I’d thought I was done with talking about “Above The Game”, Ken Hoinsky’s Kickstarter to self-publish a pick-up manual. Looks like I’ve got a bit more to say.
Hoinsky’s project was successfully funded despite the hue and cry, and the money was released to him as per standard Kickstarter policy. In the aftermath, Kickstarter issued an apology, saying that they should never have allowed the project in the first place because of its distressing content and apparent advocation of sexual assault. They backed this up with a $25,000 donation to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. I heartily approve of all of this; Kickstarter proved that they were sincere in their regret and backed up their words with positive action.
Part of the fallout from the project’s sudden infamy involved Kickstarter promising that they were no longer going to allow anything that smacked of a “seduction manual”. From their statement:
We are prohibiting “seduction guides,” or anything similar, effective immediately. This material encourages misogynistic behavior and is inconsistent with our mission of funding creative works. These things do not belong on Kickstarter.
I didn’t comment on it at the time, but the decision to ban any “seduction guides” or anything similar struck me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, Hoinsky’s advice was incredibly troublesome and encouraged men to try to push past a woman’s “no” to until she literally forced him away… but wouldn’t banning all dating manuals or guides be tarring an entire industry with the same brush?
Now, obviously, I have no small amount of self-interest involved, seeing as I write a dating advice blog that regularly talks about how to get laid. I consider myself to be a feminist ally (albeit one with a Feminism 101 level of education) and would like to think that my advice is sex-positive and encouraging of enthusiastic consent; frankly, I rather resent the idea that I’m encouraging misogynistic behavior because I’m teaching people how to find new sex partners. Besides, I might want to crowd-fund a Dr. NerdLove project some time, and I’d hate to get disqualified because I’m associated with bad actors.
But the part that I find more troubling about this new policy is the way it implies that wanting to learn how to have more sex at all is somehow inherently bad and can only be done at the expense of women – an attitude I’ve seen expressed in many places after the scandal erupted.
So last week I talked about why pick-up is so damn skeevy.
This week, I want to defend it.
The Curious Case of the Feminist PUA
Before I get to this particular head-scratcher, I want to talk a little about what inspired me to write this.
In the aftermath of the Hoinsky scandal, a trio of self-proclaimed feminist pick-up artists wanted to crowd-fund a dating manual of their own… this one aimed at women. Female pick-up artist Arden Leigh, professional matchmaker Amy Van Doran, and queer burlesque artist Madame Rosebud, proposed a book that taught pick-up techniques to women in order to empower them in their own romantic lives. The point was to give women the tools to be a active participants in finding love rather than sitting around and waiting for Mr. Right to make the first move. According to Arden Leigh, the idea was to teach women the tools to find the partner they wanted without compromising themselves. The book was to be sex-positive, focusing on enthusiastic consent and designed, in part, to counter many of the more misogynistic ideas about women and romance. In short: the polar opposite of Above The Game.
In accordance with its new policy, Kickstarter rejected it.
Now to be sure: Kickstarter is a private company. They are well within their rights to decide what material they want to be associated with. But in automatically rejecting a proposal that was on its face not objectionable – in fact, one that empowered women rather than encouraged negative attitudes towards them – struck many as a case of Kickstarter missing the point of the Hoinsky fiasco. Speaking to the Daily Dot, Leigh had this to say:
“I found Kickstarter’s ban on all seduction guides disheartening, as seduction in itself is not inherently misogynist or offensive, and disappointing in the sense that it fails to address the real problem of the site’s failure to police hate speech in its content. It seems an avoidant solution at best, especially when you consider that Hoinsky got to keep his funding—rather like shutting the barn door after the horse is out.”
It was – by design – going to be an uphill battle. By labeling herself as a PUA, Leigh has deliberately associated herself with a term that is seen by many as being synonymous with trying to manipulate, brow-beat, or otherwise coerce women into sex. Moreover, she’s professionally connected to Neil Strauss and Mystery – two very polarizing figures and leaders of the seduction community; in many ways, by willingly affiliating herself with them, Leigh opens herself up to charges of guilt by association. Jezebel writer Katie J.M. Baker questioned whether being a feminist PUA was even possible and was quick to equate Leigh’s view on pick-up with Hoinsky’s. Moreover, she writes:
The seduction community wouldn’t be able to subsist without gendered assumptions that offer the fantasy of control by teaching acolytes that people have cheat codes, vulnerability can be eradicated with bravado, and women in particular can be “understood” via dangerous, antiquated notions of femininity and conquered using emotional and physical manipulation.
While Baker does say that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn how to get better at dating or finding sex, she’s extremely quick to assume that everyone who’s ever wandered into pick-up is someone who’s determined to learn how to manipulate women and pick up the cheat codes that will grant magical access to the unsuspecting victim’s vagoo.
And this is an attitude I have a problem with.
Pick Up Artists: Threat Or Menace?
One of the great ironies of the patriarchal social system in which we live is how much it hurts men – the very people who benefit from it. Men are taught that being a man means never showing vulnerability or admitting weakness; we are encouraged to repress our emotions and detach ourselves from our emotional needs. To be in touch with your fee-fees is to be feminine and, thus, lesser. The problem is that this same refusal to allow vulnerability hinders us in seeking out help when we need it. Women are socialized to be open with their feelings, to ask for help, and are permitted to be vulnerable. Men are not.
This is never more evident than when it comes to sex.
As I said last week, there’s a profound lack of dating advice for men. We are taught that we exist in a binary state – either we’re good with women or we’re not and there’s nothing that can be done about this and it’s shameful to even try. Those who do try to get better are viewed alternately with pity, derision, or outright suspicion. In the article “Is There Such a Thing as a Feminist Pick-Up Artist?“, Katie J.M. Baker specifically rejects the idea “that most PUA wannabes are ‘shy young guys who want to learn about dating’ […] who need to be reassured that they’ll always get what they want if they reshape their game,” instead, choosing to believe that the majority of people who go into PUA are looking for lessons on how to manipulate women sexually.
Needless to say, I profoundly disagree with this.
It’s easy to believe the worst of people who look into pick up. We live with a social narrative that says chemistry is more of a matter of luck than intent and that love is as much about fate as it is agency. The idea that sexual attraction can be generated, that you can take a more active hand in your love life and make it happen… this can seem deceitful when you’re invested in the idea that attraction is something that occurs on it’s own. One could even argue that it can be a touch threatening, because it makes your love life more about the choices that you’ve made and the actions that you take rather than something that just happens.
Speaking for myself, I got into the pick up community specifically because I had no idea how to attract women. I had barely a handful of relationships to my name, only one lasting more than a few months and that one was so profoundly toxic that I ended up in therapy. Each relationship I’d had I had stumbled into through luck as much as anything else; my attempts to find love, or even just sex, were experiences in soul-crushing disappointment and rejection that left me more depressed than ever before. The traditional advice of “women want a nice guy“, “just be yourself” and “you’ll find love when you’re not looking” wore worse than useless; they actually retarded my chances by teaching me all of the wrong lessons. Having friends who were naturals, gifted with social grace and an intuitive grasp of sexual dynamics and could attract women the way cheese attracts mice, didn’t help. In fact, on multiple occasions the girl I was interested in would go home with them instead. I was convinced that this was my lot in life… and to be perfectly honest, I was beginning to wonder why I was even bothering.
I found the pick-up community out of desperation for answers. And it literally changed my life. It was the pick-up community that taught me that success with women was a skill, not an inborn condition. It taught me how much of my identity and beliefs about myself were wrong. I learned how to dress, how to talk to women, how to flirt and – importantly – that it was ok for me to want to sleep with them.
In fact, most of the people I got to know through the community had stories similar to mine; we were well-intentioned, more than a little shy and socially inexperienced, and wanted to just do better. The simple realization that we had a sense of control, that attraction and chemistry weren’t matters of random chance, was incredibly powerful. We didn’t want cheat codes for easy pussy, we wanted the goddamn instruction manual that everybody else but us seemed to have.
Now, I will freely admit: the idea of easy sex certainly didn’t goddamn hurt. I was a late bloomer and I wanted to make up for lost time, and pick-up offered a path to what seemed like everything I wanted. Except it wasn’t… because I didn’t know what I wanted. I was studying pick-up for nearly a year before I started to get regular, consistent results. And when I did, I did what anyone in my position would do, having gone from famine to feast: I went wild. I dove into this new world like Templeton at the fair, stuffing myself at every opportunity.
After having spent so long believing that sex was something that happened to other people, I was determined that by God I was going to be the player I never thought I could be.
And it made me fucking miserable. I was getting laid like a bandit to be sure, but I wasn’t happy at all. I was spending time in bars I hated surrounded by people I loathed, paying too much for beer, choking on cigarette smoke – all in the name of getting my dick wet. Everything about my life became about pick-up. The majority of my social circle were my wingmen and fellow PUAs in town. Almost every conversation I had inevitably revolved back to the topic of pick-up. I was out three, four nights a week, coming home reeking of smoke and stale beer and a miasma of cologne and perfume, my head pounding and my ears ringing. If I scored that night, then I was on the top of the world… but if I didn’t, I was dragging the tattered remains of my ego home with me, wondering if all the success I had experienced before was some sort of cosmic fluke and the Universe had only just gotten around to correcting the mistake.
It was only when I stepped away from the community that I started to recognize the problem and was able to fix things. I wasn’t just having sex because I’m a sexual person and it was part of who I was, I was using sex as validation; the more I had the better of a person I was. When you’re getting your validation from sex and using other people as a yard-stick to measure your success, you’re going to end up in a dark and unpleasant place.
And therein lies the problem.
Fruit of the Poisonous Tree
The issue isn’t pick-up itself; the problem is in the community. At its base, pick-up is a skill set, inherently neutral; in and of itself it’s no more malignant than basketball.
To quote Arden Leigh:
[Pick-up] is not inherently good or bad. It’s like a hammer. A hammer can be used to drive a nail into a piece of wood and build a beautiful house one day or it can be used to bust someone’s kneecap. It’s all about the ethics of how you use it.
And she is right: it’s simply about learning how to interact with women, how to be attractive, how to present yourself to someone and how to build sexual and emotional chemistry. It’s the style of pick up that turns it from flirtation to manipulation, from attraction to coercion, and that style becomes a matter of contention.
Therein lies the greatest sin of the Pick Up Community: it focuses around sex as a goal in and of itself without regard for (or scorning outright) emotional connections and intimacy. When you’re pursuing sex for sex’s sake, it becomes all about objectification. Women go from people to points; the classic 10-scale is the metric by which we judge ourselves, and the greater the challenge, the greater the esteem. Small wonder that so much of Hoinsky’s advice focused on pushing as aggressively as possible until you get a violent no; when all you want is sex, then anything can be seen as permisible.
Most of the issues in pickup stem from the fact that so much of it is based on mistaken ideas of women’s sexuality and an adversarial model of sex. When you’re starting from the position that women don’t like sex as much as men do and that women need to be compelled to give up sex as cheaply as possible, then you’re automatically starting from a place of conflict. It doesn’t help that almost every school of pick-up derives itself from Mystery’s original teachings; most of his material was based on attracting women from dance clubs, an environment that encourages a divisive, elitist attitude where status is based almost entirely on physical beauty or material wealth. But those clubs are an incredibly specialized environment that attracts a very specific sort of person. Once you step outside – where 99.999% of the world is – then everything about that approach falls apart. Most women aren’t flaky, stuck up snobs… but the pick up community is based on treating them as if they were. It becomes a game of trying to use social pressure against them, playing mind games and trying to “win” at all costs, because the PUA’s ego gets caught up in the end goal of getting her to give it up.
Moreover, the PUA community is predominantly based around semi-closed Internet forums, and while the Internet is great for bringing diverse groups of people together, it’s also a notorious echo-chamber. When you take socially awkward men who don’t have much experience with women, you’re g0ing to have some who have resentment issues or who actively dislike women. Throw enough of them together into a community and they’re going to have an amplification effect; when you’re constantly having your viewpoint agreed with and reinforced – that women are X or only want Y and it’s unfair for men because women have all the power – then it’s harder for a dissenting idea to break in… especially if it’s running counter to the constant stream of validation. Get enough bitter men with entitlement issues and a fear of women together and it’s not hard to see how you could end up with a Gunwitch or a RooshV or a Heartiste peddling their brand of hate in the name of seduction. Let their fans make enough noise, and it can seem as though they’re default voice of the community and brand pick-up as a whole with their filth.
The misogyny isn’t inherent in pick-up, it’s in the bitterness of the practitioners and reinforced by their seclusion.
No True Scotsman
Where the problem arises is that there are no counter-examples so these become the face of pick-up by default. Most people who want to get better at dating – whether casually or committed – don’t label themselves PUAs. Even those who study “game” tend to not identify as pick up artists. Those who do tend to be a minority…. but one with a voice disproportionate to its size. Neil Strauss and Mystery are anomalies; most pick-up gurus are barely known outside of the PUA community, if at all, so when Ken Hoinsky’s posts in r/seduction get brought up, or Jezebel posts about various PUA creepers, then they reinforce the idea that guys who want to learn how to find sex more efficiently are automatically suspect.
It quickly becomes a case of the No True Scotsman fallacy; PUA advocates will say that the creepers aren’t real PUAs and that they’re violating the Laws of Mystery1 or some such, while those who view seduction with suspicion and disdain will remark on how real men don’t go online looking for tips on how to get laid.
As a result: Pick-Up – currently the default label for any sort of sexually oriented dating advice for men – becomes synonymous with “Creeper”, the community draws closer in on itself, and the opportunity for change dwindles. People who want to get better socially get labeled as losers and creeps and a potential valuable resource gets lost in the noise and the chaos.
I think pick-up and pick up artists as a label and an identity have a terminal case of bad-branding… and it’s warping the perceptions of everything it gets attached to. Not all pick-up material is grossly misogynistic or advocates sexual assault – but the PUA community is saddled with the sins of its loudest and most regressive advocates. The shame is in the opportunities that are lost. When Kickstarter banned all “seduction manuals” regardless of content, it closed the door on the potential to reclaim a label from the people who made it synonymous with rape and coercion.
For all that I dislike the PUA community and what it’s become, learning about pick-up changed my life for the better.
I’m far more confident and self-assured than I ever was before I started learning the material. I’ve met people and had adventures that I would’ve never imagined I could. I’ve learned more about myself and my potential because of it than I had in my years previous. I found a level of control to my life that I didn’t realize was possible. I confronted my self-limiting beliefs, found out that I’m not bound by who I – or other people – thought I was. I had a chance to explore a life that I didn’t think I could ever experience and learn more about who I really am.
Hell, if you get right down to it, learning pick-up led to my getting married to an incredible, beautiful woman who makes me happier than I would’ve dreamed… from pursuing a skill set that many people view with derision and suspicion.
The problem isn’t pick-up. The problem is the people who use it.
Same with any other skill.
- This is not a thing that exists [↩]