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The rise of the man servant Add to ...

He will hold your purse and fan you while speaking deferentially with a foreign accent, if that’s what does it for you.

“A man, but better,” reads the tag line of the San Francisco venture ManServants, which offers “bespoke” male attendants for bachelorette parties, a new alternative to the greasy, gyrating stripper.

Man servants are attentive, platonic gigolos employed to snap Instagram photos, mix cocktails and pay compliments at regular intervals. For $125 (U.S.) an hour, clients get to name their charge and do anything they want with him, except have sex. Earlier this month, Time magazine reporter Katy Steinmetz and her girlfriends test-drove a ManServant for her bachelorette. They named him Spartacus and had him recite poetry while following Steinmetz around with a paper umbrella. Occasionally, they used his hands as coasters for their wine glasses.

“The novelty and role-reversal of the ManServant situation was far better than with male strippers,” Steinmetz wrote. “Spartacus was like a handsome canvas who would paint itself with whatever we could imagine.”

Brides-to-be such as Steinmetz don’t want a perma-tanned male stripper in their face: They want to be served. Companies such as ManServants, Butlers in the Buff and Rent a Gent offer that servitude to young, urban, professional women who can afford it – prices range from $94.50 to $200 an hour, and even more for guys with special talents, such as singing.

The services fill a void created by the feminist wave: the antiquated pleasure of chivalry, or at least an over-the-top performance of it.

Today, women are ambivalent about chivalry while men are just confused: Is holding a door, carrying a bag or paying for the first date sexist? The authors of a well-circulated 2012 study published in the feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly argued that chivalry (or “benevolent sexism” as they called it) perpetuates gender inequality because it implies that women are weak and men are strong. Some feminists want to do away with “chivalry” in favour of a more equitable, mutual civility between the sexes.

Woman lapping up “male-order services” missed that feminist memo. When ManServants appeared this summer, it was greeted with great zeal among women on Twitter: “This is definitely going against my egalitarianism but I want one,” wrote one. Another, less conflicted fan: “Well then...*whips out credit card.*”

So why is the idea of paid chivalry appealing to some? Women want to be treated well, but the services also function as a power play, letting clients flaunt their financial independence, says Samhita Mukhopadhyay, former executive editor of Feministing.com and author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, which looks at negotiating relationships as a modern feminist.

“With traditional chivalry, the expectation is that a man spontaneously does something. That signifies a type of courtship that often leads to some reciprocal behaviour from a woman,” Mukhopadhyay says. With gentlemen rented (platonically) by the hour, “it’s a paid transaction, so it completely shifts the power dynamic of traditional chivalry.”

For Bibiene, a repeat customer of Butlers in the Buff, the appeal is one part eye candy and one part doting host. Wearing nothing more than white collars, bow ties, cuffs and aprons, Butlers in the Buff greet guests, hold doors, take jackets and purses, pop appetizers in the oven and wander around with trays of champagne, making interested conversation. Bibiene recalls one butler doing pushups as her guest sat on his back.

“What woman wouldn’t want a man serving you? They’re just so kind and not chauvinistic at all, very gentle,” says Bibiene, a 40-year-old Vancouver mom who has employed the half-nude Adonises five times for girlfriends’ birthdays, and who asked that her full name not be used for the sake of her children.

Launched in 2001 in England as an alternative to the bachelorette stripper, the company now has buff butlers across the United States, Australia and Canada – they host about 60 events every weekend in this country.

“In our society, chivalry is a bit of a dead tradition,” says Jennifer Didcott, a former high-school drama teacher who brought the business to Canada with her husband, company founder Jason Didcott. With male-order ventures such as theirs, “women do get a chance to flip the roles a little bit, to have the men serve them,” she says.

Along with bachelorettes, the butlers host milestone birthdays and divorce parties, an emerging market for the company. Jennifer Didcott says it’s “electric” work for the young men, who are often personal trainers, paramedics and firefighters making cash on the side.

Mike Anapolsky, a 28-year-old Toronto audio engineer, has worked 30 events since May, including a girls’ weekend at a Collingwood, Ont., cottage where three generations of women from one family were sizing him up. “Well, they love it. Their eyes light up,” Anapolsky says of his female clients. “We’re working for them. … Strippers are just there for one thing and one thing only: to dance and embarrass people.”

The San Francisco advertising copywriters behind ManServants saw their early inspiration in John Travolta as a cocktail waiter in the 1983 film Staying Alive, Tony Danza vacuuming in the sitcom Who’s the Boss and Daniel Craig, tightly suited up as James Bond. This super-gent was envisioned as an antidote to the lecherous bachelorette party stripper. “Why would I pay good money for my own personal nightmare to be my last-night-of-freedom fantasy?” asks one of ManServants’ creators on the company blog.

And that’s what this market of customized men proffers: a torqued female fantasy of chivalry. Witness Rent a Gent, which charges women $200 an hour for one of its studs, often to accompany clients as dates to functions that their ex-husbands also happen to be attending.

“We want to provide women with the same kind of service that you’d get at a fine French restaurant,” says co-founder Sara Shikhman, stressing that the men are hired to be flirtatious and “make sure all the attention is on the client.”

“They’re paying for chivalry and they’re paying to have a guaranteed good time as opposed to taking a chance,” says Shikhman, a former corporate lawyer who launched the company in New York in 2013 and is currently recruiting men in Toronto and Montreal.

Marina Adshade, author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love, questions whether it’s chivalry if you’re paying for it.

“It’s basically an acting job,” says Adshade, who teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics. “If I go to a hotel and the doorman opens the door for me, do I think, ‘That’s chivalry’? I don’t. I just think he’s doing his job.”

So why the female fanfare around manufactured chivalry?

Adshade suspects that, if only for a couple of hours, the novelty services might appeal to women who are post-30 and still revolving through “a series of casual relationships with men who are big children,” men who aren’t invested in making them happy. “It might fill a much different gap than we realize,” Mukhopadhyay says. “When you’re a successful woman and you’re single, that’s very isolating and alienating.”

Still, both authors see unhealthy gender dynamics playing out through the male-order concept: Modern feminists were supposed to keep fighting for equality between the sexes – not use their earning power to get kicks out of subjugating men.

“If I designed him,” Adshade says, “the perfect man would be the guy making his own decisions, who wouldn’t be doing as he was told all the time.”

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