The Dating Rules That Will Not Go Away

Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.

"I found Prince Charming by following The Rules and so can you! I rarely called him or met him halfway. He loved the chase." - Kim, married 2012.

In February 1995, a new dating book hit shelves, claiming to offer "time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right." It became a national best seller, teaching women all over the world how to snag a man, keep him on the line, and reel that sucker all the way to the altar. Authors Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein took a wise and biting tone with readers, outlining such unbreakable principles as, "Always end phone calls first," and "be a little distant and difficult." The 36 Rules became a thrilling new phenomenon, fundamentally based on the oldest game in town: playing very, very hard to get.

Looking back, one can see how The Rules got a foothold in the 90s. Third-wave feminism was cresting across the country, bringing with it Riot Grrrls, The Vagina Monologues, and Take Your Daughter To Work Day. With any movement comes a backlash, and The Rules came hard and fast, telling all those women that equality is fine at the office, but it won't put a ring on your finger — and that's what you really want, right?

Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.
From the start, the book had its critics — those who called out the book as an anti-feminist, "goose-step guide to dating." Indeed, the entire program hinged on the concept of men as dimwitted hunters and women as the elusive, shiny-haired bait. Yet, the first printing alone sold over a quarter of a million copies in the U.S., and was soon reprinted in 18 different languages.

"The Rules relies on a very traditional sense of what love and courtship are," says writer, speaker, and technologist Samhita Mukhopadhyay. "It feeds into a nostalgia around romance, and that can be very provocative." Mukhopadhyay, a leading voice on feminist issues, is the author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, which analyzes the ramifications of ingrained societal influences on modern dating practices.

"A lot of what is talked about in books like this is the same advice your grandma might give you," Mukhopadhyay explains, pointing out that this can make advice feel more resonant and true to readers — even if, in reality, it's merely old-fashioned. "That said, I think the advice works sometimes," she adds. "Men are also fed very antiquated notions of what dating should look like, so it becomes a signaling system where women being forward is somehow a sign that they are desperate, because they're breaking the mold of what it means to date as straight people."

It's the enduring strength of that age-old system that's kept so many people playing by The Rules for so long. But, 20 years later, is the game finally changing?

For Schneider and Fein, who've devoted their careers to this program, the answer is an unequivocal "nope!" To them, The Rules is not about manipulation; it's about preventing women from making avoidable dating mistakes and getting hurt because of them. "One of our clients — before she started working with us — broke all the Rules, and a guy dumped her," says Sherrie. "She couldn’t get out of bed for a month. She couldn’t go to work. And, she works in high finance!"

Both Ellen and Sherrie claim to be feminists, and they shrug off any claims to the contrary. In their opinion, "feminism is about equal pay for equal work, owning a condo, or running a marathon," says Sherrie. "But, it’s not about asking men out, paying for dates, or being a man. Women cannot be men, romantically."
In the years since first publishing, the authors have put out four additional Rules books, including The Rules For Marriage and The Rules For Online Dating. Not Your Mother's Rules came out in 2013, revamping the advice and catering to young women who are dating in the age of social media. Here, you'll find Rules like, "Wait for a guy to follow you on Twitter first," and, "Wait at least four hours to return a guy's first text." Chapters also include tips for weight loss ("an average-looking slender girl has a better chance of attracting a guy than a very pretty overweight girl") and a section titled "Be Cautious About Date Rape." "If you do decide to drink, be smart about it," say Ellen and Sherrie. "On campus, you hear about date rape all too often — stories of girls who drank too much and suffered the consequences."

The Rules may have evolved since 1995, but the Rules Girl looks the same: She is aloof and demure. She wears only high heels and push-up bras with "big (three-inch) hoop earrings" and a "chunky gold watch." She waxes, uses contacts ("try blue and green shades!"), and dyes her hair blonde. She doesn't return calls, doesn't blab about her career success ("try to let him shine!"), and doesn't drink so much that she lets herself get raped. She waits at least four dates to move beyond kissing, because when she does finally have sex with a guy, "there is no going back," Ellen and Sherrie remind her. "You should continue to sleep with him if you have already. Otherwise, he will think you are spiteful."
In addition to their books, Ellen and Sherrie provide courses and one-on-one coaching. Just 15 minutes on the phone with one of them will run you $150 (but you can purchase five minutes for $50 if you just have a "very quick question"). For $1,200, one of them will meet you at the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey for four hours of private consultation. Other services included on The Rules site include, "Rebuilding Your Self-Confidence," "How To Write A Bestseller," and "Ghostwriting (Books And Blogs, And Even College Essays!)"
Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.
For the die-hard Rules Girls, there's a course for becoming a certified Rules Coach. I spoke with Vanessa Taylor, a Rules Coach based in Los Angeles. On her blog, Platinum Girl: The World's Most Precious Woman, Taylor analyzes celebrity relationships through the lens of The Rules. Like Ellen and Sherrie, she thinks The Rules are tools for women to stop men from ruining their lives. "You can see Britney Spears’ demise happened around the same time she proposed to Kevin Federline," she says. "He never really wanted her."

Vanessa sweetly gushed about her own recent marriage and how The Rules helped her find — and keep — her dream guy. "It’s funny, because my now-husband knew what I was up to. He tried calling me out on it, saying, 'I don’t need to play these rules with you. I don’t need to do this.'" But, she persevered despite his protestations. Texting is Vanessa's forte (she later wrote a book titled, Text Love Power: The Girls Guide to Texting & Dating) and she turned the medium into a veritable mousetrap to ensnare her man.
For example, "Over a three-day weekend, I didn’t respond to 12 of his texts," Vanessa explains. As expected, this drove her guy up the wall. "He was insane!" she continues, "But, that's kind of what you want." Soon enough, he was pleading for a response. "He'd be like, 'It would be really great to hear from you, just a simple hi.'" Still, she let him dangle, even when she sensed him getting upset: "He might get a little angry, but he didn't want to seem like a nutcase."

In Vanessa's case, the method worked. But, there's always risk involved. "One of my clients had a guy threaten to break up with her when she wouldn't respond to his texts. But, I told her, 'We don't go text for text.' Just because he sends a message doesn't mean you're obligated to respond all the time."

There is a kind of empowerment in a concept like that. How often have we analyzed and fretted over the precise timing and language of a text conversation? Perhaps all this calculated coquetting is anti-feminist and old-fashioned, but so is sitting at home and staring at the phone. The only trouble with The Rules is that whether you reply or not, you're still doing it for the guy.

Vanessa puts a more flexible spin on Ellen and Sherrie's program. For her, it boils down to creating healthy boundaries and establishing your own power in the relationship, right from the start. Inarguably, that's a healthy and feminist intention. Some women might pull this off naturally, confident enough in their own worth and instincts to text back whenever they feel like it. Some men might not be alpha-texters, out hunting for a blonde in hoop earrings. But, a Rules Girl doesn't take risks like that. She puts in her blue or green contacts, and she checks the chart on page 66 to ascertain Minimum Text-Back Time.

"The biggest criticism I hear from girls is, 'how can I be with someone if I can't be myself?'" says Vanessa. As ever, the answer is clear and irrefutable:

"Make it yourself. Make it yourself and believe it."

Illustrated by ELLIOT SALAZAR.
Whether or not The Rules works isn't really up for debate. It does, for many women. Still, certain elements of social life have evolved since 1995 — and not just the size of our telephones.

"I think people are just changing (slowly), and men are becoming more accustomed to women being more forward," says Samhita Mukhopadhyay. "Who asks whom out first isn't going to change the long-term potential of a relationship," she concludes. "Sometimes, that's just the first move that will determine whether or not you're dating a sexist."

But, for Rules Girls, there is no sexist or not-sexist. There are men and there are women, period. Two teams, and one goal. By and large, they are all conditioned to enjoy the game. But, what happens to the Rules Girl when she wins?

A previous draft of this story was mistakenly published earlier this week. Please excuse the error on our part.

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