February 16, 2021

Be realistic, how many of you want to just be invited round when he’s free for a quick fuck? … No, you’re not going to go round for a quick Netflix and chill. You deserve effort.

So says Sarah Elizabeth, a 21-year-old actress and personal trainer from Liverpool, in a series of TikTok videos inspired by a book of dating advice called Why Men Love Bitches. Written almost 20 years ago, it’s become a surprise bestseller, thanks to its popularity with Gen Z women. The American author Sherry Argov provides her readers with candid advice about sex and dating, with the very first sentence letting us know exactly what we’re in for: this is “a relationship guide for women who are ‘too nice.’”

Given its age, Why Men Love Bitches has nothing to say about Netflix, dating apps or even texting, and yet quaint references to landlines do not seem to deter a new, younger readership apparently desperate for no-nonsense advice, which Argov delivers in spades.

There’s no moral relativism here, no aversion to generalisation, and absolutely nothing about pronouns or gender fluidity. Argov writes of a world in which men are simple creatures, interested in football, beer and easy sex. To catch a husband, women are advised to be shrewd tacticians, otherwise known as “bitches”. This means, in the main, bartering valuable feminine resources (sex; attention) for valuable masculine resources (money; commitment). Argov is not interested in sparing her reader’s feelings and comes down hard on those women who are too eager to give away their emotional or sexual power. Dating is a game, she insists, and “bitches” are the best placed to win it.

I was already vaguely familiar with Why Men Love Bitches before its recent re-emergence, because it holds pride of place at the top of the “approved dating books” list on the subreddit “Female Dating Strategy” (FDS), which I’ve been a fan of for a while (most of the friends I’ve introduced to it — with some notable exceptions — are now FDS converts).

Unlike Why Men Love Bitches, FDS is an organic creation, built up over time by anonymous social media users — all of them women, and overwhelmingly young. But both of these sources of dating advice, created 20 years apart, reach similar conclusions — and do so while being blunt, funny, and deeply, deeply “problematic”. In a cultural environment dominated by liberal feminist ideas, encountering either is like pouring a bucket of cold water over your head on a humid day.

Which is why I’m not surprised that Gen Z women are buying up copies of Why Men Love Bitches and contributing to FDS in their hundreds of thousands. The mainstream liberal feminist options available to them are truly dire. At Teen Vogue, writers are encouraging their adolescent readers to watch non-consensual porn and have anal sex, while forgetting to include the clitoris in a diagram of the female anatomy. Meanwhile, Cosmopolitan is advising its readers to spice up their love lives by trying “breath play”, i.e. strangulation — the second most common method of murder used by men against women in this country.

And recently, in response to news about the actor Armie Hammer’s alleged fetish for cannibalism, both Rolling Stone and Cosmopolitan published pieces arguing that the real problem is not Hammer’s desire to “barbecue and eat” women, but rather his dodgy attitude towards consent in general. To an eye untrained by liberal feminism, this all looks an awful lot like men hurting and degrading women, only for prestigious media outlets to label it “empowerment”.

The women of FDS aren’t falling for it. Explaining the subreddit’s official position on BDSM, the moderators write that “the primary focus of FDS is to teach ruthless self interest to women at both a micro and macro level, and this is not compatible with anything that even has a whiff of sexual exploitation or abuse.” This also extends to porn, prostitution and hook-up culture — all of which are understood by FDS to serve male interests, not female.

In Why Men Love Bitches, Argov is similarly firm in her opposition to casual sex, advising her readers to hold out on sex for “as long as you can” at the beginning of a relationship. The reasoning is simple enough: sex is much costlier for women than it is for men and, with sexual double standards still alive and well (albeit less often spoken about), a woman who appears to be “too promiscuous” risks being discarded. Argov puts it frankly:

What men don’t want women to know is that, almost immediately, they put women into one of two categories: “good time only” or “worthwhile.” And the minute he slides you into that “good time only” category, you’ll almost never come back out.

Or, as your grandmother might have put it, “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

This attitude is now deeply counter-cultural. Popular representations of twenty-first century women generally show them sassily relishing the opportunity to imitate “good time only” sexuality, which was previously the preserve of men. Think of the first ever episode of Sex and the City, in which the protagonist enjoys a casual sexual encounter in her lunch break and celebrates “having sex like a man”. Or the hit crime thriller The Fall, in which a gorgeous Gillian Anderson demonstrates her independence of spirit by using and discarding younger men. Justifying her sexual behaviour, Anderson’s character quotes the feminist Catharine MacKinnon: “man fucks woman; subject verb object.” The implication is clear: this woman fucks back.  

Liberal feminism understands “having sex like a man” as an obvious route by which women can free free themselves from old-fashioned patriarchal expectations of chastity and obedience. If you believe that men and women are psychologically identical, save for a few hang-ups absorbed from a sex negative culture, then this makes sense. Why wouldn’t you want women to have access to the kind of sexual fun that men have always enjoyed (the high status ones, at least)?

Both FDS and Why Men Love Bitches start from a premise that would be considered unforgivably reactionary in contemporary outlets like Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan. But historically, it’s been considered common sense: that men and women are different — not just physically, but also (on average) psychologically — and that their interests are therefore inherently in tension.

If we accept this premise, then the strong evidence suggesting that most women dislike hook-up culture must be explained, not as a consequence of oppressive sex negativity, but rather as a consequence of something much more immovable: innate gender differences. And the recent shift towards a culture in which women are encouraged to “have sex like a man” should be understood, not as a feminist achievement, but in fact the opposite. What we are seeing now is women who are “too nice” feeling pressured into unwanted sex with what FDS users term “low value males” — the kind of men who will (as Argov puts it) “hit and run.”

Yes, it’s cold, it’s calculating, and it’s often eye-wateringly rude. But it seems that a lot of Gen Z women, exhausted by a hook-up culture that presents casual sex as not only compulsory but actually “feminist”, are desperate for advice that “makes sense”, as Sarah Elizabeth puts it. If the internet phenomenon of Pick Up Artistry developed to teach men how to persuade women into casual sex, then the popularity of FDS and Why Men Love Bitches is the next step in the arms race, teaching young women how to defend themselves psychologically against men who will make them feel “obligated, pressured or manipulated” to jump into bed.

Which is why I consider their philosophy to be resolutely feminist, even if I don’t agree with all the advice offered by either Argov or FDS — and even if the emphasis on old fashioned gender stereotypes may alarm some feminists. But then this strand of feminism doesn’t fit neatly into the conventional typology of liberals and radicals that dates back to the 1970s. Trans inclusive, sex positive liberal feminism this definitely isn’t. But nor is it orthodox radical feminism, at least not on one crucial issue: there’s no room for the “blank slate” theory of gender, in which all psychological differences between men and women are understood to be a product of nurture, not nature.

The very idea of there being evolved psychological differences between the sexes has become so taboo in some circles that even voicing the possibility is taken to be an indication of anti-feminist sentiment. And yet FDS not only breaks this taboo, but goes further, applying the discipline of evolutionary psychology to pro-woman ends.

For instance in one essay recommended in the FDS Handbook, readers are introduced to the sometimes deceptive powers of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”, alongside the idea, taken from evolutionary psychology, that men and women are hard-wired to respond differently to casual sex, with men generally more eager to have sex early on in a relationship, or even with a perfect stranger. In the forthright tone typical of this new feminist strand, female readers are advised to keep their wits about them following a sexual encounter with a “low-value male”:

What you have to say to yourself, next time you get tempted to send that player a message, or you get the horn and are craving some rendezvous with an undeserving disrespectful rag of a man, is tell yourself ‘THIS IS JUST OXYTOCIN. JUST A BUNCH OF FUCKING CHEMICALS.’ Keep repeating this to yourself so it’s fresh in your mind. 

I’ve argued before in these pages that the evidence for innate psychological differences between the sexes is, in and of itself, morally neutral, and that such evidence could be put to all sorts of political purposes, including feminist ones. This was an idea pursued, all too briefly, by the “difference feminism” of the 1980s, which resisted the gender neutrality of other feminist schools, and paid particular attention to the devaluation of motherhood. Difference feminism was swept away in the 1990s, overtaken by forms of feminism that put more emphasis on male and female sameness. But I wonder if Gen Z might now be bringing it back, this time in bolder, brasher form.

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