I have been negged, to my knowledge, exactly once in my life. When I was photographing a play at college, a fellow undergrad swaggered up to me and said, “Nice camera. You don’t look like you know what to do with it though.” One of his friends came up to me afterwards and grimaced: “Ignore him. He’s just read The Game.”
Neil Strauss’ 2005 book The Game was a global phenomenon. It sold 2.5 million copies, making the journalist turned pick-up artist a very rich man. It also led to an explosion of interest in an otherwise underground subculture—the seduction industry, in which heterosexual men pay other heterosexual men to teach them how to sleep with women. Reality shows and documentaries were commissioned on the subject; pick-up artists appeared in Hollywood films like Magnolia and Hitch. And then public interest waned. When was the last time you saw Mystery on TV?
It turns out PUAs didn’t go anywhere. According to Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy, Dr. Rachel O’Neill’s book on the London pick-up artist scene, the business of bedding women is alive and well—with some estimating it to be a $100 million industry. In the UK, men routinely pay £500 for weekend courses, with one-on-one coaching sessions beginning at £100 an hour. Many are repeat clients, returning again and again to seek the wisdom of PUA coaches or “trainers,” who are revered as gods.
Currently a research fellow in sociology at the University of York, O’Neill first encountered The Game in a thrift store when she moved to London for her Master’s degree, and was curious to know how much of the American book had translated into a UK context. “That was the initial in,” she says, “and it’s now almost a decade later.” In the course of her research, O’Neill clocked up hours of observation at pick-up bootcamps, individual training sessions, talks and meetups, and one-on-one interviews with trainers and their clients.
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Seduction offers the first book-length study of a widely vilified industry, and the book makes a persuasive argument that, contrary to common perception, PUAs are not “sleazebags, saddos, and weirdos”. They are, in fact, ordinary men who have bought into a culture that believes women can be gamed, persuaded, or—at its worst—coerced into sex. Many are in their 20s and 30s and are middle-class, well-educated professionals. Some have distasteful if utterly banal goals; one man was in love with his female friend and wanted her to feel the same way; another wanted to date “higher-value” women. “I never had much control [over my dating life]. I was always waiting for something to happen,” one PUA client tells O’Neill. “And this kind of seems like a way to gain control in that area of my life.”
Engaging with the world of pick-up artistry can be surprisingly easy, O’Neill says. “It can be as simple as, turning to Google and saying: ‘how to talk to girls.' And one of the first things that you’re likely to come across when you do that will be seduction-related material,” she explains. “And so the seduction industry captures a large segment of a possible market, because it’s one of the few industries that explicitly bills itself as offering sex and relationship advice to heterosexual men, whereas generally speaking, when we look at sex and relationship advice, most of it is aimed at straight women.”
Seduction is not an expose of the industry’s worst practices, in part because pick-up artists already openly advertise them—tactic known as “last minute resistence” (LMR) is one that PUAs reference openly and has been subject to some of the most vociferous outrage. In pick-up parlance, the concept refers to the idea that women are driven by the fear of slut-shaming to put up “token” resistance to having sex, but that this resistance can be overcome with a range of PUA techniques. O’Neill relates one disturbing anecdote in the book in which a trainer opens a session on overcoming LMR with the words: “Obviously, if a girl says ‘no’ and she really means it, you respect that… Fortunately, 99 percent of the time she doesn’t really mean it.”
What the book does show is how men can be seduced into an ideology that frames men and women as entirely different species, in which human relations is a battleground where strategy and deception can be deployed to achieve sex; and principles such as “sarging” (going out in a group to practice pick-up) and “kino” (meaning physical touch) are the name of the game. If the men fail to improve their love life—as many inevitably do—they simply return for more training. “It’s my fault for not having the skills and using them properly,” one client explains to O’Neill.
“The industry is offering this premise of choice and control, because it has discovered a system—it has a program through which you can approach relationships and encounters,” O’Neill explains. “It promises to have captured this knowledge, and so if you can gain this skill, if you can apply yourself to learning this skill, you will have the results that you deserve." As she puts it in the book: “In this way, the sexual lottery is transformed into a marketplace where, men are told, their hard work will be rewarded.”
But, as O’Neill points out, pickup artists are not a singular breed. There are plenty of men who appear motivated by a poisonous sense of sexual entitlement, most of them falling under the broad umbrella known as the manosphere. Men’s rights activists, incels, and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) all share the same basic sexual ideology as pickup artists—that women are there to be dominated and that any other outcome is a perversion of the natural order. The associations between the PUA industry and the manosphere can be even more overt: Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodgers, for instance, subscribed to Julien Blanc’s YouTube channel Real Social Dynamics and was a member of a forum called PUAHate.
“There is, unfortunately, overlaps and points of connection between the seduction industry and what I would call ‘incel ideology’—essentially the idea that women are the guardians of sex, and they are denying this to specific men,” O’Neill says. “PUAHate essentially existed for men who had become involved in the seduction industry who had maybe taken some classes, or bought some books, or watched the videos—they were invested in it in some way—and it didn’t work for them.
“And so the seduction industry can become a route towards incel ideology, because it promises that this skill can be mastered. And when that promise is not realized, the anger is then either directed inwards or directed outwards.”
Sympathetic but never overly generous, Seduction is a clear-eyed view on an industry that continues to attract men all over the world (there are now PUA trainers operating everywhere from China, India, and Brazil). It is easy to feel sorry for the hapless clients throwing money at a sexual script that may never yield results, but O’Neill is convinced that there is little to recommend about the business.
“One of the major concerns that’s been raised, particularly by feminist groups looking at the industry—quite rightly—is a lack of attention to the dynamics of consent. And so you could then think like, OK, maybe we just need to add in consent to this lesson?’” O’Neill says it won’t work: “For me, personally, I don’t think the industry can be salvaged. I don’t think there’s a way of making seduction and pick-up an ethical practice that respects both parties, and the wishes and desires and experiences of both parties, because what I saw was something that is so fundamentally based in the idea that men and women are fundamentally different, and women have these absolute wants for a powerful and dominant man, that tacking on a lesson about consent is really not going to address those issues.”
In fact, the book demonstrates that nobody benefits from the seduction game; not men, not women, and not even the most successful pick-up artists themselves. “The novelty of having lots of sex with hot girls had really worn off,” pick-up coach Tom Torero writes in his book Daygame. “As soon as I’d slept with one and she’d left the house, I was texting another trying to get them out on a date and sleep with them. There was no more excitement of the chase, no more buzz from a technically perfect pick-up.”
Pick-up, as O’Neill explains, fails to comprehend the actual messy reality of love and dating: “Relationships are complicated, sex is complicated, and I fundamentally do not believe there is a set of scripts, or techniques that you can use that will produce for you the desired results,” she says. “And I think that when you embrace that idea [PUA], and you start organizing your intimate life in accordance with that, as is very clear from the book, it becomes joyless—it becomes labor.”
Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy is out now on Polity.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.