Helen Gurley Brown: 10 Best Tips From ‘Sex and the Single Girl’

Don’t avoid Don Juans. It’s OK to cozy up with a married man. Lizzie Crocker on Helen Gurley Brown’s seminal book for single women.

Some 40 years before Sex and the City became a cultural phenomenon—its career-driven, sex-seeking female protagonists living out every single woman’s fantasy life—the late Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl taught unmarried women in the 1960s how to make the most of single life, primarily by having numerous steamy affairs. From what makes a woman sexy to why single women should embrace makeup, the most audacious advice from the legendary author.

What you don’t need to lure a large number of handsome paramours.

There are many things a single woman does need in her repertoire to ensnare a handsome lover, but before we get to that long list, Helen Gurley Brown assures the reader of the one thing she doesn’t need: “Great beauty.” Take it from the author herself, who seduced many an eligible bachelor despite the fact that she was “not beautiful, or even pretty ... not bosomy or brilliant,” and once had “the world’s worst case of acne.” Nor does this imagined femme fatale need to be particularly wealthy (“Have you ever noticed the birds who circle around rich girls? Strictly for the aviary.”) So yes, even the penniless Plain Janes can be brilliant in their own ways, as men often discover with surprising pleasure. Alternately, they feel surprisingly disconsolate when they find that “plumbing the depths of a raving beauty may be like plumbing the depths of Saran Wrap.” In short: you don’t have to be the best or the brightest or the bustiest to land a great man. “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”

Why single women shouldn’t avoid the archetypal Don Juan.

He’ll certainly break your heart and will likely give you some sort of awful venereal disease, but dating a Don Juan is worth the trouble. “No girl is really ready for marriage, I believe, until she has weathered the rigors of a romance with a Don Juan. It’s part of her training,” HGB advises. But one must be ready for the repercussions of this particular training—the good, the bad, and the self-destructive—and learn how to spot a “D.J.” from the moment you meet him. The good: “A Don Juan’s drive and attention to detail are awe-inspiring. He will work with as much zeal to snare a mousy girl as to seduce a beauty queen. He doesn’t stint on good restaurants, good wine, or good theatre tickets.” The bad: “A Don Juan is sick in the head of course—as sick as any chap who thinks he is Napoleon or pads around in tennis shoes peeping in windows.” The inevitable: “But he is also the man, alas, who can temporarily make you feel like Audrey Hepburn sneaking past the palace guard to fall into the arms of Gregory Peck.” What single woman doesn’t live for such a thrillingly gratifying tryst, no matter how ephemeral? Much better that an affair with a D.J. be short-lived anyway; otherwise even the most keen girls might have a temporary brain lapse and marry the jerk.

Why the workplace may be the best place to meet your bachelor of choice.

Things have no doubt changed for women in the workplace since 1962, but HGB offers plenty of good reasons a single girl should remain silently on the prowl between the hours of 9 and 5, “a marvelous time to sink into a man.” After the workday is over, many of the single men already have dates planned with some fetching young thing (“Never mind that this broad is holding your potential slave her slave with three-inch fillets and herb soufflés like his mother never made.”) It’s therefore imperative that a single working woman appear desirable during morning meetings, lunch breaks, etc. “If you are a feast for the eyes during the daylight hours ... he may just turn to you when she has run out of recipes.” Furthermore, according to HGB, it’s a common misconception that an office romance will take a toll on her career. On the contrary: “A girl in love with her boss will knock herself out seven days a week and wish there were more days. Tough on her but fabulous for business!”

So what do men find sexy in a woman? (Hint: a sexy woman doesn’t “fake it”.)

Sure, there are a lot of fancy maneuvers a single woman can pull to make herself more desirable to men, many of which are outlined in the book. But if there’s a bottom line, HGB writes, it’s that a sexy woman is quite simply a “woman who enjoys sex.” HGB doesn’t reference the “dead fish” analogy that has become a more modern descriptor of a woman who seemingly doesn’t enjoy sex, but we get the idea. And what of the single women who aren’t having lots of sex because, well, they’re single? “Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable ... your reproductive organs, your breasts, your alimentary tract,” HGB writes. “A woman who even occasionally enjoys an orgasm from the roots of her hair to the tips of her toes is sexy.” All the more power to the single gal who can achieve this sensation without a partner. If she naturally enjoys “being sexy within herself,” the more likely she will be “able to enjoy sex.” And what of the women for whom this particular exploration of the self is unappealing? “Remember, frigidity isn’t a physical disability. It’s a curable state of mind.” Yes, it’s a cliché, but sometimes the best way to a man’s heart (or into his pants) is through his stomach.

It may seem contradictory to the rest of her philosophy that HGB would advocate mastery of cooking for single women, but the ability to whip up a delicious meal for a dinner party or a special new friend is an appealing quality in both sexes. And because men are biologically more attuned to their primal instincts (i.e., food and sex), being a good cook is arguably as important as being good in bed. For this reason, HGB devotes 13 pages to recipes for “Three Fabulous Little Dinners (and one semi-fabulous brunch).” So what if these “little” dinners incorporate seven or eight courses. Presentation is key, as is poise. “As sometimes happens, you didn’t know the night before that you were going to have a guest for breakfast, but there he is ... ravenous! Here’s where a few simple ingredients and the ability to improvise can make all the difference.

Let him eat to his heart’s content (and you should too, while in his company), but take care not to indulge too much in his absence.

HGB’s tendency to champion dieting has always been a point of contention among her critics, and it didn’t help that she maintained a waifish figure throughout her life. Despite what her detractors said, she stressed that physical upkeep was an important lifestyle choice for a single woman. “What you feed him and them bears no resemblance to what you should be feeding you when they aren’t around—to keep you sexy, vibrant and unmorose about being single.” Avoid defeating the purpose by talking about dieting on dates, and don’t let all this business about keeping a “healthy” figure go to your head too much. “Don’t fret if you eat ‘impure’ concoctions occasionally. If you’re food-wise most of the time, you’ll stay more radiant.”

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Whatever you do, don’t let your arms get flabby.

It’s more than OK to be single in your late 30s and early 40s—in fact, you’re the target audience for HGB’s book. But you’ll do well to take a page out of Jane Fonda’s book. “Do get dumbbells. A woman’s upper arms give her age away faster than slip-ups about remembering Kay Francis in One Way Passage (not on television).” Your workout routine need not necessarily be grueling, and bear in mind that you might even garner male attention during the act. “The rest of the exercise-program-you-can-live-with calls for a three-to-five-mile walk every week,” HGB writes. “Wear tennis shoes and as little clothing as possible.”

Don’t be afraid to dabble in lipstick and rouge.

Men prefer women who don’t wear makeup, right? Wrong. “Men just think they don’t like make-up!” HCB argues that a little makeup (or a lot) can go a long way for a single woman, so long as she knows how to apply it correctly and doesn’t get it on her lover’s crisp white shirt while in the process of ripping it off. But don’t let yourself be deceived into thinking that the right amount of lipstick and rouge will make you look like Marilyn Monroe. “The even-featured, alabaster-skinned, meltingly, gaspingly beautiful beauty men go to pieces over can’t be achieved with make-up, prayer, incantations or sending your face back to the factory!” Any reasonable woman knows this. But she also knows that makeup can highlight “an interesting face, an alive face, a sexy face.”

In defense of cozying up with a married man.

A single woman should know her limits: as with a Don Juan, don’t lay a finger on a married man ... unless you’re prepared to face the consequences. They may come in the form of a murderous wife or an unfulfilled promise that your lover will leave his wife and family to start anew with you. “Many avid chasers are, of course, quite satisfactorily (if not happily) married to wives they adore, and divorce never enters their minds,” HGB writes. What’s worse, “the reasonably contented husband with ‘straying privileges’ is pretty rough on a single woman. He usually is no more faithful to a girlfriend than to a wife.” But there’s no denying he’s hard to resist: “Heaven knows a married man on an all-out I Love You campaign can be one of God’s most persuasive creatures.” So long as a single woman recognizes these things, she may derive enough pleasure from an illicit affair to make it worthwhile. And so, single ladies, take note: married men “have a definite place in the life of a single woman—as friends and confidants, occasionally as dates and once in a great while as lovers (if they live thousands of miles from you and promise only to visit once or twice a year!)”

Remember that the key to happiness in the single life lies in the journey, not the destination.

Lest we forget, HGB’s book should by no means be read as a single woman’s guide to finding a husband. Because, dear reader, “you may marry or you may not. In today’s world that is no longer the big question for women. Those who glom on to men so that they can collapse with relief, spend the rest of their days shining up their status symbol and figure they never have to reach, stretch, learn, grow, face dragons or make a living again are the ones to be pitied.” If you play your cards right, single ladies, life will be “a good show ... enjoy it from wherever you are, whether it’s two in the balcony or one on the aisle—don’t miss any of it.”