James Innes-Smith

The truth about the Gen Z abstinence fad

The truth about the Gen Z abstinence fad
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MeToo may have fundamentally shifted the way men and women interact, but that hasn’t stopped a musty, old turn of the century relationship manual from making a surprise comeback. In Sherry Argov's 2001 bestseller Why Men Love Bitches, the journalist offers tips on how to bag a man. Her principal premise is a surprising one: that women should hold off having sex. And a new generation seem to be heeding her advice: the book has been a favourite subject of Gen Z TikTok videos as well as making a reappearance on the Sunday Times bestseller list.

Argov's book emerged out of the barely recognisable age before online dating, slut shaming and revenge porn. Back then, when we were all a bit less savvy about each other, Argov argued that women needed a good deal of wiliness to go from 'doormat' to 'dream-girl'. 

Ever since the Weinstein scandal broke men have become increasingly wary about approaching women so it's no surprise that a new generation of young females, when faced with this uncertainty, have decided to take matters into their own hands. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of older childless women is set to triple in twenty-five years. Perhaps clued up Gen Zs have noticed a preponderance of childless middle-aged women living alone and are wondering what it is about society's approach to dating that has caused the phenomenon. While many feminists would argue than this is a sign of women's hard-won right to choose whether or not to start a family, Argov appears to be offering single women who are not happy with this status quo a way out - Covid only having added to the sense of dating desolation for both sexes. 

Over the course of 270 pages, the author keeps reminding readers that mutual attraction is a complex dance that every woman must become proficient at if she is to have any hope of winning a man's affections. For those who still think twerking and breast implants are a sure-fire way of attracting a mate, Arvos' book might come as a shock. Indeed the author has scant regard for individuals who give away their emotional or sexual power too easily. To become truly desirable, argues Argov, women must play the long game and that means not jumping into bed on a first date and not making oneself too readily available. Men, we are told, enjoy a challenge so it's vital not to give them what they want. For GenXers brought up to believe in female autonomy, this talk of attracting male attention, despite being wrapped in the cloak of 'empowerment', must seem slightly icky; why should women pander to patriarchal desire? 

But is Argov right in her assumptions about men, especially now that so many of the old gender stereotypes have been upended? Do we really prefer the 'mental challenge' of an independent, go-getting ice maiden over a woman who is 'nice' and a bit needy? Well, I suppose it depends on the circumstances. Carnally speaking I would say yes, given the choice, most men prefer 'nasty' to 'nice'. But for men looking to settle down, niceness will usually be high on their wish list. The idea that we are only turned on by cool, unavailable women is one of those myths often perpetuated by female writers who think they have a handle on the male psyche. Maybe it makes men feel 'empowered' to propagate such a myth when responding to questions from female inquisitors such as Argov - no man wants to appear needy. In reality, when it comes to finding love men are just as complicated and confused as women. 

While researching my book The Seven Ages of Man - How to Live a Meaningful Life I spoke to dozens of men from all sorts of backgrounds and most were frankly relieved whenever an attractive woman responded positively to their advances. Why would they not be? In fact, they were far more likely to lose interest if feelings weren’t reciprocated. Okay, so if you're Brad Pitt you might find it novel to do a bit of chasing once in a while but most of us simply don’t have the time or the inclination to play games. For your average man, the fear of rejection hangs over every encounter. 

I agree with Argov that we would all do well to refrain from jumping into bed too early on in a relationship, although not for the reason she gives. Her assumption that men automatically lose interest once they have done the deed is a myth. In a 2010 study, Professor Dean Busby from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University in the US attempted to find out what effect the timing of their first sexual encounter had on a couple’s marriage. He surveyed more than 2,000 people aged from nineteen to seventy-one who had been married anywhere from six months to more than twenty years. The volunteers came from a variety of religious and secular backgrounds. When religiosity, length of relationship, income, education and race were taken into consideration, Busby found that couples who delayed sex within a relationship had better long-term prospects and greater overall satisfaction. His research concluded that relationships were 22 per cent more stable; couples were 20 per cent happier while the quality of their sex improved by 15 per cent. 

What writers like Argov fail to grasp is that men value authenticity above all else. We want to be with a genuine person not some two-dimensional Cosmo fantasy of a strong independent woman. Playing silly mind games is doomed to fail in the end. Argov's disciples can fool some of the men some of the time but there comes a point when all of us have to reveal the frightened, vulnerable creature hiding beneath the glossy exterior. The longer we pretend to be coolly invincible the harder it will be to own up to the truth. 

Unfortunately, men aren’t immune to these devious relationship manuals. A couple of years after the publication of Why Men Love Bitches, infamous pick-up artist Neil Strauss gave us The Game, a bestselling dating book with a similar premise but written from a male perspective. Strauss' questionable tactics promised to make even the dorkiest of nerds irresistible to the opposite sex. Like Argov, his technique relied on artifice and deception. To attract good-looking women, men had to feign indifference while pretending to be rude. Strauss and his army of creeps weren’t interested in long term relationships however, for them it was all about the thrill of the ego boost. Of course, such cynical 'techniques' are destined to end in loneliness and regret, as Strauss himself admitted in his follow up book, The Truth. 

All the men I spoke to while researching my book longed to be themselves around the opposite sex but, just like the women they pursued, felt under enormous pressure to perform. The Gen Z abstinence fad is another kind of performance. There is value in waiting - indeed, it can foster commitment. But the goal needs to be a better quality relationship, not one-upmanship. 

Written byJames Innes-Smith

James Innes-Smith is the author of The Seven Ages of Man — How to Live a Meaningful Life published by Little, Brown out now.

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