Feminists in an Adventure with Pickup Artists

by Wardog

Wardog dons her humourless femi-nazi hat.
I should say - discussions of sex, and sexual abuse, so potential trigger warnings.

I just double-billed Clarisse Thorn’s newly released e-book Confessions of Pickup Artist Chaser with Neil Strauss’ 2005 bestselling PUA classic The Game and, let me tell you, it’s been quite a ride. Just to give a bit of background in case you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about: the pickup artist (PUA) or seduction community is basically a subculture of heterosexual men dedicated to manoeuvring women into bed, though you’d be forgiven for wondering at what point wanting to get laid began to constitute a subculture. From relatively low key beginnings, in newsgroups, forums and mailing lists, where men came together to complain about why those bitches only want to shag jerks discuss their experiences and refine upon the teachings of a handful of gurus, like Ross Jeffries and David DeAngelo, it’s now a massive industry (just try googling this shit) and, arguably, went pretty mainstream, if it wasn’t already, with the publication of Strauss’ writings on the subject.

PUA strategies have their origins in neuro-linguistic programming and other hypnosis bullshit, and are complicated, analytical and acronym-heavy. They run the gamut of basic common sense (for example, the notion that you might want to try and look vaguely attractive and have something interesting to say when you approach a member of the desired sex) to the morally dubious, like handy ways to lower a woman’s self-esteem so she’ll feel temporarily bad enough to bonk you, or techniques for overcoming Last Minute Resistance (LMR) so that if she has second thoughts you can manipulate her into having sex anyway. Yay! The PUA community itself, as Clarisse goes to some lengths to describe in her book, is equally diverse, encompassing socially awkward nerdboys who just want to learn how to talk to girls and misogynistic monsters, motivated largely by anger and frustration, who are far more interested in power and control than sex. She also reminds us explicitly in the text and implicitly through the PUAs she introduces over the course of the book that communities should not be judged by their outliers and treating groups of individuals as being homogeneous is deeply problematic.

Early on, she presents a personal taxonomy of PUAs, which she notes functions as a short-hand, differentiated by what particular ‘types’ of men want to get out of the community - for example power (Darth Vaders), money (Sharks) or plain ol’ better social skills with women (Freaks and Geeks). She situates rampant misogyny firmly in the Darth Vader camp, but although socially awkward nerdboys may not go around shrieking about how much they hate those bitches, I personally have always found the nice-guy misogyny of entitlement much more harmful than straightforward anti-feminism. And I think it’s genuinely problematic to isolate the more toxic elements of the community as being solely the province of demonic misogynists.

Just to establish where I’m coming from, here’s a sample of a lay report that Clarisse quotes in the book:
I suggest that she comes to my place and she refuses ... I suggest I drive her back to her place and she agrees. [He takes her to his place]. We get to my home and come up stairs to my room. She suddenly says “No!” I ask her why. She says she’s “worried that I’ll close the door.” I assure her I won’t; she comes in.

Now this chick did not verbally coalesce in the least. I tried to take her pants off, “Take me home.” I tried to kiss her, “Take me home.” I’m rubbing her tits, “Take me home.”

And, here’s the thing, I’m sure this was written by a perfectly ‘nice’ guy, not a woman-hating monster. But he still just raped a girl. Clarisse comments later:
And in terms of problems like aggressive LMR techniques or misogynist metaphors, it’s not clear that asshole PUAs are worse than misogynists in the mainstream...”

But I think what this lay report, and other reports like it, actually flag up is that the problem is not identified or self-identified misogynists, it’s people like this, the socially awkward nerdboys we’re supposed to feel sorry for because they were bullied at school and can’t get laid. To give the PUA community what little credit it deserves, one commenter does ask for more evidence that the girl isn’t being raped but the writer just interprets this as a problem with his write-up, not his raping.

I suppose you could argue (and Clarisse, in fact, does argue) that in teaching socially awkward nerdboys how not be creepy fucks around women, the PUA community is doing everybody a favour, but I think you also have to accept that what it might be doing is giving already resentful, entitled nerdboys useful techniques for raping women, and an entire vocabulary of self-justification for doing so. For example, PUAs call bad after-sex reactions, “buyer’s remorse.” I find the very fact they have a word for this problematic in itself, because if people are having bad reactions to sleeping with you then you’re doing it very wrong indeed. I’m absolutely 100% sure that I haven’t had sex with anyone who regretted it afterwards, nor have I had sex I have myself regretted, and I’ve plenty of casual sex.

Clarisse, I think, wants us to understand and sympathise with these socially awkward nerdboys struggling against the dismissive cruelty of attractive women:
I have stood in bars and watched beginner PUAs screw their courage to the sticking point, then try to start conversations with girls. I have watched the guys get ignored or shut down. It did not make me hate or fear them.

One would hope there’s a comfortable middle ground between hate and fear and “oh but think of the nerds” hand-wringing, one that doesn’t, for example lead to women either feeling obliged or being manipulated into sleeping with people they don’t want to sleep with. The thing is, although I do understand that it’s rubbish to be insecure and uncertain in social situations, you still have to face up to the fact that even if ignorance and awkwardness lie at the root of certain misogynistic behaviours, it still doesn’t excuse the behaviours themselves, nor should we be expected to forgive them. To put it another way: if you’ve had a really awful day and you hit me in the face, you still just hit me in the face. Your day is irrelevant.

Despite its profound problems, the truth is, I’ve been rather fascinated by pickup artistry since I learned about it from a friend a few years back. Part of the reason I was quite excited to download a copy of Confessions (other than the fact it was £1.99 when I bought it, it’s now a fiver though) is that I wanted to read a feminist perspective on the subject, because if you close your eyes and squint there are subsumed elements to pickup artistry that seem like they could be kind of almost positive, maybe. If you ignore the, ah, rape. Hum. Given that PUAs are interested in sleeping casually with women, and that women can also be interested in casual sex (not just marriage and babies), some PUA concerns seem to overlap interestingly with feminist ones.

For example, PUAs talk about the “anti-slut defence (ASD)” which is essentially PUA terminology for the constructed social pressure women are under not to sleep around, and the fear of being harshly labelled (by both men and women) for doing so. Similarly, a lot of taught PUA approach behaviours are focused on not making women feel threatened, creeped-out or otherwise uncomfortable - which is surely positive for everyone, since, as Clarisse herself points out in the book, a large part of the reason that many women don’t enjoy / don’t have casual sex is because, even putting aside the potential social stigma for being easy, it can be unpleasant and dangerous for women. The feminist-sympathetic aspects of pickup (though, it should be said that PUAs themselves are not in any way feminist friendly) are addressed effectively, and comprehensively, by Clarisse over the course of the book, and it’s fairly easy to get seduced (oh irony) by them.

However, the more I read of Confessions, the more uncomfortable I became with this search for sympathy. I mean, to look at it in the most positive possible light, there’s an extent to which all pickup artistry does is teach men techniques for initiating consensual, casual sex with women who want to sleep with pickup artists - and, thus, everybody wins. But unfortunately I don’t think the positive aspects of pickup artistry can co-exist with the negative ones, in the sense that learning how to make women feel sufficiently comfortable that they’ll go home with you at the end of the evening is kind of undermined (to put it mildly) if you then manipulate them into having sex they may not really want.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is value in Clarisse’s very moderate, very balanced, very sympathetic approach to what is surely a controversial subject, but by the end of Confessions I couldn’t help but feel it had drifted, probably unconsciously, into apologia, and I was left asking myself: who is this book for? I guess if you knew nothing about feminism or pickup artistry you’d wouldn’t be in any danger of being over-challenged (and that’s fair enough) but I felt, in general, that the tone was skewed towards pacifying pickup artists at the expense of feminism. And whatever superficial similarities it is possible to find between the agendas and preoccupations of the two groups, I don’t think we’re ever going to be friends. For example, Clarisse writes:
It’s all about the metaphors. PUAs tend to see feminists as uptight bitches who don’t want anyone to get laid while many feminists view PUAs as the foot soldiers of rape culture.

This, to me, epitomises the problems with Clarisse’s approach to the subject. It is not about the metaphors, and it’s seriously trivialising to make this issue about language when it’s about behaviour. Feminists have legitimate criticisms of pickup artistry, whereas pickup artists apparently just want to call feminists names. This is the equivalent of suggesting that, because Fred Phelps claims gay people are ‘soul-damning, nation-destroying moral filth’ while gay people say he is a bigot, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. This is, of course, bollocks. Just because two groups, or individuals, have negative opinions of each other does not mean there is a space of compromise between the two; sometimes it is simply the case that one group is right and the other group is wrong. And moreover, even if there are (and I’m sure there are) uptight feminists out there who don’t want people to get laid, that’s not comparable to people thinking it’s okay to commit rape. Although I certainly don’t see every PUA as a rapist-in-training, and I understand that in any large community there’s bound to be some rapists in there because, hey, rape statistics are shockingly high, PUA techniques explicitly include rape, even if many/most/nearly all PUAs are not individually rapists. And that’s where the discussion has to end.

I should probably make clear at this juncture that Clarisse in no way condones rape at any point during the book (or, as far as I can tell, ever). Nor does she deliberately shy away from the more problematic elements of the seduction community, including its unpleasant objectification of women and the use of aggressive LMR techniques & etc. By the end of the book she has, in fact, concluded that her engagement with the PUA community is not good for her, and is in the process of distancing herself from it. However, despite her direct condemnation of the more hostile extremes of pickup artistry and the honesty with which she attempts to address her own agendas and ambivalences, I was still quite troubled by the book. And perhaps I’m just the world’s most paranoid reader but I felt as though there were times when her attempts to maintain a moderate position amounted to a subtle rhetoric of justification.

For example, she meets several PUAs over the course of her book, all of whom, even the sexist and challenging ones, ultimately come across pretty well. In fact, one of her most successful portraits, I would argue, is of the shark-ish Nathan, an aggressive and confident PUA coach she nicknames Mr Shady. I think there’s an extent to which Clarisse is just a nice human being, and therefore tends to present the people she encounters in as a generous a light as possible but it does lead to a rather distorted perspective of the community as a whole in that there are names and faces for its charming, balanced, socially acceptable side, whereas the darker underbelly is culled mainly from blog posts and fleeting encounters with nameless wankers, for example the PUA who snarls “What the fuck is personality?” when Clarisse puts forward the suggestion that two people might be dating because they like each other.

There’s a chapter in which Clarisse addresses the writings of a notorious PUA blogger known as Roissy but his perspective is so ludicrously, almost hilariously, sexist that there’s no space for meaningful engagement there at all, rendering him little more than an outrageous strawman against whom, in safe imaginary combat, Clarisse can ‘prove’ her feminist credentials. The overall effect of this is that it becomes increasingly easy to invest your understanding of pickup artistry in the nice people with names, rather than anonymous slew of voices, who are actually as much a part of the reality of the community as the friendly bits.

Similarly, she does an awful lot of work to situate PUA behaviour in familiar, non-threatening spaces. For example, she compares the PUA writing field (or lay) reports for the online community as being similar, or the same, as women discussing their relationships with close personal friends. Um no. She also opens the book by recounting stories about how she used to indulge in what could be interpreted as PUA behaviour, e.g. talking to random strangers (sarging) or thinking up things to say to people (preparing openers), and often references the overlap between her own interests and those of pickup artists, while simultaneously distancing herself, and her acquaintances, from the more toxic aspects of the community:
I especially loved talking to guys who – much like myself – saw pickup artistry as another tool for understanding gender and sexuality. Often, the most thoughtful guys, preferred not to label themselves pick up artists at all...

The thing is, although I do agree that aspects of pick up can be used as Clarisse suggests, emphasising the theoretical side is clearly disingenuous when the community itself is extremely derogatory about keyboard-jockeys (those who talk, but don’t practice). So what Clarisse is basically saying here is that the ‘most thoughtful guys’ she met weren’t actually PUAs, since community-identity is kind of a big part of the shtick.

As I mentioned earlier, Clarisse is at pains to present the community as a diverse group of individuals, even going so far as to highlight the ways in which her initial attitude towards PUAs was equally cynical and manipulative. However this is yet another false dichotomy. Early in the book, she recounts an evening spent with a PUA called David. He basically pulls out all the stops to sleep with her, up to and including offering to take her somewhere to get something to eat and driving her to his own apartment. His behaviour is pushy but Clarisse doesn’t feel threatened (which is entirely a personal call, and therefore I’m passing no judgements on it; however I would personally not feel safe with a man who lied to me about where he was taking me) and they have a conversation that lasts until the early hours of the morning (mainly because he changes the subject every time Clarisse asks him to take her home) interspersed with intervals of him jumping her and she rejecting his physical advances. If it was me, I would not be happy with that mismatch of expectations, since David clearly sees talking to Clarisse as a tedious premable to shagging her, but, as before, it’s a personal judgement, and that’s cool. Eventually she manages to force him to take her home, by threatening to walk instead, and she kisses him in the car, even though she doesn’t fancy him.

Well big whoop.

She writes:
... I felt zero compunctions about messing with his head in a completely non-negotiated way. He was a PUA right? He’d spent the whole night pushing my boundaries, trying to manipulate me. I dreaded to think how well his tactics might have worked on a younger, more naive, more insecure version of myself.

This was war.

And, besides, it wasn’t like PUAs had feelings or anything.

I think this is an attempt to present us with an “aaaah d’ysee” moment, by revealing the ways in which we (women/Clarisse/whatever) are just as guilty of manipulative behaviour as PUAs, and just like they reduce women to sexual objects judged solely by conventional physical attractiveness, so we also reduce PUAs to feeling-devoid monsters who...oh come on! Seriously? First of all, I don’t think Clarisse did anything wrong here at all, so I have no idea what she mea-culpa-ing about. She is perfectly open and honest with David from the beginning, telling him repeatedly she is not going to sleep with him. That he convinces himself that no really means yes and ‘wastes’ a night talking to her is his problem, not hers. If you go home with someone, you are not obliged to fuck them. If you kiss someone, you are still not obliged to fuck them. Kissing someone you aren’t attracted to may set up false expectations and is, at worst, a bit mean. But Clarisse claims the power game was non-negotiated which is complete nonsense because David not only consented to the power game, he initiated it. He just happened to lose. It’s really telling that Clarisse comes away from the encounter thinking “oh bad me, oh poor guy” when she also acknowledges that if she’d have been younger and more insecure, he would have successfully raped her.

To put it another way, we have a situation in which two people have oppositional goals. David wants to have sex with Clarisse, Clarisse does not want to have sex with David. If David fails to have sex with Clarisse, the worst that happens to him is a minor case of blue balls. He’s not entitled to sex with Clarisse, even if she comes home with him, even if she kisses him. If Clarisse fails to stop David having sex with her, then … err … we’re back to rape again. Playing mind games with someone specifically to mess with their head because you know they’re a PUA is a bit dodgy. However playing mind games with someone who has been trying to mess with your head (and possibly trying to rape you) all evening is entirely different. It’s the established terms of the relationship. If he gets a pass on trying to manipulate her into having sex with him, then she gets a pass on using his desire to have sex with her to get one over on him. Yes, it’s about power, it’s always been about power. But it was, at no point, non-consensual.

Later in the book, Clarisse discusses the commodity model of sex, and argues that PUAs are, once again, unintentionally on-side with feminists in that they recognise the harmfulness of the model and therefore work to subvert it:
PUAs have their own problems with the commodity model because they don’t like the idea that a guy should have to offer something .... in exchange for sex.

Um. Yeah. Not the same thing. Feminists don’t like the commodity model for a whole variety of reasons, mostly a) that it implies sex is something men are entitled to if they behave in a certain way b) it implies that sex isn’t something that women can want for its own sake. Pickup artists do not think that they should literally spend money to get a woman to have sex with them but this does not reject the commodity model any more than The Apprentice buying task rejects capitalism. In fact, PUA techniques are very much grounded in the assumptions of the commodity model - it is all about selling your attention as high value, and the woman’s body as low value, so that she will trade her body for your attention. And this is demonstrated perfectly in Clarisse’s encounter with David, since he clearly spends the night talking to her as an investment that will pay off when she sleeps with him.

Throughout the book, Clarisse acts as though there is room for negotiation between feminists and pickup artists, and perhaps I’m just irredeemably cynical but all her arguments succeeded in doing was convince me there isn’t. And, to an extent, I even started to resent her behaviour which struck me largely as being calculated to win the sympathies of pickup artists by proving she wasn’t one of “those” feminists. For example, when she talks about her interview with Neil Strauss, she comments: “I didn’t have much time to talk to Neil and I was nervous about coming off as a so-called ‘humourless feminazi’ so I didn’t probe further...” Incidentally, this was after expressing her surprise that so many feminists are angry with Strauss, because “from a PUA perspective, [he’s] way on our side.”

Now I understand that Clarisse is there to engage with the community, and you don’t get anything ‘out’ of people if you antagonise them but, equally, I think the point at which you’re fearful of expressing your truly held beliefs for fear of negative judgement is also the point at which you have to accept that you’re not going to be listened to anyway. Clarisse writes:
More often I avoided speaking my mind or I phrased my critiques as questions. People – especially women – can go a long way when we phrase objections as questions. I’d rather live in a world where women can be assertive without being labelled bitches but sometimes it’s fun to see how many feminists concepts I can get into a conversation by stealth.

Well, I suppose we make our own fun. And I’d rather be a bitch than a panderer, but we all make our choices.

I suppose this is just the tone argument writ large but I genuinely don’t think it is the role of feminists to make themselves approachable to anti-feminist men so theycan be patted on the head for not being angry or unpleasant or challenging like those other bitches. Again, maybe I’m being unfair but I do not buy into the idea that there are feminist-men and misogynistic-men and a morass of undecideds in the middle who can be swayed to our cause if we’re nice enough to them. This is not really a morally subjective issue. It’s like - there are some people who believe black people are entitled to the same treatment as white people. If you’re not quite sure, then you’re a racist. You shouldn’t have to be wooed into being a decent human by the people you’re oppressing. It’s really not that complicated.

And Clarisse’s attempts to wring feminism out of Neil Strauss are particularly entertaining:
If you read The Game carefully you can spot Neil’s feminist sympathies from the start. For example on page 227 he talks about how getting obsessed with pickup artistry was leading him to ignore his career and non-PUA friends. He writes: “All the sarging was beginning to scramble my brain ... in the process of dehumanising the opposite sex, I had also been dehumanising myself.

Firstly, I wouldn’t consider page 227 to be “the start” exactly but this argument has precisely the same problems as Clarisse’s earlier effort to support the idea that PUA techniques challenge the commodity model of sex, in that although a superficially similar conclusion is reached, the underlying assumptions are irreconcilable. PUAs dehumanise women by reducing them to physical objects, and women, obviously, aren’t mad keen on this. Neil Strauss is mainly worried that dehumanising women is having a bad effect on him. This is not the same as recognising that dehumanising other people is, in itself, not okay.

Differing feminist agendas aside, however, my main problem with Confessions was actually the writing. The book is clearly a labour of love, which makes me feel slightly guilty for criticising it but, despite being quite interesting in some places, it’s simply too long and too unwieldy. Somehow it manages to be both incredibly laboured and structurally incoherent. Clarisse opens every chapter with a Henry Fielding-esque summary of what is to come and ends with - I shit you not - a tl;dr summary of what you’ve just damn well read, but still everything feels a little haphazard, as she careens from analysis to citation to personal musings and anecdotes to random pieces of advice, There tends to be a vague thematic connection but it’s disorganised, ill-disciplined, self-indulgent and, oh God, it needs an editor so badly.

I understand that Clarisse is a blogger and it does feel like a very new-media text, heavily hyperlinked and drawing its references largely from the internet, which is fine by the way, but I felt that some of the stylistic holdovers from blogging actually interfered with Confessions’ effectiveness as a book. The tl;dr summaries, for example, drove me nuts. I can absolutely see their value on webpages, which people tend to browse with limited time and attention, but when you’re sitting there, with a book in your hands, you’re kind of already committed and therefore telling me what I’ve just read isn’t helpful, it’s unnecessary (and borderline insulting).

Similarly, when you’re writing a long-running blog, readers dip in and out of it at random, they often forget what they’ve read, they might have missed certain posts, or they might be a new reader, so it’s important to repeat vital pieces of information regularly, and it serves you well to take a basically Dickensian approach to characterisation: Mr Flubberwit, my submissive feminist ex-lover with the tongue ring who once took me to a sex party in Paris … However, books tend to be read over a relatively short of period of time, and therefore the information contained within them is often retained, at least while you’re in the middle of reading, so Clarisse’s habit of constantly reminding me of everything she’s already told me rapidly became infuriating. By the end of the book, I was about ready to scream every time I read the words: “my goth-feminist polyamorous PUA friend, the S&M switch Brian...” Given how many times she’d already given us an S&M 101, I was starting to wonder what other kind of switch she imagined we might believe Brian to be. A light switch?

Although the writing style is inoffensive, lucid and occasionally witty, it’s not sparkling and, at times, it’s painfully over-explanatory. I cracked a little smile when I ran across a chapter called “Women in their sensitivities”, but then, of course, Clarisse had to take all the fun out of it by immediately telling me that this is a reference to Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sweeney Todd. The thing about off-hand references is that if the reader needs to pick up on them to understand something about the text, they shouldn’t be there in the first place. In this case, if you didn’t get the chapter title, it honestly wouldn’t have mattered, so it was perfectly safe to remain unexplicated. Similarly, when Clarisse introduces us to the blogger Hugh Ristik, she kindly tells us: “his blogger name was a pun on the semi-obscure psychological term ‘heuristic’ which indicates an experience-based method of making quick decisions. Urrrgh. I understand that readers come to text with differing levels of knowledge and although I think it’s perfectly reasonable Clarisse would take the time to explain certain S&M, or feminist concepts in case they were unfamiliar, it seems to me as though she genuinely has no faith whatsoever in her readers to get a pun, recognise a reference or, even, remember something she said a paragraph ago, let alone a chapter. It’s just depressing.

I’d say that her strengths as a writer, such as they are, lie in analysis and exploration, which means that the various people she introduces to us over the course of the book don’t come across particularly successfully. Although one can superficially distinguish between Brian the (S&M) switch and David the one who didn’t manage to rape her and Adam the dude she has a totally abortive relationship with, it’s basically just one long bland-a-thon. I commented earlier that I think she’s just a genuinely nice person who doesn’t want to write anything bad about anyone, and that’s entirely reasonable, but it does mean that the people she encounters have very little depth or reality to them. Nathan, the sharkish one, comes across the best, and I suspect that’s largely because he’s such an invincibly arrogant tosser that she wasn’t worried about criticising him, or portraying him in a semi-negative light. Adam, who is surely supposed to be sort of important, since she spends half the book alternatively analysing and then agonising over how much she likes him, is an utter non-entity. I didn’t entirely understand why the relationship fell apart (a lack of honest communication, if you ask me, but I’m a simple creature) but then I didn’t really understand why they were into each other either.

Clarisse writes:
I liked Adam. He was smart and unassuming and nerdy, an excellent conversationalist, had an ironic sense of humour, had done some interesting activism, read lots of science fiction and his feminist politics were rock-solid. You know what’s even hotter than a man who intelligently uses ‘heteronormative’ in a sentence? A man who can use both ‘heteronormative and cisgendered.’

Well, yes, those are nice qualities, but they didn’t really give me any sense of him as a person. Also nearly everybody I know can use those words in a sentence - I consider it kind of the default. I couldn’t actually work out why the Adam Sequence was in the book at all. I think he was supposed to be her attempt to date a PUA, or her attempt to date while being saturated in PUA culture, but none of this really comes through successfully or illuminatingly. Mainly it ends up with Clarisse having interminable conversations with her vegan-psychologist-friend Sharon in which she says things like: “Thirdly he’s inexperienced with alternative sexualities like S&M and polyamory … he has really good S&M instincts and he’s a good communicator, and he’s familiar with the idea of polyamory but I don’t think he’s as committed to polyamory as I am. If we got serious that could end up being a major conflict because I’m not letting another guy talk me out of polyamory.” And I felt like stabbing myself in the eyes with a fork. Is this how other women really talk about their relationships? God help us all.

The main thing Confessions did for me was make me easy prey for The Game. I should hate The Game, I really should, but, honestly, I kind of feel there’s no point. It’s simply too reprehensible and too delicious. And, yes, I am well-aware of the irony that a PUA text basically PUA-ed me into delirious submission - but I am 100% consenting. Where Confessions is workmanlike at best, The Game is glittering and fabulous. It has a similar sense of unreality to it, but that’s because Strauss (unlike Clarisse) successfully weaves a satisfying fictionalised narrative from random events (that, in Strauss’ case may or may not be true), and whereas Clarisse clearly hesitates to portray people unsympathetically, Strauss has no compunction whatsoever in shredding his friends and acquaintances into little piles of humiliation. I mean, The Game opens with Mystery (PUA extraordinaire) crying hysterically in the middle of an epic nervous breakdown on the floor of Project Hollywood:
“I can’t tell you what this feels like,” he choked out between sobs. His whole body spasmed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it will not be rational.” [...]

He wore a gold silk robe that was several sizes too small, exposing his scabbed knees. The ends of the sash just barely met to form a knot and the curtains of the robe hung half a foot apart, revealing a pale, hairless chest and below it, saggy gray Calvin Klein boxer shorts. [...]

“This living thing.” He was speaking again. “It’s so pointless.”

It’s a gorgeously unglamorous beginning, and basically sets the tone for what follows which is PUAs Behaving Badly. Strauss pulls of a masterful job of portraying nearly everyone involved in the community as a frail, fallible pathetically broken human being. Well, everyone but him. He’s seems fairly honest about his insecurities and inadequacies but since everyone he meets reacts as though he’s awesome, they evidently don’t really count. I guess that officially makes Neil Strauss the Mary Sue of his own life because even when he’s your everyday AFC (average frustrated chump) who can’t get laid the proclaimed gurus of the nascent PUA community, like Mystery and Ross Jeffries, nevertheless see something in him, fight over him and generally court his favour.

I personally read The Game which so much salt it’s a wonder I didn’t die of heart failure in the middle, while giggling with delight, but it reads like a cross between really trope-heavy genre fiction (the young Chosen One, considered lowly by the world at large, has his value recognised by a succession of wise mentors who nurture him on his destined journey to become the Lord of Pickup) and one of those delicious 18th century confessionals about how the author turned his back on righteousness, God and virtue and proceeded to have an awesome time, but now he’s sorry, really, sorry, and righteousness, God and virtue are totally the only way to live. As such, it’s a ridiculous, hypocritical and generally repulsive text but, oh my god, it’s so compulsively readable that I had a complete blast with it.

The plot, such as it is, basically revolves around Strauss’ gradual mastery of pickup and his ascendancy, alongside Mystery, over a community of desperate, needy men. There’s a lot of Strauss angsting about sex (it takes him a long time to close, even when he has overcome his approach anxiety), a succession of unerotic, uninteresting sexual encounters, some fame-wanking (Strauss meets Tom Cruise and Courteny Love OHMGEE) and eventually the establishment Project Hollywood, which is supposed to be this amazing epitome of, um, something, man bonding I think, but basically comes across as a frat house for PUAs. And, needless to say, falls apart disastrously. Our noble hero grows gradually more disillusioned with pickup (but only, of course, after he’s had all the hot chicks and threesomes he wants) eventually meets a girl who doesn’t tolerate any of his bullshit, falls in love with her and moves on with his life.

Although I wouldn’t go looking for feminism in The Game (despite the fact Strauss playfully-maliciously opens each chapter with the juxtaposition of a macho cartoon and a quote from a feminist writer) I very much enjoyed the spectacle of reading about a bunch of dudes behaving in a manner stereotypically ascribed to women. There’s so much bitching, politicking and infighting in Project Hollywood it’s nothing short of hilarious. And for presenting PUAs as a bunch of complete losers, you couldn’t do better than The Game. Despite the chapter in which Strauss tediously details some of his sexual triumphs, there seems to be remarkably little actual shagging on the part of most of the PUAs in the book. They seem to spend all their time bonding with each other and writing things on the internet. It left me wondering if PUA communities are just men pretending to have sex for each other and Project Hollywood rapidly devolves into two competing PUA businesses (Tyler Durden and Papa versus Mystery) so ultimately everyone seems to spend considerably less time chasing women than they do other men. None of this, of course, alters what pickup is about, and the techniques it teaches (quite a few of which were, of course, invented by Strauss and Mystery back in the day) but at least there’s no element of pretence here.

Also say what you like about Strauss but the man can write. Considering it’s his career, I’d kind of hope so. I was often just genuinely entertained by what I was reading. For example, there’s a bit near the beginning where Mystery essentially forces the balding Strauss to get his head shaved:
“Balding is not a choice, but bald is a choice,” he said. “If anyone asks why your head is shaved tell them, I used to have it down past my ass but then I realised I was covering up my best feature.” He laughed...

When the barber finished I looked in the mirror and saw a chemo patient staring back at me.

“It looks good,” Mystery said.

The truth is, I don’t really know what to do with The Game. I wouldn’t try to recommend it, but it is lots of fun if you’re comfortable reading about a community that is actively harmful to women (and occasionally men). I’m conscious, however, of the irony attendant on the fact that I am far less troubled by The Game, a product of the community whose behaviour I feel morally obliged to condemn (cf, rape, discussed earlier) than I am by Confessions of Pickup Artist Chaser, which was written by a woman whose sexual politics I ostensibly share.

I think it might ultimately come down to what you might call the problem of secondary criticism. The Game is a problematic text and there’s no denying it’s a problematic text but one can choose to find value in problematic texts, as entertainment or for historical interest or for personal reasons or whatever, and that’s perfectly acceptable. It’s the equivalent of liking Robert E Howard or Creepy Howie - yes they’re a pair of enthusiastic racists, but it doesn’t mean you can’t derive some pleasure from their texts, or that those texts are worthless and meaningless. What you can’t do, however, is argue that they’re not racist or that the racism is somehow okay. Confessions comes across, to me, as an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to mediate the problems of pickup artistry. It’s perfectly possible to be a feminist and sympathetic to PUAs just as you can like Robert E Howard without being racist. What doesn’t work, however, is trying to reconcile feminism with pickup artistry, or characterising the clash between the two as being about language and mutual misunderstanding rather than about the fact that the PUA community encourages its members to engage in abusive behaviour. I can handle Neil Strauss telling me he’s awesome; I can’t handle Clarisse Thorn telling me he’s a feminist.

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