A Sexpert’s Advice: Don’t Listen To The Advice
Originally published on SexReally.com on August 30, 2010.
When it comes to a divisive topic like first-date etiquette, there are so many divergent viewpoints that a girl needs to get some perspective before she dives headfirst into the self-help section at her local bookstore.
So step one: Let’s take it back to the old school. What were the love gurus of yore telling young women? According to one 1938 dating guide, women are advised to avoid getting drunk, sitting in awkward positions, chewing gum with their mouths open, or talking while dancing. That last one aside, all the other tips actually sound quite reasonable to me. If anything, dating rules have gotten wonkier in the post-war era.
Take, for example, the book-turned-movie He’s Just Not That Into You, in which Greg Behrendt tells women, “We like not knowing if we can catch you. We feel rewarded when we do.” So in other words, guys are just like dogs and women are just like squeaky toys. And this isn’t even the worst of the advice to make it to print. In 1995, a couple women came out with The Rules, the now-iconic guide, in which they shared “time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right”. It included gender-normative gems like the following:
- Don’t Talk to a Man First (and Don’t Ask Him to Dance)
- Don’t Meet Him Halfway or Go Dutch on a Date
- Don’t Call Him & Rarely Return His Calls
- Don’t Accept a Saturday Night Date after Wednesday
In short, The Rules advocate playing hard-to-get to the point of being unavailable. In a review in The Atlantic of dating books on the market, Cristina Nehring writes that these books largely advocate “illusions”, “affectation”, “lies by omission”, and “lies by invention”. Besides the danger of coming off as a difficult and indecisive emotional zombie, do you really want to essentially trick some dude into liking you? Don’t think so. Unless you’re some kind of sociopath, dating shouldn’t be a strategic game in which you try to manipulate the other person in order to “win”. It’s not very mature or respectful to feign disinterest or straight up ignore someone. Even more damaging, says Nehring, these books encourage an approach to dating that “keeps us from talking about what we know best - our real experience, our present concerns - and instructs us to talk instead about the experience and concerns that we imagine nice people like us should have.” Real relationship counselors (the kinds with fancy pedigrees, not just a gimmick) always stress communication and characterize relationships as partnerships, not wars.
The offending titles above may have been published after women’s lib and the sexual revolution, but as Latoya Peterson observes on Jezebel in her takedown of dating guides, most modern experts continue to believe that “women who appear too together and too competent activate some kind of ball-shrinking reaction in the average man”. This is same kind of nonsense that’s been spewed at women since the advent of dating. So why do people continue to find this stuff so compelling and eagerly buy it in droves? According to Australian social scientists Sheree Cartwright and Anastasia Powell, dating advice manuals “[confirm] the fears of a generation of otherwise savvy young women - that gender equality means the end of love and romance.” In other words, they offer an easy answer when things go wrong.
What they don’t acknowledge is that things go wrong whether you follow The Rules or not. Ellen Fein, one of The Rules’ authors, divorced her husband of 16 years in 2000 and remarried in 2008. She may have captured her first husband’s heart, but he clearly wasn’t Mr. Right. John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, ended a two-year marriage with his wife Barbara DeAngelis, herself a relationship adviser. DeAngelis is now on her fifth marriage. Clearly, there’s no magic formula that can offer guarantees in love - if there were, the self-appointed authorities on romance wouldn’t be flailing themselves.
Many so-called experts aren’t even particularly qualified to be giving advice on the subject (which is why most rely on antiquated gender roles and heteronormative assumptions rather than science). As I observed on my own haphazard sex and relationship blog, authors of how-to dating guides aren’t usually armed with representative studies or a license in couples counseling. All they’ve got are slick marketing plans, pink book covers, and a couple hunches that may or may not work for you and me. So what’s a modern gal to do? Well, in the case of Stone-Agey advice manuals, I’d suggest burning them in a pile. Not even the most free-speech-loving hippie could think that there’s possibly any value in tomes with titles like Men Are Like Fish: What Every Woman Needs To Know About Catching A Man. (No, I’m not making this up.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever listen to anyone’s take on dating - though we should remain wary of any suggestions to behave disingenuously as a means to a romantic end. While I was researching this blog post, I stumbled upon a lot of reasonable advice that didn’t dictate one-size-fits-all rules or claim to have all the answers. (The “dating” sections of Scarleteen and gURL.com are two such resources.) What’s important to remember is that people express and respond to romantic interest in a variety of ways. There’s no way to predict what will win you someone’s affections, and if it takes trickery to do it, that’s probably not the right relationship for you in the first place. It may seem scary to navigate the romantic waters without a compass, but your final destination will be much more interesting if you don’t follow the map.
Lena Chen is a blogger, writer and speaker on sex, gender and feminism. As a Harvard undergrad, she authored the blog Sex and the Ivy and her writing has been featured in The New York Times and Newsweek. She currently blogs at The Chicktionary.