Ken Hoinsky. (Photo courtesy of Ken Hoinsky)
Ken Hoinsky hasn't had the best couple of weeks. A moderator of Reddit's 130,000-strong "seduction community", Ken was thrust into the media spotlight after followers pledged $16,000 (£10,522) on Kickstarter to finance a book he was writing, Above the Game: A Guide to Getting Awesome with Women, which contained a chapter that appeared to advocate sexual assault.
Understandably, a lot of people were upset about that. So many people, in fact, that Kickstarter publicly apologised for hosting Ken's project, removed it from their site, banned future listings of seduction guides "or anything similar" and donated $25,000 to an anti-sexual violence charity.
If you'd like to ruin your day, the offending material is here. But in a nutshell, Hoinsky seems to suggest that budding Romeos should wait until a woman is literally screaming, "Get away from me," before breaking away momentarily and coming back a little later to try again. Because, obviously, prolonged aggressive harassment is the time-tested stuff of Richard Curtis films and Match.com adverts. And then, on top of that, there are a bunch of tips like this:
- "You have established yourself as a LEADER. Don't ask for permission, GRAB HER HAND, and put it right on your dick."
- "Don't ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances."
Weirdly, it turns out that a lot of people object to this kind of talk – mostly because it's awe-inspiringly misogynistic and, as others have pointed out, sounds more like a guide to raping someone than a lesson in "getting awesome with women".
Hoinsky has since published a statement that attempts to clarify his position. He's still committed to publishing a book and claims to be ditching the language that makes him sound like a rape advocate, which is probably a good PR move. But I wanted to see whether he's still concerned about warping the minds of impressionable young men with all the other stuff that won't get the chop, so I called him up to find out.
The project's Kickstarter page.
VICE: Hi Ken. What's your side of the story?
Ken Hoinsky: The book came out of work I'd been doing online for years. As I got feedback, it became clear that I could touch more lives if I had it all in a book. I tried to raise $2,000 (£1,315) and it's taken on a life of its own. Now that I can reach more people, that's great. That being said, this came out of a very specific audience: men who were me five or ten years ago – shy, nerdy, maybe introverted. Not particularly successful with women but had nice things going for them. This is Reddit we're talking about – guys who've maybe never kissed a girl. Some of the wording I used resonates with them and a lot of men, otherwise I wouldn't have raised $16,000 on Kickstarter. But when you examine those quotes out of context, they look really bad and I'm aware of that. I would say something like, "If things are hot and heavy, you don't need to actually ask for permission." But I'm not saying you don't need consent.
Do you consider your statement an apology or a clarification?
I want to clarify what I meant by certain things. I'm taking the feedback very seriously. That something I wrote could lead someone to rape someone is a very serious accusation, and I don't want to take that lightly at all. I and most of my followers knew what was intended, but that it could be misinterpreted to feel that it's appropriate to sexually assault someone is a problem. I have to re-evaluate the language and edit it to make sure that doesn't happen. It's a responsibility I have to take.
What would have been a better choice of words for your message?
It's very male-centric. I've been interviewing with a lot of female reporters and it's interesting to see quotes that really bother them. Some weren't the obvious ones that would jump out at male readers. One is: "If she doesn't immediately accept your advances, it's OK to stop and make sure she's comfortable and try again later." There are a million reasons she might not be comfortable enough to receive your advances, but that doesn't mean you should never talk to her again. That's not realistic. Think of all the great love stories that wouldn't exist if the man didn't chase the girl so they can get their happy-ever-after ending. It's more productive to take a break and try again later. What I should be saying is you have to take her feelings into account as well.
I think what people found troubling was the sex chapter, where you said you should literally wait for a woman to say "Get away from me," putting the responsibility of consent on them.
I've had a crash course in women's rights since this scandal blew up, and I'm taking it seriously to understand problematic language. I spent three hours with the person who put up the DoSomething.org petition [calling for Kickstarter to remove the project] to go line by line through the book. The general belief now isn't, "No means no," it's, "Yes means yes." They call it enthusiastic consent. The methods I use come from cognitive behavioural therapy. If you don't have experience in social situations, you need to build up small repetitive steps that slowly put you out of your comfort zone.
One of Ken's tips. (Click to enlarge)
What kind of things are they?
For a lot of guys, it means speaking to a woman, asking for a number and getting rejected. I didn't intend it to mean if she doesn't push you off, it's OK to have sex with her. The core message is empowering the woman to make a decision about whether or not she wants to consider this guy as a sexual candidate – it's all about giving the woman the power to make those types of decisions. Don't assume she's not into you, because if you don't put yourself out there you might miss out on the love of your life. At the same time, you have to be cognisant and respectful of the woman's point of view.
What I got from it was that any good intentions seem wrapped up in self-confidence. Wouldn't it be more valuable to focus on self-confidence rather than the end goal being sleeping with women?
Let me tell you how the guide came to be. If you go back to before The Game came out, it was what they call "outer game", learning lines, techniques and tricks. You're handed a script and told you can have sex with a woman. Some of this works, some doesn't. It's manipulative and leads to very shallow relationships. This shifted towards "inner game", which is like self-help and developing confidence. Concepts like "abundance mentality" – the idea that I can meet different women, so this one woman I'm talking to will not intimidate me. Those beliefs are empowering. The problem is that a young guy is learning from a guide that's telling him he has lots of women in his life, and that doesn't gel at all. There was demand for actionable advice people can do to develop these philosophies. The guide I envisioned didn't exist, so I started writing one to build up their level of inner game and confidence so they don't need this stuff any more.
Do you think pick-up artists (PUAs) feel validated by sleeping with a lot of women? Why isn't self-confidence enough?
The seduction world is self-help in disguise. The majority of it is about developing confidence in more traditional self-help. For whatever reason, applying it towards women gets guys motivated. There's a reason the Reddit seduction community has 130,000 subscribers and the self-help community isn't ten percent of that. It's the common thread that brings men together. Sex is not the goal, it's a by-product of applying all these things.
I've seen people like Bukowski held up as an icon of how to be because he slept with a lot of women. But he was a chronically depressed alcoholic, and sleeping with a lot of people didn't seem to help him much.
There's certainly that darker, manipulative side of seduction. My style isn't about sex. The sex chapter is a necessary evil if I'm promising an end-to-end guide on relationships. It's more about building genuine connections. It's why I got into seduction and where I want to take it. A big criticism the community gets is that it's only about sex and that's not true. Sex is a milestone for guys – not about bragging, but having sex with women and having people attracted to you in a genuine way.
Some sex tips. (Click to enlarge)
What about outright manipulation, like "negging", where you put a woman down so she's more vulnerable?
That goes back to The Game. It's preying on girls' insecurities to sleep with them. If you put her down to get her to sleep with you, how is that in any way fulfilling for you as a human being? That's maybe a reason some of these people were depressed – they were tricking people into sleeping with them, which builds a very shallow foundation for your confidence. I've been advocating getting away from that because it's not constructive to the long-term goal.
A tip of yours is: "Personal space is for pussies. I already told you the most successful seducers are those who can't keep their hands off of women. Well, you're not going to be able to do that if you aren't in close." Isn't there a very thin line between that and harassment?
These are the guys who are glued up the wall with a drink in their hand, trying to talk to girls from ten feet away because they're so afraid of approaching them.
You're saying that, but that's a certain Reddit stereotype. Reddit is one of the most widely read websites on the planet – there could be lots of people who would find that encouraging.
I guess you're right, and it's one part that was highlighted as problematic and that I'm revisiting. I wasn't writing for the Jersey Shore, jock type; that's not who my writing resonates with. If you walk up to a woman and shake her hand, hold eye contact, say hi then respectfully stop shaking her hand and continue talking to her – I'm not saying go put your face six inches from her face, that's just going to freak girls out and not going to work.
You might not be saying that, but it's open for misinterpretation.
That's been eye-opening. It matters how it can be interpreted. That's why I'm working with anti-sexual assault organisations to have them vet this advice, to isolate these problematic messages. The idea that somebody could read this and use it to end up assaulting somebody terrifies me. That completely was never my intention and I'm doing whatever I can to get away from that.
Ken explaining himself on video.
Maybe this boils down to either believing women want men to act this way, or understanding all women aren't fundamentally the same.
That's one problem when you're writing dating advice. You put in generalisations for certain things. Short of putting, "Not every woman is the same" before every line. I'm not saying I was some Casanova who understands every woman's desires. This work involves sources and feedback from thousands of people over years. I want to provide examples, different perspectives. I'm trying to get testimonials from women who are into different types of men in the bedroom. I hate that I use generalisations – "All women like a dominant man" – because maybe some women don't.
Your guide mentions girlfriends cheating on you. Do you think those relationships led to your involvement with PUAs?
No. I got cheated on and dumped. I fell into that nice guy trap. I lived in New York at the time. I was going out, dating and fumbling along on my own. In 2007, I started dating the woman who became my wife. We have a wonderful open relationship. It wasn't until I moved back to Japan and my wife was in the States [that I got involved]. I had no social circle, nobody in my life. So I turned to seduction to build friendships. A lot of what I write is about becoming an attractive human being. It was looking for an outlet and advice. Men turn to seduction because that's all that's out there. There are small self-help communities, but seduction completely overpowers it. It's unfortunate, but if you're teaching about genuine connections and meeting people, there's not a lot of harm in that aspect.
I asked Ken if he'd heard of cultural phenomena like "eve teasing", where sexual harassment is dismissed as a joke, and if he condoned that. He said he was only interested in being behind closed doors with enthusiastic consent, and to suggest he was advocating grabbing women in the street was absurd, frustrating and out of context. Ken was personable, but the language and concepts still felt deeply uncomfortable. Giving women the ability to decide who to have sex with? I wouldn't say that's really something for the male population to give.
It's great that Hoinsky is taking steps to improve his language, but I felt an inherent part of the self improvement he claimed to be promoting was just about getting laid. And the thought of lonely young men being pulled into this way of thinking is obviously distressing. But mostly I wondered that if this scandal hadn't happened, would we be discussing the worst of the "seduction community" at all? That might be Ken's most valuable contribution so far.
Follow Tamlin on Twitter: @wegotblankets
More stuff about pick-up artists and misogyny: