Unpacking our growing obsession with rules-based dating

“Every man wants to have sex first. Whether he wants a girlfriend is something he thinks about later. By not giving him what he wants up front, you become his girlfriend without him realising it,” reads Lynnea Higuera in a TikTok that has been viewed over 1.6 million times. The book she’s reading from is Why Men Love Bitches by Sherry Argov, published in 2002.

Although it may seem unlikely that Gen Z women are into dating advice from the 2000s, Higuera’s video is hardly unusual: the #whymenlovebeaches (spelt as such to avoid censorship) hashtag has nearly 65 million views. Additionally, other self-help books have resurfaced on the app too, with videos about titles including He’s Just Not That Into You and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus also racking up tens of millions of views. Videos about The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have a staggering 3.5 billion views.

These sorts of books all endorse a ‘rules-based’ approach to dating. They promote the idea that if you follow a certain set of rules, you’ll bag the right man; that dating and subsequently falling in love is something you can be ‘good’ at.

Alongside the revival of 1990s and 2000s dating manuals, other trends also suggest young people find the idea of rules-based dating appealing. Take the slew of content about hypergamy, the act of dating or marrying into a higher socioeconomic or social class. Under the #highvaluedating TikTok hashtag, there are videos where women say you should go to bars in expensive hotels or specific steakhouses to meet a rich man, or earnestly tell you to blacklist men who suggest grabbing a coffee for your first date, or claim, disturbingly, that ‘high value women’ should ‘listen more than they speak’. Elsewhere, there are videos informing women how they can manifest their dream boyfriend or how to make a ‘man-approved’ Bumble profile.

It might seem odd at first glance that women are rehashing an old-fashioned approach to dating; a lot of these rules give off the same energy as the bizarre advice found in 1950s magazines. “I think it is very interesting that many Gen Z straight women are resorting to these manuals, which date back to a time when heterosexual gender coding was not as put in question as it is today, at least in mainstream culture,” explains Dr Carolina Bandinelli, an associate professor at the University of Warwick in England who studies romance and digital culture. But it’s evident upon closer inspection that this yearning for clear rules when it comes to navigating the world of dating is very obviously a product of the zeitgeist.

“The analogous example for men would be the pick up artist, but their objective is to seduce, to ‘get what one wants’ rather than to ‘make things work well’” – Dr Carolina Bandinelli 

Many of these ‘rules’ floating around TikTok advise hanging around certain areas to meet eligible men, which tracks with the widespread dissatisfaction with dating apps and the desire to bring dating back into the real world. Similarly, the number of women in the workforce has risen in the UK from 53 per cent in 1971 to 72 per cent in 2023, and yet instead of ‘having it all’ we’re still doing the dishes and struggling to afford rent – so the thought of loitering in a first-class airport lounge until a millionaire gives you his number looks increasingly appealing. More broadly, everywhere you look people are decrying the state of modern dating – so it makes sense that people are questioning whether a return to simpler, more ‘traditional’ heterosexual relationship models could actually be a good thing. “It seems to point to a certain exhaustion in the attempt to rewrite the codes of dating, and of sex and love in general,” explains Dr Bandinelli.

Although it makes sense that interest in rules-based dating is growing, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s helpful for young, straight women to put too much faith in this approach. As Dr Bandinelli points out, “we are seeing the revival of very essentialising narratives on women and men, and dating etiquettes overall”, which is hardly a useful mentality for anyone trying to make a straight relationship work. “These manuals seem to suggest that essentialising and, in most cases, patriarchal gender coding is something natural that we must accept and master.” For example, much of the advice purports the idea that sex is something men take and women give away – so women should ‘withhold’ sex from men for as long as possible. Or it suggests that women are naturally ‘clingier’ than men – and should therefore downplay their needs if they want to keep a man interested.

Notably, straight women are generally the ones who are trying to “accept and master” straight relationship dynamics. They’re the ones engaging with old dating manuals and ‘high value dating’ TikTok. Even on the less essentialist end of the spectrum, they’re the ones reading bell hooks and Attached and Conversations on Love. “It seems to be women who are more preoccupied with making love work,” Dr Bandinelli says. “The analogous example for men would be the pickup artist, but their objective is to seduce, to ‘get what one wants’ rather than to ‘make things work well’ […] there’s a gendered conception of women as those who are responsible for the ‘failure’ or ‘success’ of love.”

Without sounding like a single positivity influencer, it’s worth reiterating that whether you’re in a relationship or not says absolutely nothing about the kind of person you are. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you’ve cracked the code of how men’s brains work; being single doesn’t mean you’ve ‘failed’. It’s just a matter of luck. There are things you can do to increase your luck, of course, like downloading Hinge or leaving your house as much as possible – but I don’t think you’re any more likely to find a fulfilling relationship if you don’t text them after your first date. It all hinges on random things which we really have no control over: like whether you went out to the right bar at the right time, or chose to give someone a chance based on something as flimsy as a Bumble profile.

So, while it makes sense that so many young women want to follow a clear set of rules to get a boyfriend – dating men is painful and hard – rigidly following rules won’t save us, and especially not rules which perpetuate damaging gender roles. As Dr Bandinelli says, “I think that the pattern towards emancipation has to do more with trying to understand what underpins the position that we end up taking when relating to men, instead of applying rules.”

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