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The Independent has posted an eye-opening profile of a 28-year-old software worker named Ben who pays his favorite Snapchatter $100/month to be his "virtual girlfriend." The arrangement, while certainly weird, is not as sexual as you're probably imagining—far from it. All this unnamed woman does is send him Snaps, texts, and emails that are exactly like the ones any real girlfriend would send.

In the morning I could get a Snapchat selfie with 'good morning baby' written on it, later in the day she might message me on Kik (a messaging app) about how her day at work has been. It's not crazy stuff … If she's come down with strep (a throat condition) I'll know about it, if she's got a headache she tells me, and if she's out partying I get Snapchats that no-one else sees.

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But those Snapchats aren't nude. For Ben, and an ever-increasing number of men taking advantage of "virtual girlfriend" services, the appeal is not about sex. After all, there's plenty of free porn on the internet. Instead, it's about creating the feeling of intimacy without the time commitment of a real relationship. Ben says he's "too busy" for the real thing (classic line), but texting back and forth with this model makes "things feel normal."

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And he does text back, letting her know about his day and making general small talk. She'll even respond for short conversations—that was a pre-negotiated part of the deal. He claims to genuinely care for her, and for $100/month, he'd better. But he doesn't pretend to anyone in his daily life that he has a real girlfriend, and he doesn't show anyone the messages she sends him. And he has no illusion that he's the only man in her life. After all, she has more than 20,000 Twitter followers.

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The Independent reports that services like these got their start in 2014 with firms like Invisible Girlfriend and Dream Lover, but those have largely given way to direct deals between social media starlets and their fans—a 21st century cottage industry. And is it really so strange? People incorporate vivid fantasies about catching Pokémon into their digital lives, so how is a commitment-free imaginary relationship any different? And $100/month may sound steep, but let's be real—it's way less than a real relationship costs.

Sources: The Independent