Silent, upbeat, with a handbag full of carrot sticks: who wants to be a New Rules Girl?

Rules girls are Stepford wives with “difference™” stamped on back of their swan-like necks. This book makes me glad we live in an age of rampant oversharing and overexposure.

Everyone’s an individual and you’re no exception. It’s this homogenized, uniform idea of “individuality” that Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein, authors of The Rules for Dating, managed to sell to women in 1995, persuading them that in order to be “a creature unlike any other” they just had to be exactly the same as everyone else. Creatures unlike any other (CUAOs for short) aren’t just white, heterosexual and middle-class. They have long straight hair (because it’s “feminine”), they’re never overweight (because men “do not want to go out with an overweight girl. Call it sexist, unfair or shallow, but it’s the truth!”) and they wear short skirts, giant hoop earrings and a chunky gold watch (“don’t ask, because we can’t explain it; we just know it works”). They are Stepford wives with “difference™” stamped on back of their swan-like necks. And what’s more, they’re back. 

Eighteen years after young women first were told to be mysterious, sexless CUAOs who kept “him” coming back for more with their totally-natural-except-you-need-to-be-taught–it femininity, the dating scene has become even more complicated. First feminism and its uppity ideas about female independence was to blame, but that’s been sorted (“We remember back in 1995 when readers labeling themselves feminists scoffed at the idea of not calling men and rarely returning their calls. Now not calling men first is considered normal!”). Alas, new-fangled technology is now the problem.

Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and other social technologies have made it almost impossible for women to be elusive and mysterious. Every woman is glued to her cell phone and guys can reach her morning, noon and night. Not exactly hard to get! How exactly can a woman do The Rules under these new circumstances, you ask?

How indeed? You might be out getting your hair extensions and giant earrings, but before you know it you’ll have ruined it all by tweeting a photo of yourself mid-procedure. That’s where Fein and Schneider’s The New Rules: The dating dos and don’ts for the digital generation comes in.

The advent of texting, social networking and internet dating has opened a Pandora’s box of rubbish metaphors about how modern technology is all really bad for us. We’re living in the age of oversharing. How’s a Rules girl to maintain her mystique? Can you be a CUAO when there’s a photo of you pissed on Facebook? What about Twitter? Is it still okay to post a random tweetpic of that mouldy potato with the impressive shoot growth which you found in the back of the kitchen cupboard? (Apparently not, but it’s too late because I’ve done it now.) And it’s no good to think “well, I’ll tweet what I want to tweet”. Mr Right might be looking!

It is a good job I found myself plucked off the shelf back in the Stone Age. These days I’d never make it. While it’s the thing that makes me unable to be a CUAO, I’ve always considered oversharing to be one of my USPs. I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t blabbing and exposing weakness and then trying to make a joke of it. Long before my partner ever asked me on a “date” (by which I mean we had sex), he knew I’d suffered from anorexia, that I’d been in a psychiatric hospital and that I’d once written a Daily Mail Letter of the Week (and now you do, too! But please be kind with this info – there’s still a lot of stigma attached to the last one). It’s not that I don’t respect other people; I do try to avoid causing those uncomfortable TMI moments. But I don’t like unnecessary silence, plus, to be honest, I tend to find humour in the worst things that have happened to me (apart from the Daily Mail thing. Even now that just makes me sad).

A Rules girl, on the other hand, shouldn’t give too much away. Moreover, she shouldn’t tweet “anything mundane or anything negative”:

No one wants to hear that you are “walking the dog” or “had a bad day at work”. Your tweets should be important, newsworthy, witty or uplifting. “Training for Race for Life” is a great example.

(NB I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to use the “great example” if you’re not training for Race for Life. Still, I’m sure I’ll find something worthy to do with all those donations.) Moreover, you shouldn’t necessarily tweet about anything you’re actually interested in:

Don’t tweet about love songs or chick flicks, because it shows too much interest in relationships. You want to seem like you are interested in politics, sports, and the world in general, not just guys!

So you might have just been to see the latest rom-com, but you can still make it look as though all the way through you were distracted by thoughts of David Cameron and Boris Johnson (unless you get too carried away with mentions of Bozza, because it’s all your fault if Mr Right turns into a possessive bully. One Adonis is quoted as saying “don’t make me into the jealous boyfriend you hate”).

Whereas in 1998 I bought The Rules and genuinely tried to follow them, these days I read The New Rules and find them unintentionally hilarious. The sheer brutality and meanness of the thing is mind-blowing, and there’s little else to do but laugh. Amongst other things we get: a page devoted to quotations from “college-aged guys” explaining why they won’t date fat girls; repeat references to how “some women can run corporations or marathons”, turn straw into gold, that kind of thing, but “don’t have the faintest idea” what to do around men; a recommendation that one should emulate Jackie Kennedy Onassis by carrying carrot sticks around in one’s handbag (“Her healthy habits in no way diminished her stature as First Lady and fashion icon, so you shouldn’t be embarrassed to do the same”); advice not to “talk too much in the first few weeks”; and, worryingly, the claim that “we even have Rules fans on Facebook who feel that the book should be handed out at birth or at puberty or at least taught in sex education in high school” (although actually, now that I think of it, it’s not really in keeping with the Rules to be a Rules fan on Facebook, so I wouldn’t trust them). Beneath it all, trying to be a CUAO sounds thoroughly miserable.

Say your CUAO “just lost a job or a guy didn’t call her”. Instead of eating a box of cookies or getting drunk to drown her sorrows, she gets a manicure and pedicure and goes to a speed-dating party or updates her online dating profile.

Now, let’s be honest, which of these sounds most rewarding? Hell, I’ve not even had a major crisis today but just reading this has got me breaking open the Hobnobs and swigging the Pinot Grigio Blush.

It’s books like this – and “advice” like this – that make me glad we live in an age of rampant oversharing and overexposure. I’m glad the digital age poses a problem for those who believe we should keep ourselves under wraps. The lack of humanity in The Rules comes off badly against a world in which people can be cruel, yes, but in which they’re also prepared to laugh at mistakes, to re-formulate the mundane details of daily life as wry narratives, and to engage with people who genuinely are unlike any people they’ve met before. I was going to say “and a world in which people are interested in communication, not endless self-marketing”, but that would probably be pushing it too far.

As the kind of person whose heart sinks whenever she loses a Twitter follower – WHY? Was my potato not good enough for you? – I’m conscious of the alternative popularity contest that’s going on. We want followers. We want stats. We want “likes”. We’re not sure why we want them, but we do. It means we’re alright in the end. And yes, I know this sounds shallow. And yet, even if it’s through a screen – even if it’s through the air, with people I can’t see and whose skin I can’t touch – I prefer these values to those of a judgmental, non-virtual reality that calls for physical perfection and silence in the name of “love”.

"So then I changed my relationship status to 'it's complicated'". Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
Show Hide image

How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times