It’s early morning in the California desert, and Neil Strauss is wearing his bitch shield.
For those unschooled in pick-up artist lingo, the “bitch shield” is a woman’s repellent attitude. Unlike a member of the so-called “seduction community” haranguing women in the street, however, I arranged to speak with the author of The Game well in advance. But Strauss still sounds as though he’s clicking his fingers and shaking his head from side to side.
“Hear what I have to say overall and the answer will come through in that,” he warns me straight away. “I want you to be careful, because I really don’t want you to perpetuate someone’s marketing message.”
It’s a little over a decade since Strauss wrote an article for the New York Times spotlighting the burgeoning online seduction community. His research started out as a personal endeavour, an attempt to overcome his low self-esteem and even lower luck with women.
“I am far from attractive,” he wrote in the original article. “When I look down at my pale, skinny body, I wonder why any woman would want to sleep next to it, let alone embrace it.”
Strauss went from hapless schmuck to Hollywood alpha-stud, all thanks to the tips he gleaned from the pick-up artist (PUA) community, and turned into an international bestseller. Strauss is now one of the most recognizable pick-up artists in the world and, to one degree or another, responsible for a hyper-masculine dating culture that critics like Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies have described as “despicable” and “soul crushing.”
“The difference between then and now,” Strauss says, “[is] back then it wasn’t commercialized, and now it’s commercialized.”
Strauss is no exception. He runs his own Stylelife Academy, which for roughly $2,000, supposedly turns average Joes into confident bachelors through coaching and personalized programs.
“Do you want me to tell you the truth, or do you want me to promote myself? It’s a sad thing right now and it’s true. Am I doing that? Yes. While I was doing The Game, a lot of people were doing the stuff for free. I think it’s changed.
He’s got that much right. The online pick-up community started with a Google group called alt.seduction.fast (A.S.F.), which would later be known as the “Class of 1998.” Men there published, shared, and learned from one another’s experiences in a kind of user-generated textbook that included tips, pick-up lines ,and “field reports” of their experiences. These pick-up artists, as they called themselves (or PUAs for short), developed a vast lexicon of quasi-scientific jargon to describe their techniques that made speaking to a woman sound like a military manoeuvre.
With time, the culture slowly became commercialized. The most prominent guru at that time was a tall, gangly fellow who lived with his mother, called Erik von Markovik, better known as Mystery. He became Strauss’s mentor, as well as one of the first people in this new community to make a living from teaching PUA. Mystery instructed aspiring pick-up artists to wear big furry hats, light-up jewelry, makeup, or even ski goggles—anything to stand out from their peers and disarm women.
“Back when I did it, it’s not like I did Mystery Method, or this method or that method,” Strauss says. “It was just a bunch of guys in a forum exchanging their views, and their ideas of what worked for them.”
While tips and tricks had long been traded online, The Game lent them authenticity upon its publication, becoming an instruction manual for an entire generation of PUAs. In the book, Strauss tackles concepts like the “three-second rule,” which dictates that a man only has three seconds to approach a woman or “set” of women before approaching them. It outlines how PUAs use recommended routines, from jokes to card tricks, to a memorable impression and how to “escalate” with linguistic chicanery and subtle “kino” touching.
Many PUAs compensated for their lack of social experience by acting like arrogant idiots, which Strauss admits can happen. They were taught to “neg” women with backhanded compliments or even insults to lower a woman’s perceived social value and to cockblock male competition.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding of negging,” Strauss says. “I don’t think negging’s really trying to hurt someone or hurt someone’s self-esteem. Negging’s about not being desperate and needy, not to show too much interest, but to be teasing and playful. Not to be an asshole or a jerk. Hurting someone’s feelings is not cool.”
While that might not have been the intention, that’s the general impression most critics have of the pick-up community—and with good reason. Ross Jeffries, one of the pick-up industry’s earliest gurus who peddled something called Speed Seduction, is said to be the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s “Respect the cock!” character in Magnolia.
Jeffries’ use of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (N.L.P.)—a form of hypnosis that can make a woman’s eyes glaze over or lull her into a trance—has been called predatory and unethical. More recently, Ken Hoinsky’s pick-up manual, Above The Game: A Guide to Getting Awesome with Women, spurred online outrage on Kickstarter, which pulled the project, and around the Web for seemingly advocating sexual assault. The book contained lines like: Don’t ask for permission, GRAB HER HAND, and put it right on your dick.”
The PUA community is also correlated by some with misogynistic communities like the “men’s rights” movement and the Red Pill on social news site Reddit, which decries “a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.”
In contrast to many of those who operate under the PUA banner (and those who have been wrongly associated with it), however, Strauss actually compares his work to Simone De Beauvoir, the 18th century feminist. “I want to do the same for male sexuality,” he told Time Out.
To hear Strauss tell it, PUA is about using male sexuality as a force for good in the world. “It opened me up to self-improvement. It opened me up to spirituality,” he insists.
“It helps [men] not just become better people. There were women who were interested in me, who really flat-out liked me. I was so insecure I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t even respond. And having an understanding of social dynamics, I think is a smart thing. If there’s a process for people to learn it? I feel a lot of empathy for the guys learning it.
“If people are shamed out of learning to be comfortable socially, we’re not going to have a world of confident people; we’re going to have a world of angry, bitter people.”
For Strauss, it naturally all comes back to who’s leading the instruction. He’s developed a litmus test for it: “Here’s my rule for the guys running the courses,” he says. “Would I take these people out to dinner with my family and friends? If I wouldn’t, I don’t trust them to teach anyone social skills.”
After some time with Strauss on the phone, I’m still not sure how I’d answer that question.
Illustration by Jason Reed