Reseacher Anders Wallace shares about the whats and whys of the Pickup Artist culture.
“There are two kinds of guys out there—there’s the calibrator, and there’s the escalator. I’m a calibrator, and I miss out on a lot of opportunities. Be an escalator: be active, not passive.” A dozen stories high into the Manhattan night sky, a prominent dating coach spoke these words to a group of men assembled in a rented dance studio for a weekly skills-training seminar in seduction. In nearly every major city of North America there exists a “seduction lair”: an association of men who train each-other in embodying charismatic masculinity to pick up women. These men are assembled and trained by a “pickup artist” (PUA). They trade techniques—speech practices, body language, and belief systems—to overcome inhibitions: pushing themselves out of their comfort zones, and ultimately aspiring to transform their personal identity from AFC (“average frustrated chump,” in their parlance) to “PUA.”
In this gathering, the dating coach (we’ll call him Jeffrey) was discussing the finer points of rhetoric that apply when “his guys” talk to women. “Use your environment”, he says: “When you’re with a woman you’ve never met before, you already share something in common: the space you’re in. Make a remark about your environment, and then anchor that to an emotion it makes you feel in vivid detail. For example, ‘Did you notice those drapes? I can’t believe what a deep color of velvet red they are, it reminds me of when I was a kid playing hide-and-seek at home behind my mom’s red drapes’.” Jeffrey discusses how to use shared context as a strategy for building emotional commonalities with a woman he feels attracted to. An example of what other pickup artists call “misdirection”, this technique was taken from the routines of trained illusionists and magicians, who use misdirection in the craft of stage magic to distract the mark’s sensory perceptions by focusing their attention on an unimportant object. Yet the value of this approach, Jeffrey offers, is that it creates the possibility of flirting and empathetic connection between strangers by the playful attribution of meaning to an inert object—the red drapes, and the recalling of playful innocence in childhood.
In 2005, New York Times reporter Neil Strauss wrote a book called The Game, a work of autobiographical reporting that documents his two years’ experience within the North American subculture of pickup artists. Like other pickup artists, Neil Strauss goes by a pseudonym. This creates plausible deniability in the public sphere. Just as important, though, the pseudonym (his is “Style”) evokes the aura of secrets in the production of masculinity whose revelation is promised to potential clients as a life-enhancing resource.
Since the publication of that book, communities of men (pickup artists and their clients) who previously bartered seduction tactics online have grown into a field of coaches and experts who train millions of men in learning seduction; how do you come to embody charismatic masculinity? From Ovid to Freud, answering the question “What do women want?” is an age-old question. Most valued by these modern-day clients is the experience of taking a “bootcamp.” Often at the cost of thousands of dollars, bootcamps consist of a week-long intensive training program in seduction through seminar teaching and “fieldwork”—supervised experience talking to women in coffee shops, bookstores, bars, and nightclubs.
As these coaches see it, adepts in seduction should visualize themselves as strategists whose success depends on the dynamism of their lives reframed as desirable lifestyles. At the same time, flexibility is built into their codes of seduction through “calibration” of body language and the affect of the seducer. This helps the client account for the uncertainties and contingencies of any human interaction: faux pas, inopportune intrusions, and other instances of what pickup artists call “state breaks”. Female dating coach Arden Leigh defines calibration as “a sharp attunement to your target’s reactions in every given moment, literally second to second, so that you can tell whether they’re on the same page with you and whether they want to continue moving forward…[like] the example of compliance testing [she says], where if I say ‘High five!’ and you match me…then I can maybe move forward and put my arm around you” (in Yuan 2013).
While considered simply as a matter of good strategy in seduction, calibration is actually a key point in bridging performative masculinity (what the seducer is actually doing in any given interaction) with their enduring sense-of-self. That is to say, men seem to use and return to pickup routines again and again despite the fact that they are often unsuccessful (one coach confided to me that he thinks men become smitten, if not outright addicted, to the techniques). The flexibility of calibration allows men to return to these communities again and again, despite their self-perceived successes or failures, and to feel considerable loyalty toward the pickup artist they follow. For them, learning pickup goes together with learning “inner game”: confident self-beliefs about one’s biological maleness (“alpha masculinity”), whose enactment in various spheres of day-to-day life is believed to generate material as well as spiritual gains: a future abundance they believe is actualized in presently working at seduction.
My experience conducting fieldwork among men in seduction lairs reveals a vulnerable, searching underside to the often cynical techniques of “emotion management” (Hochschild 1979) in these communities. The marketing of sex and sexuality is a cliché in today’s capitalist societies. But interviews with men who seek out this coaching suggest that seduction materials may have a perceived utility for these men that transcends barroom pickups. Interviews with clients of a prominent dating coach reveal a variety of difficulties these men claim to experience: not only in finding and approaching women they would like to meet, but also in establishing friendships with other men. Amidst the uncertainty of social relations and gender roles in large cities, masculine identity has become rationalized and codified as a life-enhancing resource with spiritualistic dimensions.
Interviews have revealed common themes among male users of these communities, such as: not enjoying the bar scene where flirting is generally accepted (or as one informant put it, “switching off” at the bar); not feeling comfortable in expressing desire around women; and not feeling skilled in interacting with people more generally. These men express a self-perceived desire to be more in control of their behavior. In turn, seduction groups use socializing practices that borrow variously from the languages of war, computer systems, professional illusionists, addiction rehab, and video games (as in one pickup artist’s exhortation to forget past failures, to “re-set the Nintendo”, and seize the day).
How does one manufacture social grace? From Herman Melville to Dale Carnegie, the American ethos of self-fashioning has a long history in the epochal rise and decline of American empire. Paralleling socioeconomic transformations, fears about the expression of predatory, opportunistic, or deviant sexualities among young men in North American cities—including the scapegoating of homosexuals—also bear a long cultural history in the disciplining of men and women (Smith-Rosenberg 1986). In this sense, the desire for techniques of seduction is nothing new. What has changed is the context for the male identities—their longings, desires, and insecurities—these men express, and the forms in which they do so: for example by using technological means for socializing (think of dating websites). But the paradox of intimacy amidst anonymity is not resolved, so much as it is heightened to a breaking-point. It connects to a growing demand for communities of seduction, where the rationalization and optimization of heterosexual relationships is mediated through “homo-social” networks among men (Sedgwick 1985). Men’s behavior here—mimetic training practices that seem to question those presuppositions of rationality, independence, and autonomy in how many white males tend to think of themselves—mirrors an embodied sense of the potentialities and pitfalls of new social media, and a literalization of the human ability to be “alone together” (Turkle 2012) through emergent forms of masculine embodiment.
Carnegie, Dale. 1981. How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Hochschild, Arlie. 1979. Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure. In American Journal of Sociology 85(3), pp. 551-575.
Melville, Herman. 2009. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Seven Treasures Publications.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1986. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Strauss, Neil. 2005. The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. New York: Harper Collins.
Turkle, Sherry. 2012. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
Yuan, Jada. “The State of Seduction”. New York Magazine. July 21, 2013.
Photo: bokeh burger/Flickr
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