SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL FIFTY YEARS ON…

“Sex and the Single Girl”. The title said it all, and when Helen Gurley Brown’s book was published in 1962, the title itself was the sensation. Single girls weren’t supposed to have sex! Affirming such a liberty amounted, surely, to licence, not to mention licentiousness!

It was a smart career move for Ms Gurley Brown, who took over Cosmopolitan magazine after her book’s success and has flourished ever since. And to mark the 50th anniversary of Sex and the Single Girl, it has now been republished, with a new introduction (written in 2003 – Gurley Brown is now 80 and doesn’t do much in the public realm these days.) But she doesn’t disavow anything she wrote in 1962, and thinks it still holds good in the 21st century.

For its time, S & TSG was certainly bold, in that it encouraged single women to celebrate their bachelor status and not to let the voices of convention inhibit them about being “spinsters” who were “on the shelf”. The single girl was the new glamour girl, HGB affirmed.

“When a man thinks of a single woman, he pictures her alone in her apartment, smooth legs sheathed in pink silk Capri pants, lying tantalizing among dozens of satin cushions…” Whereas when a man thinks about a married woman, he thinks of someone’s wife “greeting her husband at the door with a martini…fixing little children’s lunches, or scrubbing them down because they’ve fallen into a mudhole…”

Gurley Brown rebuffed the idea, still upheld in 1962, that “nice” single women had no sex life. “She has a better sex life than most of her married friends. Her choice of partners is endless and they seek her. They never come to her bed duty-bound.” So, HGB advised all these single women – enjoy the privilege of your status and go choose your guy!

Open a list of men that you know, she writes, but eliminate the undesirables and the losers: “the weirdies, creepies, dullies, snobs, hopeless neurotics and mamas’ darlings”. Gurley Brown’s ideal single woman is no sentimentalist. Have no truck with unemployed men – regard them as “untouchables”. And please, avoid any man with sex problems.

“Him you don’t need,” she warns. “One of the things that a single woman can have is a good sex life…a married woman has every reason to help a semi-potent mate get back to normal, but you have no more incentive than a short-term tenant has in rebuilding his apartment. Not all of your beaux need to be he-males – just the one you sleep with!” In her update, she doesn’t make any discount, in this tough judgement, for Viagra.

Helen Gurley Brown describes herself as having been a plain mousey girl from Little Rock, Arkansas – hill-billy small town – who had to work hard to make herself into a metropolitan sophisticate. She draws openly on her own experience and speaks of her many pre-marital affairs, some which brought her unhappiness, but all of which brought her lessons in self-awareness.

There is an element in the HGB canon of the traditional American self-improvement manual. Discipline yourself and make yourself into something! The Single Girl can have sex and love and everything else, but she should work at it, too. She should have her own apartment, dress better than she can afford (also learn to sew), use expensive perfume, wear unusual jewellery, always carry a book which might be a starting-point for a conversation with a man, and if her voice is any way squeaky or high-pitched, take voice lessons to learn how to project that sexy contralto sound.

She is open about having liaisons with married men: sometimes a married man is the best kind of lover, she advises. (Her husband, whom she married at the age of 37, had been married twice before, and was “consoling himself with starlets” when she nabbed him.) “During your best years,” she writes, “you don’t need a husband…marriage is an insurance for the worst years of your life.”

Married men can really appreciate a girl, she says. But don’t expect them to leave their wives. If they were going to do so, they’d have done it. Many wives, anyway, are idle and self-absorbed and can’t be bothered looking after their menfolk, so why shouldn’t single girls benefit?

But do insist that your married lover brings you presents. And pays for all treats.

How dated is all this? Post-feminism, I think most women would be embarrassed to sound quite so materialistic and hard-edged.

Yet the omissions are as interesting as the inclusions. Gurley Brown encourages women to flirt adventurously – it’s part of being a woman – and to be firm in turning down any of the aforementioned “losers” who start fooling around. But there is no reference whatsoever to “sexual harassment” or to rape or male violence.

Gurley Brown takes it for granted that women have the emotional, and the sexual, power to call the shots: that a woman has every entitlement to pull a man if she wants him – but that she will be perfectly capable of putting him in his place if she doesn’t want him.

Brash and amoral as her message is, Gurley Brown never sees women as victims. Paradoxically, it is only since the sexual revolution that she helped to launch that this emphasis on female victimhood has had such a focus. Why, “flirting” itself is now regarded as “sexual harassment” on many a campus, and in many a forum of employment.

Has prudishness returned through another route? Or did the sex revolution unleash energies which necessarily call for new boundaries and fresh rules of the game? December 2012. I.I. Mag

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