March 2006

Jennifer Shahade


Pick Up Lessons in Reverse

I first heard about Neil Strauss’s best-selling The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society of Pickup Artists at a Brooklyn poker night, in which I was the only female at the eight-player ring game. I left the room for a break, and returned to discover that my three-minute absence was enough to turn the conversation to a traditionally all male arena: picking up women.

A few days later I used my winnings from that poker game to buy The Game. The black leather cover, gold lacquered pages, and red ribbon bookmark signify that The Game either takes itself very seriously or is totally sarcastic: It is the Bible of pick-up. If the cliché that girls dress up for other women, an even more powerful truth is that men pick up women for men, preferably in front of each other. This is coined “sarging” by the seduction community. Another much used term is AFC, which stands for Average Frustrated Chump. Pricey seminars claim that with enough conscious effort, most AFCs, regardless of their looks, can become lady magnets. The Pick-up Artists (PUAs) work diligently to disguise average looks and personalities with outrageous clothes and memorized conversation. In fact they work at it so much that several of the PUAs in the book lose their jobs or drop out of school.  

Strauss gives up writing for a year, spending most of his time delving into the World of pick up artistry. He signs up for seminars from seduction gurus all over the country, and reads pick up literature voraciously, both online and off. To better “demonstrate value,” a major tenet of The Game, he takes salsa, handwriting and magic lessons. He is a quick learner. After just a few months of his first workshop, he is invited to “wing” a workshop led by “Mystery,” his main partner in crime throughout The Game. “Wings” help distract a group or friend as the PUA works on his “target.”  Neil gives himself a code name, “Style,” buys a whole new colorful wardrobe (according to Mystery’s “peacock theory,” tacky is way better than dull), and decides to hide that he’s a writer, which Mystery claims to be a major turn-off to ladies. This doesn’t ring true. It’s hard to imagine that women would think Neil Strauss’s line of work pathetic. He’s a celebrity interviewer for Rolling Stone and the co-author, with Jenna Jameson, of the best-selling How to Make Love Like a Porn Star.

As a beginning PUA, Strauss requires a bag full of tricks, literally. He packs a bag with photographs, cheap gifts, condoms, pens, a digital camera, dryer lint (to pretend to pick from a woman’s body) and a tape recorder to surreptitously tape “sarges” to replay and critique later. He also uses a “cheat sheet” with a number of creative “openers,” such as “I’m studying hand-writing analysis, and I’d like to practice on you,” or “I saw two girls fighting outside! (lie)” or “I have to ask your opinion on something. My friend’s girlfriend won’t let him keep pictures of his ex-girlfriend. Who’s right?” Though canned, it’s easy to see how prepared lines like this could intrigue women used to hearing “How are you?” or “What do you do?”  The celebrated use of “negs” is more disturbing. A “neg” is an insult directed at a desirable woman, especially a very beautiful one, in the hopes that this will distinguish a guy from sleazy sycophants. “You’re ugly” is too strong, so Neil mostly uses comments halfway between a compliment and an insult, like “Nice skirt. I just saw another girl wearing one of those,” or “Your hair would look better down/up.” His first successful neg, “You have the cutest Bugs Bunny overbite,” is also the first line that scores him a phone number. He later Googles the victim to find out she was Playmate of the year! Strauss establishes credibility with this incident, but a less spectacular woman might not be so impressed. 

Reading such stories, a woman is bound to reinterpret lines and gestures from past dates or encounters with strangers. I remember a guy in a tapas bar once told me: “You could be the most beautiful woman in this place.” It struck me as stupid at the time, but now I know the guy was simply tossing me a “neg.”

The way of the pick up artist is to appear interesting and powerful, without necessarily being interesting and powerful. According to Mystery, if you can convince a woman you’re worthy for about seven hours, you can sleep with her. Then, on to the next one. Mystery’s severe clinical depression and suicide attempts show that for him the circular process is deeply unfulfilling.

Four hundred pages of exploits and tricks of trade would wear thin, but Strauss keeps it interesting by saving several celebrity cameos for the second half of the book. After about a year of hosting workshops everywhere from Australia to Belgrade, Strauss and Mystery decide to settle down in Los Angeles. They set up a bachelor pad and seminar headquarters and call it “Project Hollywood.” Neil breezily inserts incidents involving Paris Hilton, Courtney Love, and Tom Cruise. He keeps eight girlfriends, and even keeps track of all their last names. Neil thinks he’s living the life until Ms. Love introduces him to his “oneitis,” described derisively throughout the whole book as a disease afflicting AFC’s, otherwise known as falling in love.

Upon his oneitis, Neil Strauss the writer succumbs to a clichéd romantic comedy ending. “Style,” a crazy player who can’t settle down finds an even crazier woman to rope him into settling down. “The one” is Lisa, band-mate of Courtney Love, who demands a sushi dinner and immediate callbacks. Strauss almost loses her, because in his lessons as a Pick Up Artist, he was taught not too appear too eager by calling a woman back right away, nor to buy women too much, lest they think he’s a loser who needs to buy sex. The perfect date, he thinks, is a coffee. How much can a lady ring up at a Starbucks? (I’ll have two Gargantuan Oreo Frapuccionos!)

The Game sends out a very mixed message to wannabe PUAs: You’ll get laid a lot, but you may try to commit suicide like Mystery, lose your job, or like Strauss almost alienate the love of your life. Not to mention herpes!

The ending, although clichéd, may be instructive for women, even if it is just The Rules inside-out. If he doesn’t leave a message within a day or buy you Dragon rolls, forget about it! After reading The Game, or browsing for a few hours on online seduction blogs, a lot more women might sing the praises of awkwardness, and be very wary of charmers. Of course, there are women who desire a frivolous fling with a player. But there are other women who may not recognize the signs of sleaze, or those who, despite “knowing better,” are unable to resist temptation. After all, changing your mind is much easier than changing your desire. A woman who finds herself attracted to lecherous men may start looking for more worthy dates after learning their secret, pathetic pick-up methods.

The real turning point in the book is when Neil goes to a neighborhood bar, smarting over Lisa’s reluctance to swarm all over him. He goes from girl to girl, with classic “Style” lines such as “Do you believe in spells?” or “Are you two best friends? I can test that,” to find that the women there had heard it all before. Through the Internet and live seminars, his favorite lines had spread too quickly and died. He was out of theory and dragged back into the unmediated, unpredictable and very uncomfortable place that flirtation should be. Women traditionally have the edge in flirtation, and The Game and online seduction techniques are trying to wrench that edge away. Learning about the enemies’ tactics through pick up literature should hone women’s radars for sleaze and tired lines, making them less likely to be fooled by crème brulee with sour cream on the inside.