October marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of “The Game”, Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss’s firsthand account of the world of pickup artists. Strauss didn’t invent the term, nor did the pickup artist (PuA) phenomenon come into being as a result of his book. Instead, he brought to light certain substrata in society that have existed for generations, but which really began to flourish with the growth of the Internet. The seduction community gained even greater exposure in 2007 with a reality show on VH1, and today, everyone brings a specific image to mind at the mention of the phrase “pickup artist”. It’s usually a pejorative term, implying a player out to gratify his sexual appetite, who manipulates women into sleeping with him.
And men have always been trying to meet women, to sleep with them, go on a date, or get into a conversation — at night in bars and clubs, or during the day in coffee shops, parks, bookstores, and other public places. Go to Union Square, Manhattan, on any halfway-beautiful Saturday afternoon, get curious about what you see around you, and sooner or later you’ll notice a man chatting up an attractive female who clearly has only known him for a few minutes. This doesn’t mean he’s trying to trick her into sleeping with him — but it might mean he’s attempting to learn a new social skill, overcome shyness, or break a dating dry spell.
Pickup artists aren’t new, but the publicity and commercialism around them is. What was originally known to members simply as “the community”, in the past ten years has gradually transitioned from a loosely-connected group of men sharing tips and tricks, to a cottage industry of dating gurus teaching others the art of seduction, at increasingly steeper prices. Men who need help today face a dizzying array of choices in the nature of the advice available, and the advice itself takes the form of e-books, bootcamps, one-on-one coaching, telesummits, text-based, Skype, or other distance coaching, and small group experiences. Advertising and promotion promise to “end rejection forever”; to help you “build the love life you deserve”, and provide almost endless testimonials of men who succeeded with this or that system after years of failure. Almost none of the methods that are marketed as a way to improve social skills have been studied independently for their effectiveness; the coaches are not licensed (and are only rarely ICF-certified, or even on a path towards becoming so); and no criteria exist as to what a successful passage through any program should look like. In some ways, this is as it should be: the value received should be obvious by looking at whether a participant is enjoying the relationships with women that he wants; and a coach’s credentials should be obvious by whether he himself has those kinds of relationships with women.
And yet, it’s reasonable, given the amounts of money charged, to expect some kind of standard, especially now that we’ve seen a few bad apples within the past couple of years that tarnish the reputation of the whole barrel. Dating coaches and their companies should clearly lay out what realistic outcomes in their programs should look like, and what a participant has to do to reach those goals.
We wouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions, though, had Neil Strauss not written his book, and actually the question of whether the PuA approach “works” is irrelevant in the long run. More than anything, the pickup artists’ legacy has been in changing the way men think about women, and in giving men the boldness and confidence they need to engage with women. Being “in the game” means dealing, for better or worse, with real live members of the opposite sex, and for many, that alone can lead to a transformation. It helps us look past surface appearances, however sexy, to the real woman. And it teaches us never to blame a woman if an interaction goes badly.
Many men find their voice, find themselves actually relating with women in conversation, and in so doing, quickly realize that much of what they imagined must be true about them isn’t true at all. They quickly discover that what they thought was aloofness was really shyness, for example. And that can lead to empathy, and learning to experience a sense of shared humanity with women. In that moment, a woman’s beauty suddenly becomes only part of the picture — they are real human beings, with similar frailties, dreams, and fears. It also leads to the revelation — surprising to some — that there are attractive women whom we don’t want to get to know, either because we discover we don’t have anything in common with them, or because their behavior and outlook on life turn us off.
Only rarely, if ever, will a dating coach blame a woman for an interaction that goes badly. If her prejudices are obvious — if she dislikes men of a particular race or profession, for example — he might take her to task for it, but he’ll usually look at what he could have done differently, never what she could have done differently. And a good coach will be careful about looking too closely at any one interaction. Like it or not, dating is a numbers game, and any coach worth his salt will recognize that.
I’ve met many men who have never had a girlfriend. Several of them who are well into their 30s have never had sex. The standard dating advice — usually dished out by attractive women who have plenty of choice when it comes to sex and dating — almost always falls flat with them. It’s like they’re speaking a different language. How can you change the way you communicate with a woman when your sole experience of women outside your mother’s house has been in online porn or in girls whom you pass on campus?
And so the PuAs have given us an empowering language for speaking about sex and dating. It’s given us a language of choice, a way to communicate, and a way to interpret social signals; and therefore, it’s made us more emotionally intelligent. Several of the men I’ve known who devoted themselves to the PuA life have fallen in love and gotten married. They’re good men who’ve played The Game to the fullest and who are now ready for the next chapter. This isn’t “settling”. It’s a celebration of the road they’ve traveled and an acceptance of new challenges ahead.
Many thanks, Neil, for the legacy of your book. Like Prometheus, who gave to humanity the gift of fire, you’ve given a gift to men that can be used for good or for bad. Let’s all choose wisely, do no harm, and conduct ourselves with honor and integrity.