by Rowan Pelling 

I’m not much of a tattoo person, but if I were going to have a personal motto inked on my arm it would read, “There are no rules.” Although what I really think on the matter is slightly more complex: you must know the rules to be able to gauge how and when to break them. But that’s not very rock ‘n’ roll.

Back in 1995 two 30-something American women decided what the world of dating needed was more rules, a whole long list of them. Ellen Fein’s and Sherrie Schneider’s self-help tome The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right became a global best-seller, even though the first instruction was, “Be a creature unlike any other,” which sounds to me like, “Get a goat mask.”

The strange fact is a surprising number of people – maybe most – like being bossed around and told things will work out well if they just follow orders. It makes them feel secure to think there’s a plan and method, and we’re not just a random accident of evolution, gnats on the planet’s surface programmed to spread our genes around, tumbling through infinite space and time into the void. Happy March to you too.

The Rules, with its weird mix of Disney Princess diktats (let him take the lead, don’t go Dutch, ditch him if he doesn’t buy romantic gifts) and common-sense precautions (no sex on early dates, don’t wait by the phone, never date a married man) went down like an ambrosia daiquiri. As far as I know, there was no sudden glut of happy weddings, but these things aren’t really about results as much as hope.

The Rules spawned a whole shelf of copycats. A male author – Neil Strauss – fought back with The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, which told men how to get laid without getting ensnared. This involved “negging” your targets, by saying something undermining to pique women’s attention. For years afterwards you knew someone was a Game’s Man when they came up to you in a pub and said your shirt looked rubbish and you could do with a facial.

And then there was Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl (2002). I’m going to have to disappoint those of you who hope this manual was penned by Joan Collins in character as nymphomaniac nightclub owner Fontaine Khaled, protagonist of 1970s bonkbusters The Stud and The Bitch, written by Joan’s late sister Jackie. Keeping up at the back? The true author is US-based hack Sherry Argov.

Argov’s basic argument is “treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen,” but not so vile they run off sobbing. According to the blurb it helps nice girls discover “the feisty attitude men find so magnetic.” Although the chap who placed a lonely hearts’ ad in Private Eye for years, seeking a “feminine, unassertive and submissive” woman, wouldn’t seem to agree. Mind you, Argov did argue that feistiness should have its limits: women were instructed to let men deal with bugs.

Much of Argov’s “wisdom” seemed cobbled together from the kind of popular psychology books you might aim at an intelligent teenager. Which helps explain how Why Men Love Bitches has been jet-propelled into The Sunday Times bestseller list eighteen years after publication. Apparently the TikTok generation have taken to it like ticks to deer. “Don’t make yourself too readily available!” is just one popular platitude. The hashtag #WhyMenLoveBitches had notched up almost ten million views at the time of going to press.

I can see how dating guides might be handy if you haven’t grasped such basic concepts as: the harder the challenge, the more you value your success. But back here in No Rules Land, I’d point out you can go to bed with someone on a first date and still be viewed as a grade-A challenge. Sex needn’t mean you’re a pushover or supplicant. Granting temporary access to your body doesn’t signal you’re offering a season ticket to your mind, person and soul.

It’s equally true that you can have sex on a first date and fall, mutually, passionately in love. I’ve been to plenty of weddings where a hasty clinch was part of the origin story. There’s no good reason you shouldn’t respect someone for being brave enough for intimacy on a first encounter. If you do think less of them for having sex so readily, what does that say about you? “Arsehole” is the term an amateur shrink might use.

I like to think we denizens of Zero Rulesville have learnt to identify arseholes and pick-up artists. Which means we can cheerfully zip around ignoring Fein’s, Schneider’s, Strauss’s and Argov’s rubrics. Older lovers (by which I mean anyone over 40) will tend to see prospective romantic partners as complex individuals, not chess pieces who respond to a higher logic. For nothing defies reason like love.

In any case, the chessboard has been flipped over by Covid. We all now have a far sharper sense of our own mortality. Time to throw out the dating manuals and let instinct guide the way. As the late George Michael crooned: “Sex is natural, sex is good/ Not everybody does it/But everybody should.”

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review


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