The Gaggle says finding love is a numbers game

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NEW YORK -- The young single women flocked to a dimly lighted wine bar in TriBeCa in their skinny jeans and stylish dresses. They were writers, lawyers and advertising types, among others, who were gathering for a most unusual how-to session, a primer of sorts on how to find love in the millennial age.

The 20-something relationship gurus of the evening, Jessica Massa and Rebecca Wiegand, had a blunt message: Praying for that prince with a dozen roses and a dinner reservation for Friday night? Forget it. Clinging to your mother's rules about waiting for his email or phone call? So last century.

Their advice: Embrace all of the men in your orbit, whether they text or G-Chat, whether they're hunky or grungy. Savor every connection -- the drunken conversation at the bar, the casual sexual fling and the impassioned philosophical debate over pumpkin lattes -- without worrying whether any of it will lead to love. And in the midst of this confusing, messy muddle, the young women argued, romance can (sometimes) bloom.

Every generation has its relationship sage: There was Helen Gurley Brown in the 1960s with her best-seller, "Sex and the Single Girl"; Dr. Ruth Westheimer, with her radio and TV shows in the 1980s; and Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, who wrote the best-seller "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" in the 1990s.

Now the focus is on the so-called millennials, the young women in their 20s and early 30s, many of whom are struggling to find their way at a time when traditional dating seems like a quaint relic.

"If you're following the rules, that just doesn't work anymore," said Ms. Massa, 29, who is the author of "The Gaggle: How the Guys You Know Will Help You Find the Love You Want."

"We're dealing with a different generation of men," she said. "We're dealing with technology. We're dealing with changing norms."

Ms. Massa, whose book has been featured in Elle and Cosmopolitan, released her new guide to the lovelorn in June. Lena Dunham, the writer and star of the HBO comedy "Girls," landed a multimillion-dollar deal this month to write a book that will offer "frank and funny advice on everything from sex to eating to traveling to work."

And in January, just in time for Valentine's Day, Ms. Fein and Ms. Schneider will jump back into action with their new guide, "Not Your Mother's Rules: The New Secrets for Dating." The book will include tips on instant messaging and a helpful chart with text-back times for women paralyzed by the thorny question of when to and when not to text.

Of course, romance has resisted such rules since the days of the Montagues and the Capulets. But that has yet to stop the lonely from seeking romantic advice or the commercially minded from selling it.

To the women sipping sauvignon blanc and vodka cocktails as they listened to Ms. Massa in TriBeCa, the flurry of books from professed relationship writers makes perfect sense. As professional women accustomed to forging their own way, many have been struck by how hard it has been to navigate their love lives, which seem so different from the ones described by their mothers or depicted in movies.

"Nobody picks me up, nobody drops me off at home," said Anne Zelek, a 27-year-old marketing manager, who says she has embraced Ms. Massa's approach of simply enjoying the company of the men she meets without focusing on finding Mr. Right.

"Oftentimes I don't really know that I've been on a date until I get home from one," she said. "It's confusing. All of our love lives are confusing."

Nowadays, young men and women often hang out together in groups, leaving some of them uncertain about where friendship ends and relationships begin. A series of hookups may or may not lead to a relationship, which can mean a longer period of uncertainty for women who are increasingly delaying marriage.

"I think a lot of women might prefer a regime of serial monogamy rather than serial hookups, but that doesn't seem to be emerging so much," said Paula England, a sociologist at New York University who said she has conducted online surveys with more than 14,000 women at 21 colleges and universities. "There's this much murkier thing that's taking place. You can tell that they are trying to figure out how they stand with these guys. They are struggling with the ambiguity of the situation."

Some writers have argued that the hookup culture makes women more vulnerable to depression, feelings of low self-esteem and sexually transmitted diseases. But others have embraced the shift, arguing that it allows women the freedom to enjoy their sexuality without getting locked into serious relationships or marriage, which might impede their efforts to further their careers or education.

In her new book, "The End of Men: And the Rise of Women," Hanna Rosin writes, "To put it crudely, now feminist progress is largely dependent on hookup culture."

She acknowledges that many young women lament the lack of traditional dating but says that many are still looking for "fulfilling relationships that exist outside the path of marriage."

"Nobody says, 'I love the hookup culture,' and nobody says, 'I want it to change and go back,'" Ms. Rosin said. "They sense that it's more liberating, but there are still kinks."

Ms. Massa and her best friend and business partner, Ms. Wiegand, share a similar philosophy. They urged the young women gathered at the happy hour in TriBeCa to embrace their sexuality. If you want to hook up, hook up, they said. And afterward, they advised, be natural. Crack a joke. Have some food. Act as if fun, casual sex is just that: fun, casual sex -- nothing more.

"We live in this confusing, ambiguous post-dating world, and we need to embrace that," said Ms. Wiegand, 29, who, along with Ms. Massa, is the co-creator of the Gaggle concept. "We cannot expect to impose upon this world a set of rules, a set of regulations, a set of expectations."

Nonsense, say Ms. Fein and Ms. Schneider, the authors of the new "Rules" book. Romance and dating are alive and well for women who refuse to settle for anything less, they insist. They argue that women should try to preserve an alluring air of mystery -- no easy task given that many young people chronicle their every move on social media.

"It is harder today," Ms. Schneider said. "But the reality is that you can still pretend it's the 1950s when we didn't have all of this technology. Don't answer the phone. Don't answer the text."

At the happy hour in TriBeCa, the young women drank, laughed and shared stories about how Ms. Massa's advice had played out in their lives. Charlise Ferguson, a 28-year-old magazine editor, savored the camaraderie, saying it felt like a "group therapy session" with like-minded women who know exactly how hard it is to commune with men these days.

"They all like to communicate via text message," Ms. Ferguson said. "When you tell a guy you want to talk on the phone, it's like you want to get married to him."

Nafeesa Saboor, a 33-year-old blogger and freelance writer, said she recognized Ms. Massa's description of a post-dating world and liked her suggestion that women should enjoy their connections with men regardless of whether they were going out on formal dates. ("The only people who make reservations when I go out are men in their 50s," she sighed.)

But she disagreed with Ms. Massa and Ms. Wiegand's unabashed endorsement of hookups and with their idea that women shouldn't make some more demands of men.

"There's no one answer, no one book for everybody," Ms. Saboor said. "It's going with your gut and using your discernment. That's frustrating and exciting. But that's the way love is. You just never know."

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