On 23 May 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger shot and killed four men and two women, and injured thirteen more people, in what is becoming known as the Isla Vista (or Santa Barbara) killings.
This was a hot topic on my Facebook feed, and on social media around the world. A recent post shows you what I had to say in a discussion about it with friends.
In that post, the key point to begin from is that commentators on Daily Life, Daily Kos, and Slate have laid blame for the killings on a culture of mainstream misogyny, exemplified by communities of men’s rights activists (MRAs) and pick-up artists (PUAs). With the usual lack of regard for my social credit, I’ve publicly taken issue with two of these points, as I have on many previous occasions. Here are my positions.
One. Sexual violence against women is perpetrated by a tiny proportion of the male population (in my last post I made some haphazard calculations that put this proportion at around 0.4%, based on ABS statistics—please help me out if you can do better), and doesn’t constitute evidence of mainstream misogyny or indeed mainstream anything, except for a mainstream failure to control that minority.
If you’re offside you’ll already think I’m an evil bastard for daring to contradict your orthodoxy, but let me continue to #2, which is the important one here.
Two. The PUA movement is neither monolithic nor exclusively misogynistic.
I know about that second point, I mean, really know, in that experiential way that’s deemed so important in discussion of these issues, because I was a pick-up artist. I’m in love and in a relationship now, but I’ll be a pick-up artist (PUA) again if I ever have to be, and I don’t mind if you know it.
What PUAs are
Most readers will have some idea, possibly inaccurate, about what it means to be a PUA. There’s barely any part of the English-speaking world, and seemingly barely any men of middle age or below in that world, who haven’t been touched in some way by PUA subculture and by the idea of game. I also accept that anyone who self-describes or identifies as a PUA or a practitioner of game is one, which broadens the pool of PUAs for better and worse.
The thing is, there’s more than one version of what it means to be a PUA, just as there’s more than one version of what it means to be a woman, or a man, or black, or transgender, or left, or right, or pretty much anything other than a Coupler Hex ZP BSW 50MMX5/8 or a similar inanimate object with strictly defined and invariable qualities. It simply can’t be said, as Amanda Hess did on Slate, that “Pick-Up Artists, by the way, refer to women they would like to have sex with as their ‘targets.’ ” I haven’t actually met one who did. Though I’m sure they’re out there, the fact is PUAs differ, from person to person, place to place, and faction to faction.
Being alive is a multifarious business, and one of the central lessons of identity politics and postmodernity is that nailing people down to stereotypes instead of paying respect to their personal characteristics is oppressive, dehumanizing, and inaccurate. It bothers me that commentators in a gender feminist vein so often seem to forget this in pursuit of their cause, on occasion because I take small personal offense at their generalizations, but also because I was a literature major and very nearly a cultural studies academic. I studied the same theory that I assume inspires these commentators, and it distresses me that the intellectual side of what is undeniably an ideological argument about the Rodger case and its links to predominantly male subcultures is so unrigorous.
Being a PUA means many things. Admittedly, for some it involves genuine misogyny. Take a look at Return of Kings, run by PUA guru Roosh V, author of Bang and Day Bang, for some of the worst examples. Return of Kings is exactly the kind of thing that critics of the PUA and MRA subcultures are thinking of when they paint them as universally misogynist.
Yes, there are PUAs who advocate:
- using canned material
- telling lies
- getting too physical too fast
- dominating and manipulating women
- never falling in love
Add to the list of distasteful tactics and beliefs if you like. There are more. The unfortunate reality is there are many damaged people of both sexes who respond to, or enjoy using, methods of getting what they want that disregard others’ interests, agency, and humanity. And I’m talking about a way bigger sphere than just love and relationships, there.
But the PUA subculture that you see a part of in high-profile examples of PUA subculture like Neil Strauss’s The Game, Roosh’s Don’t Bang Denmark, and Return of Kings, translated into organized subcultural activities for probably hundreds of thousands of men around the world, and on-the-ground daily practice for the millions more men who will have come into contact with the idea of game, long before you discovered and got outraged about it. By now, practically everyone I know knows about game, and nearly all the single adult men I know have tried tactics from the PUA playbook, whether they learned them from the subculture or not.
On-the-ground daily practice of pick-up is more varied, and often tamer, than what the celebrity examples with the biggest mind share would lead you to believe. There’s a huge range of people and behavior involved in just the Melbourne scene. It ranges all the way from the poker player who’s done more than ten-thousand (reputedly mechanical and scary) approaches and slept with well over a hundred women, to the sweet teenager, one of my favorites in the scene, who was shit-scared and just trying to lose his virginity, and is now still together and in love with the first girl he ever slept with, who he approached at random one afternoon in Bourke Street Mall. The 100-woman player would probably call the sweet teenager a pussy for stopping at just one girl, but they both participated in the same community, got their information from similar places, and they are both PUAs.
What being a PUA means for me
For me, being a PUA doesn’t mean a lot more than that for some years now, when I’ve been single, I’ve gone out of my way to find women I’m sexually interested in and to communicate that interest to them. Game for me, as for many other men who have touched the scene, boils down to talking to women I’m attracted to and then making my sexual interest clear if and when it’s appropriate, usually when the woman is also showing interest but sometimes just as a wild and usually failing gambit.
To help you understand what being a PUA can mean in more detail, let me tell you the story of how I came to be one.
I entered the dating scene when I was twenty-five.
Before that I’d been in a relationship from eighteen to just before my twenty-third birthday. My friend Tim had taken me to her eighteenth birthday party, and for several weeks afterward I loudly pined after her at home while trying to build a friendship with her in social activities I got Tim to organize for me. Finally I got over my shyness, made a big declaration of affection at a bus stop late at night, and asked her to go out with me. When I look at angry discussions about the PUAs on one hand and the “friendzone” on the other, I often suppose that some view this haphazard and fumbling approach to courtship as the ideal. It worked out well for me, but in retrospect I wish I had known how to be more direct.
I loved that girl, and I still think I was a fool to leave her after almost six years because I thought I hadn’t seen enough of life, love, and the world on my own. Even though I had been the one to end it, I spent almost two years getting over that relationship before I could move on.
And when I was ready to, I didn’t know anything about how to do it. People who’d had less successful early relationships learned in various ways how to get in and out of them in a way that I never did. They weren’t always a lot better at it, but they were doing it. I didn’t know where to start.
While I was trying to figure it out, a close friend told me he was reading this really interesting book called The Game. I read it, and it was interesting, the way that reading Dorinne Kondo’s anthropological studies of Japanese companies had been when I was an undergraduate Asian studies major. Those who haven’t read it may not realize that The Game isn’t an instruction manual: it’s just the story about how Neil Strauss got into LA’s PUA subculture, who he met, and what he and they all did. But it did give me some ideas that I could use.
After I read The Game, I slowly disabused myself of the notion that it was a deadly social faux pas to hit on girls. At the time, I was doing online and speed dating, badly, and was going swing dancing once or twice a week. At dancing, I stopped avoiding the girls I was attracted to, and started asking them to dance and chatting with them afterward. Eventually, I started asking the ones I enjoyed talking to for their phone numbers.
Around that time, I also signed up to the online forum of what was then Melbourne’s only PUA lair. In the subculture’s parlance, a lair is a group that meets to share tactics and go out socially to venues where they can meet women, including clubs, bars, city centers, and malls. The Melbourne lair organized talks by visiting pick-up teachers, newbies nights where existing members could watch newcomers approach five women (usually women, but sometimes men, as there were women in the lair as well) to earn full membership, and Friday and Saturday meets at big city bars that offered good opportunities to talk to strangers.
Mystery Method was at its peak back then. With the hauteur typical of me in my mid-twenties, I quickly dismissed my fellow lair members as a bunch of cowboy-hat-wearing losers, and stopped going to meetings. After all, I didn’t need them—after three months of practicing what little game I’d felt comfortable with from Strauss’s book, I started dating one of the girls I approached at dancing and we stayed together for three years.
I would realize later that
- Those “hat-wearing losers” were likely a lot more experienced at dating than I was.
- If they were indeed “losers” and having serious trouble with girls, the right response was compassion and support, not contempt.
My first entry to the PUA scene, before I met my second girlfriend, was shallow and short-lived. Three years later I went back, after that girl ended it badly. I was sadder then than I have ever been in my life, but I made an effort to get on with dating as quickly as I could. After that, I enjoyed a sociable year, restoring the friendships and social networks that I’d neglected during the relationship, in which I’d done little else but see her. On re-entry to the scene, I got more deeply involved, hanging out with lair guys, doing night approaches in bars (fun but almost universally fruitless) and talking to girls on the street during the day. In the end I applied game principles to online dating and focused most of my attention there. Many other PUAs will see that as a cop-out but it worked for me and has done for some others I’ve informally coached to get better at it.
Through it all, I enjoyed relationships with wonderful women who I liked as people, even fell in love with, and reduced the anxiety I felt about dating, love, and sex.
I was lucky
Getting to know other guys in the lair eventually showed me that I was lucky when it came to women. We all have things that make us more and less attractive to others, but I’d always been able to talk to girls, had female friends since childhood, and lost my virginity in my mid teens. A small number of other guys struggled with serious self-confidence issues, and difficulties with conversation and socializing in general. Some might have been on the autistic spectrum.
Others suffered from mental illness and had battled to surmount it. In one case I know of, the “lifestyle design” aspect of the PUA scene inspired a man with a chronic mental illness to start his own business, doubling his income and probably shielding him from employers’ misunderstanding of his condition.
We all came to the scene for what help we thought we needed to achieve our different goals, and we took that advice to different places. I just wanted to date and sleep with one of the few girls I liked; others would go on to bed tens or hundreds. I needed a little push to tell me it was okay to approach and ask for numbers, to use friendly touch to test for signs of attraction, and to be open about my sexual interest. Others felt more need for male camaraderie, for lines and tips and tactics that I wouldn’t deign to use. In the end, I’d be one of the people telling my few PUA friends not to reach for the tackier tools in the repertoire, but I understand why some of them felt they had to go there.
Let’s talk about alienation
For me, the peak expression of PUA sentiment is this video, which a coach called Almog shared once in the Melbourne lair forums:
At its best, pick-up is a heroic overcoming of the barriers we imagine stand between us and others, to connect deeply with another person through a sexual relationship. That’s my version of the best, anyway. For others the best is, admittedly, playing a mechanical numbers game and banging a hundred or more women over the course of a few years.
There were always guys I knew in the scene—and I count myself among them—whose quest to find love, or merely sex, was part of a bigger struggle to get out of their own heads and rooms and into the world to be with others in a joyful and fulfilling way, and to make their dreams come true.
For some, the isolation they sought to escape was a torture, and some gave into misogyny when their attempts to find a woman who wanted to connect with them failed repeatedly. These unfortunates thought, in spite of what most in the scene would teach them, that women (individual or at large) were to blame when in fact the fault lay only with them.
To blame the PUA subculture for Elliott Rodger wholly misunderstands its goals and its methods. Let’s put it very crudely: pick-up teaches talk, touch, kiss, fuck, not rage, vent, murder, suicide. From what I’ve read, by the time he went on his killing spree, Rodger had wholly abandoned and turned against the PUA subculture. Let’s call his final acts the supreme gesture of alienation: an attempt to connect with a bullet instead of a kind word.
I am under no illusions that pick-up could have saved Rodger or his victims. I’ll readily confess that I don’t understand what causes tragedies like this, because I don’t have the requisite knowledge of abnormal psychology.
In fact, this is one of my key objections to the “structural misogyny did it” argument: Rodger doesn’t belong on a spectrum with mainstream society, and wouldn’t be as terrifying if he did. And he is at once terrifying and pathetically comic: in his “Day of Retribution” video he soliloquized like a supervillain.
Rodger belongs to a proportion something like the 0.4% (or thereabouts, probably less, according to my calculations—please help me do better here) of men who are each responsible for sexually victimizing multiple women, bringing us up to those awful statistics that somewhere around 20% of the female population will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In fact, he belongs to the even smaller fraction of men (garnished with a small few women) who become mass or serial killers. He belongs in the company of Klebold and Harris, Ridgway and Bundy, Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter.
These people and characters fascinate and terrify us because they represent something that we perceive as truly other, an incomprehensible and demonic shadow in the margins of the world that we fear may pluck us from our lives without warning or hope of self-defense. We fear them in part because we know taking Blurred Lines off the radio, Family Guy off the television, or MRAs and PUAs out of existence, won’t make a shred of difference because they don’t think or act like we do anyway. If they don’t have the PUA subculture to latch onto, they might just reach for the Bible instead.
I’m going to finish up by returning to the realm of normal humanity and talking about “male entitlement,” another supposed cultural factor Rodger’s actions are getting pinned on, also found in the PUA culture.
The average version of male entitlement, which is positively rife in the PUA scene, goes something like this:
I’m a heterosexual man and I want to be having regular sex with at least one woman who I find as attractive as possible.
You know what? I think that’s fine. Good, even. Call it a desire or call it an entitlement—do the latter and you might be just spinning it as unreasonable.
Only the greenest or most socially challenged PUAs would view women as machines where you put compliments, negs, or favors in and get sex out at the other end, which is how pick-up is often portrayed by its detractors. On average, they recognize that sex is a mutual exchange and that in showing your interest you’re making an offer, which can be rejected or accepted, with the understanding that both parties will benefit if it’s taken up. Not only that, a PUA knows they should make that offer attractive.
In one sense, nobody is entitled to anything. Just by chance, life hands us opportunities and setbacks, joy and suffering, in unequal measures that often don’t look just. Everyone is in this boat, with some well-favored and others ill. We usually think we could do better at chance than allocating favors, and we try to come up with systems to make life fairer. Sometimes, by tiny increments, we succeed and call it progress. Most others, our hopes are dashed and our illusions shattered, or we are cut down for no good reason at all, even when we did our best.
In another sense, we are entitled to everything we want. This is the language of self-help books and of utopian social visions. We are entitled to healthcare! Freedom of association! Freedom from discrimination! A living wage! Our heart’s desire!
And in that sense we, men and women both, are entitled to reach out for sex and for love.
All the above is the short version of what the PUA subculture can actually involve, along with all the worst you’ve heard. If I’ve got one message for you to take away from it, it’s that the PUA subculture is more varied than you probably think.
Yesterday a sympathetic friend said to me, “you should really write a novel that’s just like a scientific observation of what happens in the scene.” And actually, I’ve been planning one and collecting material for it for over a year. My third book will be out later this year, and the PUA novel is my next project.
If you’d like to find out more about what the inside of the Melbourne PUA scene really looks like, or just to compile further evidence for your case that I’m a heretic and a despicable human being, sign up to my email newsletter and I’ll keep you abreast of how the book is going and when it comes out. You might also like to try my first two novels, Kiss Me and My Generation’s Lament. The first one is FREE as an e-book everywhere except Amazon, so take a look today.