Self-described feminist pick-up artist Arden Leigh says the seduction community gets a bad rap. She argues that worthy gurus are devoted to fostering intimacy, not creepy coercion, and claims most pick-up artists aren't entitled misogynists who write crowd-funded seduction manuals that encourage predatory behavior. But is a philosophy based on specious evolutionary psychology and an obsession with preventing rejection by treating women like puzzle pieces really worth redemption?
The mainstream media (hi) often portrays pick-up artists as "Nice Guys" who crave validation based on their skillz at hooking up with expendable women. Arden Leigh, author of the book The New Rules of Attraction: How To Get Him, Keep Him, and Make Him Beg For More, and founder of the Sirens Seduction Forum for Women, agrees that those dudes are despicable, but doesn't think it's fair to judge the entire seduction community based on those "bad apples."
"I think there are a lot of men who are drawn to the pick-up community because of their sexual frustration and resentment towards women," she said in a phone interview. "Some men see women as the key-holders to sex, and they think pick-up will crack the lock."
Leigh wasn't a fan of Ken Hoinsky's controversial "Seduction Manual" Kickstarter, which she called "offensive, badly written, and misleading at best," but she was dismayed that Kickstarter and those outraged blamed the seduction community at large instead of Hoinsky as an individual and Kickstarter's ineffective hate speech policies. In response to Kickstarter's decision to ban all seduction manuals henceforth, Leigh joined forces with queer burlesque artist Madame Rosebud and matchmaker Amy Van Doran to launch a Kickstarter campaign for their own book, A Feminist Guide To Picking Up Men. (The campaign hasn't been verified yet, and Kickstarter didn't respond to requests for comment.)
"Seduction in itself is not inherently misogynist or offensive," she said, arguing that the media has "painted the seduction community with broad brushstrokes" for too long. "The offensive stuff tends to get a lot of attention, but you don't hear about the pick-up artists who are teaching really productive skills about social intelligence and about how to best go about the attempt to create intimacy with another person."
As someone with multiple prominent pick-up artist stalkers who send me emails (typical subject line: "Fuck You, Whore") with MP3s of women crying attached and film YouTube lectures based on my work, I was skeptical. But Leigh insisted there were tons of first-rate pick-up artists out there, and suggested I check out some of the best guys in the game: legends like Neil Strauss and Mystery and lesser-known masters like Adam Lyons and Robert Beck. These men believe that seduction leads to deeper intimacy, she said, but also think consent is "absolutely necessary."
Leigh's own doctrine is admirable — she wants women to feel like they have agency instead of waiting by the phone — but I can't say the same for her mentors.
Lyons' website, which details his numerous "notable achievements" (He scored Number 1 Ranking in the world at the World PUA summit in 2009, big whoop), advertises his "Entourage game: also known as extreme pre-selction, this concept involves building a life where you have a great deal of beautiful women around you at all times, so that you are perceived as being attractive and are therefore able to meet and attract others. A specific branch of Metagame." That's how you create intimacy?
In his pick-up artist Bible, The Game, Neill Strauss writes that he was always a "deep" man who was "at the core a good person" but that he "couldn't seem to evolve to the next state of being" because he spent "far too much time thinking about women" — until he learned the secrets of "men who claimed to have found the combination to unlock a woman's heart and legs" and broke down "their methods to a specific set of rules that anybody could apply." Pick-up artists think all women have the same cheat code.
Mystery's work is so problematic that grad students write essays charting the ways he depicts female sexuality as controllable:
This point is exemplifed in Mystery's (2007) presentation of what he calls "Cat Theory," in which he explains that women are like cats because they do not take orders, but can be tempted to chase. They also like shiny new things, crave attention, can become jealous, and rub against you and purr when they like you (Mystery, 2007). Such metaphors are present throughout the text, with men constantly being encouraged to "train" the women they are pursuing and to reward positive behavior and punish negative behavior.
Leigh said she doesn't agree with everything Mystery says, "the way that any person doesn't agree with everything their significant other says," and that a lot of his tactics "transcend gender boundaries and don't seem as shocking when you consider that women employ similar tactics on men all the time, often without even thinking about it…Mystery has said that a lot of the pick-up techniques he's developed he's learned from watching women flirt with men."
But the vast majority of pick-up artist literature is geared towards men, not women, for a reason, and it reinforces the concept that women's sexuality in particular is manipulatable — a comforting theory for men who are scared of rejection. There's nothing wrong with helping people learn how to make stronger romantic connections or even just get laid more often. But pick-up artists seem more concerned with warding off rejection at all costs by gamifying human interaction. And that's where agency can easily turn into aggression and lead to sexual harassment and assault.
Speaking of rejection: I reject the theory that it's typically confusing to tell whether someone doesn't want to sleep with you. It's not that hard — if you're actually engaging with the person you're pursuing instead of focused on following a set of "can't fail" rules. I also reject the notion that most PUA wannabes are "shy young guys who want to learn about dating" (as described by Maria Bustillos in a ghastly piece about the Kickstarter controversy for The Awl) who need to be reassured that they'll always get what they want if they reshape their game. Sometimes people just don't want to sleep with you and there's nothing you can do about it. Pick-up artists want to believe that they can manipulate all of their social interactions — that's why so many, like Hoinsky, would like to "never take no for an answer" — and that's why so many get violently angry when they don't get their way.
"Good pick-up will not feel like harassment," Leigh said. "If someone is getting a negative reaction, that's a bad pick-up. You go home and write in your journal and you go out the next night and you try a different tactic on your next set." Try, try again is a fine strategy to espouse in terms of all-around positivity. But it also lends well to advice like Hoinsky's — he wrote on Reddit that "All the greatest seducers in history…aggressively escalated physically with every woman they were flirting with" and were "shameless in their physicality" — guidance that implies that there's a code you can crack to achieve self-validation.
Most pick-up artists proclaim that they were once losers in order to convince other losers out there that there's hope (if they buy their products). Leigh says pick-up changed her life. Maybe that's why she refuses to question whether it would be more productive to separate herself from the tarnished PUA brand.
"One of the things I talk about in my own book is that I didn't have a boyfriend nor lose my virginity til age 22. I was never a natural," she said. "The art of pick-up is what allowed me to change my life and to pursue the relationships I wanted, which is why I consider myself a PUA and why I continue to teach what I teach. Girls need proactive approaches just as much as men do."
Agreed. But there's a difference between being proactive and being a predator. The seduction community wouldn't be able to subsist without gendered assumptions that offer the fantasy of control by teaching acolytes that people have cheat codes, vulnerability can be eradicated with bravado, and women in particular can be "understood" via dangerous, antiquated notions of femininity and conquered using emotional and physical manipulation. The concept of a feminist pick-up artist is therefore oxymoronic, no matter what Leigh says. Subverting the seduction community is a waste of her time.