A woman recently went to Reddit for advice: her fiancé had financially ruined her due to a gambling addiction, and she wasn’t sure what to do. Members of Female Dating Strategy, a subreddit offering dating advice exclusively to women, spotted the thread and added their own assessment: her choice to stay with him was another example of “cockholm syndrome.”
On a website commonly known as the home of the manosphere, r/FemaleDatingStrategy is, in many ways, initially, refreshing. The “female-only” forum, founded in February 2019, prides itself on being the only space on Reddit for women who date men to safely vent concerns about their relationships with men who often devalue them, ignore them, or even abuse them. It’s filled with memes and advice, and a recent Wall Street Journal piece praised it for offering “honesty and tough love.” The subreddit has 54,000 subscribers and is growing rapidly.
But while FDS’s advice can seem appealing at first, underneath is a socially conservative approach that’s often deeply critical of women and their behaviors, placing limits on how they can act and what they ought to seek from a relationship.
On a base level, much of Female Dating Strategy’s advice makes sense. For women who have dealt with trauma at the hands of men in their relationships, FDS’s guidelines (“A Man MUST Treat You Like a Queen from the Start” and “Don’t Settle for Less”) can serve as a practice in boundary-setting, and the forum can offer a supportive community for those who may not otherwise have one. Many FDS members talk about how FDS changed their lives. One user said FDS helped them block a manipulative guy they’d been seeing for years; another said the community helped her leave an abusive relationship. Much of the basic advice in FDS can be helpful in learning one’s worth and relearning how to assert boundaries as an adult.
It’s clear that Female Dating Strategy can have an appeal to women trying to find answers to the struggles in their relationships. “The guidelines helped me realize (what in hindsight sounds obvious) that if the guys you are talking to aren’t choosing to reciprocate the same effort as you in the beginning... it’s not going to get better,” said a friend who introduced me to the group.
Dedicated members of Female Dating Strategy are supposed to read the subreddit’s six-point ideology around how to approach dating, follow its list of rules (they do not support consensual BDSM, viewing porn, or having sex before commitment has been established in a relationship), and use women-critical lingo such as “pickmeisha” (a woman who lowers standards to receive attention from men) and “cockholm syndrome” (when a woman keeps going back to “low-value” men). There are even approved podcasters and YouTubers for FDS members to listen to.
The sexual conservatism of their approach can become oppressive to women. Women are encouraged to not disclose their sexual history to partners or have sex too soon because they believe no man would ever love a woman who has sex quickly. Posts about sex workers can be incredibly whorephobic (a term used by sex workers to describe hatred toward sex workers that can be both relational, systemic, and societal), with comments on one post saying that abusive men should see sex workers instead of “normal women.” My friend who otherwise enjoys FDS says she doesn’t like “how they talk about sex workers or treat them as separate from the general population of women.” And just as the forum breaks men down into “low value” and “high value,” so too will it call women “low value” for behavior that doesn’t live up to their standards.
These strict rules mean that FDS members only support certain women. When one commenter wrote that they love FDS and are dating a High Value Male but they enjoy BDSM, some people responded that FDS may not be the space for them if they can’t follow the rules. Another post says that a woman who wants to ask men out (instead of waiting for him to initiate like a High Value Male would) makes them “a pick-me” automatically. Women who choose to propose to their boyfriends are similarly mocked on FDS. The subreddit also deletes posts that “don’t follow our principles.” So women who don’t follow FDS’s strict ideology are very quickly pushed out by moderators.
Similar conservative guidelines (“don’t rush into sex,” “let him take the lead”) were promoted as dating advice in books of the ’90s and 2000s such as The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. Female Dating Strategy even has a page dedicated to FDS-approved dating books. These dating advice books and FDS mirror generally repressive norms about women’s sexuality, but they’re specifically about women policing other women’s behavior in the name of winning a man.
The site also echoes a brand of anti-porn feminism that reaches back to the 1970s and 1980s’ Feminist Sex Wars. Sex-positive feminists argued for, as author Gayle Rubin put it, the “decriminalization of sexuality and for all consenting persons to do what they wished sexually.” Their opponents argued that porn, BDSM, and sex work were inherently oppressive and degrading to women. But by denying women autonomy over their bodies and sexual choices, they often ended up dehumanizing women who didn’t live up to their moral standards.
The Verge reached out to Female Dating Strategy’s moderation team for comment. The moderators said they would only speak to us if we provided “valid government issued ID” as proof of identity, which we declined to do, and they declined or did not respond to other offers for verification.
FDS’s approach to dating shares some behaviors with traditionally male and radical relationship subreddits. Like pickup artists, Female Dating Strategy often objectifies the opposite gender and turns dating into some sort of game to be won — just in their case, it isn’t having sex that’s the prize, but finding a High Value Male. Both communities often will blame women for the ways men treat them, and an FDS “strategy coach” even reworked the infamous Pickup Artist guide The Book of Pook for FDS’s audience by “converting the sexist stuff.” FDS also had to actively phase out femcel language (that’s a women’s “incel” community) because it was scaring people away from their new ideology.
In recent months, the community r/AgainstHateSubreddits has called out FDS on multiple occasions for banning trans women. When reading about FDS’s history of transphobic policies and behavior, they commented, “I joined it recently because some friend told me I should, but I’m gonna leave it right away.”
Day to day, the subreddit continues to fill with screenshots of funny tweets and inspirational quotes — images that are easy to get sucked in by and keep scrolling past. Those looking for true advice, though, will find something far more judgmental. When one woman recently asked another relationship subreddit how to help her boyfriend with erectile dysfunction, FDS spotted the thread and chimed in. With the tag “dump his ass,” an FDS poster assessed the situation: “Pickmeisha wasting her time with small dicked dude with ED.”