UPDATE, March 2012: I have now released my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, and people seem to like it. Buy it here! And now for the original article …

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As some of my readers know, I’m fascinated by the pickup artist subculture (a community devoted to advising men on how to seduce women). It’s a very mixed bag. My feeling is that there’s good advice in the community for genuinely kind shy guys. But sometimes, it’s so mixed with misogyny and cold-heartedness that wading through it feels like panning for gold in a sewer.

By the end of this year, I plan to release a book called Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, all about my experiences in that subculture. In the meantime, here’s my attempt at a summary:

There are small communities of pickup artists all over the world, and there are message boards all over the Internet, and expensive pickup coaches are always popping up. Some of these folks are not so bad; some of them are really bad. Many have awful cynical and negative attitudes about people; many hold particularly awful stereotypes about women. And most of them care a lot more about what works (i.e. how to get their penis in someone) than about what’s ethical or how we can treat women like human beings.

A good friend of mine recently told me that he’s been reading the blog of a misogynist pickup artist who I absolutely loathe. I was appalled. I provided a detailed feminist critique of this guy’s blog. My friend listened and understood, but in the end he said, “I hear what you’re saying, and I agree with you. The guy is an asshole and his advice is permeated with terrible opinions of women. But a lot of it is really good advice, and I don’t know where else I can find such good advice about women.”

Here’s the thing: the current pickup artist subculture has a monopoly on effective advice for how to break down social interactions and talk to women. Not all of it works, but enough of it works that it draws guys in. As a pickup artist instructor once told me, “When I first found the community I was horrified by how sleazy and gross it is, but I had never had a girlfriend and I told myself: dude, if you don’t learn this stuff you’re gonna die alone.”

I’ve theorized that maybe feminists should provide good pickup advice, in an attempt to counterbalance some of the awfulness of the existing community. In the meantime, however, I figure the next best thing to do is to provide a list of less-misogynistic pickup artist instructors and sites, and a few very basic critiques.

First, the basic critiques. These are very, very basic; if you get me started then I’ll provide ten thousand more. But please, if you are going to investigate pickup artistry, at least keep these things in mind:

1) People are different. Pickup artists often say “women are all X”, “women love X”, “women all respond to X”, etc. Sometimes they are correct for the majority of women; sometimes they are correct for a minority of women; sometimes they aren’t correct.

The bottom line is this: Anything pickup artists say about women is not true for all women. Period.

(Corollary: pickup artists are sometimes wrong about men, too.)

2) Even pickup advice that works does not always work for the reasons pickup artists commonly claim it does. Here’s a nerdy scientific analogy:

If you put a large container (like a tall drinking glass) over a burning candle and trap the flame inside without fresh air, it will eventually flicker out.

In olden times, scholars believed in the existence of a substance called phlogiston. Supposedly, phlogiston was an invisible substance produced by fire; too much phlogiston would suffocate fire. Scholars believed that flames without fresh air died because they eventually produced enough phlogiston that it filled up the available space, thereby suffocating the flame.

Today, we know that this is incorrect. Flames require oxygen, and if they are trapped without fresh air, flames go out because they use up the available oxygen.

So, the phlogiston theory is wrong. But at the time, it fit reality better than previous theories about fire. It explained why fire wouldn’t burn without fresh air, for example; previous theories failed to explain that. People had observable reasons for believing in the existence of phlogiston. Nevertheless, phlogiston still did not exist.

In the same way, pickup theory has a lot of assumptions wrapped up in it, especially stereotypes about women. Pickup artists may have some good ideas about how to flirt, but many of them will try to convince you that those tactics work because women are dumb, childish, weak-willed, gold-diggers, inherently submissive, considerably more irrational than men, or whatever other gross stereotype you care to choose. Just because a pickup artist can show you how to flirt, that doesn’t mean the assumptions behind the advice are reasonable.

In short, don’t fall for the phlogiston trap.

3) Some pickup advice only works because it capitalizes on the insecurities of women who have low self-esteem, and can manipulate those women — not because those women actually want to have sex.

For example: some pickup artists describe using “freeze-outs” on women who say they don’t want to have sex. Here’s what the freeze-out looks like: the woman says no, the pickup artist says “Okay,” … and then he turns away from her and starts checking his email or doing something else very boring that does not include her. If candles are lit, he blows out the candles. If they’re playing a card game, he packs up the cards. Basically, he goes cold and ignores her until she agrees to have sex with him.

Here’s why this is fucked up: because women are inundated with messages that men won’t like us unless we have sex with them. If a guy we really like suddenly gives us the silent treatment because we won’t have sex with him, that’s basically calculated to take advantage of our societal complexes. And yes, it will probably work with women who have low self-esteem, or who have never experienced a relationship with a dude who respected them. It might have worked on me when I was much younger.

But just because it would have worked does not mean I would have enjoyed it or felt okay about it later.

(edit April 15: After much discussion, I want to note one thing. It is conceivable that lots of people have sex after being frozen out that they like; that still doesn’t mean the freeze-out was the most ethical tactic for having sex with those people. Also, is is conceivable that some people actually like being manipulated through the freeze-out; I don’t speak for all women. However, in my experience as a woman, the freeze-out would have worked on me because of low self-esteem and poor boundaries, not because of mutual desire. So even if there are women who are okay with the freeze-out, there are obviously women who find it manipulative and abhorrent. This means that other tactics that are more universally appreciated are more ethical than the freeze-out. This is still true even if the freeze-out is the most effective tactic for getting a person to have sex. Effectiveness is important, but it’s not more important than treating other people well. There’s more commentary on freeze-outs in below comments #261, 262, 382, and others, and also over here. end edit)

A fair number, though not all, of pickup tactics are just like that: they work, but they work because women are likely to feel pressured, or guilty, or anxious. Not because women are likely to feel attracted. This is another reason looking for ethical pickup artists is useful, because most of the evil tactics come from the genuinely misogynist ones. (For example, I pretty much have no truck with anything from Gunwitch, whose advice often reads like a textbook on date rape, and who once shot a girl in the face because she rejected him.) In the comments below, there is much discussion of specific tactics. Feel free to read and participate.

… Okay, so now that’s all out of the way. Here are some references:

I appreciate Hugh Ristik’s critiques and deconstructions of the pickup artist community. I don’t always agree with HR, but feminism and consent both interest him, and he has a much more careful and intelligent approach to those things than most pickup writers I’ve encountered.

SucceedSocially.com is a site full of thoughts on basic social skills, by a guy who’s studied a lot of pickup stuff but specifically does not identify as a pickup artist. Its goal is to get readers from socially below average to average. Seems pretty much pickup jargon-free. The author has also written an interesting article on detrimental attitudes one can encounter or internalize through the pickup artist community.

I really like what I’ve read from Mark Manson. A good place to start might be the post on his history of becoming a pickup artist. He often uses pickup jargon, but there’s not much in that post.

The Authentic Man Program has been recommended by a couple people I trust. Lots of pickup jargon.

ApproachAnxiety.com has various advice that only trips my misogyny-meter about half the time, and also usually features pictures of science fiction chicks. Seems light on pickup jargon.

Zan Perrion and David DeAngelo are often recommended as less-misogynist pickup gurus, but I haven’t looked at much of their stuff so I’m not linking to them. (Edit: There’s some criticism of DeAngelo in comments #114, #116.) But I am linking to Juggler at Charisma Arts because he wrote this advice post that made me laugh for five full minutes. Juggler, it should be noted, specifically does not identify as a pickup artist.

Over on the feminist blog Feministe, I once started a thread that drew 322 comments picking apart pickup artistry. Some of the comments are terrible, but many are interesting and perceptive.

I once got the chance to interview the famous pickup artist Neil Strauss, author of 2005 bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, and he seemed pretty cool. Here’s some commentary about the interview on Feministe.

If you’re unfamiliar with pickup jargon, welcome to the encyclopedia. Understanding pickup artistry may no longer be worth it to you once you realize how many acronyms are involved.

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So seriously, buy my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser.