Why Don’t Straight Men List Books by Women in Their Online Dating Profiles?
They’re trying to attract women, yet it’s rare for them to openly admire women’s work
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Growing up with a hip older brother, and as a hoarder of crushes, I was struck with the “cool girl” curse at an early age: I felt an obligation to cling to and highlight my dude-friendly interests. My earliest, and perhaps most acute, memory of this was aggressively proclaiming my status as “the fart queen” at age 10 in an effort to impress my 13-year-old brother’s adorable and particularly flatulence-humor-driven friends.
The fart queen evolved into a pop punk princess, then into a sk8r gurl, then into a woefully undiagnosed celiac who would chug forties of malt liquor just to show she could hang. To this day, I still don’t know if Dr. Pepper was always my favorite soda, or if it became my favorite soda because I read in Tiger Beat that Lance Bass had Dr. Pepper on his rider.
As a particularly book-inclined kid, this tendency crept into my reading habits. I devoured much of Palahniuk’s oeuvre in an effort to appeal to all of the members of Panic! At The Disco, a group of humans I would never meet. I worked my way through dude canon, reading Bukowski, Easton Ellis, Vonnegut, Foster Wallace, Roth, Kerouac. Instead of sifting through this mix to identify the gems and the turds, I lauded all of it as absolute genius.
I feel more confident now in my likes and dislikes, but there remains an arena in which we all still try to put our most attractive and interesting selves forward: online dating profiles. My profile on OKCupid admittedly features not just my favorite things and most cherished quirks, but the ones that I thought would make me the most swipe-worthy. This pressure causes a blur of easily mocked stereotypes for a lot of online daters — men boasting their height, women swigging whiskey in bikinis celebrating their love of swigging whiskey in bikinis. The foot we put forward when trying to date isn’t just our best foot; it’s specifically the one we think will be most appealing to our gender(s) of choice. And yet, straight men, even the most well-read men, often fail to list a single woman writer or book by a woman in their online dating profiles.
Straight men, even the most well-read men, often fail to list a single woman writer or book by a woman in their online dating profiles.
I’m definitely not the first person to notice this, but it made me curious.. Did these men not read books by women, not like books by women, or just not care to list books by women on a profile they used to impress…women? I decided to launch a low-key investigation into the dearth of women writers on straight guys’ OKCupid profiles. If an otherwise promising man didn’t list any women writers or books by women writers among his favorites, I wouldn’t go out with him — but I would ask him to explain.
I approached the process as organically as possible, filtering men down initially to those I would be interested in anyway. At the outset I stressed about the parameters. What about men who only list books by men except for Harry Potter? What about men who list books by women, but clearly one or two they had to read in high school? What about men who don’t list any books at all?
Ultimately, my own tastes helped hone the field to a group of men that OKCupid’s behind-the-scenes robots already tag as “bookish”: men with robust, and sometimes even diverse, lists of books and authors in their profile, liberal guys, creatives and creative adjacents, men with glasses and beards.
In order to delve deeper into why some otherwise attractive, interesting, and intellectual men don’t list any women writers or books by women in their profile, I asked. If a man I would otherwise be interested in messaged me first, I would find a way to work in the fact that I wasn’t going on dates with men who didn’t list women writers and ask why they didn’t. When I was feeling particularly bold, I would ask the same of men I would otherwise be interested in, even if we had only matched and they hadn’t messaged me first.
If a man I would otherwise be interested in messaged me first, I would find a way to work in the fact that I wasn’t going on dates with men who didn’t list women writers and ask why they didn’t.
My first swing was an aggressive miss. I matched with a handsome guy who quoted bell hooks in his profile but had a lady-less list in his books section. When prodded about why, he immediately unmatched. Luckily, most of the other men were surprisingly forthcoming. Responses were a mixed bag of thoughtful, defensive, funny, and long-winded. Out of the nine men I spoke with, they fell into three categories — the defensive ally, the reflective “well, actually” historian, and the favorites purist — or some combination of those three.
The defensive allies were rich in performative feminism, but dirt poor in empathy and uninterested in holding themselves accountable as even slightly less than perfect. While none of them called me names, they were quick to assume that I had made a truly despicable value judgement of them based on my one criterion. They would guffaw and list the women whose words they loved, and the work they had done to support women in the past, but they never even tried to answer the question of why none of those women merited a mention in their dating profile. I gratefully did walk out of the experiment without being called a B-, C-, or S- word which is more than I can say about some online dating experiences where I don’t even try to prod a sleeping bear.
The reflective “well, actually” historians were more open to the question. Several said they hadn’t thought of it before, even thanked me for pointing this gap out to them. They did, however, have a different kind of defense, quickly citing the historical reasons why. I was told with surprising frequency that there are just much fewer books by women historically. (This is factually questionable, although there are certainly fewer in the canon — but there are still plenty to read if only one deigns to.) One guy, apropos of nothing, felt the need to share that he had tried and tried to enjoy Jane Eyre, as if Charlotte Brontë were to blame for the fact that no woman could really make it into his list of all-time favorites.
One guy, felt the need to share that he had tried and tried to enjoy “Jane Eyre,” as if Charlotte Brontë were to blame for the fact that no woman could really make it into his list of all-time favorites.
Most often, though, I dealt with the favorites purists — the men who certainly enjoyed books by women, but not enough to have them rank in their top faves. They would explain that they only listed books they had read more than once, authors whose work they had truly pored over, the brilliant minds behind the worn paperbacks they shoved into their messenger bags. One self-proclaimed avid reader listed just shy of 40 books and authors but failed to see that maybe he had some self-reflecting to do if no women made the cut. The favorites purists often seemed horrified at my suggestion that they sneak a woman into the top 40; they saw meddling with their immutable list of faves as disingenuous at best, deceitful at worst.
Beyond a deeper psychological unpacking of why no woman had spoken to these men the same way that Raymond Carver or Philip K. Dick or Don Delillo, this obsession with the genuine felt misguided and maybe even reductive. Dating is an exercise in self-presentation, as much as self-expression. These guys probably chose flattering photos, highlighted cool hobbies, failed to mention disgusting habits, and wore their least holey underwear on early dates. So if they really did love a bunch of books by women, as they claimed defensively when I asked, why were they so shy to include them in a forum where they are explicitly trying to impress and attract women? Why didn’t they think that would make them look cool?
While girls are often shown from an early age that the way to impress a boy is to like boy things, boys are just as often shown from an early age that the way to impress a girl is to…also like boy things. This is not to say that “cool girls,” like the one I was, are manufacturing an interest in culture usually seen as the province of boys; most of us actually do like the “boy things” we advertise as our favorites to the world, but we also highlight those preferences and play down any ones that seem too “girly.” But even if we were genuinely attempting to cultivate new preferences for the sake of connecting with someone, what is the harm in that? One defensive guy asked me if I would rather be with someone who lists their genuine favorites, or with someone who uses some pick-up artist signalling tactic to list books by women just to get laid. I choose neither. I choose a man who truly loves a book — just one book! — by a woman, but failing that, I choose a man who likes a book by a woman and cares enough about what women think of him to say so.
While girls are often shown from an early age that the way to impress a boy is to like boy things, boys are just as often shown from an early age that the way to impress a girl is to…also like boy things.
Only one of the men I messaged with on OKCupid asked for recommendations of more books by women, and the last time I checked, none of the men had updated their profile to list any of the women authors they rattled off to me in direct messages. Their top secret love of Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood somehow never made it to their public self-declarations, even once I’d pointed out that it’s something women want to see. For these men, the best version of themselves is still all about what they think of themselves first and foremost. Even when presented with the fact in explicit terms, these guys struggle to comprehend that attracting a woman like me — smart, creative, educated, legendarily gassy — might include announcing that they admire women like me.
Part of me imagined witty and flirtatious sparring leading to a mutual understanding and a steamy intellectual first date. Alas, I didn’t fall in love with a handsome rogue after a heated virtual tete-a-tete over the canon of women in literature. I did not find my Mr. Darcy (a reference from a book by a woman!!!!) on OKCupid. I did, however, have a few promising conversations with men who did list women writers in their profile. Some even listed women that I list in mine, like Ottessa Moshfegh, Carmen Maria Machado, Anne Carson, Roxane Gay. In setting a pretty low bar, I was able to create a smaller, and much more compatible pool of potential dates.
Even when presented with the fact in explicit terms, these guys struggle to comprehend that attracting a woman like me might include announcing that they admire women like me.
At the end of the day, I truly was a fart queen, I really do enjoy Vonnegut, and I still drink Dr. Pepper. But I also internalized an idea of how I had to put myself forward in a way that most men don’t. Where were the boys trying to impress me with their love of Judy Blume, tea parties, and Fiona Apple?
At the end of all of this, I’m still single, so if you have a bookshelf jam-packed with books by women that you actually enjoy, hit me up. And if you don’t, I won’t hold it against you, as long as you are open to reading more women until you do.