The 2022 film Fresh – written and directed by two millennial women, Lauryn Kahn and Mimi Cave – offers some insight into dating in the 21st-century feminine imagination. Our young female protagonist has become disillusioned with dating apps and so, when she meets a handsome stranger called Steve in a local supermarket, she leaps at the chance to date the traditional way. Steve seems great at first and, several dates in, the two of them go away on a mini-break.
But it turns out that Steve is a bad date. A really bad date, actually. To be specific, he is a murderous cannibal who harvests women’s body parts for sale on a luxury black market. The horror scenes in Fresh are so appalling that, when a friend of a friend saw the film at an advance screening, one woman in the audience fainted.
But Fresh is supposed to be a comedy. It takes every woman’s worst nightmare – going on a date with a serial killer – and turns that fear into a darkly funny horror. Not at all romantic, and arguably not very funny, either. But then perhaps horror is the genre best suited to the modern dating experience. Say goodbye to the whimsical romcom of the 1990s: this generation of women are after something more gruesome.
Better to laugh than cry, I suppose. That’s certainly the thinking behind a new dating advice book titled Block, Delete, Move On, written by the woman behind the hugely popular anonymous Instagram account LalalaLetMeExplain (hereafter referred to as “Lala”). Lala is a former social worker turned social media star and agony aunt at OK! magazine. Block, Delete, Move On is her debut book on sex and relationships – a mischievously funny, warm and compassionate guide that is also, at times, rather heartbreaking.
[See also: How we fell in love with the polygraph]
At least Lala delivers her dismal message with a smile and a wink. For instance, in a chapter titled “Not all men, but definitely these men”, Lala describes the various subcategories of “f***boy” – that is, “a man who hurts, uses, controls, manipulates, deceives or just generally and knowingly brings misery or stress to the women with whom he is romantically involved”. We meet the health-conscious “spiritual f***boy” (“He schools you on the damage having a coffee or taking a paracetamol does to your body and to the planet. He’s relaxed about unprotected sex, though”) and the bankrupt “wasteman f***boy” (“He’s certain that his latest SoundCloud upload is going to change everything”). This taxonomy of terrible boyfriends leaves no archetype unmocked.
If Lala sounds world-weary, it’s because she is. Aged 40, she is currently single, and she hates being asked why. “If you could see the quality of men that we have to wade through on dating sites,” she writes, “then you might understand.” Her book and her Instagram account provide solace and advice to other single women who are similarly fatigued, but are still determined to keep searching for a decent man. So, alongside a lot of dark humour, we are offered a list of red flags to look out for in a new partner, information on contraception and sexual health, advice on behaving assertively and lots of signposting (full disclosure: one of the organisations Lala signposts to is a sexual-violence campaign group that I work for on a voluntary basis, We Can’t Consent to This).
Block, Delete, Move On is both a snappy title and a life philosophy. Lala’s guiding principle is that it is better to be single than in a bad relationship. So “trust your gut” she advises, run at the first sign of trouble and if that means never finding Mr Right then so be it. Reading about all of the “spiritual f***boys” and “wasteman f***boys” lying in wait for women entering the dating market, this advice seems wise, if rather miserable.
In contrast, Sophia Smith Galer’s outlook in Losing It is more optimistic. Here is another sex-advice book that began life on social media – not Instagram this time but TikTok, where Smith Galer runs a successful channel in addition to her role as a senior reporter for Vice World News. To Smith Galer’s mind, the miseries that young women are enduring on the modern dating market are a consequence of misinformation, or what she calls “sex myths”. And Losing It is an effort at correction.
The effects of some of these “sex myths” are indeed pernicious. For instance, the false belief that the presence of a hymen is an indication of virginity (it isn’t), or that the vagina becomes permanently wider as a consequence of sexual activity (it doesn’t). Smith Galer is at her best when writing about the global picture, and she includes some fascinating interviews with women from across the world – for instance, with a Saudi woman who shows her TikTok viewers how to make fake blood capsules to deploy on the wedding night. Not that virginity loss always causes bleeding, of course. But a lot of men expect it to, and in some parts of the world this is a myth that can put a young bride’s life in danger.
But not all of the “sex myths” featured in Losing It strictly qualify as myths: some are more like cultural norms that Smith Galer wants to confront. A chapter titled “The Virility Myth”, for instance, tries to persuade us that there is actually no connection between masculinity and sexual potency. “Mass media makes men feel that they must perform certain behaviours or obtain characteristics that we are socially conditioned to think of as masculine,” writes Smith Galer. “Men could be helped if they were given more diverse, realistic depictions of male happiness that decanted virility.”
So it’s all a misunderstanding, then! Or, perhaps, a consequence of “mass media” malfeasance. Smith Galer places extraordinary faith in the power of compulsory sex education to iron out these errors, educating young people not only on their biology but also on some much more slippery social issues. If only we could inform men, for example, that female virginity is actually not a big deal, then they might stop treating it as such. Smith Galer’s project is really a technocratic one. She wants to centralise the impartation of all sexual knowledge; not just the “bugs and babies” bit, but the rest of it too. And she wants her ideological allies to be put in charge of this education, undoing the misguided “social conditioning” we have all been subjected to.
Reading Losing It, I was reminded of the time that my university feminist society handed out stickers reading “Consent is sexy!”, presumably intended to school any rapists still labouring under the false belief that it isn’t. Fact-checker feminism like this struggles with the idea that friction between men and women might be a result not of misunderstanding or misinformation, but of a genuine conflict of interests.
Both Losing It and Block, Delete, Move On are engaging with the same set of problems. But if Smith Galer is running the Ministry of Education of social media sex advice, then Lala is running the Ministry of Defence – an altogether more pessimistic project, but also, I expect, a more pragmatic one. Not that this will necessarily be to all readers’ tastes. “Oh I’ve seen that book promoted on Instagram,” said one single 30-year-old acquaintance of mine when she noticed the review copy of Block, Delete, Move On on my coffee table. I asked if she’d like to borrow it, but she sighed and shook her head: “I don’t really want to read about how terrible men are. I already know.”
Block, Delete, Move On: It’s Not You, It’s Them
Bantam Press, 240pp, £12.99
Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century
Sophia Smith Galer
William Collins, 240pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder