“There are two kinds of guys out there—there’s the calibrator, and there’s the escalator. I’m a calibrator, and I miss out on a lot of opportunities. Be an escalator: be active, not passive.” A dozen stories high into the Manhattan night sky in a rented dance studio, these words of advice were spoken by a dating coach to a group of men assembled for a weekly skills-training seminar in seduction. In nearly every major city of North America there exists a “seduction lair”: an association of men who train each-other in embodying charismatic masculinity to pick up women. These men are assembled and trained by a “pickup artist” (PUA), and they deploy ritual forms of socialization to overcome inhibitions, and to transform their personal identity from AFC (“average frustrated chump,” in their parlance) to “PUA.”
In this gathering, the dating coach (we’ll call him Jeffrey) was discussing the finer points of rhetoric that apply when “his guys” talk to women. “Use your environment”, he says: “When you’re with a woman you’ve never met before, you already share something in common: the space you’re in. Make a remark about your environment, and then anchor that to an emotion it makes you feel in vivid detail. For example, ‘Did you notice those drapes? I can’t believe what a deep color of velvet red they are, it reminds me of when I was a kid playing hide-and-seek at home behind my mom’s red drapes’.” Jeffrey discusses the use of shared context as a strategy for building emotional commonalities with a woman he feels attracted to. This technique—an example of what other pickup artists call “misdirection”—has been appropriated into the pedagogy of pickup artists from the discipline of trained illusionists and magicians, who use misdirection in the craft of magic to distract the mark’s sensory perceptions by focusing their attention on an unimportant object. Yet the value of this approach, Jeffrey offers, is that it creates the possibility of flirting and empathetic connection between strangers by the playful attribution of meaning to an inert object—the red drapes, and the recalling of playful innocence in childhood.
In 2005, New York Times reporter Neil Strauss wrote a book called The Game, a work of autobiographical reporting that documents his two years’ experience within the North American subculture of pickup artists. Since the publication of that book, communities of men (pickup artists and their clients) who bartered seduction tactics online have expanded into a field of coaches and experts who train millions of men in learning seduction as a vocation to charismatic masculine embodiment. Most valued by their clients is the experience of taking a “bootcamp”—a week-long intensive training program in seduction, through seminar teaching and “fieldwork”—supervised experience talking to women in coffee shops, bookstores, bars, and nightclubs. Like other pickup artists, Neil Strauss goes by a pseudonym. This creates plausible deniability in the public sphere. It also evokes the aura of secrets in the production of masculinity whose revelation is promised to potential clients as a life-enhancing resource.
As these coaches affirm, adepts should visualize themselves as strategists whose success depends on the dynamism of their lives reframed as lifestyles. At the same time, flexibility through “calibration” is built into their codes of seduction to account for the uncertainties and contingencies of any human interaction: faux pas, inopportune intrusions, and other instances of what pickup artists call “state breaks”. Female dating coach Arden Leigh defines calibration as “a sharp attunement to your target’s reactions in every given moment, literally second to second, so that you can tell whether they’re on the same page with you and whether they want to continue moving forward…[like] the example of compliance testing [she says], where if I say ‘High five!’ and you match me…then I can maybe move forward and put my arm around you” (in Yuan 2013). As aspects of a broader semiotic ideology, the flexibility of calibration allows men to return to these communities again and again, despite their self-perceived successes or failures, and often to feel loyalty toward the pickup artist they choose to follow. At the same time, for these men, learning pickup operates together with learning “inner game”: cultivating confident self-beliefs of biological maleness (“alpha masculinity”), whose enactment in various spheres of day-to-day life is believed to yield material as well as spiritual gains.
My experience conducting fieldwork among men in seduction lairs reveals a vulnerable, searching underside to the often cynical techniques of “emotion management” (Hochschild 1979) in these communities. Interviews with men who seek out this coaching suggest that seduction materials may have a perceived utility for these men that transcends barroom pickups. Interviews with clients of a prominent dating coach reveal a variety of difficulties these men claim to experience: not only in finding and approaching women they would like to meet, but also in establishing friendships with other men. Amidst the uncertainty of social relations in big cities, masculine gender identity has become rationalized and codified as a life-enhancing resource with latently spiritualistic dimensions. Interviews have revealed common themes among male users of these communities, such as: not enjoying the bar scene where flirting is generally accepted (or as one informant put it, “switching off” at the bar); not feeling comfortable in expressing desire around women; and not feeling skilled in interacting with people more generally. These men express a self-perceived desire to be more in control of their behavior. In turn, seduction groups use socializing practices that borrow variously from the languages of war, computer systems, professional illusionists, addiction rehab, and video games (as in one pickup artist’s exhortation to forget past failures, to “re-set the Nintendo”, and seize the day).
How does one manufacture chance, social grace, and immediation? From Herman Melville to Dale Carnegie, the American ethos of self-fashioning has a long history in the epochal rise and decline of American empire. Paralleling this, fears about the expression of predatory, opportunistic, or deviant sexualities among young men in North American cities also bear a long cultural history in the disciplining of men and women (Smith-Rosenberg 1986). In this sense, the desire for techniques of seduction is nothing new. What has changed is the context for the male subjectivities—their longings, desires, and insecurities—these men express within new economic rationalities, and the technological capacities for socializing that late-capitalist rationalities have generated (think of dating websites, and how rapidly these transform users’ possibilities for experiencing intimacy and anonymity among strangers). This seems to have led to a growing demand for communities of seduction, where the rationalization and optimization of heterosexual relationships is mediated through “homosocial” networks among men (Sedgwick 1985) that bear an ambivalent relation to the commodity form. Men’s behavior here—mimetic training practices that seem to question markers of rationality and independence in ideologies of white hegemonic masculinity—seems to mirror a particular embodied sense of the potentialities and pitfalls of new social media, and a literalization of the human ability to be “alone together” (Turkle 2012) through emergent forms of masculine embodiment.
Anders Wallace is a PhD student in the Anthropology program at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research interests are in masculinity, linguistic anthropology, performance and new media. Specifically, his dissertation focuses on the ethnographic study of pickup artists and so-called seduction communities, and how neoliberal ethics of self-management integrate with changing norms of intimacy for men. Anders has previously conducted ethnographic fieldwork in locations such as Italy (on immigration and community identity in a small town in rural northern Italy), and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (on community and dispossession in preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games). He was raised in Rome, Italy, and is fluent in English and Italian, as well as conversant in French and Portuguese. When not engaged in research for his current dissertation project, you may find him cooking, traveling, or getting his feet wet with the social media strategies of his informants.
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Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1986. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Turkle, Sherry. 2012. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
Yuan, Jada. “The State of Seduction”. New York Magazine. July 21, 2013.