Dated: What Self-help Dating Books Really Tell Us about Ourselves

Gawker recently featured a post from Latoya Peterson on “self-help” dating books for women.  Peterson’s article, “Dating Guides Are Hell: When Women Are the Problem”, is an amusing critique of the dating advice industry–an array of books whose messages seem more inclined toward self-destruction than self-help. Still, what’s particularly interesting about the genre is how predominantly hetero the selections still are. One would think that if anyone needed dating advice, it would be the non-hetero crowd; after all, those of us who are heterosexual have had relationship models all around us–on television, in school, in our families and our friends’ families; we should be able to navigate dating without a legion of literature to explain to us how it’s. Gays and lesbians, on the other hand, have often grown up in surroundings lacking in couples whom they could model themselves after. I remember David Sedaris writing that, as he struggled through his confusing adolescence, his mother liked to say, “Oh, you kids think you invented sex,” a remark that made Sedaris think, “But hadn’t we?”  In his world, where everyone around him seemed to be hetero, what would it mean if he wanted to be with another man?

As Peterson points out in her piece, the dating books for women offer advice that is outdated and largely infuriating–and infuriatingly predictable: Lose weight, don’t cut your hair short, love yourself, don’t be too confident, and my personal favorite, “She who touches money gives off masculine energy, so you can’t physically touch cash before his eyes or whip out the plastic to pay the check.” (This last bit of “advice” comes from Patti Stanger, Bravo’s own Millionaire Matchmaker. I almost want to forgive Patti for this instruction; after all, she spends her days fixing up the rich and shallow with the merely shallow, so it’s understandable that her advice might be, as she likes to say, a bit wackadoo.)

In other words, what so much of this “advice” plays into are incredibly outdated stereotypes about men and women.  Men like to feel in control, so you shouldn’t be confident and you shouldn’t ever pay for anything (or, apparently, even handle money, ever, in his presence).  Men like “feminine” women, so your hair should be long and you might want to wear dresses more often.  It seems to me, though, that all these “tips” go out the window if you are a woman hoping to date another woman, or a man looking for another man.  This made me curious: what would these books have to say when it comes to same-sex relationships?  If you’re a lesbian who has been without a partner for awhile, would you be advised to grow your hair out or learn to cook?  Or maybe the problem has been that neither of you feels you can pay for the date, being that women shouldn’t handle money and all?  If you’re a man without a boyfriend, is it because you own a home, and other men find that threatening to their masculinity?

I decided to find out, so I first did a cursory Google search for “gay dating tips.”  One of the very first sites that came up is devoted to providing dating advice to all manner of folks.  Notice, if you will, their sidebar:

dating tips sidebar

Yes, that’s right: you need separate tips if you are Asian, Black, Christian or Jewish.  All other ethnicities and religions, apparently, can just follow the general “Dating Advice” link for help.  While I’m curious as to how the tips for Asians differ from the tips for Black people, it’s best that we stick with the topic at hand: dating advice for gays, and how that advice may or may not differ from the many tricks offered up in the “how to land a man” genre.  

Insofar as this first website is concerned, the “advice” is heavily focused on keeping your dating activity a secret.  In fact, the message of the site seems to be, “If no one knows you’re gay now, they never have to know because you can now date people in secret over the internet.”  The writer begins by saying, “Whether a person is gay, lesbian or even a ‘hetero’ – for some people simply asking someone else for a date can be excruciatingly embarrassing; whilst for others the thought of rejection is too much and can even affect a gay or lesbian’s health, bringing on depression and possibly thoughts of suicide. Whilst both of these issues are to do with your self-confidence you’re probably the sort of person that needs to get to know other folk quite well until you feel you can trust them.”

First, you have to love the diction.  Whoever wrote this uses “whilst” twice in the first two sentences.  We can’t begin to know, of course, if the author thought such a word would add more authority to the prose than the simple “while,” or if he or she was simply rehearsing for a part in a Shakespearean tragedy whilst also composing these tips; what we can understand, though, is that the internet is the place to go if you have trouble approaching people to ask for a date.  This might seem like fairly benign advice; plenty of shy people have used online dating sites for precisely that reason.  But as the paragraph continues, the author notes that, “Being able to use the website in the privacy of your home also means, if you don’t want to, you don’t need to share with anyone else what you’re doing.”  In other words, no one needs to know you’re trying to date another guy or another girl.  

And there’s a limit to how forthcoming you need to be with that person you might want to date. Hence, the author says this: “First a tip for gay and lesbian singles using an online dating website. Although you’ll have to register certain details with the website in order to use it – make sure you use an alias (nickname or tag) instead of your real name for your user id when chatting to other gays or lesbians.”  The phrasing, “when chatting to other gays and lesbians,” is just hilarious.  I guess if you’re just chatting with some hetero folks, you could use your real name.  But if you’re chatting with “other gays and lesbians,” then you want to make sure you’re using that alias.

My favorite part of the advice is that the author suggests meeting in a public place for the first date. His suggestions for a locale?  “A station, or the town square.”  The town square?  First off, how small is this town that it has a town square?  And after all of this talk of being private and discreet, it seems meeting up in the town square is public in the extreme.  Maybe just meet at a cafe?

This website seems to have been written (albeit poorly) in good faith, and while it lacks some social finesse, it echoes ideas put forth in other texts aimed at offering dating advice to gays.  Other sites I searched, and the book titles I saw on Amazon, all seemed to focus not on how to “land a man,” but on how to foster a healthy gay relationship in a hetero-centric (and often homophobic) world.  Many of the books seemed more “therapy-based” rather than adopting a “do this and men will flock to you” approach.  In other words, the “self-help” books aimed at heterosexual women seem to focus heavily on how we can fix ourselves in order to land that husband.  The message is a two-fold downer: you are incomplete because you don’t have a man, and you don’t have a man because something is wrong with you.  Meanwhile, people seeking a same-sex relationship either are still facing fears of “outting” themselves or, once coupled, in need of a manual to make the relationship work.

People are still buying these books, and–frighteningly–buying the messages inside them.  We can laugh sardonically at the seeming ridiculousness of all of this “advice,” but there’s no denying it tells us a lot about where we really are in terms of understanding each other and trusting ourselves.  Legions of women scoffed at The Rules, only to turn out in droves years later to read He’s Just Not That into You.  Meanwhile, same-sex couples openly fight for the right to marry, while authors urge them to go about Finding the Boyfriend Within.  What we learn from a trip down the self-help dating aisle is that we still have a long way to go before straight single women don’t seem to need “help” after all, and same-sex couples can live freely, happily, and openly without fear of rejection.  Unfortunately, the “help” we really need is on a cultural rather than personal scale–we need “help” with accepting people for who they are and just letting them be.  We’re further along than we used to be, but further back than we should be.  And sadly, there’s no quick-fix book for that.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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