The Fall of the Pickup Artist
"Hi everyone, I'm Bigby, I'm 22 years old and I'm a virgin."
So begins a typical thread on the Venusian Arts public internet forum.
"It's not something I'm proud of and it's not an easy thing for me to admit but its the truth," Bigby continued. "I don't even want to know how many times I've lied to people about how I got with this chick or how I banged that one to save myself the embarrassment of admitting my problem... woman."
It's been more than a decade since the publication of The Game, Neil Strauss' infamous tome documenting the masterful — and often manipulative — methods of pick up artists.
Whether the world wanted it or not, The Game lifted the curtain on a world of men who claimed to have cracked the code of human attraction. These would-be Casanovas, united by years of frustration and humiliation at the hands of women, said they could approach and seduce even the most powerful women in the world by simply following a series of steps — an often complex, but repetitive formula.
Critics at the time were not amused.
"The Game is really a book about the fragility of male ego," the Guardian's Rafael Behr wrote in 2005, "and how it seeks refuge from the complexity of human relations in a puerile cult of sexual conquest." The Telegraph panned the book too, calling Strauss and his compatriots "intensely humorless," while his former employer, the New York Times, dismissed the pickup artists he described as "scared little boys."
In 2016 the sensuous secrets of Strauss and others appear increasingly out of date. Picking up woman at bars with novel one-liners is in many ways as prosaic as your grandparents' love letters. The book itself has also somewhat fallen away. It currently sits comfortably in the 3000s among books sales on Amazon and in March, a New York City Barnes and Noble employee said only six copies sold in the last year. Today, Strauss himself has disavowed his old ways.
A lot of the old tricks, like negging and other leading language, remain the same — but what has changed offers a look at the new game of courtship in the 21st century.
Who's a PUA? Not me!
"Absolutely fucking not," was the blunt reply of Jamie, the 20-something operations manager for Venusian Arts, who declined to give a last name. He swiftly denounced the title of "pickup artist." Venusian Arts clients, he said, are simply looking to network.
"What we do is we offer a presentation tool," Jamie said in a phone interview. "Most of our clients today are looking for an all-encompassing way to present themselves in an empowering way."
Venusian Arts is the brainchild of Erik Horvat-Markovic — aka Eric von Markovik aka Mystery — whose lead role in The Game and the VH1 show The Pickup Artist has made him the face of the industry. Markovik is known for codifying many of the now-infamous tactics of seduction including techniques like negging, or delivering a backhanded compliment to the person of interest.
"The purpose of a neg," Strauss wrote, "is to lower a woman's self-esteem while actively displaying a lack of interest."
Some examples of negging might be, "I like your nails. Are they real?" or "You're cute. You remind me of my kid sister," and "Your shoes look comfortable." Not content to forget, Markovik drew up this helpful chart that can be found on page 37 of The Game.
"You can use negs to take anyone off their little pedestal," Jamie said. "We absolutely offer those services."
Despite Mystery's reputation and the suggestive content of the Venusian Arts website, Jamie consistently denied the use of anything suspect and seemed irritated by the term "pickup." "It just shortchanges what we do," he said.
Both Mystery and Strauss declined to be interviewed for this article. (An executive assistant for Strauss — who sounded a lot like him on the phone — said he was "out of town.")
Jamie's reticence at the label of "pickup artist" was no fluke.
Ross Jeffries, one of the intellectual godfathers of modern pickup artistry, has been a staple of the community since the early 1990s. He literally wrote the book: How to Get the Women You Desire Into Bed. He, too, wants none of the trappings of the pickup artist community.
"I don't consider myself to be a pickup artist," he said by phone.
The guru behind a process called "speed seduction," who said he can teach men to do just that with any woman through the use of neurolinguistic programming, preferred the sobriquet "transformational healer and thinker." Jeffries regularly teaches his methods in seminars around the world.
"I don't consider myself to be a pickup artist."
NLP is a branch of psychology developed in the 1970s that asserts human behavior and feelings can be influenced unknowingly through the strategic use of words and expressions. What experts have more or less branded a quasi-scientific hypnosis-cum-voodoo has nevertheless retained a cult following of adherents — none more so than Ross Jeffries.
"In 1987 I read some books on NLP," Jeffries said. "I thought no one has ever applied NLP to seduction." Jeffries taught his first seminar in 1991 and has never looked back.
The practice of using NLP to manipulate and seduce women has been widely condemned not just by women but also by other seduction masters interviewed for this story. Jeffries, however, rejected all the criticism.
"If by manipulation you mean skillfully moving emotions and thinking, in that respect you could call it manipulation," Jeffries said. "A surgeon skillfully manipulates a knife, a gardener skillfully manipulates a bush. I don't believe I'm teaching manipulation; what I am actually doing is teaching persuasion."
In addition to criticism Jeffries and others faced after The Game, the modern PUA movement fell into popular disfavor after being increasingly associated with their most unsavory elements. Some have reached new heights of infamy, like Daryush Valizadeh, aka Roosh V, who suggested in a post — that he later said was meant to be satirical — rape should be legal on private property. Another, Julien Blanc, got himself banned from several countries after reportedly advocating the use of physical coercion.
For all these reasons, the phrase "pickup artist" today has more often than not become shorthand for anti-feminism and misogyny — and that's a shame, according to Arden Leigh, a female pickup artist extraordinaire.
The Feminist Case for Pickup
The role of women in The Game was mostly relegated to targets for lonely and horny men. Today, however, a small number of female pickup artists are flipping that script.
Like most men, Arden Leigh first came to the art of the pickup after reading The Game. After breaking into PUA herself, the New York University theater and writing major took a deep dive into NLP and many of the same methods Ross Jeffries has taught his students for decades.
"The basic tenet is to make someone feel good when they're around you," she said of the controversial approach. "That can be really generous if done ethically."
Leigh, who described herself as "absolutely" a feminist, said responsible pickup benefits everybody. "When I discovered PUA, I liked that it was based on the proactive approach of choosing the person you wanted and having a strategy that's not going to come across as superaggressive but will be playful and fun and intriguing and attract that person to you," Leigh said.
She insisted PUA is not inherently misogynistic. "The problematic and dangerous aspects of PUA got picked up by mainstream media much more than the positive aspects of it," she said. "A story of a shy nerdy guy learning social skills and getting married to the attractive girl he likes is not an arresting story."
Indeed, Leigh argued, women who learned the methods of PUA could empower themselves and optimize their own dating outcomes. Her 2011 book The New Rules of Attraction: How to Get Him, Keep Him and Make Him Beg for More underscores that point.
In addition to teaching women, other female pickup masters, like Kezia Noble, have developed a niche industry teaching skills to men. Noble's website offers similar courses, bootcamps and products to other pickup masters, but unlike her more numerous male counterparts, she doesn't shy away from the pickup label and makes the pitch to clients that as a woman, she can provide a more sophisticated approach.
And while Leigh criticized Jeffries' content — specifically citing his newsletter — as "misogynistic" and that she distrusted him as an instructor, another female seduction savant Mic spoke with is so close to him that the seduction guru said he views her as his "daughter" and that she calls him "dad."
"There are men in this world who hate women, who do not respect them, who call them bitches and cunts. These are not PUA," Neil Strauss wrote in The Game. "PUAs do not hate women; they fear them."
The Science of Pickup
In poring over PUA and PUA-related literature, an enduring question comes to mind: Does any of this stuff actually work? In the opening pages of The Game, Neil Strauss flatly states that "women will doubt it."
Nobody likes to think they are be so easily manipulated, but there is evidence that we all may be more pliable than we're willing to admit.
"I think the stuff they talk about in The Game is probably consistent with a lot of existing research," Dr. Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at New York University and author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, said by phone. "Any psychologist would say certain patterns will be more successful in producing certain outcomes than others."
According to Alter, there will always be things that both men and women find more or less attractive and it was less a form of pick up than good marketing. "Really what it is is how to behave so that people will find you attractive. When you put it that way it's pretty mundane," he said.
While limited academic literature on the science of courtship exists, what has been written backs up Alter's assumptions.
"It would seem clear that there is in fact a substantive degree of psychological research to support many claims made by the [PUA] Community," Nathan Oesch, an Oxford professor in the department of experimental psychology wrote in the journal of Evolutionary Psychology adding that many of the broad PUA methods were "supported by a significant and steadily growing literature based in physiological, social and evolutionary psychology research."
The Morality of Pick Up
Ross Jeffries doesn't have very much time for your gooey feelings. Jeffries, who has never married and boasts of only dating women decades his junior, councils as much to his students. "Don't try to become a woman's white knight," he said. "Don't do emotional dentistry."
Sentiments like that have caused many to conclude that PUA is morally irredeemable. "Pick-up artistry is, at its core, about manipulating and objectifying women for the purposes of sexual and/or social exploitation," wrote a critic on the website Reappropriate. The sentiment was echoed in a 2014 Vice article by former PUA Nathan Thompson who concluded that "their system is based on a falsehood – that women are a code to [be] broken instead of human beings."
Nevertheless, despite operating under a code of ethics almost entirely their own, most PUAs and their modern mutations in 2016 did stress one thing consistently, a genuine appreciation and respect for the women they sleep with — or so they say.
"I tell [my students] do your best to leave a woman better than you found her and don't be dishonest," said Jeffries. "Don't push down on people's pain points. Don't misrepresent your intent."
A woman's satisfaction, they say, has always been a focus of male pickup artists — even if the motives for producing it were self-interested. Much digital ink has been spilled on male inattentiveness to the female orgasm and the mantras of PUAs to always keep female orgasms coming contrasts sharply with that tendency
Increasingly too — it's less about sex.
"The act of flirting and connecting with another human being is more important than the outcome," John Keegan, a dating coach and founder of the Awakened Lifestyle said in a phone interview. "Success to me, is getting over shyness. Success to me is setting a goal for themselves. It can't really be the number of women you've slept with. It needs to be something personal."
Keegan and others, however, maintained that most of the men who sought their services were not looking to become master pickup artists but rather were lonely, socially awkward and simply wanted to learn how to make a meaningful connection. Generally they were seeking the very skills more well-adjusted people take for granted.
"I really help people be social," he said.