The past month or so has seen the publication of two books from men who, a decade ago, created questionable blueprints of what dating should be like for an entitled generation of dudes. Unexpectedly (to their former selves, at least) the new stories from these teachers—who, not so long ago, were demonstrating how to sleep with whatever woman you want—are about how their old stories failed them. Neil Strauss grew out of The Game, and Tucker Max out of being an asshole who finishes first. These men, like most everyone else, decided to settle down with one woman and have kids.
Neil Strauss’s The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships is as conscious of itself as an object as its 2005 predecessor The Game. Where The Game was as black as a little black book, The Truth boasts an imitation leather white cover with pages trimmed in gold. They both intentionally look like Bibles. I’ve never read The Game, or its follow-up The Rules of the Game, but its influence surrounds all of us—in the men who swear by it, and in the internet forums devoted to the teachings of pick-up artists big and small.
I was less of a novice diving into Tucker Max and Dr. Geoffrey Miller’s Mate: Become the Man Women Want. I’d read Max before, largely due to a friend who told me that she’d “totally sleep with him if she had the opportunity.” Because I consider my friend very intelligent, this surprised me; all I knew about Max was that he’d gone to my college, found it less than socially impressive, and proceeded to live the definition of a debaucherous lifestyle, stuffing himself sick on a buffet of alcohol and various sex acts.
Strauss and Max both rose to mainstream popularity in the mid-aughts. They chose to settle down at roughly the same time, and are both upwards of 40, happily married with young children. And according to an interview Strauss did with The Atlantic recently, there are more similarities. “We all have narcissistic mothers,” he said of himself and Max, as well as Robert Greene of The Art of Seduction. He then expanded into the greater thesis of his book: that the relationship we have with our parents sets up the relationship dynamic we will mirror for the rest of our lives, usually unconsciously.
Strauss’s book starts off on this path, reminiscent of (yes) Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with its famous argument about happy families. “Every family has a skeleton in the closet,” he writes.
You may know your family’s skeleton. You may even be that skeleton. Or you may think that your family is different, that it’s the exception, that you’re one of the lucky ones with a perfect set of parents and no dark family secrets. If so, then you just haven’t opened the right closet door yet.
For most of my life, I, too, believed I was one of the normal ones. But then I found the right closet door.
What follows is a 400-page, five-part exploration of Strauss’s journey grappling with his inability to be in a healthy relationship in which he does not cheat on Ingrid (girlfriend/love of his life) or generally yearn for the newness of another woman. “Several years ago, I wrote a book called The Game about an underground community of pickup artists I joined in search of an answer to the biggest question plaguing my lonely life at the time: Why don’t women I like ever like me back?” he explains of the book that made him famous. “In the pages that follow, I attempt to solve a much tougher life dilemma: what should I do after she likes me back?”
The answer, according to Strauss, is spend what seems like an endless amount of time fucking his way to enlightenment. He tries rehab for sex addiction, explores polyamorous communities, builds his own quad, and enters an open relationship. At one point, his attempt at living in a commune of sorts is abridged to a comic that includes only a brief reference to how a housemate’s jealous boyfriend had a psychotic break with reality and came after Strauss with an ax.
Strauss’s story is captivating, an incredibly detailed tale of his sexcapades (one wonders how he could accurately remember it all, though his chafed penis probably helped) combined with his journey to learn from a variety of experts about whether monogamy is feasible. It’s also a deep dive into his psyche—one could argue, too deep a dive; Strauss’s greatest weakness might be a mind so overly analytical he ends up learning obvious lessons, only to outline generalizations many readers probably don’t need him to point out. For example, at the beginning of the book, he explains his issue with relationships thusly:
THE MALE DILEMMA
1. Sex is great.
2. Relationships are great.
3. Relationships grow over time.
4. The sex gets old over time.
5. So does she.
6. Thus the problem
It’s a horrible thing to write or even think. No one could ever say this in regular society. They’d be destroyed for it.
Would they “be destroyed” by this thought? A lot of people worry and remark about relationships getting stale, women included. But Strauss is so convinced by himself that he treats his issues like they’re some sort of special ailment he suffers from, rather than something men and women of all ages grapple with. His epiphanies about relationships are so numerous they end up sounding somewhat embarrassing. On the success (or lack thereof) of open relationships:
So far it sounds like their open relationship has just as much drama as a close relationship. And the drama is about the same thing: trust. Perhaps the reason friendships tend to last longer than relationships is that most of them don’t come with rigid rules and exclusivity clauses.
Or, on staying faithful:
Perhaps the secret to fidelity is knowing that the grass is crazier on the other side.
By the time Strauss addresses his own selfishness, the reader has long discovered it for him.
She’s right: I was selfish with Ingrid. I just wanted my own pleasure, regardless of how much pain it would cause her. Perhaps if, instead, I’d wanted to do something that would have added to her life and to our relationship, she would have been more open to it. Or perhaps not. But it definitely would have been a better way to go about it.
As you might expect, the women in the book don’t seem fully fledged as people. When describing the result of actually getting one of his dream scenarios—him and several women—Strauss writes, “It doesn’t seem fair that these women have to share me. Any one of them could easily have her pick of the guys here who keep looking at us. But instead they’re settling for scraps of my affection—the crumbs of a crumb.”
Throughout the book, Strauss wallows in how fucked-up he is, how his past shaped him, trying to get the bottom of why he spent years training himself to treat getting women as some combination of scam and job, as if him focusing on him is something drastically different. This underlying fact doesn’t get ironed out fully by the end, when he (spoiler alert) realizes that he doesn’t want to be with anyone but Ingrid at the same point that he realizes he’s got nothing left to masturbate to: all his fantasies are tapped out. (Coincidentally, this is shortly after he’s ends an unsuccessful open relationship with the sexually free woman he thinks he’s always wanted. “I’ve gotten what I deserve: someone just like me,” he remarks when her wild ways start to grate on him.) He tries to pass his own problems off as a general and cultural exploration, but the obvious conclusion is that Strauss is mainly and specifically writing about himself.
Honesty doesn’t always wipe the slate clean. So Tucker Max, in Mate, took the opposite approach. It’s his least personal writing, and like Strauss’s, it’s full of psychological studies; both men heavily cite the work they’ve read and the people they’ve talked to, pointing readers to websites for their own education. It’s an interesting tactic: you wonder if both authors felt the need to compensate for their last books—which had no scientific basis but relied only on the powerful first-person narrative—with harder evidence that their lifestyle is not the way go. They still leave you with the sense that they know their original tales were more convincing; after all, as they admit, both are still making money off them, Strauss with his venture Stylelife Academy, which teaches men how to be successful with women, and Max with his “four books’ worth of stories about all the stupid things he has done” which sold “millions.”
Max told Maxim while promoting Mate that “the narrative in our culture is ‘How do I get girls?’ It automatically starts off with guys objectifying women instead of relating to women.” He also, as he told Dr. Drew recently, considers his book similar to Strauss’s, arguing that they explore the “same sort of basic ideas, like, I went down that path, it was totally awful and unrewarding, and I came back and realized all these different things.” Max promises that this new book will instead teach men how to understand women, and it definitely fits more squarely in the self-help arena in that way. But of course, as this book is written in the “we” voice with his writing partner (and the expert in this scenario), Max loses the thing that made him successful: that first person voice.
Max says he was inspired to work on this book with Miller because of a conversation the two had, in which Miller told him that his books were (unsuccessfully) being used as dating guides for his younger relatives. Max finds himself shocked that anyone would take his books as advice of what to do: “If anything, Tucker’s stories are cautionary tales—about what not to do.” The pair then writes that they wanted to do this book because there’s never been a “good mating guide for young men.”
What results is a perhaps surprisingly thoughtful primer; Max and Miller explore “why women feel anxious and vulnerable about sexual harassment, stalking, rape, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwanted pregnancies, and slut shaming” and ultimately argue that the “mating goal” of young men “is to find and create ‘win-win’ relationships, where both you and the woman are better off because of your interaction.”
Their tactics seem ham-fisted at times, like asking the male reader to imagine he’s gay when thinking about what must feel like to be a woman (“Think about how weird that whole situation is: to be sexually attracted to beings that could so easily do irreparable physical harm to you”) and meeting a man at a bar.
How would you feel in this situation? Nervous, worried, scared, guarded, self-conscious, and vulnerable? But also flattered, desirable, and excited (remember, you’re gay in this exercise).
But Max and Miller end up being more matter-of-fact about the world we live in than Strauss, probably because they’re mostly looking outward to tell their story, not finding it from within. They turn their noses down at the “the seduction peddlers in the PUA community,” explaining that “it is much harder for a highly attractive woman to get what she wants, sexually and romantically, than it is for a highly attractive man,” and arguing that men practice “ethical” dating, which involves some technological paranoia (or realism) about how any girl you treat badly can easily trash you across the web.
Still, even while articulating the most convincing aspect of the book (that you’ll have your best relationship success by not thinking about being in one), Max never strays far from the goal-oriented nature he and Strauss seem to share, talking numbers rather than emotions.
When talking to women, make your only goal to have entertaining and fun conversations with them, and nothing else.
This is one of the most powerful “hacks” we know. It has helped thousands of men become very successful at mating conversations (Tucker counts this single insight as the primary source of his success with women.)
Tucker discovered this trick at twenty four years old. His mating goal at the time was exclusively short term hookups, and by not thinking about short-term hookups when he talked to women, he immediately tripled the number of women he was having sex with, while putting in 50 percent less time per woman and getting higher quality women who liked him and wanted to have sex with him.
The Truth and Mate are well-meaning, slightly overwhelming apologies. Neither book seems likely to outsell the books they’re making up for. It’s nice that Strauss and Max are older and wiser, and that they’d like to make sure others don’t make the mistakes they made, but you finish their new books sadly feeling that they could have saved us—mostly them, really—some time and effort if they’d thought about this for even a minute when they were younger, rather than now, when it’s a decade too late.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images via Dey Street Books, Little Brown