Rare is the woman whose adventures in dating — scratch that, in living — have kept her from a brush with a pickup artist. I guess I’ve got the equivalent of pickup artist herpes because I actually dated one. Well, a former one.
A little backstory on pickup artists (PUAs): they are men and women (but usually men) who see what they do as teaching social skills. Their students, as they see it, are hapless men who just need a few bro-pats on the back in order to have the confidence to go forth into the jungle of pussy and skin their first pelt. But what PUAs actually advocate is out-and-out manipulation. Getting women into bed is reduced to a game with rules to follow, a code to crack. PUA methods vary, but all pickups socially and emotionally manipulate a woman. Men are taught to engage in certain behaviors to make her feel “safe” in his prescence and even to intentionally insult her (“negging”) to put her off guard. (A decent background explanation of online PUAs is here on Buzzfeed; my piece about men training to be PUAs in NYC “charm school” classes that ran in the New York Press a few years ago tells you how they behave “in the field.”)
Sounds dehumanizing? It can be. It’s disturbing then, but not entirely surprising, how some PUA sites overlap with “men’s rights activist”/MRA sites — best known for being angry hornets’ nests of bitter men who rant their misogyny in any comment thread that doesn’t ban them. Although the two communities are distinct, there’s a scary amount of overlap in their attitude towards dealing with that alternate species known as women. Ladies are called difficult, needy, manipulate, crazy, shrill, and a whole litany of other qualities which make you wonder why these men are obsessed with the opposite sex (especially given how MRAs so revile us).
Clearly, I’ve set the stage to make my ex-boyfriend sound like a douchebag. But the honest truth is that Andy* was intelligent, witty, good-looking and funny — the complete opposite of the basement dwelling loser that some other feminist bloggers would have you believe all PUAs to be. Whatever you’re thinking a PUA might look or be like, I bet Andy wouldn’t fit it. He held two masters’ degrees, loved museums, art and music, kept up with international news, and had traveled the world. He wasn’t a “basement troll” in the slightest: he was handsome, doted on his pet cat and his nieces and, as a boyfriend to me, could be very romantic and sweet.
My ex-boyfriend didn’t advertise his PUA past, especially not on the online dating site that first connected us. Instead, stories of his “pickups” unraveled slowly over the course of our relationship. As we had discussions about our past romances and hookups, I noticed that Andy*’s latter category was almost entirely one-night stands with women he’d met in bars and dance clubs during a certain period of time in his life when he went out every weekend with the same group of friends. And it wasn’t just Thirsty Thursday during his college years; these years happened in his late-20s while he was living and working in a major world city. The one-night stands seemed like a pattern of behavior — which, as his girlfriend, I would want more information on — so I asked him about it directly. A bit embarrassed but nevertheless willingly, Andy* told me straight-up that he and his close group of guy friends used to use pickup artist “tricks” to bring home women. And they were apparently very successful.
Admitting that he’d engaged in pickup artistry was a red flag regarding his behavior around women. He was also a person who’d claimed to have had a “virgin/whore dichotomy” problem — which he’d blamed on his Catholic upbringing — and he said he’d had to get over that during his 20s. That was red flag number two. If I could go back and do my relationship with Andy over, I would have heeded these red flags and ended things sooner than I did.
But ever so willing to see the good in others, I’d thought that it showed growth on his part that he now wanted to date a woman like me: opinionated, feisty, strong, educated. In time I started to see, though, how maybe Andy honestly did want to date that woman but his failure to see women as equals meant he could never like that woman. Even though at first I found him charming and intelligent, it soon became clear that we could not relate to each other. He seemed to much prefer women who stayed quietly in the background and especially ones who didn’t talk back. (That would be me.) And the way he’d speak about other women made me increasingly uneasy, For instance, he had a high-pitched tone of voice he used when he was emulating women who he thought were dumb, which, while teasing, came off as cutting. He made more than a few digs at stay-at-home mothers, whom he dismissively referred to as “housewives” and suggested were just lazily spending their husband’s money. (I called him out on it, given how both he and I were raised by SAHMs.) He even mocked a female journalist once whose opinion he disagreed with, making a snotty remark about how she should stick to worrying about choosing a nail polish color. Not coincidentally, comments about sticking to writing about makeup or fashion are the same dismissive remarks that get made to me online by MRA trolls.
Taken individually, these comments gave me pause. I guess I saw Andy* in these individual moments as more curmudgeonly or persnickety rather than misogynist. It was only when I looked at them in aggregate that I realized he was relentless in his complaints about the fairer sex. I tried to ignore it, or at least explain it away, but I couldn’t help but become concerned by the uncomfortable vibe he gave off. ”Dehumanizing” is too harsh a word for his attitude, but over time there was no doubt in my mind that he thought that some women were not equal to other women and obviously not equal to him.
I ended things with Andy* after an argument one night when he complained about my pajamas — they weren’t attractive enough to lie around and watch TV in. Nope, I’m not making this up: that was really his concern. I packed up my bag, marched out of his apartment, and dumped him the next day.
I don’t really know what his problem was (mommy issues? daddy issues? his culture? just being a douche?). But I am convinced that his years of being manipulative with women to get what he wanted as a PUA — a phone number, a one-night stand — taught him that the opposite sex was something he could control. He freaked out at various points in our relationship when he was fearful of relinquishing control. Even though we were equals in the realm of who paid for dinner, he wanted to wear the pants (outside the bedroom, I mean) not as a choice we made together but because he thought he had to. That says something to me about what kind of men go into pickup artistry.
This is the point of the essay where I’m supposed to write something like “… and I’ll never date an ex-pickup artist again!” That’s true, certainly, but since I didn’t know I was dating one until we were already boyfriend and girlfriend, I will say something else: dating Andy taught me to heed the red flags sooner. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is a lovely quality. But when the red flag is that he sees you as part of an entirely different species, you should run. Are you picking up what I’m putting down?