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How Pick Up Artists Migrated from Malls to Dating Apps

Where have all the pickup artists gone? Have they stopped harassing women? Or are they underground plotting their next big disruption of a shopping mall near you?

Sarah Ratchford

Image by Noel Ransome

Vadim Dorfman stands up, sock feet wedged into plastic Adidas flipflops, awkwardly clutching a woman's body. One hand is wrapped behind her back, the other is grasping for her right leg. She is wearing shorts and a lacy white bra.

The next frame is Dorfman's face, squinting into the sun on Toronto's Queen Street West. He's wearing a wrinkled purple buttondown shirt and telling the viewer they should watch his videos to see if his personality resonates with them. "Pickup should, after all, be a natural form of self-expression that aligns with your core essences of manhood...teaching men how to come into alignment with that core essence is something we're very passionate about, but passion must go hand in hand with practice," he says. "That's why we keep the saw sharp, and our dicks sharper."

Strange imagery aside, one may wonder what the hell he's talking about. Many others, however, will recognize the faux bravado of a pickup artist.

Back in the depths of the mid-aughts, women and feminized people got a whole new education on which kinds of behaviours exhibited by cis men could turn out to be dangerous. Whereas before, an extroverted man in a strange outfit or with the ability to perform magic tricks could seem intriguing, those things turned out to often be little more than part of a larger package of bait carefully designed to lure women into bed. These men figured regularly in headlines until 2014, but by the end of that year they seemed to have been scrubbed from regular annals of cultural consciousness.

Only questions remain. Where have these cretins gone? Are they taking some time off to rebrand? Did they pile into a damp basement porn theatre to wait until the hate blows over? Did they simply lose interest in so-called pickup artistry since they can now try out their shitty lines on Tinder? Or did women and femmes defeat them once and for all? In looking for answers, I found active pickup forums and bootcamps still operating in plain view, and even had a few unsolicited dick picks offered to me along the way.

At the height of their visibility, it seemed like they would never disappear. A physical manifestation of one of the worst kinds of toxic masculinity, pick up artists refer to their craft as "seduction." Their pinnacle, in the media at least, started with Neil Strauss's The Game, a 2015 misguided exercise in gonzo journalism, which shared the secrets of men who have no idea how to attract women but are trying their damndest via lowkey street harassment.

As Strauss describes in the book, these men feel so entitled to sex with women that they've come up with a veritable bible of tricks to seduce the catlike creatures into bed. Strauss observes for example, the moves of one of his fellow PUAs, Sin: "I'd watch as a woman came over to his house for the first time and he'd throw her against the wall by her neck, then release her just before he kissed her, shooting her adrenaline level through the roof with equal parts fear and arousal." There are stories about picking up women in restaurants using hypnosis routines then following them home to fuck them because they decide they've "mentally consented." There are other steps involved too, aside from overt sexual assault. The men will "neg" women, doling out the rough side of a backhanded compliment—telling them, for example, that they have "the cutest Bugs Bunny teeth." The idea is that women are so simple, this will lower their self esteem to the point that they'll have sex with the person hounding them in order to restore it again. Once the PUA gets someone into bed, they scuttle home and post the details in forums full of other men doing the same.

Where Have All The PUAs Gone?

While this behaviour was disturbingly common in big city shopping malls by 2010, the PUA scene is rarely heard tell of anymore. As news of their MO spread, even the mayors of Canada's major cities were awakened to the fact that PUAs were card-carrying harassers of women. By 2015, they denounced a visit from Daryush Valizadeh, aka Roosh V, a vocal PUA who is known for, amongst other things, having publicly made a case for the legalization of rape. Their behaviour became so highly recognized as just plain bad that many pickup artists themselves are now refuting involvement with the community: Ross Jeffries, a forefather of the movement who wrote the book How to Get the Women You Desire Into Bed, now strenuously insists that he be referred to as a "transformational healer and thinker" instead. Strauss himself has backtracked a little with his followup book The Truth, in which he offers up excuses for his behaviour. In a world where overt misogyny is at least slightly less publicly tolerable, the relevance these men carry seems questionable at best.

It's heartening to see that this movement has even less virility than in years past. While it seems weaker now, though, it's still strong behind the scenes. According to Geoff MacDonald, a psychology prof at the University of Toronto whose work focuses on the establishment of sexual connection and relationships, pickup artistry is alive.

"Sometimes it seems like things go away, but they've just become mainstream to the point that you don't notice they're there. I haven't seen much in the news about salt recently either, but I think people are still eating it."

As MacDonald puts it, PUAs are an expression of something bigger than themselves. (One has only to look at the president of the United States for proof.) Or, as feminists put it, they are an expression of the deeply entrenched misogyny that lives at the base of our society's spine.

MacDonald says their decision to partially slink from view is likely deliberate, as by nature they function better when people don't know they're operating at all.

Dorfman, for example, is currently working in Toronto with his sidekick Austen Sangfroid, where he charges $3,750 for a three-day filmed bootcamp that uses traditional PUA strategies to teach men how to street harass women. The harassment includes aggressively positioning themselves in front of women or between women and their friends, saying what they can to isolate them, and forcing physical contact. He texts his disciples aggressive reminders to, no matter what:

"Just lead her. Take her for a drink somewhere or food and home. As long as you LEAD no hesitation."

This from a man who, in his spare time, claims to enjoy "drinking tea, having threesomes and being an amateur film critic," and another who "enjoys green smoothies, Ultimate Frisbee, and serenading people with his guitar." To find most of this, I had to get on the email list for their new "online membership academy" which will have "uncut infield breakdowns weekly," meaning these self-styled masters give their students detailed pointers on how they did trying to pick up women on a given day. They post the responses they get on their YouTube channel Honest Signalz, which has 79,000 subscribers. They blur out the women's faces, but other than that, there is no real attempt to conceal their identity. And under Canadian law, there is little to no recourse the women can take.

Sadly, it's not just Dorfman working in Toronto. MacDonald is right:
although women can see straight through them, these men are determined to keep at it, and their continued relevance may be greater than it seems: PUA bootcamps have been scheduled all summer in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. News of the first one back in June exploded indecently all over my timeline, both on friends' walls and on the various Bunz groups: Toronto's "Premier Lifestyle Coaching Syndicate" promised on a now-defunct Eventbrite page that, for $50, it would help the downtrodden "get a hot woman by your side instead of whacking off to adult videos alone in your room or paying for sex with prostitutes."

Shame in the Game

Overt public acceptance for these kinds of events, luckily, is slim these days. The Square told me via email that no event of this sort is sanctioned by Yonge-Dundas or by the city, and there seemed to be at least five times the opposition to the event being expressed online as interest from would-be woman botherers in the event itself. It would seem the organizers caught on to these tones: the event was swiftly removed from Eventbrite before its intended date arrived.

I visit the PUA site listed on the event page, pickupstrategy.com, only to find that it's not live. The Facebook page for same has a total of seven likes. So I text the ringleader's number (which he listed publicly on the event page before it died) asking for details on the next seminar. A few days later, at 5:30 AM, I get a call from a blocked number. Then, a text: "Sure Sarah we've passed your number along to each of our members for them to contact you directly."

The messages that came my way were the sort of aggressive moves so often made by clueless cis men on Tinder, and included such delightfully original entreaties as "you wanna see my cock." MacDonald says he wouldn't be surprised to hear that these communities were plotting to adapt their in-person tactics to online dating apps, and it makes sense: The heyday of PUA culture died down, at least in the public discourse, just as Tinder started to pick up. Could your average dickpic-sending Tinder bro be the new PUA?

Given the fact that these men were never going to seriously engage with me after hearing my voice and deciding I was a woman, I did the only thing there was to do in order to find out: I hounded a manfriend to weasel more information out of them. He didn't get a response.

Not Gone, Not Forgotten

Though many in the community are concealing themselves or have purportedly changed their ways, some continue unabashed, and these gatherings are by no means siloed to Toronto. A quick search yields a list of bootcamps in Bucharest, China, and throughout the US, with a sold-out "premium" one last month in New York City which, depending on the package, will cost either $666.50 (hilarious) or $3,000. (It's not clear what's included in each, just an uptick in more aggressive rapey behaviour with the second, it seems). A roll through Twitter shows Strauss's mentor Erik von Markovik, aka Mystery, hasn't given up either: he's got a four-day immersion bootcamp coming up at the end of the month in Amsterdam promising to teach "the most current social arts knowledge" at a cost of $4,349.26 CAD for the VIP treatment (which involves more personal, tailored approaches and carefully-crafted individualized steps for bamboozling women).

And despite Valizadeh's many public embarrassments at the hands of his predilection, his site is still active, this week blaring headlines such remarkable as "Women Are Pathologically Addicted To Flaunting Their Bodies For Sexual Attention," and his forum is running strong. Last week, for example, one user suggested men who are looking to pick up a lady in an elevator might "try leaning in and pressing your hard on against her leg."

Regardless how pitiful its participants, a movement that teaches men to assault and harass women cannot be called harmless. As long as some men still buy into this, Dorfman said it best himself in one of his videos: "This isn't just about five easy tips to pick up women. This shit is for real."

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