Why 90s dating books are booming on TikTok and what it says about romance now

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Behind the BookTok dating guides revivalJohn Madere

“Ironically when a man really cares a lot, his fear of failure increases and he gives less,” recites TikToker Rosalia Pell. “To avoid failure, he stops giving to the people he wants to give to the most.” Rosalia, filming this video in 2023, is reading from relationship counsellor John Gray’s world-famous Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus. The book, whose title later became an adage in dating conversations everywhere, was originally published in 1992, and has sold approximately 15 million copies since its release.

“That one part in the book has literally changed my opinion on ‘if he wanted to, he would’,” she explains in the clip, “because men will not put themselves in a position to fail. If a man ghosts you after like two months of talking, the majority of the time it isn’t because they didn’t like you. It’s because you’re too good for them and they know it.”

Videos like Rosalia’s are thriving on TikTok where dating self-help books from the 90s and early 00s have found an unlikely home, and a new audience among Gen Z. Despite the book being over two decades old, the search ‘Men are from Mars Women are from Venus’ has 18.6M views on the app.

And it’s not the only decades-old dating guidebook enjoying a resurgence; last year, the 2002 book Why Men Love Bitches trended on TikTok for the second time, when it re-entered the top 10 on the Sunday Times Best Sellers list in 2021 after TikTokers rediscovered it (to avoid censorship, the search term is, ridiculously, ‘Why Men Love Beaches’). “I think the pandemic is making people re-evaluate their priorities,” Sherry Argove, the book’s author told Newsweek at the time. “People are also reading more and maybe buying more self-help books.”

The 1992 book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which has remained on the New York Times Best Sellers list since its publication, is also enjoying a new lease of life on social media, thanks to Chapman’s new book, 2022’s The Five Apology Languages. And if you’ve left your house at all in the last two years, you’ve probably spotted someone conspicuously thumbing a copy of bell hooks’ 2000 treatise, All About Love – another book buoyed by TikTok, with searches for the book’s title having racked up 9.3M views.

It was this boom that inspired Martin*a, a sexual health practitioner, to read All About Love. “It certainly changed my views about a lot of things,” they say, adding that they now try to live by the ‘ethics of love’ as laid out in the book, particularly that “love is not a static thing. It’s a verb. You actively have to ‘do’ love”.

Many of the people reading and talking about these books across social media are significantly younger than the books themselves and given how much the dating landscape has changed in the past 30 years, it can be hard to imagine why these titles appeal to younger readers. But, as Cate Campbell, a BACP-accredited sex and relationships therapist tells Cosmopolitan UK, the appeal lies in their perceived prestige. “The dating scene has changed a lot recently,” explains Campbell. “We’re not in a time anymore where there are rules, so people are looking for something more traditional and for some security. That level of freedom can also cause terror in people, so they start looking to create their own rules.”

At a time when we can date multiple people at once and are navigating the labyrinth of digital romance, from ghosting to zombieing and various other absurd terms, Campbell’s theory that a world of no rules leaves us gasping for some framework makes sense. And, these vintage dating guidebooks provide rules and frameworks aplenty. Take Men are From Mars’ ‘rubber band theory’, which suggests that pulling away from a man emotionally will cause him to ‘snap back’ to you (advice famously heeded in Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging). Or the dating principles from Why Men Love Bitches, including: ‘Anything a person chases in life runs away.’

“A set of rules can feel really helpful, but when people actually come in for therapy about dating issues, what we’re tending to say is, ‘What do you need to look at? Look at your life; what are your values? Does what you’re doing fit with your values and what do you expect from other people?’” explains Campbell, adding that women are more likely to compromise their own beliefs to try to please other people – something that many of these books encourage.

The way gender is presented in these books is one of their main criticisms. As well as being “100% heteronormative”, according to Campbell, these dated self-help books tend to portray men as distant, logical, and unemotional, and women as led by their feelings and naturally clingy.

It’s for these reasons that Cat Tebaldi, who researches the way gender is presented in dating guides, says that these books can reinforce outdated and harmful ideas about gender roles in relationships. She believes that the renewed interest in these books is “part of a growing interest in life advice as we all struggle with dating, both because of the difficulties of apps and the digital dating market, but also the challenges of having relationships in the current economic and social moment as we struggle between more egalitarian values and the rise of reactionary gender politics”.

She links the popularity of these books to the boom in the so-called ‘tradwife’ movement, in which young women create digital content promoting traditional gender roles in relationships, such as women staying at home while men work. Then, there’s the milieu of dating influencers who present women with conservative dating advice – including that women should allow men to step into their masculine energy by letting them lead the relationship – dressed up as empowerment.

Tebaldi points out that several of the revived dating self-help books, including The Five Love Languages, were written by Evangelical Christians, while others, such as Men are From Mars, have their roots in the counter-cultural spiritual movement of the 60s, which has had a big influence on the wellness-to-alt-right pipeline, in which people are funnelled from content about self-improvement and alternative medicines to the anti-science, far-right fringes.

“These marriage books are deeply rooted in an evangelical worldview that emphasises female submission and male power, but sells it as heroic, magical, healing love,” explains Tebaldi. Facing such a turbulent dating and relationship landscape, these books may be seen as offering a sense of stability and even a salve for modern relationship troubles. Given the widening ideology gap between young men (who are becoming more conservative) and women (more liberal), books promising step-by-step guides to attracting and keeping men through tried and tested means might be pretty tempting. As more women become disillusioned with the 2010s girlboss feminism and the promises of egalitarian relationships it failed to deliver, young women are starting to look elsewhere for answers, including backwards to a time presented to them as ‘simpler’ (the reality, of course, was much different).

And, while many of the TikTokers promoting these books do use hashtags associated with counter-cultural spiritual dating coaches like ‘divine feminine’ or ‘sprinkle sprinkle’, this seems to be the main reason why a lot of people are reading these books now – just for a bit of dating guidance. Aisha*, an analyst from London decided to read All About Love after it was recommended to her by a friend, and later read The Rules – a 1995 self-help book which includes advice such as “women are easy to be with but hard to get” – after hearing about it on a podcast. “The Rules felt a bit comical and showed me the unhealthy side of some hard-to-get femininity I observed over the year, but other things were very relevant,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK, noting that while she wouldn’t recommend The Rules, she would recommend All About Love.

Campbell agrees that while these books can be useful guides, “it’s best to not stick slavishly to them”. “It could not be more of a maelstrom out there at the moment. So I understand why people are looking for those certainties,” she says. Instead, though, Campbell recommends talking to your partner at the beginning of a relationship, to lay out what you can each expect from each other. Besides, while dating self-help books can offer a useful framework during a vulnerable time (dating is scary, we know!), it’s important to remember the context they were written in. The rule book has been thrown out, and now we get to make our own.

*Name changed for anonymity

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