When Sex and the Single Girl by advertising copywriter Helen Gurley Brown was first published, 50 years ago this month, I was still reading Enid Blyton and not yet in the market for advice on how to conduct an affair with a married man.
But then, in my teens, I saw the movie, based very loosely on the book (a rather bad movie as it happens, starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis). I became aware that the book’s author, after selling a few million copies of her oeuvre, had gone on to revamp an ailing US fiction magazine called Cosmopolitan, turning it into a glossy version of her mega-successful manual.
It was brave because it suggested that a single woman could indulge her libido and still be a ‘lady’
By the time I got around to reading the actual book, a decade after its publication, I was newly employed on the just-launched British edition of Cosmopolitan, HGB (as her staff came to call her) was my boss-in-chief across the pond, and her advice for single women was required reading.
It was a matter of some embarrassment to me that when I first met HGB at the tender age of 20, I was in fact already married. Perhaps, if I’d read Sex and the Single Girl earlier and heeded its advice, I wouldn’t have rushed into matrimony with the first man who asked me.
Groundbreaking, brave and sensible
Re-reading the book now I am struck by how groundbreaking, brave and downright sensible this practical and jaunty paean to singledom was in its time. In 1962, the Pill had barely been introduced, jobs for women were stop-gaps en route to marriage and sex before wedlock was still frowned upon.
I’m also struck by how hilariously antediluvian some of it sounds; for example, a section on how to spot a homosexual with no hint of a suggestion that he might own up to it himself. And some of it is frankly barmy. Like HGB’s notion that the few men who insist they like girls plump are usually the ones who prefer cleaning rifles or exchanging jokes in the locker room to flirtation.
But groundbreaking it certainly was for exploding the myth that every girl must be married, and the younger the better. HGB’s thesis was based on the fact that she didn’t herself marry until the age of 37. “I think a single woman’s biggest problem,” she said, “is coping with the people who are trying to marry her off!”
It was brave because it suggested that a single woman could indulge her libido and still be a ‘lady’, and sensible for suggesting that a career will win you not just economic independence but respect.
Men remained the goal
There is, however, a major paradox: while the advice steered the reader in the direction of having fun as a single woman, every page was littered with man-catching suggestions, from what to stock in your cocktail cabinet to the notion that, if you aren’t meeting any men through your job, you are in the wrong job. Men, if not marriage, remained the goal.
As a historical document, Sex and the Single Girl is fascinating. As an advice manual for today’s single woman, it needs to be read with a large pinch of salt. But Helen Gurley Brown’s aphorisms could certainly liven up Loose Women. Here are some of my favourites:
- “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband.”
- “Theoretically, a ‘nice’ single woman has no sex life. What nonsense… Her married friends refer to her pursuers as wolves, but actually many of them turn out to be lambs – to be shorn and worn by her.”
- “I would rather be the other woman than the woman who watches a man stray from her.”
- “Unlike Madame Bovary, you don’t chase the glittering life, you lay a trap for it. You tunnel up from the bottom.”
- “Your figure can’t harbour an ounce of baby fat. It never looked good on anybody but babies.”
- “The quality of men you meet at work is usually perfectly satisfactory. At least they are not chaps who go to movies all day in hopes of sitting next to a nine-year-old girl.”
- “A lady’s love should pay for all trips, most restaurant tabs, and the liquor. That’s simply good affair etiquette.”
So what about the last one? Despite my feminist leanings, I could certainly drink to that.
The 50th anniversary edition of Sex and the Single Girl is published by Barricade Books