed and perceived in the country. While the majority of Indians still opt for arranged marriages and pre-marital sex is mostly a taboo subject, these companies are teaching their customers new ways to date and fall in love.

Their users - mostly people who live in big cities and follow global trends - vary in age and what they are looking for. Some, like Akansha, want to shed their inhibitions around dating, while others may be trying to relearn the rules around relationships.

People who sign up for The Intimacy Curator's dating surrogacy package - which can cost anywhere between 12,000 rupees ($145; £120) and 80,000 rupees - participate in various online sessions held by dating coaches. They explore questions including why they want to date and what they're looking for in prospective partners. Then they're assigned a dating surrogate who plans mock dates and coaches them.

"The experience helped me get comfortable with being on a date," says Akansha.

Akansha came out as queer a few years ago and says that while it was liberating, it also threw up problems in the dating arena. She found it hard to date women because while she came across many how-tos and dating guides for cisgender (non-transgender), heterosexual people, it was tough to find resources around dating etiquettes for queer people.

When she went on dates, she was confused by questions such as who should hold open the door or pull out a chair for the other person - chivalrous gestures conventionally performed by men.

"As a woman, I also knew how compliments made me feel objectified at times. But while I didn't want to be perceived as a creep, I also wanted to express my interest," she says.

Simran Mangharam, a dating coach, says "Gen Zers" such as Akansha are "more pragmatic in their approach to sex, dating and relationships".

"They are choosing to date based on their needs and lifestyle choices, rather than following long-held Holy Grails of dating, like finding a life partner or entering monogamous relationships," she adds.

That partly explains why situationships - which lie somewhere between a committed relationship and a casual hook-up - were among last year's top Gen Z dating trends while ethical non-monogamy or multi-partner relationships have been on the rise.

Aili Seghetti, founder of the Intimacy Curator, is also one of the five dating surrogates it offers. To help Akansha become comfortable with dating women, Ms Seghetti went on three dates with her - to an art gallery, on an outdoor walk and for dinner.

On the dates, Ms Seghetti would give feedback to Akansha about her body language, share tips on how to manage anxiety, and grooming and styling advice.

"It's scary and awkward to ask a person if you can put your arm around them or kiss them, but the mock dates helped me get comfortable with having these conversations," says Akansha, adding that she has been on many successful dates since then.

But while some like Akansha find the swiftly-changing dating space exciting and inclusive, it can be a minefield for others, especially if they are returning to the dating game after a hiatus or have had a conservative upbringing and are now dating people with a different value system or relationship vocabulary.

Mumbai-based Rajeev*, 40, went on his last date in 2012. When he tried to re-enter the dating pool about a year ago, he was confronted with a range of things he had no idea about, from terms such as "ghosting" and "dry dating", to people stating their preferred pronouns or saying they wanted open relationships.

Rajeev says he had always found it difficult to connect with women. Having experienced childhood trauma and battled substance abuse, he struggled to trust people and talk about himself on dates. The changed world of dating added to his discomfort and made him feel lost.

But with the help of his surrogate date, Rajeev gradually learnt to ask women out, flirt and practise consensual physical intimacy. She also helped him find the best way to talk about his difficult past, identify and process his emotions and communicate them in a safe way.

Since the quest to find love could include rejection, Rajeev was also taught to reject his date and be rejected by her. He and his surrogate date roleplayed the scenario, where she told him over a phone call that she didn't have romantic feelings for him.

"The scariest part about dating is rejection," he says. "But I learnt that it's okay to end things that aren't working for me, and to respect someone else's decision when they feel the same way."

Ms Seghetti says that the point of her work isn't to help people manipulate their way into another person's heart, but to help them take a journey into their own.

"The point about these mock dates isn't to help you spew the best pick-up lines or become a skilled serial dater. It's to help you understand yourself better so that you get better at revealing yourself," she says.

"After all, vulnerability is a must for any kind of intimacy."

*Some names have been changed on request

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