'The feminised, declawed softboi' (Credit: Ladybird)

April 22, 2024   4 mins

Women to the Left, men to the Right. And heaven forbid there is any crossover. These days, young people are floundering in their sex-based political silos wanting different things: girls are still seeking equality and boys miss being the good guys. This isn’t a battle of the sexes — we’re too far apart to fight.

To find the roots of this catastrophic division, let’s take a look at what it’s like to be a young woman looking for men on a dating app. Dive in and you will there find that the feminisation of the public cultural sphere — a response to the cult of toxic masculinity — has divided many men in to defiant and defensive conservatives (bad) and a privileged club of sympathetic male faux-feminists (also bad). Apps have given women the power to shun those who hold the wrong views: “Never kissed a Tory” is a mainstay of girls’ Hinge profiles; “conservative” rarely is.

Let’s remember the reason young women have been handed the power to cancel: we are most meaningfully the victims of rape culture. This has resulted in a selection bias towards Left-wing men partly because we want something in common, but also, rightly or wrongly, because there is a hope that these men will be on board with all the sexual-social protections that come with feminism. In my experience, and in that of a lot of my friends, this has been a false equivalence — but can you really blame young women for going for people less likely to be a threat? Don’t forget that these men are all essentially strangers.

Certainly, it remains the case that, as Margaret Atwood put it, while women fear rape and murder, men fear rejection and ridicule. Perhaps it is this, the bedrock of sex, which lies at the core of young people’s divided politics. But there are two important things to say: first, be warned that how someone votes might not have anything to do with how they will treat you as a woman. Second, a wish not to be cancelled cannot ever engender a harmony between the sexes that will last. Earlier this month, in fact, we heard that young men are no more likely to support the idea of gender equality than men in their 60s. Whatever my generation is doing, it ain’t working.

And, yet, women are setting the tone in dating culture even though it shouldn’t really be our job to educate men on how not to harass or discriminate. A friend and I gave one of the compulsory consent workshops in our second year of university, and part of the session was to go around with a show of hands asking things like “if she has passed out, can she still consent”. The mental gymnastics some freshers, not at uni for five minutes, went through to justify having sex with this hypothetical drunk woman — especially when the people holding the workshops were women — shows the unintended consequences of the politicisation of sex: desperate not be lumped in with nice-guy feminists, not raping someone, like other elements of being a “good lad”, became tied up into a wider question of beliefs, subjectivity, and free discourse.

One of the early hopes of MeToo was that the cultural complicity around rape would be replaced with a critical clarity and honesty. Now, we are at a point where the question “what if she’s lying?” has become the gotcha of choice to undermine the very idea of consent. The sexual divide has only been consolidated. As a result, we aren’t creating male feminists, just men schooled in the right things to say. This compulsory, superficial feminism is distracting us from the more critical, genuinely problematic elements of the men we go out with: whether they are sexually aggressive, whether they are unfaithful, creepy, have repugnant fantasies, or are addicted to porn.

This should not be a zero-sum game: wanting a partner who aligns with your values and who also does not mistreat you should be doable. But we have created an avenue for men to wear the sheep’s clothing of someone who likes Greta Gerwig and listens to Mitski, while crooning platitudes about the female gaze. A new, no less grisly bogeyman has emerged from this medium: the feminised, declawed softboi, who wraps you in his Arcteryx jacket and confirms that “I really fuck with Woolf”. Once a harmless semi-progressive navel-gazer, he has mutated into a manipulator with a Mubi tote bag into a dating culture perfectly suited to him.

This politicisation of sex is producing unexpected outcomes. It has given us new frameworks which we use to “sort” men into acceptable and unacceptable categories which are not at all useful. And it has created new avenues for genuinely poisonous partners to reframe their past indiscretions as lifestyle choices (ethical non-monogamy has been a boon for all the worst blokes you know).

The new, warped framework divides male daters into two camps: the gruesome softboi and the 4chan cruiser. This second camp, though mostly exaggerated, is perhaps more interesting, as a rarer phenotype. What do they admire? What idea of womanhood do they cling to in defiance of a system which, they believe, is pushing blue-haired stick-and-poke tattoo artists with personality disorders into their arms?

“The new, warped framework divides male daters into two camps: the gruesome softboi and the 4chan cruiser”

The answer, or so columnists claim, is Sydney Sweeney. Much has been written about her appearance within sexual pop culture, which has variously revitalised the figure of the luscious, busty blonde or created a new rod with which Right-wing men can beat women, who in turn are just emerging bleary-eyed from years in the cave of body positivity. The answer to whether Sydney Sweeney’s breasts hold political power is probably “no”. But she does hold significance in terms of what she symbolises to the men who do politicise their attraction to her.

She represents the unfettering of a male sexuality that has been constricted by the demands of what some see as a man-hating modern bias towards all but a mysterious “top tier”. Women, we hear, no longer need to put the effort into being voluptuous, giggly, compliant, sexually ready and sufficiently made-up, but are no less expectant of ideal qualities in men.

Modern dating culture is a desperate bog haunted by ideological ghouls. Maybe it’s time we pushed them all aside, and stopped superimposing political fantasies people who are probably pretending anyway.

An earring does not indicate he is a good person. That Jeanette Winterson book in his tote bag does not indicate he won’t get sulky if you don’t give him head on the first date. He is as likely, at bottom, to be a prick as someone who writes in their bio that they want “a woman who isn’t crazy” (seen in the wild not a week ago). We must do something to rehabilitate relations between young men and women — or it will only spell doom further down the line. Failing that, bring back political lesbianism.

Poppy Sowerby is an editor and writer covering politics and culture.