Game Over

Neil Strauss Hangs Up His Peacock Feathers

For a long time, I thought I could never stop being angry at men.

Rage feels righteous, galvanizing, just. Rage at men, from a woman’s perspective, is all those things intermingled with a tempering sense of helplessness, which serves to both dull and amplify the rage—oh, it’s a hell of a feeling, and the power of it can keep you moving for days. For many years, every time I heard about some new horrid thing men had done, I felt rage so strong that I believe I could have used it to lift trucks the way mothers are supposedly able to do when their babies are in imminent danger. It hurt, but it was a more pleasant hurt than the alternative.

I learned about male pick-up artists (PUAs) while I was in the thick of my generalized rage at men and, predictably, I was enraged. What’s to like? A bunch of bitter, manipulative men so wrapped up in themselves and their community that they never felt the need to give women’s personhood a second thought—if anything feels, or should feel, like a perfectly viable cause for rage, it’s the PUA community. And because I was so enraged by it, I was faintly consumed by it.

For those who somehow still aren’t aware of the PUA community after all its time in the sun: it’s a nasty, self-absorbed little cabal of men of varying degrees of attractiveness and sexual experience, teaching each other how to seduce women. That’s it. There are some prominent figures who take mentorship roles, teach classes, sell books, but the real strength of this community (if such a community can be said to have a real strength) lies with its average members. The basic conceit of the movement’s seduction of new recruits is: Women don’t like you as much as they should, but if you read this book or take this class or join this forum, they’ll have to!

I learned about the PUA community, as many outsiders did, from the existence of Neil Strauss’s The Game, which is not exactly the book that a lot of people think it is. The Game has achieved a mythic status among people who haven’t read it as equal parts instruction manual and winky memoir. People forget that Neil Strauss was a journalist before anything else, though, and whatever one’s moral qualms may be with The Game, it’s hardly the vapid, masturbatory text that people assume it is. It’s a pretty straightforward, unflinching account of a lot of very ugly men, and its author understands how ugly they are, no matter what their teachings did for his sex life.

I can look at this decently written, unpleasant book with pretty calm eyes now. But when I first heard of it, of Strauss, and of the community that it purported to depict, I seethed. My first thought, as well as the first thought of many other women upon discovering the PUA community, was: How dare they? How dare they talk about women that way, in such nakedly cruel terms of statistics and attractiveness? How dare they look at women as prizes in rigged carnival games whose tricks they’ve finally learned to defeat? How dare they?

Pickup artists are easy enough to mock, many of them. Look at Strauss’s own mentor in the community, “Mystery,” with his giant furry hats and his soul patch. Look at any PUA forum. Toss a dart at your computer screen when you have one of those forums open, and I guarantee you’ll hit some piece of pickup esoterica that makes you feel terrible pity for these men. Can anybody take a man seriously if he calls a beautiful woman an “HB10”? Can anybody take a man seriously if he refers to having a fun night at a bar as “sarging”? The jargon serves somehow to simultaneously add a layer of creepiness to the whole endeavor while sanitizing it of any legitimate erotic intent. Nobody who truly loves love talks about it this way.

Neil Strauss is no doubt a troubled soul. He admits it with every sentence he writes about himself in his most recent book, The Truth, which cleanses the palate nicely enough after the overseasoned mess that was The Game. He admits to cheating, lying, your basic scoundrel behaviors—and he admits it all with no little amount of self-serving ain’t-I-a-stinker grinning, it’s true, but when you strip away the shtick you’re left with a raw portrait of a man who has decided he’d rather be healthy than cool. He claims to have mostly left the pickup artist community behind. Maybe he has.

The thing about this whole community is that, as much as I hate its members, I can’t hate-hate them. I feel too sorry for them. How hollow their experiences of life seem to be! When you insist on sanding away the edges of every single aspect of human relationships, leaving yourself only with numbers and grades and notches in bedposts and stories full of the bloodless, untouched statistical analysis you’d expect to find in the commentary of a baseball game, well…what, exactly, have you left yourself with? Strauss himself, once an avatar of bons temps PUA excess, no longer believes that the key to happiness is in having sex with as many women as possible. What a tiny revelation, and yet, how vitally important to how many men!

Strauss now claims, in an interview with Grantland’s Lux Alptraum, that The Game was never intended as a commendation for the PUA community. He says that the end and beginning were both critical of the community, but readers cherry-picked his material for positives, and now that’s what everyone thinks the book is. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s a last-ditch effort to dissociate himself from a world that much of his would-be audience now looks upon with distaste, or maybe it’s both. Strauss is more complicated than I or many of his other critics might like him to be, but one constant is that he always seems to want, quite badly, to be liked.

When reading interviews with men who admit to specializing in seduction techniques, one senses from the cagey way that they answer questions that these men are always trying to seduce. It is to Strauss’ credit that he’s always felt more genuine and honest than the average pickup artist. He’s still looking for new systems to game, to an extent; where The Game focused on his ability to game women into submission, The Truth focuses more on his ability to game his own troubled brain into behaving the way he wants it to behave, especially in relationships. Like many men who get involved with the PUA community, Strauss is confident that all he ever has to do is flip a different switch to get the right results. It’s a dangerous attitude for a man to have.

Still—dare I admit it?—I rather like Strauss, at least when looking at him as he appears in the sea of unrepentant community members who are still sarging to their ghastly little hearts’ content. I’m rooting for him to find that one combination of behaviors that cures his life, so that he can tell the other men of the world that pickup artistry won’t do it. After sitting with the grossness of The Game and the community and the bad seduction techniques for ten years, I’m ready to make nice with Neil Strauss as a cultural figure. He’s just another sad, lonely man who believes it’s his lot in life to be something better than sad and lonely, and that’s not really so loathsome after all.

Art by Rilo Harris. 

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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