First-Person Accounts

Time to Play the Game

Flat-sharing with a hapless lothario.

In my months living with pickup artists, I never did quite work out what it was about Leicester Square that drew them so (they called it ‘Pester Square’). To them, it was both office and playground, and I was also fairly sure they were staging fake muggings there that they would intervene in to get girls’ numbers. How one of the subjects of Panorama’s The Seduction Game came to be my frequent houseguest is not something I particularly want to get into: suffice to say there is a housing crisis on and that perhaps, sometimes, one should look a gift horse in the mouth. But as Leicester Square came to fixate them; so they came to fixate me.

Thankfully, you do not need hands-on experience to familiarise yourself with this world. There are a number of books about the subject, but the definitive pickup artist (PUA) text in the field is The Game, Neil Strauss’ 2005 memoir of going from unlucky-in-love journalist to superstar stud after falling into the scene and learning the tricks of the trade from an arch-PUA called ‘Mystery’. Mystery’s real name is Erik von Markovik; Strauss takes on the moniker ‘Style’.

The Game was a huge hit, and it has one thing going for it that no other PUA manual does: it is actually quite a good read. Neil Strauss is a decent writer and whatever you might think of the contents, his book is pacey and engaging. We learn with the author: about ‘sarging’ (the action of seeking to pick up women), ‘sets’ (different strategies for striking up conversation and winning over women who you might meet in bars and clubs), and ‘peacocking’, which is wearing outlandish or otherwise notable clothes or accessories to draw attention to oneself as a conversation piece; for example, turning up to a house party wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of your own face on it, captioned ‘come say hi’. Swimming in the wake of The Game came The Mystery Method: Mystery’s own inside track on the art of seduction, which he insists on terming ‘the Venusian arts’; and a whole host of other lesser titles that I do not recommend you read, like UnHerd senior editor Ed West’s How To Pull Women.

Not all of the advice in these books is terrible. Jordan Peterson is probably right about cleaning your room being helpful to your romantic prospects but, then again, so will chewing with your mouth closed and not picking your nose in public, two things we tend to stop reminding people to do around the age of ten. The question I found myself asking, however, was not: do these techniques work? But: if you think these books can help you navigate the world, what kind of world do you think you live in?

This is something I thought about a lot, as I lay in bed and listened to the PUAs out in the garden talking about the need to develop a kind of eye contact so intense that it is tantamount to physical touch. The answer to this question is not a nice one. It is a world where insincerity is king and persistence to the point of harassment is encouraged; where ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and consent is a legal principle of which to be wary; where gender is absolute and gay people non-existent (unless you want to go to a gay club because that is where straight women ‘have their guard down’); where meaningful interaction is all but impossible and attraction utterly codified; where the entire strange, exciting process of meeting people and flirting and making your way in the world is pickled in a scummy brine of shiny suits and cynical, flaccid routines.

Far from incidentally, it is a worldview that draws heavily from ideas of evolutionary psychology: the idea that our social interactions are a product of our atavistic, unavoidable, survival-of-the-fittest impulses. The Mystery Method begins with the line ‘Nature will unapologetically weed your genes out of existence if you don’t take action and learn how to attract women now’ and is particularly heavy on this genetic destiny angle. In her essay on the right to sex (there isn’t one, she concludes), the philosopher Amia Srinivasan phrases romantic desire as something that moves along grooves set out for us by the world in which we live. However, she says, we do have some responsibility to reflect on why we want what we want, and even, perhaps, attempt to change it. The world of PUA manuals is one where the grooves on which sex and relationships move are utterly unshifting and social roles preordained. It is also a world where no one is immune from an outlook shaped entirely by base ideas of gender and unreflective sexual urges. An instance where my housemate insisted that I was naïve if I thought my male friends weren’t all using sex workers illustrated this perhaps too well.

The implication of this outlook is that women are, to a great degree, false people – we blink and talk and fuck but can be operated near-mechanically, reliably reacting to game and set like a tennis ball swiped across the court. If this is the case, the question arises: why spend so much time on us? To my view – both as an avid reader of PUA manuals and as a kitchen PUA eavesdropper – reasonably little of this is actually about women, or even about sex with women. It is some-thing close to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men principle; women as a safe route, a dampener on the currents of relationships between men.

The great love in The Game is the one between Style and Mystery; they even set up home together in an LA shag pad for themselves and other PUAs. I can attest that PUAs tend to have the diets and domestic habits of 14-year-old boys, so it’s not surprising, too, that the shag pad quickly turns into a very unsexy mess of half-eaten food and unmade beds. This is, I am sure you will agree, not an image that is likely to send women weak at the knees. It also chimed more broadly with the impression I gathered of the PUA world as a profoundly seedy place. So, next time you’re in Leicester Square, make sure not to idle – head straight for M&M’s World, and beware any man who tells you their party trick is undoing a bra clasp through your clothes.

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