Clarisse Thorn begins her deep exploration into the world of the Pick-Up Artist.
There is an enormous subculture devoted to teaching men how to seduce women. Within the last half-decade or so, these underground “pickup artists” have burst into the popular consciousness, aided by Neil Strauss’s bestselling book The Game and VH1’s hit reality show “The Pick-Up Artist.”
Pickup artists — also known as the “seduction community” — exchange ideas in thousands of online fora, using extensive in-group jargon. One pickup artist site lists “over 715 terms, and counting.” There are pickup artist meetups, clubs, and subculture celebrities all over the world. There are different ideological approaches and theoretical schools of seduction. Well-known pickup artist “gurus” can make millions of dollars per year: they may sell books; they may sell hours of “coaching”; they may organize training “bootcamps” or conventions with pricy tickets; they may run companies full of instructors trained in their methods. The community even generates its own well-thought-out internal critiques.
I am a sex-positive feminist lecturer and writer. I write primarily about my experiences with sadomasochism, but I have a general interest in sexuality. I first encountered pickup artists when smart ones started attending my educational events and commenting on my blog.
Some aspects of pickup artistry are hugely problematic; many parts of the community showcase and encourage misogyny. While exploring the PUA jungle, I observed things that turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. On the other hand, I had to admit that some pickup artist perspectives were very interesting. Some had fascinating insights about gender theory and social power. I also felt drawn by their exploits. Learning seduction, and watching hypothetically-dazzling Casanovas run a courtier-like game, sounded like an extremely fun way to spend my time.
I started my journey by talking to a few pickup artists and reading their fora. By the end, I had given a lecture at a seduction convention, and I had decided against developing my own coaching business. Within the next few months, I plan to release a pop-feminist book online titled Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews with Hideous Men. In the meantime, I can offer a quick synopsis of my own history, and why I became so interested in PUAs. I will break down some elementary distinctions among the men of the seduction community. Finally, I will offer a few PUA-influenced thoughts on feminist goals.
To begin at the beginning …. I was an awkward little bookworm of a child, but at least I was creative. I liked to draw, invent games, and run amateur social experiments. When I was in high school, most of my friends were on the Internet; I did not date a real-life boyfriend until college. I was inevitably teased by my peers, but even when treated well, I rarely engaged with the social hierarchies around me. I had difficulty grasping how social mechanics were “supposed” to work. A lot of things seemed obvious to other people that were not obvious to me.
For example, in sixth grade, a female friend of mine teased me about flirting with a boy. “What was I doing?” I asked. “Come on, you were flirting!” she responded. While I thought I almost understood what she meant, I was unsure — so I set out to poll everyone I knew about what constitutes “flirting.” Responses were inconsistent. One person said, very definitely: “Giggling.” Others cited examples such as “intense looks” or “making jokes.”
By the end of this experiment, I concluded that no one seemed able to explain “flirting” in terms of consistent behaviors; there were few commonalities in my final list. From what I could tell, flirting could only be explained in terms of invisible interpersonal dynamics. I found this both entertaining and frustrating.
I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if the modern pickup artist community had existed back then, and I had discovered it. PUAs devote a lot of time to understanding seduction in terms of observed behaviors. They have terms for social tactics that run the gamut from creating rapport, to encouraging trust, to building sexual tension, to shifting social power. But although the purpose of these social tactics is to manipulate emotion, the tactics are typically described as concretely as possible. Some PUA coaches provide long memorized “routines,” but it is more common to talk about particular social actions or broader strategies.
One famous PUA tactic is called the “neg.” “Neg” stands for “negative hit”, and one site defines a neg as “a remark, sometimes humorous, used to point out a woman’s flaws.” Like many PUA terms, the deeper meanings and usage vary from PUA to PUA — but there is an especially dramatic range of meanings with “neg.”
Some PUAs see negs as friendly teasing: a way for the PUA to show that he is paying attention to the girl, without appearing needy or overeager. I can offer a cute example of this approach from my own life. I was sitting in a café with a former PUA, and he gazed deep into my eyes.
“Wait a minute,” he said slowly. “Are your glasses held together by epoxy? It looks like you had to repair them at the corners.”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
He grinned. “Everything about you just screams ‘starving artist’, doesn’t it.”
This made me laugh for quite a while. I think it worked because he understood that I have chosen (for now) to be a broke writer — but he also recognized the tension I feel about that choice. So this gentleman was demonstrating that he correctly discerned my priorities; that he is not bothered by a choice that makes me feel self-conscious; and that he is confident enough to tease me.
Also, at a moment when I thought he might compliment my eyes, the former PUA shook up my expectations by breaking the romantic pattern. Often, effective flirting involves offering the right mixture of confidence plus charming novelty plus paying attention.
Some PUAs see negs more strategically, as a way of passing a woman’s “tests” or breaching her indifference. They argue that this is necessary for women who are very high-status, very beautiful, etc. They argue that some women develop a kind of immunity to compliments, and that some women actively prefer feisty, faux-adversarial flirting. Most PUAs only advocate using negs on women who meet a certain “minimum” level of attractiveness, or who seem particularly feisty. Neil Strauss, a famous PUA and author of the bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, once wrote that:
When you give a woman who’s often hit on a generic compliment, she will usually either ignore the remark or assume you’re saying it because you want to sleep with her.
When you tease her and show her that you’re unaffected by her beauty and demonstrate that you’re out of her league — and THEN let her work to win you over and ultimately REWARD her with your approval, she will leave that night feeling good about herself. Like something special happened and she connected with somebody who appreciates her for who she REALLY is.
In short, a neg will buy you the credibility you need to sincerely compliment her later.
That said, I don’t necessarily advocate negs; they are in many ways a temporary patch to stick onto your personality while you learn to possess real confidence and strength of character.
Although this is a manipulative approach, it is not inevitably harmful. It also is not limited to the sphere of sexual relationships; humans often pretend not to care what other people think, and consistently attempt to be taken seriously by others. Additionally, for many people, flirting involves a certain amount of strategic ambiguity and plausible deniability, and negs are a useful tactic for that kind of game. Not everyone likes playing such tacit and confusing games, but many people do.
However, this is all cute and mild compared to how some PUAs talk about negs: some cite the neg specifically as a tactic to make the girl feel bad.
A well-known PUA who goes by the name of Tyler Durden once wrote that: “You use self-esteem negs to lower the target’s self-esteem, and crave your attention to re-validate herself.” Similarly, an especially pitiless PUA blogger who is sometimes described as “the Darth Vader of PUAs” writes that:
The best negs are those which are conceivably meant as compliments, but which linger in her psyche for hours afterward, undermining her self-conception and encouraging her to qualify herself to you [i.e. encouraging her to explain why she’s worth your time]. … [A neg] infiltrates a girl’s subconscious so that she spends more mental energy analyzing her worth than she does analyzing yours.
One commenter adds to the above blogger’s words that: “So long as you have a woman auditioning for you, power remains where it belongs — squarely in your pocket.”
In other words, a person who feels anxious and unworthy will be easier to control. These cruel PUAs have learned the same lesson as thousands of people in abusive relationships.
Here is an especially instructive quotation from the comments on “Darth Vader’s” blog: “[Women] really are insipid, vapid airheads. If it wasn’t for the pussy, there would be a bounty on them.” That statement is interesting not just because of its hatred, but because of its fear. After all, no one puts a bounty on targets that are not dangerous. The most misogynist corners of the PUA subculture not only discuss ways to aggressively manipulate women; they also paint women as selfish, deceitful and hazardous.
The various approaches to negging highlight both the different shadings of opinion across the subculture, and a particularly important distinction among PUAs themselves. Some of these men genuinely do enter pickup artistry out of a desire to connect to women. As one PUA told me, “When I first looked at PUA stuff, I was like, ‘This is so sleazy and gross.’ But I’d never had a girlfriend, and I kept telling myself, ‘Dude, you are lonely and miserable and you don’t want to die alone.’” On the other hand, many PUAs become PUAs because they want unilateral power and control over women — and many PUAs attempt to justify this through narratives and jokes that encourage fear and anger against women.
* Footnote: I will link to this “Darth Vader” blogger, but I preface the links with a statement that — while he is very intelligent — he is blatantly cruel and misogynist and is recognized as such even by some other men in the pickup artist community. As the seduction coach Mark Manson once said to me, this blogger is “pretty much as bad as it gets.” Also, I have saved copies of the “Darth Vader” posts I cite — although this precaution is a bit of a formality, since I doubt he would have the sense of social responsibility to delete his evil posts even if he recognized that they’re evil. On the other hand, “Darth Vader” once deleted a post in which he acknowledged that he had committed partner violence, so perhaps even he has limits on what he is willing to admit in public. Or perhaps he was merely afraid of legal action.
With that preface, here are the “Darth Vader” citations:
2. The comment by a reader of his blog that said, “If it wasn’t for the pussy, there would be a bounty on [women].”
—Photo Alaskan Dude/Flickr