by Anders Wallace
On Monday, April 23rd, a 25-year old man named Alek Minassian drove a rented van down a sidewalk in Toronto, killing eight women and two men. The attack was reminiscent of recent Islamist terror attacks in New York, London, Stockholm, Nice, and Berlin. Just before his massacre, he posted a note on Facebook announcing: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161, the Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” The phrase paid homage to a young man named Elliot Rodger. In 2014, Rodger shot and killed six people in Isla Vista, California, before taking his own life.
Minassian and Rodger were members of an online subculture called “incels.” Like a 21st Century American psycho Norman Bates, they killed women because they felt sexually rejected by them. Incels are a particularly vicious subculture of the manosphere. The manosphere is a digital ecosystem of blogs, podcasts, online forums, and hidden groups on sites like Facebook and Tumblr. Here you’ll find a motley crew of men’s rights activists, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, angry divorcees, disgruntled dads, male victims of abuse, self-improvement junkies, bodybuilders, bored gamers, alt-righters, pickup artists, and alienated teenagers. What they share is a vicious response to feminists (often dubbed “feminazis”) and so-called “social justice warriors.” They blame their anger on identity politics, affirmative action, and the neoliberal state, which they perceive are compromising equality and oppressing their own free speech. Their heated resentment warps postmodern (post-1960s) countercultural beliefs currently in vogue among alt-right provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones: specifically, that Americans need to liberate their consciousness from lies and falsehoods borne out by corporate manipulation, government conspiracies, and politically-correct social norms.
Very few people would become so inflamed by the perception of sexual rejection that they would wantonly kill strangers. But sexual abuse, rape, and other types of gendered coercion are rampant in U.S. society. The recent #MeToo movement has shown a spotlight on these men, though mostly only the very rich and successful ones. Behind computers and in bedrooms across the nation, hundreds of thousands of men nurse a seething sense of anger, shame, and resentment coupled with entitlement and stifled desire. Some of these men choose not to kill or rape (though they may, from the privacy of their skulls, want to do both those things). These men are trying to fix their dating lives through masculine kinds of self-help. These are men’s pickup, dating, and seduction communities.
In nearly every major city of North America there exists a seduction community: a community of men who train each-other to pick up women. Trained by a seduction coach, these guys participate in self-help rituals to transform their personality in hopes of getting laid. The point is not just learning to attract women. It’s also about embodying an empowered masculine sense of self. Together with online dating, these communities have emerged over the past 10 years from a subculture to become a globalized industry in seduction spanning from Brooklyn to Beijing. Hundreds of thousands of men participate in these groups at different levels of engagement—from online forums and subscription-based clubs to week-long intensive training courses known as bootcamps—and often at a personal cost of hundreds, often thousands, of dollars.
As a cultural anthropologist, I conducted twelve months of ethnographic research (interviews and participant observation) in men’s seduction communities in New York City. As a heterosexual guy, I found myself hanging out with a lot of men who were asking themselves questions I could relate to: What’s the best way to meet women? How can I start a romantic relationship in a way that feels fun and adventurous? What do women want? At one point I was interviewing a 40 year-old white male dating coach named Eric. At a bar in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, he turned to me at one point in our conversation and said, “You know what’s cool about your research? At the end of it you won’t be the same person.” He was right. Throughout my research I had to do something most social scientists are loathe to admit in public: I had to engage in my own dealings with desire.
The guys I met and came to know intimately feel like their dating life sucks. A big factor in their restless search for macho self-improvement is feeling deprived of intimate human contact—not just sex, but also in their friendships and family lives. But something else is standing in the way: North American masculinity. Long a source of derision in popular culture—from Ray Romano to Homer Simpson and, yes, Donald Trump—mainstream beliefs put American men in an impossible situation. Once upon a time the male breadwinner held unquestioned social status. It was the Father Knows Best era; but father was also expected to be stoic about selling himself in a ruthless capitalist marketplace. Men today are asked to be both stoic and vulnerable, strong and sensitive, competitive yet emotionally attuned to others. At the same time, they feel their once-unquestioned privileges are under threat. They feel lost, even humiliated. For both pickup artists and incels, anger against women disguises these men’s feelings of male inadequacy. Awkwardly but insistently, they’re searching for a guide to tell them what it means to be a man.
A Short History of Pickup Artists
What distinguishes the so-called herbivore men of Japan—guys who don’t seem to want sex or a girlfriend and like it that way—from guys who become killers? Seduction coaches and their trainees are a diverse group of heterosexual middle-class men. The guys who seek out pickup and seduction advice come from all races and ethnicities. They’re usually young men in their 20s and 30s. They look surprisingly average. They’re nerdy, analytic types who do all kinds of work: analysts, marketers, IT engineers, software developers, as well as bankers, lawyers, and doctors. What brings them together is the belief that having sex with women comes from skills in flirting, called “game.” They meet for training in rented spaces like performance studios, private lofts, and hotel suites. After a pickup seminar and some bro banter they usually venture out to meet women: in bars and nightclubs (“night game”), as well as parks, bookstores, coffee shops, grocery stores, and sidewalks (“day game”).
The pickup, a casual acquaintance made in the hopes of sex, landed in the American lexicon in World War II. It dates to anti-prostitution propaganda posters intended to combat venereal diseases among troops deployed on the Western Front. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, pickup was appropriated by a new cultural current. Self-help literature melded the expertise of psychology and therapeutic thinking to the sexual permissiveness of the counterculture and the chutzpah of the advertising age. This was the age of assertiveness training, T-groups, and the EST (now Landmark) Forum. Popular books arising from this heady ferment included psychologists Albert Ellis and Roger Conway’s The Art of Erotic Seduction (1967) and Madison Avenue “mad man” Eric Weber’s How To Pick Up Girls! (1970). In the late 1980s, failed comedy writer and self-described pickup artist Ross Jeffries began coaching workshops for men claiming to teach them “speed seduction.” Influenced by a New Age self-help technique called neuro-linguistic programming (“NLP”), Jeffries claimed speed seduction would lend guys the ability to persuade or even hypnotize women.
In 1994, a former student of Jeffries (and friend of notorious internet hacker Kevin Mitnick) named Lewis de Payne started an online newsgroup titled Alt.Seduction.Fast (ASF). This sparked the birth of online seduction forums where guys exchanged seduction techniques and shared intimate details about their sex lives (and especially the notches on their bedposts) in so-called “lay reports.” When the original ASF site became overwhelmed with spam, the group switched over to a moderated forum called “Moderated ASF” (mASF). This became a breeding ground for many pickup artists who would go on to achieve commercial success and public notoriety in the 2000s like Neil Strauss (aka “Style”), Erik von Markovik (“Mystery”), and Owen Cook (“Tyler Durden” after the movie Fight Club). Strauss is perhaps the best-known of all, a former New York Times reporter who published The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists to the tune of over 2.5 million copies sold.
These virtual groups inspired pickup artists to create IRL seduction communities where guys would meet for in-person training, called “lairs.” With increasing public exposure, some pickup artists found they could make their advice marketable. In 2007, Strauss’ mentor, a pickup artist named Mystery, starred in a VH1 reality show called The Pickup Artist. In 2018, a pickup artist named Richard La Ruina even created a videogame called Super Seducer, which lets you play Richard’s character as he chats up women in parks, pubs, and nightclubs. (A recent review of the game in hardcoregamer.com called it “A sleazy piece of hot garbage, with production values of the same type of quality seen in your average pornography film, that you should avoid at all costs.”) Many more pickup artists who sought to go public as coaches suffered within an increasingly competitive, over-saturated marketplace that tended to misogyny and lacked any real accreditation. After a few years, Strauss himself checked into sex addiction rehab. He documented his predictable challenges with marriage in his 2015 follow-up The Truth.
In the face of increased public scrutiny, pickup artists today are broadly discredited—even among many men who still join seduction communities. This is partly a result of the recent #MeToo movement, which toppled film producer Harvey Weinstein and a string of other male celebrities for sexual assault, harassment, and rape that had gone unpunished over decades (among those pilloried for abuses was James Toback, director of 1987 film The Pick Up Artist starring Robert Downey Jr). Guys have either moved into self-help—exemplified by reformed pickup artist and uber-blogger Mark Manson—or gone to darker, more unhinged corners of the manosphere. Minassian and Rodger aren’t the first misogynist terrorists. In 2009, George Sodini walked into a women’s aerobics class in suburban Pennsylvania and killed four women with a glock. Sodini claimed he hadn’t had sex in 20 years. He had even attended a dating coaching seminar run by a coach named R. Don Steele (whose website, steelballs.com, encourages men to dress well, be confident, and even gives them a “Bill of Assertive Rights”). While Minassian, Rodger and Sodini are obviously psychopaths, most men aren’t. Still, my research shows that vast numbers of men all across America nurse hidden resentment against women.
Incels, Nerds, and Getting Over Nice Guy Syndrome
“Incels” is short for involuntary celibate. The term was invented 20 years ago in an online support group for unattached lonely hearts. Now it refers to a cult group of guys who collectively nurse a seething resentment—hatred coupled with jealousy—of so-called “Chads,” “Stacys,” and “normies.” Calling themselves “beta males,” they spew vitriol against “alpha males,” men whom they see as successful, attractive, and having plenty of sex. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit legal organization which tracks hate groups in the U.S. According to the SPLC, incels grew out of the pickup artist community but found it too humanizing of women. In an ironic twist, incels objectify and demean the very women they accuse of not being attracted to them because of their looks and nerdiness. It’s like Revenge of the Nerds meets the alt-right, by way of male supremacy.
And it’s not just incels. Many guys in the manosphere lament what they perceive is the decline of historical male privilege. Especially online, men’s emotions—their anxiety, sadness, or anger—are easy targets for manipulation. Fueled by bombastic media personalities like “shock jock” Howard Stern, “fratire” author Tucker Max, and “21st Century Timothy Leary” Joe Rogan the manosphere is not so different from more conventional outrage media like Fox News, Breitbart News, and Rush Limbaugh. It too can lead to political polarization, extremism, and radicalization. For example, many men’s pickup and seduction coaches believe that building their audience requires shining a light on pain. As a coach named James told me, “You have to know the [guy] very well. You have to know what they’re scared of, what they want, what their worries are.” Another coach, Eric, used the analogy of addiction to describe how former nice guys become seducers: “Being a nice guy is sort of like being an alcoholic. You can’t get help unless you’re ready to get help.”
Daryush Valizadeh, a pickup artist who calls himself Roosh V, made a name for himself by blogging about his sexual conquests around the world. He wrote books with titles, like Bang Poland, that sound like bad study-abroad themed porno flicks. An American born of Iranian and Armenian immigrant parents, by 2016 Roosh branched out into more explicitly right-wing activism through his website ReturnOfKings.com. As he explains his concept of “neomasculinity” in a blog post,
“Neomasculinity combines traditional beliefs, masculinity, and animal biology into one ideological system. It aims to aid men living in Westernized nations that lack qualities such as classical virtue, masculinity in males, femininity in females, and objectivity, especially concerning beauty ideals and human behavior. It also serves as an antidote for males who are being programmed to accept Western degeneracy, mindless consumerism, and immoral state authority” (Roosh V, 2015).
Roosh has been known to advocate the legalization of rape. After trying to organize a coordinated global network of meetups for like-minded men, Roosh balked when he had private personal and family information doxed online by hacker group Anonymous.
Roosh’s ideas blend hope and masculine nostalgia with a strong dose of resentment. In reality, neomasculinity’s cocktail of patriarchal dominance and self-righteous victimization has appeared in various historical guises: as recently as alt-right apologist Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life (2018), and as far back as the eugenic theories of early 20th Century fascists Georges Sorel, fascist mystic Julius Evola, and 19th Century Zionist critic of modern degeneracy Max Nordau. In 2012, the SPLC cited Roosh on a list of hateful and misogynistic websites that justify extremism. As shown in viral episodes of sexual harassment like The Fappening and #Gamergate, the manosphere provides ample echo-chambers that can radicalize some men against women and minorities. Sometimes these guys’ anger even turns against pickup artists themselves, whom they perceive—not so incorrectly—as manipulating and exploiting their desires for their own profit (as exemplified on sites like reddit.com/r/puahate).
Outwardly, incels claim that as men they’ve lost their place in society. But sociologists who’ve tracked their speech online reveal their communication styles are steeped in irony. Just like with online trolling, this makes it hard to pin down truth from fiction. It can also make it hard to distinguish who’s plotting a real massacre from who’s just joking. Many of them espouse a mixture of progressiveness and hatefulness that manages to fit progressives (think Bernie Sanders) and reactionaries (think Milo Yiannopoulos) under the same tent. This irony perfectly reflects an age in which male privilege is both common and normatively unacceptable. After all, as campus sexual assault researcher Vanessa Grigoriadis writes, “You can’t mock your own masculinity if you’re not supremely confident in it” (2017, 40). On the other hand, this haze of playful, testosterone-driven confusion creates plausible deniability for members who bully or haze other guys on the forums. Joking conceals the fact that, for guys like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, violence might seem like a cleansing and regenerative force not unlike the emotional logic of racist eugenics, Nazism, or jihad.
May 15th, 2015. It’s the beginning of a week-long seduction “bootcamp”: an intensive training program blending seminar-style instruction in pickup and seduction skills combined with in-field practice approaching women. As the trainees sat on large, black fake leather couches in an apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, a seduction coach named Graham asked the men what they wanted to get out of their training. They answered,
“I’m here to improve my social life and my skills with women. I see guys who should be terrible with women—[they’re] broke [or] homeless—but they’re really good with women. They don’t have the looks, they don’t have the money, but they have something.”
“I want to master the craft of relationships and dating. Because life is too short. You can get money, but you can’t get time back. And the amount of opportunities I’ve wasted with women—if I don’t sort this out I’m gonna be an old man looking back on my life [saying], ‘what the fuck went wrong?’ I’ve gotta invest in myself now. It’s my turn to be selfish.”
“I’m here to smash [my] limiting beliefs. I think we all have them, as men, limiting beliefs about what’s possible, what we can get away with. [This] is actually what women are attracted to, [a guy who’s] a little more ballsy than average. And I’ve been on this amazing journey to discover not just how to have sex with amazing women, but what life is really about. It’s [part of] a bigger journey about being the best me that I can be.”
“I’m here because I’m at an age at which I’m tired of letting fate take its course. At some point you have to take control of your dating life, and that’s why I’m here. I’m not sure that [seduction coaching] works, but I come here out of faith that it works.”
“I’m here to get better at dating. I think this is a skill which can be learned. Some people start out with vast amounts of natural talent. I don’t think I have natural talent—but, as a skill, I think it could be learned by studying and practicing and just taking time to get better at it.”
Like Minassian, men in seduction communities are anxious about meeting women. Like Minassian, they need to prove their masculinity to themselves. Unlike Minassian, they’re trying to solve this problem in ways that help them see women as relatable beings. They seem to want to make themselves worthy of women.
Many young men today, just like young women, face huge peer pressure to project a sexualized self. These guys tend to feel the dating game is rigged in favor of financially successful, well-connected, and conventionally handsome men. Many of these guys just want to hook up. But not all of them. Some want to explore their sexuality. Some want to learn different models of sexual relationships than what they were exposed to growing up. Others want to find a partner to settle down with. Others are starved of self-confidence. They believe women don’t, or couldn’t, find them attractive. Many guys who join seduction communities are new to New York City. Broadly speaking, these guys are nerdy, shy, analytical types. They’re drawn to systems, puzzles, and mastery. Maybe they’re bored in faceless corporate jobs.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, eighty percent of all jobs lost were jobs held by men. A string of recent books with titles like The End of Men (Rosin 2012), Men on Strike (Smith 2014), The Descent of Man (Perry 2017), and Angry White Men (Kimmel 2017) spell out these shifts. White men still earn more money on average than women and minorities, and 95.4% of Fortune 500 CEO’s are male. But faced with their relative loss of status, many middle-class American guys feel lonely and adrift. Some claim they’re reformed men, “woke,” and attuned to male privilege, social justice, and inequality. Others get angry. They perceive themselves as victims caught between greedy corporate raiders, taxpayer-fed economic elites, inept government bureaucracies, and women and minorities whom they see as unfairly privileged by civil rights and affirmative action legislation.
As boys, many North American guys intuitively learn to value what incels and pickup artists call “alpha masculinity.” Sociologists Michael Kimmel (2008) calls this the “bro code.” This is a kind of masculinity defined by toughness, aggression, competitiveness, physicality, self-reliance, self-confidence, sexual potency, and tight emotional self-control. Even for those “Chads” and “Normies” whom incels despise, stoicism often means they’re ill-equipped for key ingredients of romance and intimacy: things like expressing vulnerability, empathy, and emotional intuition. Many of them feel trapped. They find themselves simultaneously idealizing and criticizing unachievable models of masculinity that leave them ill-equipped to deal with the fluidity of modern sex and relationships.
How do men find out about seduction skills? The same way you find pad thai: the internet. As digital natives, seducers are steeped in the internet from a young age. They’re deeply interested in computers, sci-fi, and comic books. They also consider themselves socially inept. Many of them grew up in the 1990s playing first and second-generation videogames. They use internet porn. They’re often loners. Many of them were bullied, harassed, or socially rejected by other boys and girls when they were growing up. Stumbling across pickup forums, sharing their desires and failures with an anonymous digital community gives them confidence they can change their reality. Saying they’ve taken “the red pill”—a phrase from The Matrix (1999)—they envision a reality in which they have power, in the form of seemingly unlimited access to women’s bodies.
Many seducers feel they missed out on sexual adventures their friends were having in high school and college. Maybe they lost their virginity later than their peers. Many grew up with absentee fathers, or in single-parent households; under the primary care of nannies or paid caregivers; or with unconventional, or downright unstable parents. Maybe their friend groups weren’t as strong as they hoped. They often identify as introverts who felt disabling levels of shyness around women. Interpreting sexual shame as a personal weakness, seduction promises them a way to overcome their loneliness. This loneliness is a sense of alienation, not just from others but from their own bodies and emotions. They’ve got FOMO—fear of missing out—and see seduction as means to make up for the fun, pleasure, and adventures they missed out on when they were younger.
Other men stake out a slightly different terrain. They describe themselves as suffering from so-called “nice guy syndrome.” A lot like the 19th Century concept of neurasthenia, nice guy syndrome means submissiveness, pliability, and social anxiety. These men think they’re too sensitive. Seduction lets them feel empowered to pursue their desires. The most striking example of this comes from Daniel, 31, a white male software engineer. Daniel is thin, sweet, and boyish. He told me that seduction promised him relief from maternal abandonment:
“I came from a really tough childhood. I stopped my mom from suicide a number of times. Ultimately, though, my mom succeeded in that, and it was just me and my father and sister. I’ve always had good relationships with guy friends, and women have been attracted to me, but I was terrified of women from my psychological trauma. I reached the point where I wanted a girlfriend in high school, and I got into pickup coach David D. I’ve done all kinds of crazy shit. And I did pickup for a good ten years, honestly. I struggled, had challenges. I’ve got notebooks full of affirmations and crazy shit, like, nonstop visualization exercises. It became a job.”
As another trainee named Teddy told me, “When I was growing up, I had a very distant relationship with my mother. She never told me she loved me, she never hugged me. So I just assumed to interact with girls that way. Don’t talk to them, don’t touch them.” For Teddy and Daniel, learning seduction allows them to feel they are finally becoming their own men.
With the transition to a tech-driven economy over the past 20 years, nerds have moved from marginalization to mainstream prestige. If nerds share some traditional “alpha male” values like rationality, cleverness, hard work, self-sacrifice, competitiveness, and value-maximization, they sit uncomfortably with others like sexual prowess. Like characters from a reboot of Richard Linklater’s ‘90s slacker film Dazed and Confused, they’re not just looking for adventure. Above all, they’re searching for a sense of human connection that gives life meaning. As millennials, they were told they were special snowflakes. Now that the world seems none too impressed by them, they’ve decided they want to be the stars of their own movie. Just like Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), they are proud of their outsider status. They want to use cleverness to turn their weaknesses into tactical advantages. Like black hat hackers, seducers and pickup artists are trying to hotwire masculine social power and repurpose it to their own ends. As nerds, though, they uphold different standards for successful masculinity rather than challenging the privileges of masculinity itself. For pickup artists and their clients, learning seduction means validating themselves as cool nerds.
August 22nd, 2015. I’m at a three-day training bootcamp, called No Limits, led by a seduction coach named Adam and his assistant coach Jeff. In a beige hotel suite in Arlington, Virginia, I watched as Adam led his group of male clients in a confidence-building exercise. Lining up facing each other, each guy held another guy’s gaze while standing an arm’s length apart from him. The coach, Adam, instructed:
“We’re going to start hitting each other right now. You are gonna take turns, find out how hard you like to be hit. Tell the guy harder or softer, whatever makes you wake up. Because if you break your connection eye contact, you’re gonna get hit. Everybody calibrated, everyone happy with their hit? Now, deliver a compliment to your partner. If you don’t believe that the compliment is genuine, hit him. The guy that delivers the compliment, if you don’t believe that he’s letting it in, hit him. If you guys break connection, hit each other. If you know you broke connection but the person in front of you didn’t catch it, hit him. Basically you have to remain fully present while you’re doing this. Any twitch, any flinch, anything, you hit him, because he’s breaking the tension and the connection. You’ve gotta become vulnerable. In the midst of all this pain we want to practice opening. If your guy is completely walling off, hit him.”
Then the exercise escalated, as Jeff (Adam’s assistant coach) explained:
“Now we’re going to deliver a guttural-based ‘fuck you’ to your partner. And if your partner doesn’t believe that it’s real, you’re getting hit. …Allow the ‘fuck you’ to come in [and] ground it. Don’t take it personally. Just remain present with him.”
Fuck you’s ring out in the room. They’re chased by a rain of dull thuds. “Once the person in front of you has accepted it, that’s all you have to do,” Adam advised. He walked around the room, adjusting the men’s posture. He stopped to check out my partner and I. “Tilt your pelvis [forward]. Become aware in here. Lower your head,” he coached me. With his hands pressing on my chest, he then “drops” the fuck you’s down through the outer course of my trachea to evoke the emotional quality of focus he wanted. It seemed almost like a yoga technique. “Feels like the circuits are turning on,” he said.
This type of guy-on-guy violence is reminiscent of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), in which men create anarchist and libertarian-themed underground bareknuckle fighting clubs to release pent-up aggression and find a sense of self they feel has been corroded by consumerism and politically-correct niceness. As Fincher describes the meaning of his film,
“[Men are] designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman [the narrator] is created” (in Kimmel 2017, 220).
For the guys at No Limits, like the guys in Fight Club, the punch offers a simple lesson. Lean outside your comfort zone, embrace tension, and you can do anything. You can live a fuller, richer, and more satisfying life now that you’re not shackled within the invisible prison of your inhibitions. On a visceral level, though, the pain does something brutally simple. It cuts through numbness. It makes them feel alive.
In ten minutes the exercise was over. A thick silence enveloped us. The air itself seemed to have congealed. “We want to sit in this level of energy and groundedness that we have now,” Jeff advised us. Then the guys sat down in a circle to share their feelings.
Ted: “I feel more relaxed now.”
Rohan: “One thing I notice is my voice.”
Adam: “Your voice is deeper.”
We laughed as it dawned on us Rohan’s voice had changed. His voice sounded low, gravelly, like a totally different person. “Yesterday I was definitely speaking from up here [throat] in a really high pitch, and I felt like a kid throughout the entire exercise,” he said. “I felt literal pain in my chest at points. And now I don’t.” Adam replied,
“You keep your heart closed very well. You’ve got some serious repressed anger. Every nice guy does. Your anger is your power, so is your arrogance and cockiness. All that repressed intensity is your shadow material that’s been pressed down into your body because you were told you couldn’t have it. The masculine should have access to all that intensity all the time, ready to go. If you surrender to the body to do the work, if you hold the intention clearly and you’re in alignment with it, the body will handle it no problem. It’s going to go into flow. If you try to contain or trap it you’ll lose it. You’ve got to surrender to keep it. Anything you try to hold on to, you lose.”
At first glance, the punching game seems all about teaching the guys to master their poker face. It seems like a skill in hiding one’s advantages and disadvantages behind a cool, stoic façade. But Adam’s comments suggest they’re not just shutting down and tuning out. Instead, they have to learn to accept risk and uncertainty and be real in the moment of anxiety. Staging a fistfight between the nice guy and the alpha male allows these guys to take responsibility for being nice guys. It displaces and temporarily heals their shame for failing to live up to changing cultural expectations of masculinity. Adam summarized this heady mixture of machismo and softness, saying, “The more we surrender to the process, the faster we grow. Pain is a sign of the process. It’s a signal of tension and a mark of growth.” We should feel this pain, he added, but not get attached to it.
Over time, some pickup trainees condition themselves to a hardcore view of seduction as a game (“you’re only as good as your last pickup”). Others feel more in tune with their emotions and less burdened by sexual shame. Rohan had a committed girlfriend when he took the No Limits bootcamp. When he came back to New York after the weekend in Arlington, she noticed he had changed:
“She told me I was way more present, and way more open and available emotionally. I felt more grounded, more in my body, [like] I can take on her emotions more, and pay better quality attention to her. But that weekend kind of reminded me that I was still interested in sexual conquest. Honestly, I think that is part of why we broke up. She and I were on a path to settle down, and I went to that bootcamp, and it was like ‘I’m not ready to settle down yet.’ So [the bootcamp] was a double-edged sword for our relationship.”
Some guys experiment with polyamory. Others get burned out by sexual conquest and withdraw into anhedonia, a numbing inability to feel pleasure in the face of compulsive behavior. (One online course for seducers, questionably titled “The No-Women Diet,” tackles this demographic). Still others get disenchanted with the game and choose to settle down with “the one.”
At the end of Fight Club, the schizophrenic protagonist played by Edward Norton blows up a bank. More Timothy McVeigh than Alek Minassian. What I discovered through my research was something more mundane, if no less troubling. Seduction promises men a flawed and often selfish way of gaining intimacy when traditional expectations of masculinity seem unworkable. If it recruits guys with the promise of getting more sex, the seduction bootcamp I visited is all about teaching men self-confidence. It’s also about reshaping men’s relationships with each other. The bootcamp is like arch-masculine group therapy, a social-phobic support group that teaches guys to access their emotions and intuitions. It also allows them to process their fear and shame. They can acknowledge that these emotions are real, while stripping away the resentment imposed by repressed fears and desires. These guys sweat and toil in hopes of trying to embody an idea of what women want. This allows them to bond with each other, being vulnerable in ways that seems taboo in their everyday lives.
Grigoriadis, Vanessa. 2017. Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kimmel, Michael. 2017. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books.
Kimmel, Michael. 2008. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York: Harper Perennial.
Anders Wallace is a PhD Candidate and design anthropologist at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has taught as a Professor at Brooklyn College and is currently preparing a book manuscript about his research in men’s pickup and seduction communities. He has won prestigious grants in the social sciences; written up his research in academic journals; presented his work at conferences around gender, sexuality, and online dating spanning across Europe and North America; and has published his work in mainstream outlets like The Good Men Project, Psychology Today, The Berkeley Journal of Sociology, The Fashion Studies Journal, and Cheeky Scientist.