Pickup Artists Terrify Me

At the start of the summer, we were served with a grim reminder of the consequences of misogyny and male entitlement when Elliot Rodger went on a rampage in Santa Barbara, stabbing and shooting victims in the wake of a series of sexist, misogynistic, threatening, terrifying tirades. The media jumped to blame all sorts of things — mental illness, guns, and anything else it could get its hands on, but fundamentally, this was an act of violence rooted in the idea that women are public property, that men deserve sex and attention, that there is a specific form of masculinity that should be prized above all others. That the media didn’t address this is a telling testimony to the state of US culture — we are, apparently, too frightened to confront these issues head-on.

Rodger was an active part of the MRA community, which is one that I already steer clear of because it stands for things that I find deeply troubling and offensive. MRAs seem convinced that women are doing them some kind of wrong, that women have taken over society and need to be reined in, and that feminists and other women’s rights advocates are somehow harming society. MRAs are obviously and directly harmful to women, and they actively work to make the world unsafe for women by trolling, threatening, and barging into spaces where they are not invited.

He was also, however, involved with the pickup artist (PUA) community, which I also find terrifying, though for slightly different reasons than MRAs. While the two communities have some overlap, not all MRAs are PUAs, and vice-versa. The particular ethos of PUAs, though, is deeply frightening, and it’s one that appears to be spreading, even as women are fighting back hard against the ideas spread through PUAs. They’re on college campuses (as seen above), they’re in cities large and small, they’re on websites, and they have their own book deals, lecture series, videos, and more. The PUA message is being advanced in a variety of venues, and it’s often aimed at young, impressionable men just out of high school and college who don’t have the benefit of better male mentors.

Pickup artists in essence seem to believe that all women belong to them and are sexually interested in them, and that dating, and sexuality, are all some sort of large game to be played, rather than real-world events that happen to real-world people. The world of PUAs is all about elaborate ‘tips’ for ‘playing’ women and girls, including suggestions to push targets outside their comfort zones, use emotional manipulation to achieve desired goals, and push women into saying yes when they’re not interested. The prime message of PUAs, repeated over and over again, is that menĀ deserveĀ women, and that women who deny that just need to be pressured until they give in.

This is not a view of dating, sexuality, and larger culture that I am comfortable with, for obvious reasons. It speaks to a larger belief in male entitlement and the idea that men deserve everything and it should be handed to them effortlessly — and when it’s not handed to them, the people withholding it should be punished until they give in. PUAs are adroit emotional manipulators, and masters of the ‘craft’ are eager to share their secrets, though, of course, you’ll have to pay for it. This is an entire movement that revolves around getting what you want without consideration to the consequences for others around you, which doesn’t sound like a stable, healthy, or loving foundation for a relationship.

Of course, these aren’t goals PUAs share for relationships. In fact, much of the thrill for them appears to be in the chase, not in actually establishing a connection with a woman and creating a relationship, whether a friendship or otherwise, with her. Again, it becomes about a game and proving something — about ‘picking up’ women as though they’re objects lying around for entertainment, rather than human beings who deserve respect, compassion, and equality. This is such a gross, distorted view of relations between human beings that it’s troubling to see it tolerated in so many communities.

And it’s not surprising that Rodgers found himself seduced by PUA rhetoric. He, like other impressionable men, grew up with some very specific social messaging about what it means to be a man, and what a man is entitled to as part of society. When he didn’t get what he wanted, it turned into rage, and what he thought was righteous anger. He chose to take out his sexual frustration on the lives of the people around him in a very immediate and devastating manner, but he was actively trashing women, threatening them, and frequenting PUA spaces long before he became violent.

Two years ago, I asked on xoJane if PUAs were contributing to rape culture. The answer, undeniably, is yes, but it runs deeper than that. It’s not just that they’re contributing to rape culture and playing an active role in making society a more dangerous place for women. It’s that they’re fomenting violence against women, by creating a world in which it is apparently acceptable to murder women and girls because ‘women’ as a collective monolith won’t give you what you want.

Image credit: Pickup Artists in Harvard, Frank Swift, Flickr.