If 2018 fashion is anything to go by, the ’90s was a golden era. Although Mom jeans and crop tops may have made a comeback, dating trends from before the millennium might be best left behind (along with beanie babies and butterfly clips).
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In a time before Tinder taught us that love and sex could be a mere right-swipe away and when meet-cutes were still a thing, an unusual dating handbook claimed to be sparking singleton’s love lives alight. Published in 1995, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right was an instant bestseller. Setting out a set of strict statutes for how to attract (and keep) a partner, it gained a cult following, spawning spin-offs such as He’s Just Not That Into You and gathering a host of celebrity followers, from Beyoncé to Oprah Winfrey.
Although The Rules reigned supreme for most of the late ’90s, much of the advice looks a little questionable through a modern lens. With pages sternly telling us never to ask a man out or go Dutch on a date, and a cheerful ignorance of anything outside of heteronormative relationships, you could be forgiven for thinking that feminism had yet to reach the streets of New York, where authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider put their tricks to the test. Intrigued? I read this ’90s dating bible so you don’t have to, and pulled together some of the strangest tricks all the single ladies were trying.
1. Remember that you’re dressing for men, not for other women
Thinking of buying that new pair of jeans because you love how you look in stonewashed denim? Think again! In a section of the book that tells you exactly how to look to win the attentions of a man (any man with a pulse, it seems, will do), the authors tell us to “remember that you’re dressing for men, not other women, so always strive to look feminine.” They also dish other handy tips such as “wear a short skirt (but not too short), if you have the legs for it,” and “men like women who wear fashionable, sexy clothes in bright colors. Why not please them?”
Because, dear Rules authors, I would seriously question the dating credentials of anyone who can seriously be won over by a mere flash of thigh or particularly cheerful hue. Forget men — or other women for that matter — and wear the damn stonewashed denim if you want to.
2. Don’t be funny
The Rules is oddly fixated on suppressing almost every aspect of your personality, but perhaps the top trait that Fein and Schneider are keen for their readers to hide is humor — ironic considering that their advice is pretty comic in and of itself.
“Be feminine,” they advise, when telling us how to act around men. “Don’t tell sarcastic jokes. Don’t be a loud, knee-slapping, hysterically funny girl. This is okay when you’re alone with your girlfriends. But when you’re with a man you like, be quiet and mysterious, act ladylike, cross your legs and smile.”
Last time I checked the point of dating — at least for the husband-hungry The Rules authors — is to find someone you can see yourself spending a heck of a lot of time with, and sometimes it takes a decent dose of laughter to manage that. So if you’re the next Amy Schumer (or merely a lover of an excellent pun), then for goodness sake, crack a joke every once in a while. You do you.
3. Don’t look at your date
Perhaps one of the weirdest nuggets of advice offered up in The Rules puts being coy to the extreme. Forget a bit of flirty eye contact or gazing adoringly at each other. The Rules is an advocate of looking… well, basically anywhere other than at your date.
“Looking at someone is a dead giveaway of interest,” the book warns. “Instead, look down at the table or your food, or simply survey the crowd at the restaurant. It’s best to seem generally interested in life, in others, in your surroundings, in the paintings on the wall, as opposed to this live prey. He will feel crowded and self-conscious if you gaze at him too much. Restrain yourself.”
Now, I for one would seriously start to wonder if my date was ok if they were swiveling their neck to look at anything else but me all night. Please don’t try this one at home.
4. Don’t talk too much
Seeing as jokes and even looking at your date are off the table, you might think you can win your love interest over with your great conversation (whilst staring off into space, of course). According to Fein and Schneider, you thought wrong.
“Remember, men fall in love with your essence, not with anything in particular you say,” they advise. “Men find chatty women annoying. Be quiet and reserved. He’ll wonder what you’re thinking, if you like him, and if he’s making a good impression. Don’t you want him to think about you like that?”
Well — no, actually. Not if it means sitting in silence with a potential partner who thinks I’m a humorless but snazzy dresser with an eye contact problem, thanks very much.
5. Buy a single bed
One of the more entertaining aspects of The Rules is a collection of bizarre scenarios demonstrating how “rules girls” have got a ring on it in the past. A personal favorite is the tale of Jill, who deliberately buys a single bed to show her boyfriend Bruce that she is absolutely not thinking about a potential future where they would share furniture. “Of course, the single bed hasn’t gone to waste,” the authors smugly inform us “Jill’s in-laws (Bruce’s parents) now keep it as a spare in their guest room.”
Now, dating aside, I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up my Sunday mornings in a double bed in order to convince a man that I’m not interested. Getting to sprawl out in a queen-size without worrying about someone stealing the sheets is one of the great luxuries of single life. Take it while you can.
6. Appreciate when your man gets angry
Although most tips in The Rules merit little more than an eye roll, there are some truly terrifying titbits found within its pages.
“Don’t be surprised if the man you’re dating gets very angry when you kiss him good night in the lobby at the end of your second date rather than invite him up to your apartment for a drink,” Fein and Schneider tell us. “He has probably been spoiled by other women who slept with him on the first or second date, and now he feels he’s being denied this pleasure. But don’t worry. Anger indicates interest, and you might be surprised, for he will probably call you again!”
Aside from the serious women-bashing Fein and Schneider are indulging in (have you ladies never heard of the sisterhood?) this is truly bad advice. Women: never let a man make you feel bad for not wanting to have sex with him. Anger is not flattering — it’s a red flag. If someone acts like sex is a right that you’re denying them, then you shouldn’t want them to call. In fact, you should be seriously considering blocking their number.
7. Don’t ask for what you want in bed
Since you’re dating an anger-prone guy who’s into silent women, you may at least think a perk of putting up with this man-child is some fun in the sack, right? Wrong!
Although the authors of The Rules are in favor of a bit of nookie (although the specifics of when you should put out are so complex you would need a major on the topic to decipher them) they’re also determined to make it a truly terrible experience. Beginning with insisting you should absolutely never ask for what you want in bed.
“Don’t be a drill sergeant, demanding that he do this or that,” we are told. “You have to trust that if you relax and let him explore your body like unchartered territory you will have fun and be satisfied.”
I would argue that any woman who has actually had sex might beg to differ. Your partner is not psychic, and everyone’s sexual needs and desires are unique. Of course you can lie back and hope for the best, but why not communicate what you like to make sure that you’re both having a fulfilling and fun experience?
8. Hide your scars
Fein and Schneider are big advocates of disguising anything that might put a man off for as long as possible — up to and including any illnesses or physical difference.
“If you’ve had a serious illness and you’re embarrassed about obvious scars from your surgery, wait until you’re about to be intimate with him and then casually mention, as you take your clothes off in the dark that you had an illness. Don’t bring up the illness in a serious, heart-to-heart talk on the first date.”
Now, body-positivity may not have had the backing it does now in the ’90s, but I’m still calling bullshit on this one. If someone’s so put off by an upsetting experience you’ve been through and the bearing this might have on your body that you can’t even get naked without scrambling for the light switch, then they’re simply not worth your time. In the words of Ariana Grande, “thank u, next”.
9. Don’t initiate sex
“Don’t initiate sex, even if you want it badly,” The Rules informs us. “Let him be the man, the aggressor in the bedroom. Biologically, the man must pursue the woman. If you bring up sex all the time, you will emasculate him.”
The point that Fein and Schneider are missing is that there is surely nothing more “emasculating” (if you are to buy into the gender conformity that The Rules swears by) as being with a partner who seems utterly disinterested in sleeping with you. If you want to get some, go ahead and ask for it. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who won’t find your confidence sexy as hell.
10. If you get treated badly it’s because you didn’t do The Rules
Another hint that makes the list of harmful ways to think about relationships comes in the form of Fein and Schneider’s take on abusive relationships.
“Abuse doesn’t happen in a Rules relationship because when you play hard to get and he works like hell to get you, he thinks you’re the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world, even if you’re not. He treats you like a precious jewel.”
It goes without saying that abuse in relationships is a serious issue that should not be trivialized into pushing The Rules’ agenda. Abuse is never the victim’s fault.
It’s clear that the ’90s were a very different time, but as astonishing as some of these tips may seem today, it’s important to remember how pervasive and harmful this dating fad really was. The dynamic of men as pursuers and women as the faux-disinterested prey makes it tricky to tell when people really do want to be left alone, and hoists blame onto women for everything from rejection to domestic violence.
Although dating can sometimes be disheartening, it’s important to remember that game playing is perhaps best left in decades gone by. Relationships are not a competition that you can win or lose at, and there really is no rulebook for finding love. As you download another dating app, hit up a speed-dating event, or simply ask that hot guy at work for his number (because c’mon ladies, it’s 2018) remember that you are more than enough — there’s no need to try and trick someone into falling for you.