Credit: Jay Bendt

“I found a new job,” I told my boyfriend at the beginning of last summer. “As an online girlfriend. Part cam-girl, part therapist.”

“So guys would pay to see you naked?” he asked, clearly not thrilled by the idea.

“Well, yes. But they mostly want to pretend to have a relationship,” I explained. “They want someone to listen to them.”

I was 26, well past my crazy college years, but hadn’t lost the urge to seek out new and strange opportunities. Settled into a stable relationship, I was nonetheless dogged by feelings of physical inadequacy, a longing to be desired. My boyfriend was aware my part-time job wasn’t cutting it, and his open-mindedness was something that attracted me to him. So after giving it some thought, he gave his blessing.

I signed on to MyGirlFund, a “social networking” site that advertises the chance to meet “sexy, interesting girls you won’t find anywhere else.” Its tagline: “The girl next door is now online. Connect with a virtual girlfriend.” I set up a profile that looked much like a MySpace page from the early 2000s, if MySpace were covered in pink and hearts. I added what I hoped were alluring photographs: me licking my lips, staring off into the distance. Me unzipping my pencil skirt. In the “About Me” field I tried to convey that I was smart, hip, and a coquette. Likes Game of Thrones, hockey, playing. Dislikes aggressive drivers who try to kill me on my bike. The site seemed fun—and like a relatively lucrative opportunity: men would pay a buck to message me, $4 per minute for sexy video chat.

As the messages soon began rolling in, I found I’d misjudged the guys who subscribed to the site. I’d assumed they would all be sad sacks, basement dwellers who needed to pay up in order to see some lady parts. In fact, many mentioned having girlfriends; they weren’t lonely, they were bored. They saw this site as a safe alternative to cheating. (I’d argue about the ethics of jerking off to a naked woman you’re paying on the regular, but who am I to judge?)

While most men also used the site to spill secrets—how frustrated they were with their wives, how their partners didn’t understand them—some sought to fulfill stranger requests. For $40, I did deep knee bends in black undies and pink ankle socks while my boyfriend took close-up shots with the fancy camera I’d originally purchased for my DIY crafts blog.

My youngest repeat customer was 22. The oldest, a gentleman in his mid-40s, once flung his laptop to the floor while we were in the midst of touching ourselves. “Dad,” I overheard a teenager’s voice say, “where are the keys to the lawn mower?”

I felt a little pity for these married men—and a lot of power over them. A New Yorker offered me $5,000 to visit him. While I politely demurred, inside I thought: He thinks I’m worth that much.

Each new client brimmed with potential. Each was another man I could make want me. Soon I was spending more time as a fake Internet girlfriend than as a real girlfriend. I worked on the site all night, every night. My long-suffering boyfriend put on headphones and played video games to drown out the sound of me slapping my ass, or the long undulations of my fake orgasms. “I’m not jealous of your moans,” he told me. “I get jealous when I hear you laughing.” (I’d giggled at the man who said he’d been eating booty since Clinton was in office—it was genuine laughter, and my boyfriend could tell the difference.) I assured him I was doing it for the hundreds of dollars I made each evening. What I didn’t tell him is that each guy made me feel more worthwhile.

I was quite good at my job, and so it was often difficult for the men to tell what was real. Some of them asked for my e-mail address, my phone number, perhaps forgetting that they were paying me to provide a peculiar service—the appearance of intimacy. In my clients’ defense, a screen and a pay wall are easier to ignore when you can see, via webcam, into their bedrooms and they can see into yours.

Sometimes it was difficult for me to tell what was real.

Jack was an engineering postdoc with a live-in girlfriend. Quick-witted and intelligent, he knew all of my references, even Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, the book character I cherished as a kid. Thin with curly hair and an impish grin, he looked sort of like a more bookish Jonathan Toews, my favorite Blackhawks player. Unlike the other guys I met online, I couldn’t wrap him around my finger. Despite the fact that we video-chatted, the depth of his feelings towards me remained an unknown. Little of our relationship was sexual. He had paid me to virtually strip for him a couple of times, but mostly we just talked. He told me about his relationship fears, I told him about my social anxiety.

I could never quite pin him down. “Will you be on tomorrow?” I’d ask.

“Maybe,” he’d say. “We’ll see.” Always elusive. I felt like the high school girl who runs toward the only guy she can’t have.

Once he called this type of online relationship a “pocket romance”: a little snack that you tucked away, something to look forward to all day.

“What happened to your old pocket romances?” I asked him one evening. I wanted to know how our story might end.

“We got bored,” he said. “Both of us.”

After a couple of months, I could sense his growing detachment, his roaming eyes when we video-chatted, the longer and longer interludes between messages. One day, another girl left a review on his profile, singing his praises. I felt disproportionately stung.

The pain made me realize how far I’d strayed from my life—my real life with my real, tangible boyfriend. By stepping virtually into so many men’s bedrooms, I’d become absent from my own.

So a few weeks later, I logged off MyGirlFund for good.

There are times I miss the never-ending admiration, the stream of unknown quantities ready to open their wallets and bare their souls. But my boyfriend—who I’m happy to say is now my fiance—is a known quantity. I know him to be good and kind and loving and, yes, considerably understanding. There’s no longer the adrenaline rush of newness, perhaps, or the flush of discovery. Instead there is constancy, our shared history unspooling behind us and our future unfurling ahead. Our relationship is complicated, flawed, and beautiful—something the whole of the Internet’s fake online boyfriends could never offer. v