Joe is a straight man in his twenties. Like many men, he passionately rejects astrology.
"It strips people of their uniqueness and reduces them to pigeonholed blocks of characteristics," he tells me. "I don't like being a real logic lord about it, on some 'I am the ultimate skeptic! Facts don't care about your feelings, compadre!' vibe. However, I do find it really fucking irritating, and the memes are all really annoying and I hate the self-aggrandisement of '[Star sign] season, bitches!'"
By that, he means people on social media announcing the calendar entry into a new zodiac sign. From now until the 22nd of November, for instance, it's Scorpio season, bitches.
"Aren't you a Taurus?" I ask, knowing full well that he is. He replies: "Are you going to tell me this is a very Taurus way of behaving?" I tell him that Taureans are often pegged as the sign least likely to believe in astrology.
Over the past two to three years, astrology has shifted from being a niche interest to a major point of enthusiasm for many women and queer people. Broadly, VICE's channel geared towards women and the LGBTQ community, gets a huge amount of traffic from astrological features and horoscopes. Other media platforms for women have noticeably ramped up astrology content from filler to the forefront. In the UK, Google searches for "birth chart" doubled between November of 2013 and November of 2018. Since September of 2017, there's been a steady increase in people searching "astrological compatibility". All that interest has given publishing a boost: sales of mind, body and spirit books are booming; in 2017, sales rose by 13 percent in just a year.
In 2016, mental health was prime meme fodder; now, astrology memes are all over our timelines. Swipe through a dating app and you'll soon find a woman who's included their sign in emoji in their bio as shorthand for personality traits, likes and dislikes, and an indicator for compatibility.
But not everyone is onboard. Joe is not alone in his antipathy to the cosmological boom; straight men seem to be frequently apathetic or averse to astrology. In a 2005 Gallup UK poll, just over twice as many women in the UK believed in astrology compared to men (30 percent to 14 percent of a data pool of 1,010 people). A 2017 study by Pew Research Centre found that 20 percent of adult men in the US believed in astrology, compared to 37 percent of women.
If you're a straight man with a lot of female friends, you probably tolerate astrology ("It's gotten to the point where I'm sharing Virgo memes in the group chat like 'lol, me', but I still don't like it," says Adam from Manchester). And if you don't, you likely think it's a load of shit ("If you try to bring up that shit with me, I'll think you're a mindless bimbo," Tom, 25, London). There are obviously women and LGBTQ people who feel similarly, but why is this attitude so prevalent among straight men in particular? Is it because astrology is generally seen as a "women's" interest?
A couple of the men I spoke to referenced their dads reading daily horoscopes in the tabloids, realising that any of the vague summaries could apply to them and deciding they would never return to astrology. "It was the first time I'd noticed something so embedded in our culture was surely just bollocks, and it sent me into a tailspin," says Sam Hill, 27, from Lincoln.
Most admitted being put off because astrology had been so gendered. "As a child, the females [would go] for tea and biscuits round my nan's, where the astrology columns of the Mail and the dreaded Sun would be read out with various degrees of mystery and giggling," 36-year-old Bob from Kent remembered. "Nowadays, [horoscopes are] near the women's section in the papers or in female-specific weeklies such as Woman’s Own or Take A Break. I can't remember Esquire or Loaded having such pages when I read them many moons ago.”"
His opinion on astrology? "Waste of time. Waste of energy. Waste of chip paper. It's like the lottery for lonely people."
Sam feels similarly that astrology has always been gendered, and that the male response to that – to ignore it – makes sense. "It's hard to indicate what I mean, but, for example, if a girl in school likes a certain book, the boys can't like it for fear of being called gay or whatever, so that book becomes a girl's book," he said. "The same can be said of horoscopes. I think women are drawn to them out of a sense of curiosity and spirituality that is drummed out of boys at a young age."
Unsurprisingly, dating has provided a stage for tension. As women become more hooked on astrology, more straight men are being forced to engage with it. Most of the men I spoke to talked about astrology chat ruining dates, or ex-girlfriends who were "too obsessed" with the cosmos.
"After the initial stages of 'getting to know you', it became apparent that she was quite into her spiritual side: short of a nose piercing and a gap year spent in India, she was a paid-up member of the horoscope crew, with a little smattering of tarot reading and general warnings to 'watch out for karma'," says Laurie, 29, from London. "At first I quite enjoyed it: as a spiritually bankrupt man it was nice having some direction to consider in my life beyond the deep-set, middle-class guilt I'd had bullied into me at school. She met my parents – a meeting I thought went well, until my dad laughed in her face when she asked what his sign was and suggested that cancer signs typically struggled with appreciating music."
The family ended up having an "icy" tube journey home, the ex upset that Laurie's dad had given her beliefs so little patience. Both had an explosive argument about astrology that ended in her "consulting some charts for me there and then to see if my decision-making or reasoning was being negatively affected by Mercury or some similar shite", and Laurie breaking up with her via text.
Kevin from Ireland says his ex used her birth chart to justify poor behaviour or bad moods, while Paul from Essex says a woman he slept with looked up his chart and got rapidly into him based off their supposed compatibility, "but ignored all the stuff that suggested I was difficult (I am) and that we weren't destined to be together (we weren’t)".
Adam, 26, from Oxford, was dating a female friend when an initial interest in astrology became a gateway drug to all sorts of New Age stuff, like tarot and palm reading. "It wasn't something I was into myself, but it became a really defining feature of the whole relationship, which was a case of 'not really for me, thanks'," he says. "It stops being an interest and [becomes] a personality trait: 'I'm an astrology girl.'"
Would Adam date another Astrology Girl? "If it was a minor interest in their life it wouldn't bother me. If it was a major thing? Nope."
All of the above has been observed by working astrologers, too. Jessica Lanyadoo, who hosts Ghost Of A Podcast, said, "I know lots of cis straight male astrologers, but not as many cis straight male astrology fans." Astrologer Randon Rosenbohm agrees, telling me "it's for girls and gays".
"Astrology is a natural, intuitive way of telling time, and women are more in tune with nature," Randon continues. "Men, however, are builders who work with the material world. Unless you give a straight man evidence of astrology being real, they're less likely to find it remotely interesting."
In other words, Randon thinks men might be more likely to be immediately dismissive, while women might feel something out. A large study released this month found that women are more empathetic and men more analytical, and there is some evidence to show that women's brains will stay with a distressing feeling while a male brain will seek a solution. But gendered biology is a highly disputed field: not every man is a builder, and neither is anyone with a womb somehow bound to be more naturally in tune with nature.
With or without that purported "natural intuition", women are undoubtedly driving the wider self-help and therapeutic industries. Often, there's little separation between self-help and astrology; the latter is often used as a type of the former. Ghost Of A Podcast, for example, has a set-up where the first-half is self-help agony aunt, and the second astrological forecasting for the upcoming week.
"Astrology doesn't shy away from symbols that explore our weaknesses and 'weak feelings', like grief, trauma, sorrow, denial, misperception, projection, self-sabotage, victimisation," says astrologer Danny Larkin. "And that runs counter to how straight men are constantly encouraged in their lives to man up instead of open up. It’s easier and more palatable to observe that women and queer people are often on the short end of the stick in many situations, so it's easier for them to identify with these difficult themes that astrology probes."
To understand your and others' personalities, to try to predict the future: ultimately, it's grasping for control, when we have none. Women and queer people are drawn to astrology because it offers community and refuge, something to lean on during a time in which religion has taken a backseat. In a heterosexual patriarchy, cis-het men arguably have less to seek refuge from. It is during times of significant stress that people turn to astrology, after all. In a 1982 study, the psychologist Graham Tyson found that people who consult astrologers did so in response to stressors, writing, "Under conditions of high stress, the individual is prepared to use astrology as a coping device, even though under low-stress conditions he does not believe in it."
Personally, a vague interest I'd had in astrology since I was a kid was solidified once I did my birth chart and found it to be eerily accurate. As soon as conflicting deadlines strike in tandem with my rising anxiety levels, and if I've not been looking after myself properly, I notice I'm checking astrology apps and podcasts more. But without that initial "in" I’d never have gone down the rabbit hole. It's just about the entry point and who gets there.
I ask Joe if I can do his birth chart. He says I can, so I go onto Cafe Astrology and work it out for him, sharing some of his characteristics: stubborn, stoical, likes pleasure and the arts, might easily get a bruised ego if not "heard".
It is, he says, pretty much accurate – but to express any kind of joy over astrological correctness would be an endorsement he could never give.