Kickstarter’s found itself in the midst of a controversy after blogger Casey Malone uncovered postings by Ken Hoinsky, who was raising money to publish a book on seduction techniques called Above The Game: A Guide To Getting Awesome With Women, that included advice that sound a lot more like advocacy of assault and harassment than sex tips. Malone uncovered the posting shortly before the deadline to collect pledges closed, and Hoinsky’s project got funded above and beyond the level he needed to publish a print edition of his collected writing. Activists are calling on Kickstarter not to release the money that’s been pledged to Above The Game, and it remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome will be.
But I was curious not just about the procedural issues involved in Kickstarter’s approval and management of the projects that appear on the company’s site, but what draws men to advice like Hoinsky’s. So I asked Harris O’Malley, the columnist behind the fantastic relationship and dating site Paging Doctor Nerdlove, which caters to the kinds of men drawn to the kind of pick-up artist techniques Hoinsky advocates, to talk me through Hoinsky’s advice in particular, and the appeal and pitfalls of pick-up in general. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
By now, I know you’ve seen Ken Hoinsky’s Kickstarter to fund the formal publication of his advice book, Above the Game. Reading through the post on Reddit that’s caused Hoinsky and Kickstarter so much trouble, about what Hoinsky calls “physical escalation,” I was struck by how bad the advice seemed. What was your reaction to it? Is this typical pick-up artist schtick?
My reaction was that it’s pretty damned bad advice, frankly. It’s troubling as hell when someone says “hey, guys can’t read women’s signals, so go ahead and ignore them,” and advises pushing until you go from “we shouldn’t” to “NO NO NO!” I wouldn’t say that’s it’s emblematic of all pick-up artists, but it’s certainly distressingly common in the community.
I think that’s a good point. Do you think there’s a general streak of condescension in this sort of advice? It seems odd to tell men you’re going to teach them to be better at picking up women, but not teach them to overcome basic social deficiencies and awkwardnesses?
There’s definitely a sense of “women are lesser”, socially at least. He says “remember, YOU ARE THE LEADER” over and over again. While it’s true that women are attracted to confidence and assertion, there’s a difference between that and dominating her, which is what this advocates. Literally. One of the things he says in the samples (that are still available in a Google Cache) is “F*CKING RAVISH HER” There’s a common issue amongst people who find the PUA community — myself included, back in the day — that we all have some sort of issue we’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s just social inexperience, sometimes it’s a legitimate anxiety disorder or just simple lack of self-esteem. And the pick-up community promises to take men and turn them into sex gods with Terminator vision, able to seduce any woman they want. For a lot of people, that sounds like it will fill the hole in their lives.Well, let’s talk about the sex gods thing. Because a lot of Hoinsky’s advice was either not very good, or passed his readers on to thinks like the sex sections of bookstores. Telling people to shoot for g-spot orgasms when not all women can have them, for example, seems to set people up for failure.
Exactly. I can see what he’s shooting for by sending men to the sexuality section of Barnes and Noble: he’s telling them to get used to the idea of women as sexual beings and understand what turns them on.
Which is not on the face of it a bad idea!
But at the same time, it’s selling the idea that only one type of man gets women, in this case, the Christian Grey dominant.
Interesting. Hoinsky’s post mentioned Fifty Shades as recommended reading. Why do you think that trope’s become so appealing? Is it just Christian’s success with women?
Appealing to Hoinsky you mean?
Or to the people he’s advising.
It’s not just that Christian is uber-successful with women, he’s the ultimate alpha male. He was born to poverty but climbed to fabulous wealth, he’s a captain of industry. Women want him, men want to be him and he can bind women to his will with ease. He’s the master of his universe. (Which I believe was the title of the series back when it was Twilight fanfic.) It’s an appealing fantasy, especially if you’re the sort of person who gets serious anxiety at the thought of asking a woman for her phone number. And it reinforces the notion that what women want is a man to just take her over and show her what she REALLY wants, even if she thinks she doesn’t. Which is really a disturbing thought. And it gets to the advice Hoinsky gives that’s prompted the most outrage, suggesting that men, once they get into an intimate situation with women, put her hands on their genitalia. Why does he think this, or something like sitting a woman on your lap, will work rather than getting a guy slapped?
Here’s what I think he was getting at: from the context in the writing samples, I believe he’s talking about physical escalation during a heavy make-out session. Essentially, trying to move things to the next level by pulling down his pants and moving her hand. The problem is that this is a very good way to piss someone off. He’s trying to force the situation — he tells his readers to “GRAB her hand” rather than it being a part of the flow of the situation. Trust me: she knows your junk is there. If she wants to touch it, she will.
That question of flow seems really important, and gets at some of the attitudes he expresses elsewhere, about Nice Guys who don’t understand why things don’t progress. And I will give him a little credit: he’s not entirely wrong. Nice Guys don’t make a move. They’re usually too intimidated or afraid — or just passive in general — and expect the woman to do all of the heavy lifting for them. So advising men to be more aggressive and up front about what they want is, in and of itself, a good thing. But there’s a difference between willing to, say, move in for a kiss and forcing her to physically rebuff you.
Right. Do you think that suggesting that men make moves until they’re told to stop, rather than asking for consent, is a way of dealing with fear of making the first move, or fear of getting a no if you ask for consent? It almost seems like a psych-up move, another way to avoid confronting and managing fear, rather than dealing with it.
Exactly. It’s papering over the problem. It’s the idea of “it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to get permission” except in a dating concept. The fear of refusal is what keeps Nice Guys from telling someone “hey, I like you and want to go out on a date”; if you actually say that, you risk her saying “no”. Same with his advice: Don’t ask permission because she’ll probably say no, so go for it instead.
At the same time, some of his advice sort of touches on the idea of enthusiastic consent. He tells readers they’ll be able to know the difference between a demurral that turns into a yes, and a real, firm, refusal. I know it presents a risk, but do you think there’s a way to teach enthusiastic consent to folks who are afraid of getting a no? I think that teaching people — especially someone who’s socially inexperienced — that “sometimes no really DOES mean yes” is a bad idea. I’m a big proponent of enthusiastic consent and that means taking “no” on it’s face because it’s not worth the risk of getting it wrong. If someone is demurring and saying “I want you to convince me to change my mind” they will usually give more signs — continuing to make out, running their hands over you etc. I think part of the problem with his advice is that it teaches that sex is the end goal and must be achieved at all costs. And any interruption or delay is somehow a failure. But if she’s saying “convince me” and you assume she means no… well, you may not be having sex right then but it’ll probably happen sooner rather than later anyway. In a way, that aligns with a lot of what you’ve talked about in terms of pick-up artist advice acting as a cheat code. If the people you’re giving advice code don’t really want to address their social issues, suggesting sex is the end goal rather than a relationship is a way to avoid confronting their fears of intimacy or emotional pain.
It’s also part of masculine socalization. Our society teaches us that to be a man is to be sexual; the more sex you have — and the more sex partners — then the more of a man you are. So guys who come into pick-up may mistake having more sex — and thus being a better person — for solving the real problems in their lives. Don’t get me wrong: I think that there can be such a thing as ethical pick-up. And if you go into it looking at it as a way of improving a skill, then it’s possible to learn it in a healthy, respectful way.But if you’re coming to it from a place of “my life sucks, sleeping with more women will make it better”, then all it’s going to do is make things worse in the long run.
Well and I think this gets at what upsets me about pick-up culture, in addition to the treatment of consent. It seems awfully condescending to men, or at least treating real problems as if they’re unfixable. It really is. There’s a rallying cry among feminists: “The Patriarchy hurts everybody”. And it’s true. A lot of schools of PUA are focused on really toxic views of masculinity — man as sexually ravenous and unemotional. It treats men who want emotional intimacy or monogamy as weak or inferior, while the PUA with his supposed harem is living out how God (or biology) intended. Even the schools of pick up that focus on what’s called “inner game” is less about “here’s how to be a better person” and more of “you are the KING. You are the LEADER. Show them that you’re THE LEADER.” It’s a placebo for more deep-seated issues.
I’m curious about your own experience with pick up. Did it lead to a kind of emotional hangover? It sounds like eating a lot of empty calories. Oh it definitely did. Getting into pick up actually helped me in a lot of ways: it taught me to overcome many self-limiting beliefs I had about who I was and what I could do, and it taught me a lot about how to convey myself and how to interact with women in an appealing and attractive way. But at the same time, I was buying into a lot of negative attitudes towards sex and dating and I was spending more time chasing after and sleeping with women I didn’t actually LIKE because… well, they were supposed to be the hottest and most desirable ones. And there’s only so long you can live with that sort of mindset and attitude before it starts to turn back around and make things worse. For me, I realized at one point that even while I was hitting on this one woman, I was planning my escape after we slept together
Yeah, it seems like pick up could encourage people to have a lot of bad sex. Yeah. The 10-scale that a lot of PUAs use is treated as an objective and absolute value system. 7s are better than 4’s and 9s and 10s are best of all… even if you’re talking to them and you realize you can’t stand them as a person, but that 7 has far more in common with you and makes you feel like you could leap tall buildings in a single bound.But she’s still a 7 so you’re better off ditching her and going for the 8 or 9 you don’t like as much.
Wait, break down the 10-scale. How do you sort women into it?
I don’t, personally.
Oh, I know. I’m just curious as to how it’s supposed to work.
It’s pretty much all about looks: how hot is she, how big are her breasts, etc. with bonus points for bragging rights. So a model or a go-go dancer at a club is going to get a boost on the scale because they’re supposedly “harder” to game and hooking up with one is more of an accomplishment.
So it’s like playing a video game, effectively? As much as I find that distasteful, it sort of makes sense if you’re supposed to be talking to guys who were playing video games during their formative years instead of honing their social skills. Exactly. When you get right down to it, the original PUAs — Mystery’s “Project Hollywood” buddies who were featured in The Game were basically nerds and geeks. They took approaching women and tried to turn it into a formula — which is in and of itself a very nerdy thing to do. If you think of it as a video game — and believe me, if you’ve ever heard some PUAs talking shop, all that jargon doesn’t sound much different from a 24 man endgame raid in World of Warcraft — then it’s easier, psychologically. Games have rules and expected outcomes. Press A to jump, press B to flirt. “A Wild HB 10 Appears!” “PUA used NEG! It’s super-effective!” It’s interesting how the system almost seems more oriented towards how guys interact with their friends than how they interact with women. It treats women like the opposition. This is why you hear phrases like “bitch shield” or “anti-slut defense” It maintains the us-vs-them mentality. Woman as opponent instead of potential partner. When did you decide that pick up wasn’t giving you what you wanted any longer? Have you seen other people burn out on the technique?
I changed my approach once I realized how much time I was spending in bars I didn’t like around people I couldn’t stand. 99% of what I was talking about with people was pick-up. All of my interactions with other folks was based around it: is he trying to out-alpha me? Is she shit-testing me? No, he was just joking around with me and she was just trying to have a conversation, like normal people do. I didn’t like who I was when I was submerged in that world, so I backed away from it. I still was interested in casual dating rather than finding a relationship, so I didn’t stop flrting or hooking up, but I had to find my way back to a balanced and healthier life. I was getting laid less, but I was enjoying myself WAY more.
That sounds terrible! When you give advice to guys who have used pick-up techniques, what do you see as the biggest challenges they’re running into as they try to transition to more reasonable ways of interacting with people? Stop seeing everything in terms of Us. vs. Them, PUA versus Average Frustrated Chump. Women aren’t the enemy, they’re not trying to make you jump through hoops to prove you’re worthy. The biggest challenge is finding and fixing the issues that brought you to that place originally. Once I got my self-esteem problems under control, I wasn’t basing my value on how many women I’d slept with and I was better able to connect with people emotionally.
And presumably you didn’t have to stockpile sexual experiences as a way of managing those self-esteem issues, or out of terror at getting rejected.
Right. I dealt with fear of getting rejected by getting rejected and realizing that it didn’t destroy me. Once you get past the idea that you’re defined by other people liking you or being willing to sleep with you, rejection starts to lose it’s sting. It still sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. In fact, usually rejection means that you weren’t compatible in the first place. But it’s hard to see that when you see every rejection as one step closer to dying alone and unloved.
Absolutely. As bad as Hoinsky’s advice is for women, it also seems like an underdiscussed and related issue is that it’s not going to serve men well in the short or the long term.
Exactly. So much ink has been spilled in PUA circles about how to avoid getting rejected when in reality, you probably don’t really want to be with that person in the first place. Like the issue with supposed “bitch shields”. If she’s really that unfriendly and rude, why the hell would you want to sleep with her in the first place? Move on and find someone who actually wants to talk to you.
And maybe if you treat women more like people, fewer of us will throw up shields.