Rebekah Campbell remembers the moment she knew things had to change. “I got to age 34 and woke up one Christmas morning on a fold-out bed in the garage of some friends of my parents and was like, ‘I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this,’” she says. “I could see that I was potentially going to miss out on having a family unless I did something drastic.”
Campbell was single and had not been on a date since the death of her boyfriend a decade prior. In those 10 years, she focused her energy on building a successful business career, including founding the order-ahead app Hey You. So she resolved to begin dating the same way she launched brands: by sketching out a plan that resembled the “sales funnel” she used in her work.
“I thought about it the same way for dating: at the top of the funnel I needed to have as many candidates as possible,” she says.To bring in “leads”, Campbell signed up for online dating platforms such as eHarmony and Tinder, and tasked friends with matchmaking duties. She created a list of the traits she wanted in a partner. To vet candidates, she had screening calls with potential dates before meeting them. And to ensure a “controlled experiment”, she met her suitors at one of the same two venues every week. Campbell documented her strategy in the book 138 Dates, out now through Allen & Unwin. (The approach paid off – after three years of dating, Campbell met her now-husband.)
138 Dates is one woman’s personal dating strategy, but Campbell is not alone in applying a set of rules to her love life. On Reddit, a community of 179,000 mostly heterosexual women discuss their courtship tactics in the subreddit r/FemaleDatingStrategy. The board began in 2019, but the Female Dating Strategy universe expanded this year to include a website and podcast.
Female Dating Strategy (FDS) offers a range of (often brutal, expletive-laden) advice to single women, designed to “[optimise] the female dating experience”. Among the six-point FDS mantras are “ruthlessly evaluate men”, “make him invest before sex” and “don’t split the bill”.
Its list of no-nos includes asking a man out (FDS believes women should not make the first move) and drink dates (they’re “low effort”; going out for a meal is preferred). FDS advocates dating multiple men simultaneously, cutting suitors off at the first red flag and, as Campbell did, conducting pre-date interviews over the phone. The goal is to filter out anyone who is not, in FDS parlance, a “high-value man”.
Deploying some form of strategy around dating is nothing new. Since the 1700s women have parsed Jane Austen novels for wisdom on selecting suitors. More recently, 1990s hit book The Rules explicitly doled out such dating instructions to women as “Don’t call him and rarely return his calls” and “Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday”. For men, 2005 bestseller The Game explored the world of pick-up artistry, encouraging techniques such as “negging” – making comments that undermine a woman’s self-confidence so they’re more vulnerable to male advances.
Sometimes FDS echoes the social conservatism of The Rules: having sex in the first six weeks is discouraged and FDS comes down hard against pornography, kink and the sex-positive politics of “liberal feminism” – all of which the group’s moderators believe are harmful to women.
While The Rules prescribed what women can do to snare men, FDS focuses more on asking its disciples to ensure men are actually worth their time. For the female dating strategist, adherents say, being single is not a failure but an opportunity to work on yourself.
“FDS is very big on establishing your own life, keeping busy and having your own interests, because then it makes it a lot easier to see if a man is adding value to your life,” explains Savannah, age 24, who happened upon r/FemaleDatingStategy in 2019 and today co-hosts The Female Dating Strategy podcast. To avoid being harassed by Reddit’s many Female Dating Strategy critics, Savannah and her co-hosts do not use their last names.
“It’s not an exclusively FDS thing to have boundaries and standards, but FDS really drove the point home in a way that made the most sense to me,” Savannah says.
Two years on, Savannah is in a relationship with a man she courted using FDS principles. Her experience has been positive, “Maybe because I’m more coming from a place of confidence, whereas perhaps before in my dating life I really wasn’t confident at all.”
Savannah believes having a dating strategy is important because “if you want a favourable outcome in any arena, whether that’s education or finance or career, you normally need a strategy. So it makes sense to have a dating strategy because your choice of partner is arguably one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your lifetime.”
Grace Sharkey, an academic at the University of Sydney whose work examines feminism and queer theory, believes FDS is a way of taking back some control in an area of life that can feel overwhelming – for both women and men.
“Of course there are gendered dynamics that influence our dating lives, but I think it’s unlikely anyone feels like they have all the power all the time when it comes to dating,” she says.
“Opening ourselves up to romantic attachment is destabilising and makes us vulnerable. Dating is messy and complicated, and we all bring our own histories to romantic entanglements. Inventing rules and regulations for dating is a way to feel like we are counteracting that messiness.”
In the age of dating apps, where many seek hook-ups not love, Savannah thinks it’s especially important to carefully screen dates. “If you’re looking for a serious relationship, online dating is basically full of atomic bombs that you can step on.”
While female dating strategy has been compared to pick-up artistry for the way it “gamifies” dating, Savannah believes FDS “isn’t about trying to manipulate men into trying to behave a certain way … it’s more about finding a man who is comfortable with you having boundaries and standards, and who understands how to treat a woman.”
Rebekah Campbell is not a subscriber of Female Dating Strategy, but like FDS believers, she aimed to date multiple men at the same time, mostly because she found dating to be a “numbers game” as much as anything else. But she did eventually break that self-imposed rule.
“When I did meet my husband I cancelled every other date that I had lined up,” she says. “I just knew straight away that he was the one.
“I think there is still something magic that happens when two people connect that you can’t necessarily turn into a formula. But putting yourself in luck’s way is definitely a good strategy.”