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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Strategies for a Man Hunt: Time to Be Coy

September 16, 1996|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the hurly-burly world of courtship, the hottest "new" catch-a-husband strategy is such a radical throwback to pre-feminist days, a gal could get whiplash just reading about it:

Never, never, never ask a man out. Don't call him. Rarely return his calls. Don't accept a Saturday date past Wednesday. Don't have sex in the first, second or even third month of dating. Hide self-help books if he's picking you up. Laugh at his jokes.

Such 1950s-style tips on coyness are codified in "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" (Warner Books, 1995), a book that topped the Los Angeles Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list Sunday. Authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (who claim their tactics helped win their respective spouses) base their guide on the premise that men are predatory animals who need to chase a woman to fall in love and marry her. Once the fella is hooked, however, you can trot out your neurosis for folding that first square of toilet paper into a perfect triangle and he'll just think it's "quirky."

The pink book (a picture of a diamond engagement ring on the cover) appears to have struck a nerve. The authors are at work on "The Rules II," and the first book has spawned seminars, support groups in various states, a newsletter, a hotline (consult with the authors for $250 an hour) and Learning Annex courses in Los Angeles and New York. It has even been optioned for a film by "Forrest Gump" producer Wendy Finerman.

"The success of this book shows how chaotic the dating situation is for women," says Debbie Then, a Stanford, Calif., social psychologist. "You don't want to reveal yourself on the first date, but what happens when you take off the masks?"

Playing hard to get is the most ancient of games, experts say. Anthropologists say both men and women are charged by the hunt and actively deceive each other the way a peacock puffs his plumage to look like a better catch. Some psychologists suggest that such ploys are really about the critical timing of self-disclosure in courtship.

Feminists and women who have initiated enduring relationships argue that the book is just another incarnation of "why should a man buy the cow if he gets the milk for free"--or Retro Woman. They say the world loves the old story that feminism is dead, and that the sexual revolution somehow backfired on women who, deep in their liberated hearts, secretly long to be June Cleaver.

From an evolutionary point of view, female mate selection dominates the animal world, where the females in most species pick mates by scrutinizing males for genetic health, ability to protect offspring and other things.

Female fire-colored beetles sample a gland in a male's forehead to see if he has catharidin, a toxic substance delivered with his sperm that protects her eggs from predators. The African village weaverbird (the Martha Stewart of birds) inspects a male's nest for as long as 10 minutes, poking and testing as the architect serenades her nearby. If the nest doesn't pass muster, the poor slob tears his feathers out trying to build better digs.

Women are like the weaverbird, says David M. Buss, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, assessing suitors for those who have the best resources.

"Such [strategies] screen out men who are interested in short-term sexual encounters because they are not going to wait two months to have sex," says Buss, author of "The Evolution of Desire" (BasicBooks, 1994). "Playing hard to get is also a fidelity cue because if she jumps into bed right away maybe she does that with other men. . . . Wherever you get females who have to invest long-term in pregnancy and child care you will find such strategies."

But men are as deceptive and manipulative as women, says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of "Anatomy of Love" (Fawcett Columbine, 1992).

"Men and women play the same games and are excited by what they can't have," she says. "Courtship is not about honesty, and it runs on messages. You wear high heels to make your legs look longer and spend hours selecting clothes that hide your bulges. A man works hard to get that car to pick you up in and puts on his best watch. It is not only active deception but self-deception. I have a friend who was courting a woman who was in a high position at the Kennedy Center and he became terribly interested in the arts. And she all of a sudden became fascinated in fishing, because he loved to fish."

After the couple married, Fisher says, they stopped feigning interest in each other's passions.

Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor at Cal State Los Angeles, suggests that courting is the process of slow self-disclosure (so you don't send someone screaming into the night) and role-playing, which mostly falls into traditional norms.

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