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.

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.