Slang dictionaries never fail to interest me. A few days ago I ran across one serving the PUA (pick-up artist) subculture, a network of men (and a few women) who have attempted to systematize and explain tactics for picking up women. Chasing links from it, I found a network of blogs and sites describing what they call “game”, which has evolved beyond mere tactics into a generative theory of why the tactics work; indeed in some hands (such as the ferociously intelligent PUA blogger Roissy) it seems to be aspiring to the condition of philosophy.
I’ve found reading about this stuff fascinating, if not quite for the usual reasons. I’m what PUAs call a “natural”, a man who figured out much of game on his own and consequently cuts a wide sexual swathe when he cares to. Not quite the same game they’re playing, however. For one thing, I’ve never tried to pick up a woman in a bar in my entire life. College parties when I was a student, yes; SF conventions, neopagan festivals, SCA events, yes; bars, no.
Also, and partly as consequence of where I hang out, it has been quite unusual for me to hit on women with IQs below about 120 – and it may well be the case that I’ve never tried to interest a woman with below-average intelligence. (Er, which is not to say they don’t notice me; even in middle age I get lots of IOIs from waitresses and other female service personnel. Any PUA would tell you this is a predictable and unremarkable consequence of being an alpha male.)
Because the women the PUAs are after aren’t the kind that interest me, much of “game” as described in the PUA culture fills me with a mix of recognition and revulsion. And a third, more complex reaction that is the real reason I’m writing this essay.
One one hand, I recognize techniques like kino escalation. Oh, do I ever! Adroit use of that one has gotten me into the sack more times than I can count. On the other hand, I’m basically incapable of what PUAs call the neg; I can’t insult a woman even by implication unless I think she’s done something to specifically deserve it, and the thought of flinging negs to score sex disgusts me in a very fundamental way.
On the gripping hand…I recognize a harsh truthfulness in a lot of what the PUAs are saying. Crudely put, the “game” advice for most men (the population PUAs call AFCs or “Average Frustrated Chumps”) reduces to behaving like an asshole so women will mistake you for an alpha. I really am an alpha, so I don’t have to asshole-fake it – but it is nevertheless quite clear to me that the PUAs are on to something. This is frequently a successful strategy; I’ve been outcompeted by it myself on several humiliating occasions. Furthermore, the PUAs are probably correct in asserting that for many AFCs it is the best strategy available, and never mind that the thought of running it myself turns my stomach.
In the PUA’s disturbingly persuasive analysis, I’ve had the luxury of not treating women like shit only because I have often had USPs for the brighter-than-average women I was interested in, notably in the combination of alpha-male qualities with high intelligence and expressive skills. Without those USPs, argues the PUA, my choices would have reduced to “frustrated loser” or “sexually successful douchebag” – and, looking at my own experience and that of my less successful peers, I find myself unable to refute this.
That is kind of horrifying if you think about it. Possession of USPs is rare by definition, and if you have one you’re more than averagely likely to be an alpha anyway. The PUA is telling us that human beings are designed in such a way that the most reliable way for the large majority of beta males to get sex is to behave like narcissistic, dominating, emotionally-unavailable jerks. This would be appalling enough as pure theory, but the PUA makes it worse by applying it to actually have lots of sex. “Success” one blog unsparingly observes “is defined by penis in vagina.” Never take your eye off that ball, says the PUA. Much as one might like to dismiss this as crass reductionism, evolutionary theory makes any countercase rather difficult to argue.
How did our poor species get into this hole? The PUA community gravitates to evolutionary-psychology explanations for human behavior as much as I do, it’s one of the interesting things about reading their stuff. It’s remarkable how often they manage to apply facts about human reproductive biology in a tactical way. The use they make of evo-bio concepts like hypergamy, peacocking, and sexy-son theory is, I find, sound and justified. The kind of pitiless clinical eye they turn on human mating interactions could scarcely be bettered by most scientists.
But the PUAs don’t, at least so far as I’ve yet seen, have a generative explanation for why women friend-zone nice guys and fuck bad boys. They accept this as the foundation of game without asking what circumstances in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness stuck women with apparently counterproductive wiring.
I’ve thought about this, and the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that in the EEA, when early humans lived in small hunting bands, the behaviors modern assholes now use to fake alpha must have been reliable indicators of superior status. Perhaps they were much more risky to fake in a small society where beta males were almost constantly under they eye of senior alphas with hard fists.
Meanwhile, back in modernity, we’re stuck with the consequences – men who have been trained to be imitation-alpha jerks and abusers by women who are sexually fickle, manipulative and cruel towards beta males. It’s not a pretty picture, not if you’re looking in from halfway outside it like me and certainly not if you’re stuck in the middle of it as an invisible AFC or a woman wondering why she’s surrounded by douchebags.
I don’t think the PUA crowd has any solution to the problem of how men and women can stop treating each other like shit. Nor do they claim to; the PUA attitude is that you just have to play your cards as best you can under a set of constraints that is intrinsically tragic. But I think the spotlight glare they’re putting on actual mating behavior – as opposed to the lies we tell ourselves about how we behave, or how we think we ought to behave – is a valuable first step.
The truth hurts, but it also helps. Understanding that you’re being yanked around in unhelpful ways by your instincts is the necessary first step to gaining more control of your choices. This is why I think the people who should be paying most attention to PUA theory are women – and not for the most obvious defensive reasons, either.
If you are female, you may be thinking “OK, I should learn game so jerks won’t be able to play me.” Well, that’s nice, but almost completely irrelevant. Because what both evolutionary psych and PUA tell us is that in cold fact you want to be played by an alpha – and failing that, at least someone a bit taller, a bit older, a bit smarter, and a bit higher-status than you. The fact that you want to be better at detecting imitation alphas changes nothing essential; women have been polishing that counter-game as long as men have been practicing theirs.
No. The reason women need be paying attention to PUA goes much deeper than just notching up another escalation in the jerk-vs.-bitch arms race. It’s because until women stop lying to themselves about their actual behavior, they won’t have any prayer of becoming self-aware enough to change the sexual reward pattern they present to men. In pervasive female self-honesty begins the only hope of not training up more generations of jerks. And it’s there that the pitiless, revealing glare of the PUA spotlight might help.
Yes, I know what kind of reflexive screaming that last paragraph is going to trigger. Feminists will lash at me for suggesting that this is womens’ problem to solve; shouldn’t at least half the burden of self-awareness and change fall on men?
In fact, it can’t be that way, and it can’t be for a brutally simple reason. If you are reading this, you are almost certainly a member of a culture in which women have far more power to control mens’ sexual experience than the reverse. The only exceptions to this rule have been barbaric hellholes in which women were treated as chattel.
Ladies, with having more power over sexual outcomes there comes more responsibility. And there’s this, too; just suppose the great mass of men stopped thinking with their dicks and 99% of them suddenly became sensitive New Age guys eager to commit. Until most women stopped being cruel to betas and rewarding men who behave like dominating jerks with sex, nothing….nothing would change. PUA game would still work. The tragedy to which it is a minimax response would still be in motion.
I don’t have any final answers either. But, gentle reader…if you’re a beta male and not a natural, learning some PUA game might sound icky but it would sure beat masturbating to porn for the rest of your life. And if you’re female, think hard about the last guy you slept with and the last guy you friend-zoned. Maybe you owe yourself a rethink and friend-zone guy an apology, of the kind best delivered naked.