Seduction by Design

Anders Wallace

Pickup Artists, Virtual Intimacies, and the Reconstruction of Heterosexual Masculinity

photo credit: Theodore Daniels

In nearly every major city of North America there exists a “seduction lair”: an association of men who train each-other in embodying seductive masculinity to pick-up women. These men are assembled and trained by a “pickup artist” (PUA), and they deploy ritual ways of socializing to overcome inhibitions, optimize the practice of seduction, and transform their personal identity—from AFC (“average frustrated chump,” in their parlance) to “PUA.” Along with digital means for meeting strangers, these communities have emerged over the past 10 years from a subculture to become a globalized commercial industry that transforms masculinity into a program for seductive embodiment.

What does the transformation of a marginalized and esoteric society into a commercial industry that enrolls millions of men show us about the crafting of men’s sexual identities and the objectification of seduction as a skill set? This essay is about the pragmatics of pickup artists and their followers, from subculture to mainstream discourse, featuring cut-throat competition for followers and financial accumulation within these communities. In turn, pickup artists have come to objectify desirable masculinity as a secret, embodied knowledge, which distills a biopolitical sense of seduction as a life-enhancing value that can be cultivated.

Thus, the importance of biology in contemporary thinking about the self entails a corollary in social relationships within these PUA communities. Romance becomes a project of self-fashioning: the ritual display of one’s biological election to masculinity, or what PUA’s call “alpha masculinity,” through the rationalization of gender identity and techniques of seduction. In the process, romance becomes an apprenticeship to neoliberal subjectivity: a theory of practical interests that moralizes social order according to a logic of substitutable choices, interpreting human relationships through market metaphors of cost, gain, and self-tracking to ensure efficient performance. For men who fashion their gender identity in seduction communities, intimacy becomes a site of skilled and immaterial labor, and less and less recognizable as being “swept off one’s feet.”

In 2005, New York Times reporter Neil Strauss wrote a book called The Game, a work of autobiographical reporting that documented his two years’ experience within a subculture of pickup artists. Since the publication of that book, communities of men (pickup artists and their adepts) who existed mostly online have expanded into a field of experts who train other men in practices of seduction, and that have created multi-day training programs in communication designed to seduce women called “bootcamps.” Pickup artists relate that adepts in seduction should visualize themselves as strategists, whose success in the game of seduction depends on the dynamism of their lives reframed as lifestyles. At the same time, flexibility is built into their codes of seduction to account for the inevitable uncertainty of any human interaction: inopportune intrusions, faux pas, and what pickup artists call “state breaks.” To understand how men craft themselves as subjects of seduction skills, we should look first to the production and circulation of a broader ideology of “skilled selves” that accord with neoliberal, capitalist rationalities of market-based exchange relationships.

To understand how men craft themselves as subjects of seduction skills, we should look first to the production and circulation of a broader ideology of “skilled selves” that accord with neoliberal, capitalist rationalities.

In their book The New Spirit of Capitalism, Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski examine the transformation of texts in business management studies from the 1950s through the 1980s. They argue that the idea of a person as a mediator, networker and bridge-builder has been divorced from the ends of productive activity, and has now become a fetishized skill and locus of identity-formation in its own right.[1] Within these practices, people are trained to cultivate social relationships that align with and help to justify laissez-faire capitalist ideologies of working selves as self-motivated actors in a free marketplace. They do so by interpreting the self less as property (as in the liberal tradition of possessive individualism) than as a business, translating all forms of sociality into operable systems understood to function on the metaphor of market exchanges. In turn, selfhood is perceived anew as a “mini-corporation, [a] collection of assets that must be continually invested in, nurtured, managed, and developed.”[2]

Sociologist R. W. Connell helps to connect this argument about the commodification of intimacy with specific masculine performances of gender identity. She argues that the hegemonic gender identity in globalization today takes the form of what she calls “Transnational Business Masculinity.” TMB, for Connell, reasserts patriarchal privilege in a flexible form, able to accommodate the tolerance of ‘differences’ within multicultural society:

“The neoliberal agenda has little to say, explicitly, about gender: it speaks a gender-neutral language of ‘markets’, ‘individuals’, and ‘choice’. But the world in which neoliberalism is ascendant is still a gendered world, and neoliberalism has an implicit gender politics. The ‘individual’ of neoliberal theory has in general the attributes and interests of a male entrepreneur…”[3]

The individualization and rationalization of these new hegemonic masculine forms recalls entrepreneurial gender identities and the bootstrap bricolage of imperial relations of domination: the flexible, networked, improvisatory, calculative, other-directed, yet egocentric masculinity of frontier capitalisms.

Yet as other critics have shown, the neoliberal ideology of free agency in the workplace subtly reproduces inequality in large part by reserving sexual identity to being a matter of choice in the “private sphere.”[4] If Connell’s assessment rings true, then seduction communities appear as a hidden subtext—the latent grammar—by which men, as affluent middle-class citizens, create masculinist identities that can outwardly align with the framework of tolerant, equal-opportunity, and post-feminist public discourses. In other words, seductive masculinity reifies biological attributes of gender identity—or more specifically, of having skills in biological masculinity—through homo-social routines and reciprocal training practices in seduction.

If we turn to the text of an e-book published in 2007, Magic Bullets, we get to grips with the sorts of communicative practices PUA programs deploy.[5] In Magic Bullets, entrepreneur and dating coach Nick Savoy describes the so-called Mystery Method: a branded curriculum of practices, speech-acts, and cognitive rationalizations for seduction. Consistent with neoliberal theories of agency, the individual is treated as a conscious manipulator of systems to grant or withhold intimacy according to what pickup artists call “calibration”: surveillance of one’s speech—for the purpose of improving or correcting it—as a way of gaining access to performative prestige.

A central belief-system of the Mystery Method is the so-called “emotional progression model.” Savoy describes the emotional progression model in six stages: Opening, Transitioning, Attraction, Qualification, Comfort, and Seduction. About Opening, he remarks:

“In opening you create mutual attraction before you build comfort. Hold off on the ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘what do you do?’ questions as well as the really deep conversations until it’s obvious that you are both interested in each other.”[6]

On “Transitioning”:

“The point of the transition is to get from talking about your friend’s birthday or secret admirer to having a normal conversation about all sorts of things. Making statements is a strategy. [Statements like], ‘You look like you’d be a schoolteacher’, will get her to elicit information without you having to ask.”[7]

On “Attraction”:

“Tease her—give her a nickname. Tell good stories. Tell your stories as if they are emotional journeys, not recitations of facts. Don’t do anything that would be interpreted as hitting on her. Once she has shown some signs of attraction ([like] touching you, laughing at your jokes, staying and talking to you for 20 minutes or so), then you can move to Qualification. When she is giving you signs that she is interested in you, switch gears… Indulge your curiosity about her… Ask her ‘screening questions’ like, ‘so what do you do for fun?’ When she tells you things that you are attracted to, compliment her on them.”[8]

And lastly on the stage of “Comfort”:

“Concentrate on getting to know each other across a wide variety of topics as opposed to talking about one subject in detail. Begin touching her playfully and initiating more intimate physicality as the night goes on. Start [for instance] with playful pushing, tapping, thumb wrestling, and then into more intimate stuff like hand holding and kissing…it should be a smooth, upward transition that is comfortable for both of you.”[9]

PUA technologies parcel the risk of “losing face”[10] through technological means of rationalizing and apportioning risk factors. In so doing they create the illusion of control. The PUA games his “target,” but communication takes place between two projective surfaces: the prosthetic subjectivity of the self-as-seducer, and the other (the “target”) as a virtual self—as the map of a terrain, or as the operations system of a computer—whose self exists as a double of the PUA’s skill. This phantasmatic subject-object (mapped onto the contours of the woman approached by the PUA) is a moral subject, a mass-political body who permits biologically-rooted feelings of capacity and empowerment in the body of the PUA.

A cursory analysis might simply state that such men’s new interpersonal skills represent a cunning revival of patriarchal domination. A more pressing question appears to be: under what conditions is the seduction of others useful and attractive to the self? The answer turns us towards a consideration of seduction techniques as a form of biopower, a hermeneutics of the self that traces the intersection of biological anatomy and conditions of sociability within laissez-faire capitalism. Michel Foucault writes that, in the neoliberal order of self-discipline discussed above, “nature is not an original and reserved region on which the exercise of power should not impinge.”[11] Rather, nature runs under, through, and in the exercise of power as “its indispensable hypodermis.” Biopower, thus, represents “the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth [that] form an apparatus of knowledge-power that effectively marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it to the division between true and false.”

Why is it romance, then, that becomes the operative category for these men? The possibility of intimacy would seem to undo their acts of self-mastery. Indeed, those who argue that modernity is characterized by disenchantment argue on behalf of those values that are perceived to be betrayed by capitalism—integrity of production, durable social ties and affinities, and love. Yet while sobriety of mind and body purportedly represent the gain of rationalization, the perspective of liberation through rationality redoubles the anxious search for belief and self-transcendence. Critics such as Eva Illouz and Benedict Anderson have noted that the modern idea of romance takes on a new importance in the investiture of identity as part of fluid, so-called “imagined” communities.[12] Romance, they suggest, is not opposed to but rather enables the functioning of modern democratic states that depend on industrial relations of production. One feels beckoned by the sublime, bewildering uniqueness of the moment—“love at first sight”—that possesses us. In this way, by confessing our undoing through rapturous glimpses of others, a society of capitalistic work discipline becomes a community of sentiment: desire, longing; and yet at the same time, of evermore expert knowledge and the outsourcing of what Foucault calls techniques of care of the self.[13]

Romance is not imbricated with economic structures by happenstance. It specifically provide fertile grounds for those economic relations to flourish. The private, sexual bond becomes an especially important site for the migration of belief, as the desire for transcendence infuses the social category of romance as offering respite from the vicissitudes of alienation within the capitalist marketplace. “In contemporary culture,” writes Eva Illouz:

“Two equally powerful repertoires are used to make sense of, express, or control the various stages of the romantic bond: in the main, the initial stages of attraction and the romantic sentiment are expressed in the cultural institution of ‘dating’ and are imbricated with the hedonist values of postmodern culture. On the other hand, the stability and longevity procured by a slow-paced, incremental, and long-lasting love are associated with the institution of marriage and are framed in a blend of therapeutic and economic terms.”[14]

Masculine communities of seducers blend these two “repertoires.” Biology becomes a meta-pragmatic framing-device that invests “hedonistic” dating with the managed, rationalized, and ultimately therapeutic ethos that works to legitimate an entrepreneurial approach to intimacy through transient attachments. The notion of romantic intimacy invested in this masculine gender identity exemplifies those identities sanctioned by contemporary norms in business management: identities defined by mobility, fluidity of social ties, and investment of labor power in generating value at the solipsistic scale of self.[15]

By making masculinity redundant and almost camp, training practices in seduction undermine the “alpha masculinity” they claim to achieve.

Yet by making masculinity redundant and almost camp, training practices in seduction undermine the “alpha masculinity” they claim to achieve. As suggested in the opening section, this is a paradox that is intrinsic to consumerist selves in late capitalism. Markets for consuming one’s own biology—through supplements, alterations, suppressants or enhancements to personal biological makeup—align with contemporary habits of consumer choice in which “difference” is both resource and risk-factor. Biology, therefore, can be skilled—when managed correctly—or unskilled. This difference in epistemology dovetails with contemporary distributions of capital, insofar as certain raced and classed identities burnish their class distinction precisely through techniques of managing the self-as-biology. For their part, the paradigmatic “others” of late modernity become those who do not quantify, optimize, and ‘hack’ their own biology. Thus it is that we find pickup artists reify the condition of being ‘normal’ with the term ‘AFC’ or “average frustrated chump.”

The hegemony of biology as an explanatory metaphor of human action licenses those baroque stylings of self that pickup artists brand as techniques of “seduction.” As pickup artist Erik Von Markovik writes in his book The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed, “Nature will unapologetically weed your genes out of existence if you don’t take action and learn how to attract women now.”[16] Elsewhere in the text, he writes that “while unimaginably sophisticated and complicated, [we] are nonetheless an out-of-date model. Put simply, nature has not designed [us] for the world in which [we] live.” Witness the pickup strategy termed “pre-selection,” whereby a male seducer approaches a woman for the end of generating attraction among women in the vicinity. This strategy is based on a gendered concept of biological mimesis whereby, as experimental psychologist Nathan Oesch avers, “females will copy or imitate the preferences of other females for a particular male mate.”[17] Here, the attribution of mimesis to femininity conveniently transposes the existence of biology as a motive force for men, sublimating the fact that it is men who are engaged in particular homosocial relations of mimesis within seduction communities.

In this process, the psycho-somatic relation of these men to their own bodies is transformed. Participants report that the effect of PUA socialization can be addictive; they recall feeling high, or altered states of consciousness while practicing the emotional progression model. For example, pickup artists reify the category of human touch through the concept of “kino,” displacing the feared dissolution of their own bodies through the rationalization of touch as a way of generating trust and intimacy. The operative language of such rationalization is biological and deterministic. Pickup artists constitute their own bodies as the locus of desire by performing their gender identity as bearers of a secret about themselves.

The embodiment of seduction as a skill-set thus introduces men to a new, different space of enchantment within late modernity. Both biological thinking and the commodification of seduction represent a form of utopian longing, the completion of something thought to be broken, incomplete or unredeemed. Biology becomes a mark of desire in that it distinguishes the male through his repertoire of communicative skills fashioned in seduction communities. But these groups also recreate class and race hierarchies that neoliberal capitalism depends on, by qualifying biology as skilled or un-skilled according to a person’s ability to spend money and time in projects of self-fashioning. These notions prepare the male user as a successful protagonist of late-capitalist requirements of self-presentation, and moreover to perform immaterial labor in a skill-based economy. They also regenerate class-based forms of inequality and social distinction, and legitimate new practices of dispossession in an era of flexible accumulation. Despite their privilege, many participants experience the underside of this search for transcendence through seduction as a feeling of perpetual debility: the pursuit of a horizon of self-actualization that is always-already deferred.

References and Footnotes

  1. Boltanski, Luc and Eve Chiapello. The New Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Verso. 2007.
  2. Martin, Emily. Mind-Body Problems. In American Ethnologist 27, p. 582.
  3. Connell, R. W. Masculinities and Globalization. In Men and Masculinities 1:3. 1998. Pp. 15
  4. See in particular Eng, David. 2010. The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy. Durham: Duke University Press; and also Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1998. Sex in Public. In Critical Inquiry 24(2), pp. 547-566.
  5. Savoy, Nick. Magic Bullets. Love Systems, 2009.
  6. Savoy, Nick. Magic Bullets. Love Systems, 2009. p. 14.
  7. Savoy, Nick. Magic Bullets. Love Systems, 2009. p. 15.
  8. Savoy, Nick. Magic Bullets. Love Systems, 2009. p. 16.
  9. Savoy, Nick. Magic Bullets. Love Systems, 2009. p. 17.
  10. To use a metaphor developed extensively by Erving Goffman. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Boston: Anchor. 1959.
  11. Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979. New York: Picador. Pp. 15-16.
  12. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso. 2006.
  13. Foucault, Michel. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1988.
  14. Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997.
  15. Melissa Gregg describes this  in “Getting Things Done”: Productivity, Self-Management and the Order of Things. Unpublished chapter. 2014.
  16. Markovik, Erik Von. The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2007. Pp. xiii.
  17. Oesch, Nathan. The Dating Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Emerging Science of Human Courtship. In Evolutionary Psychology 10:5. 2012. Pp.899-909.