The XX Factor

Pick-Up Culture: Always Bad, Sometimes Bad, or Kind of OK?

I just want to rank you, baby. Why the long face?

Photo by conrado/Shutterstock

So, let’s review: Earlier this month, a guy named Ken Hoinsky launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource funds for his proposed seduction guide, Above the Game: A Guide to Getting Awesome With Women. The guide would be an expansion of his previously written Reddit posts, which were full of advice that many found to be gross, offensive, and even dangerous. There was a public outcry, which led to an eventual Kickstarter apology. Though Hoinsky’s campaign met its goal (and then some), Kickstarter promised to ban seduction manuals from its site going forward.  

Alyssa Rosenberg and I have both written about this for Slate in the past week, but, well, we have more to say! So we chatted about the uproar and about pick-up culture earlier today on IM:

Amanda Marcotte: So I think there’s some disagreement between us when it comes to Kickstarter’s decision, in the aftermath of the Ken Hoinsky situation, to simply disallow “pick-up” or “seduction” manual writers from fundraising. 

Alyssa Rosenberg: I think we agree that advising men to disregard the consent of women they want to have sex with is gross. My worry about Kickstarter’s move to ban guides like Hoinsky’s is that it could also exclude advice that might better serve people who would like to learn to be less socially awkward (as opposed to people who think they’re entitled to sex with women because they are dudes and sexual fulfillment is a right like health care). 

Marcotte: I’m not too worried about it. They didn’t say they were banning dating guides, just anything that uses code words for coercive, reductive, misogynistic nonsense like “seduction” or “pick-up.” Most people who are out there giving good advice tend to just call it advice. (Which is a shame, since the word seduction used to not be so bad.)

Rosenberg: Right! And this is where my issue comes in, I suppose. Do you think a ban that filters out those words, for example, actually solves the problem with Hoinsky’s proposal, which is that Kickstarter didn’t read his previous Reddit material because he didn’t submit it to the site?

Marcotte: They have so many proposals coming in that this is probably the only workable solution. Sure, there are defenders of “pick-up artists” that often employ the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, saying they’re “not all” like that or whatever.

Rosenberg: Well, they’re not all like that, are they? Picking someone up and seducing her (or him) is not necessarily bad. Who am I to deny people meeting each other in bars or having one-night stands? 

Marcotte: I certainly never would! I’ve had plenty of fun that way. I just don’t think pick-up culture is ever about casual sex or just getting better at meeting people. Pick-up is a very specific kind of philosophy, one that casts women as obstacles between men and the sex they’re entitled to, instead of as collaborators in fun. 

Rosenberg: But where is the line between advice that could actually be useful—I think there are guys who want to improve their social skills—and the toxic stuff? It’s been very interesting to me to talk to people like Harris O’Malley, who runs the blog Paging Doctor Nerdlove. He’s someone who spent some time in pick-up but realized that it was ultimately unfulfilling. But one point he makes is that pick-up speaks to people who are looking for social improvement in a way they can understand. There’s a lot of video-game-inspired language about rankings and levels and quantifying experience in pick-up culture. I agree with you that there are some people who look to pick-up as a means of avoiding self-improvement. But I do think there are people who end up there who don’t, at heart, hate women.

Marcotte: I certainly agree that most of them like to portray themselves simply as sad sacks who are drawn to this to patch up their loneliness, though the fact that it’s rarely about getting a girlfriend and instead focused strictly on casual encounters should be the first clue that it’s not like that at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with casual encounters! But they are worthless for fixing loneliness.

Rosenberg: Well, given how much of pick-up seems focused on quantifying experiences, rating women, etc., one way it does seem to be about fixing loneliness is in giving men things to talk about with other men.

Marcotte: LOL. That’s the truth.

What I see with a lot of pick-up artists is not the sad, lonely thing, which affects a lot of people (including women!). I see a lot of anger and rage, rooted in a sense of entitlement: They are mad at women for not giving them enough sex and affection, and instead of asking if there’s more they could do to earn it, they have created a community that validates this elaborate strategy of “getting one over” on women through sexual aggression. 

Rosenberg: I think that’s true. Part of what freaks me out, too, is that if you look at places like the Red Pill subreddit, there are women who are responding to the emergence of pick-up by accepting it as some kind of truth they need to mold themselves to. 

Marcotte: You mean, like accepting misogynist stereotypes about themselves as gold-diggers and shallow idiots? 

Rosenberg: Or conforming to the way they’re expected to be: compliant, vulnerable, open to suggestion. 

Marcotte: When I was a teenager, I was fairly certain no one would ever love me. Then I learned that men, like women, are a diverse group of individuals, and it was just a matter of meeting those who I had more in common with. Of course, to do that I had to figure out who I was first, which is something that I often think pick-up artistry seems to prevent men from doing for themselves.

Rosenberg: That gets at the point I was making earlier. One thing Harris and I talked about when we chatted about Hoinsky’s Kickstarter was the moment that he realized that pick-up was helping him have sex with a lot of women but that the sex he was having, and the people he was having it with, weren’t actually what he wanted. 

Marcotte: Yeah, it seems to be almost set up to make the actual sex anticlimactic. 

Rosenberg: Right! It’s not about whether the sex is good. It’s about whether sex is an accomplishment on a scale that has nothing to do with personal preferences and attraction. Which sounds pretty miserable to me!