On dating advice and men

Of late I have noticed that ever since that one sex trafficker guy got himself arrested there has been a recurrent theme down the old discourse mines: who on the left is talking to young men about relationships?

The answer is of course, friend of the blog BISHUK.com, thanks.

Yet not content with a simple and straightforward answer, the discourse machine moves forward, driven by a bunch of people who have literally never paid attention to who is doing sex and relationships education and therefore think they need to ask a question which has already been answered.

Now, far be it from me to attempt to give relationships advice. That is an actual field of expertise which takes training and experience, and shouldn’t be attempted by just anyone. What I am qualified to talk about, however, is why people think men aren’t considered when it comes to relationships, and why advice aimed at women is more visible.

If one is a student of history, the first and most obvious reason that we have come to the generalised belief that no one is out there working with young men is that culturally, we tend to tell men that they are above sex and relationships and therefore shouldn’t need help. Love, we are told, is the domain of women and they are the sorts that need to be thinking about, and prepping for relationships.

This conceit certainly existed in the ancient and medieval periods and was fed by the idea that women were inherently the sexualised gender. Men were the default humans and the gender that every human would be if something hadn’t gone wrong. You could get to this idea through Plato’s (C. 428- 348 BCE) allegory of the creation of humans, where women came into existence because they were reincarnated men doomed to relive life as the fair sex because they sucked at it the last time around.[1] Or you could listen to Galen (126-216) who informs us that women are men who are inside out, with all of the externalities turned internal and secret. Or you could wait for the invention of the concept of the Garden of Eden, when the faithful are told that God created Adam in his image, and then made Eve as an afterthought. The point here is that men existed on their own and their continued existence on their own was kind of the original idea of divine creators.

Making women/the concept of sex. Walters MS W.292.21r.

Ideas about romance, sex, and generation didn’t exist until women came on the scene. As Aquinas put it women were created  “…as a help to man; not indeed to help him in any other work … because where any other work is concerned man can get help more conveniently from another man, but to help him in the work of procreation.”[2]

If women’s existence is the reason that sex exists at all, and if they exist to get pregnant, they, then, need to be the ones who are molded into correct romantic behaviour. And then as now, there was plenty of guidance on that. The thirteenth century gave us a lovely example of this – The Ladies Instruction [Chastoiement des dames] written by Robert de Blois (second half of the thirteenth century). In it, he urged women to take care of their looks, because the thing that women needed to do was be hot in order to attract a partner. He wrote that, “It seems to me that in all women the beautiful face is the most pleasing. A woman who does not have a beautiful face will never be beautiful. … A beautiful mouth, beautiful teeth, beautiful nose, beautiful eyes, clear complexion should never be veiled.”[3] In other words – you want a man? Get out there and show ‘em what you got. If women exist to make babies – then show the dudes what they’re gonna be making babies with.

Not everyone agreed with this timeless advice, however. Geoffroy, the fourth chevalier of La Tour Landry (c. 1330 – c. 1405) took it upon himself in the fourteenth century to write a guide for his daughters, the somewhat unimaginatively named The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry for Teaching His Daughters [Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry pour l’enseignement de ses filles].[4] In it, he advised his daughters on the finer points of dating. More particularly, he was very concerned that these young ladies concentrate on their behaviour rather than worrying about their looks. He assured them that even a plain woman who was courteous and held herself well would always be the most attractive possible marriage prospect and regaled his daughters with tales of beautiful young women who had lost marriage opportunities because of an inability to keep their gaze straight when out dating, therefore and therefore looking like idiots.[5]

Geoffrey, holding forth to his daughters. Châteauroux, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms 004, fol. 1.

So, you know, don’t wear makeup or worry about your appearance. Focus on being a nice little demure thing and marriage and respect will come to you. Being flirty and pretty might result in the lustful glances of men with bad intentions but it is not he way to get a husband. Ask your dad, I guess.[6]

Clearly then we have plenty of advice floating around for women in the medieval period, much of which directly contradicted other advice. In other words, a pretty normal state of affairs. So long as women have existed in our society we have been advising them on what to do to get a mate. After all, that’s what ladies are here for, amiright? To be wives and mommies. And to help guys out or whatever.

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So yes, dating advice for women has always been around and it is extremely visible because socially that is what we want from women. We don’t think it is shameful for women to be interested in being loved, and so such advice is freely given and out in the public eye.

But you know what has also always been freely given and out in the public eye? Dating advice aimed at men that encourages hyper masculine interpretations of love and relationships. I’ve written before about how De Amore, or The Art of Courtly Love is pretty much nothing but a pick up artist manual aimed at rich dudes in the medieval period. For the purposes of this discussion what is interesting about it is that in and among the model conversations that are bound to get you a date, you also see a lot of advice on how to up your chances of these gambits working, and explanations about why it is necessary for such a book to exist in the first place.

Lovers wounded by the arrows of love, including a friar and a monk (the last two on the right) British Library MS Royal 19. B. xiii, f. 4r.

The book exists, according to its author because guys asked for it. Andreas Capellanus’s mate Walter needed some dating advice and so the place that he went was to his friend Andreas. Andreas was qualified to help him out because he was a top shagger and super successful with the ladies – and also a priest. NORMAL! But also, an acknowledgement of the fact that it is very much a regular sort of thing for men to ask other men for help.

Why would they need such help? Well according to Andreas its because women are constantly flooded with offers for love and romance for men, whereas men are in a constant competition with each other for the most attractive women. Indeed, even when a man attains the love of a woman he is at a disadvantage because “even after both [the man and the woman] are in love the fears that arise are just as great [as those of single men] for each of the lovers fears that what he has acquired with so much effort may be lost through the effort of someone else, indeed he fears so many things that it would be difficult to tell them.”[7] Dating, you see, apparently advantaged women, who were at all times swarmed with suitors, even in the twelfth century.

Moreover, men need these pep-talks because they are all so nervous about their position in society. What if they don’t have enough money? What if they aren’t handsome enough? These poor men are being emasculated because of the harsh expectations of the hierarchical society in which they live! Why can’t a nice guy just be granted the love of whatever woman he wants anymore? Huh? HUH? If this society advantages men so much WHERE IS THEIR COURT APPOINTED GIRLFRIEND?

How Walter is trying to be (Herr Konrad von Altstetten with his lover and his falcon. From the Codex Manesse. Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 249v.

But don’t worry Andreas has plenty of ways to make sure his pick-up tricks will work for men of quality. These include helpful grooming tips such as – don’t. After all, “[a] wise woman will … seek as a lover a man of praiseworthy character – not one who anoints himself all over like a woman or makes a rite of the care of the body, for it does not go with a masculine figure to adorn oneself in a womanly fashion or to be devoted to the care of the body.”[8] That’s right. You don’t want to be like those prissy boys out there who do stuff like actively try to look good. That’s girl stuff. Just be a manly man and women will come to you.

As you can see, this modern worry that men are suddenly and for the very first time disadvantaged in the dating world and need some sort of help in order to succeed in a competitive dating market is nowhere near new. Nor has there ever been a shortage of misogynist guys cropping up to assure men that women can and should be gamed into loving you – provided that you adhere to hegemonic ideas of masculinity and replicate the discourses that feed it.

This sort of advice is thrust into the public gaze, even if people find it distasteful because it allows them to disparage certain aspects of masculine culture (bad dating advice) without really considering that doing so feeds the same culture that they are bemoaning. It does so by conceding that men are constantly finding themselves in a newly hostile world, and that formerly dating was all so much easier. More to the point, it concedes that the most important thing that anyone can do is secure a romantic partner, and that doing so is a contest which men are losing.

Lovers interrupted by a hunter, Bibliothèque Nationale MS francais 1567, f. 115.

Meanwhile, we disadvantage and ignore good sex and relationships advice for men because it doesn’t come across as hyper masculine enough. We are comfortable with men giving advice if they uphold hegemonic structures. But men who give thoughtful advice that might trouble the status quo? That sounds a lot like care work. And care work is supposed to be done by women. And women’s work isn’t valuable, so how could a guy doing something caring be taken seriously? Much like the men who become too feminine if they groom themselves, men who take on an interest in caring, consensual relationships are perceived to be feminised and therefore unable to give useful advice to young men. We are so deeply uncomfortable with the idea of men taking on caring work that we ignore or scorn it when it does happen.

It is all well and good to bemoan the manosphere, but I would argue that it isn’t particularly helpful to do so. Treating this as a new phenomenon in a totally new dating world does nothing but feed into the ideas that the manosphere is peddling. These moral panics allow hegemonic masculinity to succeed because it doesn’t trouble the starting position of the patriarchal status quo – that young men are in need of intervention to succeed in the dating “game”. If you want to dismantle the sexist ideas that the manosphere sells, you can’t agree with them that modern men are the most put upon of all time.

Most of the people worried about this simply think all of this is new because they haven’t been paying attention, and that’s fine. It’s easy to become worried when you see a jerk taking advantage. But trust me when I say there are a lot of us out there doing the work to counter hyper-masculine indoctrination and ideals. It might help if you looked into it before you rushed to declare that the sky is falling.

[1] Plato, Timaeus, in (ed. and trans) Léon Robin, Vol. 4 Oeuvres Complétes, (Paris: Société d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres”, 1962), pp. 60 – 62.
[2] ST 1a.92.1 (vol. 13, pp. 35–7). Following the translation of Ian P. Wei in, “Sex and Marriage”, in, Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c.1100–1330, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 248.
[3] Robert de Blois, Robert de Blois: son oeuvre didactique et narrative suivie d’une edition critique de l’Enseignement des Princes et du Chastoiement des Dames, ed. John Fox (Paris, 1950), lines 105-20, following Susan Udry’s translation in, “Robert de Blois and Geoffroy de la Tour Landry on Feminine Beauty: Two Late Medieval French Conduct Books for Women”, Essays in Medieval Studies, 2002, 19, pp. 93-94.
[4] Geoffrey de La Tour Landry, Le Livre du Chevalier de La Tour Landry pour l’enseignement de ses filles, ed. Anatole de Montaiglon, 1870 (New York, 1977).
[5] Ibid, p. 24; 96.
[6] My Dad would never say this. Thanks.
[7] Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans and intro John Jay Parry, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 28-29.
[8] Ibid., p. 34.

For more on hegemonic concepts of sex and relationships, see:
On heteropessimism and maternal expectations
On courtly love and pick up artists
On men, romance, and trick questions
On semen retention

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

One thought on “On dating advice and men”

  1. I LOVE this post. Have you found a correlation between women having more economic freedom and independence (at least, more than each cycle’s “good old days”) every time this sort of garbage advice comes out? Certainly seems to be a big factor now, and I vaguely recall from college that for a period in Middle Ages women had more economic freedom and more choices in their lives than they’d had before, so I wonder if this is a whole annoying social cycle throughout history.

    Liked by 1 person

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