On first scroll, Female Dating Strategy looks like any other straight women’s self-help site. Between its bright pink borders, you’ll see a selection of #empowering memes, a bustling advice forum and articles on getting over heartbreak. You’ll see “Women Don’t Owe You Shit” slogans and pastel-coloured platitudes about becoming your “best self”.
The core message behind it all? Men are “braindead” and “ass garbage”, and they need to be “ruthlessly evaluated” before you form an emotional attachment. Even if you think you’ve met a decent one, you should remain on your guard.
“Thinking ‘not all men’ is DETRIMENTAL to your safety,” reasons one poster. “‘Not all men are rapists... But if I gave you a pack of gummy bears and told you one was poisoned, wouldn’t you treat each of them as potentially lethal?”
“FDS has helped my self-confidence tremendously,” says Kristen*, who has been an FDS subscriber for 14 months. She credits the subreddit – which encourages self-development over finding a man – for pushing her into therapy, business training and helping her to find a new job. “My self-esteem has been nothing, always,” she tells VICE over Reddit PMs. “But through FDS, I realised self-improvement should be the main priority.”
Celeste*, another subscriber, agrees that FDS has improved her confidence, adding that it’s also given her a new perspective on dating. “I’m taking a break from dating for a while,” she explains, “but when I get back to it I will be vetting people much more thoroughly and cutting them off at the first sign of disrespect. I don’t want to waste any more of my time.”
According to its anonymous founders, FDS was created to counter the misogyny of the manosphere. It wanted to offer women practical advice to deal with growing hostility from the men’s rights movement, while also building their self-esteem so they can thrive in an oppressively patriarchal society.
“The manosphere has an army of men dedicated to creating new ways to exploit and abuse women,” an FDS spokesperson tells VICE. “We bring attention to women of the various ways men are exploiting us – actively and passively – so we can avoid it.”
The site prides itself on its “brutal realism” about men, which translates to simplified categorising. FDS believes that there are only two types: Unworthy men – known as “Low Value Men” (LVM) – have little money, ambition and manners. They make you split the bill, reply late to your text messages and propose park or drink dates, rather than dinner.
High Value Men (HVM), on the other hand, worship the ground you walk on. As well as being honest, loyal and consistent, they also shell out, paying for you to have proper dinner dates and your own housekeeper (“because he knows you are not a maid”).
The strategies for securing an HVM are thorough and extensive. The FDS handbook lives across over 80 subreddit threads and – like the manosphere – comes complete with its own language. “Pickmeishas” are women who are desperate or who “degrade” themselves for men. This behaviour can lead to “Cockholm Syndrome”, where they end up defending “the worst men beyond all logic or reason”.
In order to “level up” from this state and achieve “queen” or “dreamgirl” status, women have to build their self-esteem and avoid “scrotes” (dickheads, otherwise known as most men). They can do this in a number of ways, including focusing on their career or having a few men in “scrotation” (dating rotation).
FDS has tactics on practically everything, including the classiest way to ask for a napkin in a restaurant and the best way to put on a coat. There’s even guidance on the “dreamgirl” way of listening to your partner’s secrets (you have to be silent for a bit and then say, “Thank you for telling me that”).
Women are warned off having sex in the first three months of courtship and told to avoid – at all costs – moving in with a boyfriend before marriage. After all, for men, a live-in girlfriend is just “like a video game achievement that unlocks regular, free sex and half off your rent”. Why would they want to marry you after that?
Needless to say, FDS is divisive, and not just among men’s rights activists. Many of their views come across as simplistic, strange and mean-spirited. Women are told not to date any man with a mental illness, for example, or anyone struggling with their finances. One-night-stands are a no-no, as are men with small penises. Forced vasectomies are good, but sex work and pornography are bad. The moderators are also proudly kink-shamey, claiming that BDSM and polyamory are disrespectful and only ever explored for a man’s benefit, rather than because a woman might have a genuine interest herself.
They’re also extremely unforgiving when it comes to rule-breaking. “I enjoyed FDS at first because there was a lot of good advice about female empowerment,” says Jess, 35 from Tennessee. After struggling with her self-esteem, she joined the subreddit to “get her shit together”.
However, she was swiftly banned when she contributed to a discussion about male sexual assault in another unrelated subreddit. “Someone was alluding to the possibility that men couldn’t be sexually assaulted, and I replied saying that was ridiculous,” she remembers. “And then the notification came through that I had been banned from FDS automatically.”
The ban was a shock, but it came at the right time. Jess admits she’d already begun to feel sceptical about FDS’s messaging, which often ended up being contradictory and hypocritical. “I noticed a lot of drifting into sexism,” she says. “In one breath, it would be ‘you don’t need a man to take care of you’ to ‘don’t give a man a second date if he doesn’t pay for your first date’. To me, that was confusing, because you can’t have it both ways.”
Now, she says she is strongly against FDS’s “ludicrous” and “toxic” views and dismisses it as a “cesspit”. “You can love and respect yourself, and demand honesty and integrity, without taking it personally when a man expects the same,” she adds.
In addition to all this – and despite vehement claims that the site is free from all racism, homophobia and bigotry – the official FDS Twitter account has started to let slip some transphobia in recent weeks, and is retweeting renowned TERFs like Julie Bindel. The FDS subreddit also specifies that only biological “females” are allowed to post, and says that “if you’ve got an XY, don’t reply”.
“People have a strong reaction to us because we are challenging commonly accepted narratives about what women’s liberation and empowerment looks like,” say the founders, who add that they “don’t care” about being disliked.
Relationship experts also seem unimpressed by the site. Some FDS principles are received well, like the focus on independence and finding self-fulfillment before entering a relationship, but otherwise, it’s all too generalising.
“Much of FDS is similar to the advice your BFF would give you if you were in an unhealthy relationship,” says New York-based relationship expert Susan Winter. “But the underlying tone on FDS smacks of 'all men are like this.' That's where I have concerns. I've known good men; kind, thoughtful and devoted partners and husbands. I've been loved by good men and loved good men in return.” The inferral that most men are ass-garbage, Winter says, presents a “real issue.”
UK dating coach Kate Mansfield agrees: “While women are still suffering the consequences of being sexualised into roles and patterns that are incredibly destructive to intimate relationships, modern men are also confused, undermined and suffering emotionally.”
In other words, despite the vast difference in our social experiences, human beings of all genders still have the same individual need, which is “to love and to be loved,” Mansfield says, “for who they really are”.
The biologically deterministic language, teamed with the site-specific slang and relationship advice, has also seen comparisons to the manosphere sites it was created to stand against. There are plenty of similarities: In the early days of the online men’s rights movement, pick-up artists would share detailed strategies for attracting women, while also talking about them in broad, stereotypical and dehumanising ways. Memes, which feature regularly on FDS, also helped playfully proliferate hateful and intolerant views.
“My first reaction to the FDS subreddit was, did Red Pill guys write this?” jokes Bharath Ganesh, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Groningen, and a researcher in digital hate culture.
As well as putting men into the same “essentialist categories” as the men’s rights movement did with women, Ganesh says, FDS also presents “a lot of the same theories and ideas that you saw in the manosphere; particularly this idea that men are scriptable, and we should adjust our lives and presentation to filter out the ones that want and get rid of the ones that we don’t want”.
He also points out that, like FDS, much of the content on the manosphere was spawned from the “self-help” genre (take the pick up artistry of The Game, or men’s rights hero Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life). They started as empowering but, as conspiracy theories began to circulate and hate speech became more normalised, they descended into something darker. While FDS is still nowhere near as hateful as the Red Pill movement, Ganesh still says that “it’s heading in that direction”.
“It is misandrist,” he says simply. “It’s about the reduction of people to ridiculous, facile stereotypes.” That said, he acknowledges that it’s unlikely to ever become a serious threat. “The problem this kind of misandry presents is fully dwarfed by misogyny, simply because of the power of the patriarchy… Men’s rights activists and white supremacists have actual access to power structures.”
Even if FDS is unlikely to develop into anything more concerning, it’s still not going to help – either as a solution to women’s dating woes, or as a patriarchy-smashing strategy. “Playing games, trying to belittle and use men in the way that perhaps women have been used historically is only going to alienate men,” warns Mansfield. “This could create a deeper and more toxic rift between the sexes.”