"The Game," via Flickr.
After it was revealed that woman-hating killer Elliot Rodger was tangled up in the online world of pick up artists and their detractors, I became obsessed with PUA culture and its horrific magnitude. As I spoke with friends about it—feminist-identified friends—several of them said they felt a pick up culture site for dudes is no different than the stacks of Cosmos so many teen girls devour. They said, sure, in some cases PUAs are revolting. But generally? Maybe not so.
My opinion is that PUA sites exist to lure and manipulate seemingly senseless women into bed. Put lightly, I abhor them. But after the shootings, while mourning this world’s too-deeply entrenched misogyny, I started to think through what this culture means. How do men wind up a part of it? And have I examined it closely enough?
So I Skyped with a PUA to find out what draws men into the PUA community, and what it’s like to be part of it. Vladimir Baranov is based in New York, and he joined the Vibe Society in 2005, when The Game came out. What I found was similar to what I saw when I checked out an MRA demonstration: while it’s a slimy culture that exists to subjugate and humiliate women for male advantage, many men become involved in it (or say they become involved in it) because they have no one to talk to about their emotional struggles. Baranov stumbled upon the site because he found himself confused about how to talk to girls. He wanted to date them, not just fuck them, but was too awkward to know how to go about it. He says he got involved in the scene because he just wanted a girlfriend. That said, he’s also quick to call girls “bitches” for rejecting male advances, so that’s a red flag.
VICE: So I hear you’ve been part of the pick up artist community. What’s your story with that?
Vladimir Baranov: I feel like the pick up community has a lot of negative connotation. [You can] focus on it from the perspective of a men’s support group, or just a male group where boys get together and talk about issues, so I see it from that perspective.
So was there a game going on? Did you learn tricks to get women?
It wasn’t so much tricks, as training rules. So let’s say a man turns up without any experience [with women]. So he doesn’t have any sisters, he grew up in a single-parent home, his cousins [are male and he has] all brothers. He doesn’t have a lot of examples of how to interact with women. And the only times he interacts with women are in public spheres, like school, or college, and women exist more on the periphery. So the discussion becomes, ‘Well, how do we interact with them?’ Some people get very lucky and they learn how to interact, but some people never do. And they get to the point where it’s like, ‘This whole thing of a man meeting a woman, it’s not working for me, so what’s going on?’ If you Google how to find a girlfriend, you’ll eventually stumble upon these websites which recommend the things which you call tricks.
So what brought you into this community, then? Were you shy?
Oh yes. I didn’t have any sisters. So my idea of romance was giving flowers and writing poems, and unfortunately that’s not what American teenage girls are into. If you present them with either, they would say ‘What the fuck is this?’ The [impact] of that on the male ego, it’s discouraging. You no longer want to approach any girl. You don’t open up at all emotionally, and there really is no support group. So the group was a place where we could discuss all of those issues. For me, it was a lot of help, knowing that other boys are going through the same issues, and you can go out together and say, ‘Well I did well with this girl, or this girl was a bitch,’ as opposed to a self-validating experience where you can say ‘I’m horrible.’ Usually those meetings, [there would be a] coach who would take you underneath their wing, basically, and put you in situations you’d never been in before.
What would they suggest?
One is the three-second rule. So as soon as you lock eyes with somebody you have three seconds to approach. And for the man, it is overwhelming if he has never done it before. The question becomes ‘What do you actually say?’ But you don’t know. That’s when you have to resort to some sort of template. Many girls obviously see through that. And some don’t, because they see it’s just a genuine person trying something different. What happens is that [the PUA’s] self-confidence rises immensely, so they drop those words as they become a more genuine person. So yes, of course we do call them tricks. But the average girl can see through that. Some might suggest being more physical, like start touching more. If you know what you’re doing, that’s the right advice. But if the student doesn’t know what they’re doing, they might be going too far. If the girl is uncomfortable, they might not be reading that.
So what did they teach you about her interest?
Well, eye contact, playing with the hair. Those are typical signs. After a while…slapping you. Light slapping and laughing about it. Ummm…I mean puppy eyes. When the eyes glaze over, when she keeps licking her lips.
Are you still part of this community?
Well, not an everyday basis. But if there’s a guy who reaches out and says, ‘Hey dude, I’m having issues,’ I would say, ‘Would you like me to help you out?’ and we can take a whole day on Saturday to work through his issues. We’d go to a park and meet a couple of girls and see how he’s doing, how’s his game.
You said part of this group is dealing with men’s underlying emotional issues. I’m wondering what some of those issues are?
Sure, so a lot of the stuff comes from social constructs that males are supposed to deal with issues on their own, and if there’s an issue they can’t solve, they’re basically not male anymore. Any problems with girls, it means you’re not good enough as a male, that’s why you’re having problems.
So you felt you couldn’t go to men you already knew, and had to go to someone you knew would support you?
Exactly. If you go to a person who knows you, there are a lot of social risks. It’s like how do you meet a girl, how do you talk to her, how do you know when to call, do you call her four times? And she kind of says yes, like maybe? Why the maybe? If you have sex how can you make her orgasm? All of those.
So the answers to questions like, ‘Does no really mean no?’ What do those discussions look like?
Well the thing is, sometimes it’s perceived that girls are not sure of themselves, what they really want, and there’s a problem with confusion amongst males. Like does he want me to say no? I mean, just look at her face, does she actually mean no? Is there a ferocious look in her eyes, like, ‘Get off of me?’ Under no circumstances was it advocated to proceed with any physical violence. The instructions were just to read her cues.
Did you find these groups respected women?
Yes. We were there for the relationships. We were just having really hard times deciphering signals that were coming from girls.
Were tactics like negging used?
You need to understand the context in which The Game was written, because it focused 50 percent of its content on LA as opposed to New York. My hypothetical was that it derived from the women he was meeting in Los Angeles. And if you go to Los Angeles, there are a lot of women who want to be actresses, and perhaps aren’t super educated, and they might have their self esteem at a level which is not super healthy. Now, is it right to be attracted to those women? Well, it’s up to you. If you want to go and be dating a woman who really has nothing in her mind…then those tactics will work. But if you’re talking to an intelligent woman, that’s never going to happen. And you’ll back off. But the thing is, he would [try to speak to] all these women he thought were hot in Los Angeles, and they would be all bitchy and reject him really, really hard, calling him names and blocking him in groups.
So...those tactics were used in the group you were a part of? Or not?
I mean, I didn’t go out with every single guy in the group. I’m not sure. There were situations for everybody to try out, yes. But eventually you realize that doesn’t feel right.
Have you ever tried anything like that?
[Long pause] I might have. I don’t remember anymore.
So did you ever go out with one of the coaches?
I went into two workshops, where we went out and were encouraged to meet women and were given feedback—that’s one, and the second one, we would go shopping, get a few girls to go shopping with us to make sure we understand what a sense of fashion was, check our conversation patterns, and give us feedback on that.
And so all of this helped you to meet women then, in the end? Where are you today?
Yes. It’s way easier. You realize, ‘Whoa, this is really easy now.’ I had a four-year relationship. All of my relationships came out of having been in the community. My first girlfriend I met in the subway, and I would never have had the courage to talk to anyone in the subway before. What else? Passing notes at restaurants doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. So I had two relationships, a two-and-a-half-year relationship and a four-year relationship. And if it wasn’t for these groups, I don’t know if I’d be able to accomplish that.