There’s an enormous subculture of men who trade tips, tricks, and tactics for seducing women. Within the last half-decade or so, these underground “pickup artists” have burst into the popular consciousness, aided by Neil Strauss’s bestselling book The Game and VH1’s hit reality show The Pick-Up Artist. Some men in the seduction community are sleazy misogynists who want nothing more than power and control. Some are shy wallflowers who don’t know how to say hi to a girl. The one thing they all have in common is a driving need to attract women.
I’m a sex-positive feminist lecturer and writer. I write primarily about my experiences with S&M, but I have a general interest in sexuality. I first encountered pickup artists when smart ones started attending my educational events and commenting on my blog. Their perspective was interesting, so I started talking to them… then I talked to them more… and then I got completely sucked in. I observed their discussions, watched them in action, and learned their strategies. It’s a really deep rabbit hole, and I fell down really hard.
Towards the end of my research on pickup artists (PUAs), I managed to get into a PUA convention and give a talk there. The convention was organized by Nathan, a sharklike gentleman who came in from New York. Nathan referred to me as a “coach,” and he tried to convince me to sell products or market myself as an instructor. Of course, his motives weren’t just to encourage me: he would have gotten a cut.
The convention took place in a hotel in downtown Chicago, and lasted several days. Each day consisted of lectures from various instructors, followed by field trips to the local nightclubs. Many of these conventions (sometimes called “bootcamps”) cost over a thousand dollars per ticket, but the Chicago Dating Skills summit was a relative bargain at only a few hundred dollars per ticket.
I knew some of the Chicago-local coaches, but others came in from out of town. Most coaches lectured at the convention in exchange for the chance to market their services to the 50 or so attendees. The top PUA coaches can make absurd amounts of money, but there are plenty who make much less, or who are struggling to establish themselves. A lot have day jobs. There are also other community guys, like Nathan, who are not just earning money as coaches but as event organizers.
The first sojourn to the local clubs involved all the coaches lining up at the front of the room, and each taking on three or four clients. The idea was that we’d all go off to the clubs, and each coach would offer an hour or two of advice to these clients for free, by way of advertisement. I was unprepared for this, so I tried to stay in back when Nathan lined up all the coaches… but he shark-grinned and gestured me up front. “Come on, Clarisse,” he said. “You’re helping us out tonight.”
Nathan advertised me to the group as a kind of double agent: “she’s got a woman’s perspective.” I ended up with several very different clients: a beautiful Spanish dance instructor, a tall scrawny guy, and a hipstery skatery dude.
The nightclubs were just as I expected: an ocean of women with yards of straightened hair and pounds of lip gloss. The hipstery skatery dude definitely wanted more guidance than I was able to give. When I told him he should just go try talking to people, and added that I didn’t have a strong preference about what he said, he became exasperated. “You’re the fucking coach,” he said.
How the hell did I end up here? I wondered.
The tall scrawny guy had no interest in the club population at all. “I came to this convention because it seemed intriguing in an anthropological way,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t want to practice openers on these girls. I’d like to hear more about your writing.”
The Spaniard was somewhere in between. He gave me impromptu dance lessons to Lady Gaga songs, and asked a lot of questions about my life. However, his major interest was still the targets around the club. He struck me as handsome and charming enough already; I mostly provided logistical help, like by distracting interfering friends.
My friend Jonnie Walker — yes, that is his real name — had sent his clients off into the crowd, and was leaning up against a pillar. After an hour or so, I went and asked him for advice. “I wasn’t ready for this, dude!”
“I thought you might not be,” Jonnie said cheerfully. “But you dove in anyway, and you’re doing fine. I knew we could rely on you to do what it took. You’re a ballsy girl. I like that about you. Also,” he gave me the once-over, “nice outfit. You dressed to look good, but also so we’d take you seriously.” He nodded to me with professional courtesy. “Perfectly calibrated.”
Another coach negged me a few minutes later. (The “neg” is a famous PUA tactic; it’s a kind of backhanded compliment.) I flipped him off. “Don’t beg,” he said, and I had to laugh. “I’m stealing that one,” I said.
Nathan had actually put a wire on one of his clients, and was listening to the guy’s conversations at a distance. That may have been when I nicknamed him Mr. Shady. I am pleased to report that the other coaches and clients thought this nickname was perfect… although we also agreed that Nathan grows on you.
Indeed, one coach had been calling Nathan shady for years. The next day, Nathan passed us in the hallway while we were discussing how shady he was. Nathan flipped us both off, and kept walking.
“Don’t beg,” I called after him.
He cracked up. “Get over yourself,” he called back.
After Friday, we weren’t assigned to clients, but some of us went out anyway. I kept drinking enough to maximize drink deals, and we all kept club-hopping. Saturday night was patchy like a badly-edited montage.
At one point I got totally separated from the guys, and ended up in a clump of other women. I felt an irrational panic at this, like the ladies would detect the double agent in their midst and tear me to pieces. Luckily, none of them seemed to think anything was amiss. One told me they’d all evaded the cover charge to get into the club. “I love being a girl,” she said, and winked. I nodded as if I felt like we had lots in common, and made my escape.
I should have asked how she evaded the cover, because I actually have no idea. Nightclubs are hardly my native habitat. I only got in free because one of the guys knew a promoter.
As I walked away from the ladies, a guy came up thisclose and murmured in my ear, “You look so innocent.” I glanced at him. He wasn’t with our group. I resisted the urge to tell him to work on his opener.
I finally found one coach charming three girls in a corner. He grabbed my arm. “This is my best friend,” he announced, and proceeded to perform ridiculous poses with me. I laughed on cue, then distracted one of the girls while the coach tried to get his target’s number.
“Look at these cell phone pictures I took of your bestie,” she said.
“Ooh, you should keep that one,” I said excitedly as we scrolled through them. “He’s a great guy,” I added in a confiding tone, then thought, I should probably feel worse about this than I do.
Some time later, I ran into Nathan. “Where have you been all night, Mr. Shady?” I asked.
He shark-grinned. “Why must you call me that? I don’t get it.”
“Yes you do,” I said.
“Go for it.”
“You have white-collar professional parents. You grew up in an affluent area. You’re fascinated by subcultures… all subcultures.” He did another PUA twirl and paused, as if he were about to pull a trump card. “This is your way of rebelling,” he said.
I gotta admit, it’s a thought I’ve had before. How does a feminist S&M sex educator take a walk on the wild side? When you look at it that way, my PUA obsession seems inevitable.
“You know,” Nathan said thoughtfully, “in the past two weeks I’ve had two women tell me I’m either a nice guy pretending to be an asshole, or an asshole pretending to be a nice guy. What do you think?”
“I don’t get the nice guy vibe from you at all,” I told him, with perfect sincerity. He laughed.
Later still, Nathan and I stood chatting with two other PUA coaches on a streetcorner. A single streetlamp warmed us. One of the guys was telling us about a girl he really liked. He was truly, madly, deeply about her. He was using words like “love.”
After a while, the lovesick gentleman departed. Nathan and the other coach set to gossiping. “I don’t get it,” said the other coach. “There must be something he’s insecure or confused about.”
“Well, the way he’s behaving doesn’t line up with what he’s saying,” said Nathan. “He keeps saying he wants to travel and pick up girls all the time, but he thinks he’s in love with this girl?”
“Seriously,” said the other coach. “I don’t get it. I’ve seen him pull much hotter girls.”
“She must have incredible game,” said Nathan.
I couldn’t contain myself. “Maybe he meshes with this girl on a personality level,” I protested… then added slowly, “but I guess personality is part of game.” I felt a sudden, strange moment of dizziness. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I thought.
“Yes. Personality is game,” Nathan said. He said it gently and patiently, as if speaking to a protégée.
The other coach wouldn’t look at me. Maybe he was disgusted. “What the fuck is a personality?” he asked, but it didn’t sound like a question.