Essay/
Gender and identity

Photo by Cultura/REX/Shutterstock

Seduction, Inc

The pickup industry mates market logic with the arts of seduction – turning human intimacy into hard labour

Rachel O’Neill

Photo by Cultura/REX/Shutterstock

Rachel O’Neill

is a fellow in the department of Media and Communications at London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy (2018). She lives in London.

Published in association with
Polity Books
an Aeon Partner

Brought to you by Curio, an Aeon partner

3,300 words

Edited by Sally Davies

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Striding from the back of the conference room, the trainer calls for our attention. He asks everyone to explain why they’re here. The first student stands up: ‘I’ve come to get hands-on experience.’ After a pause, he adds: ‘Obviously, if I get laid that’s a big bonus.’ Another says he has no problem meeting women, but for some reason he never manages to date the kind he really wants. The trainer nods with recognition: ‘Settling is the worst thing you can do. Because every time you see a guy with a hotter girl, you think: “I wish I was him.”’ One of the last men to introduce himself – visibly uncomfortable, shifting in his chair – starts to explain that he’s a ‘decent guy’. The trainer interrupts him: ‘The problem is, you’re not the guy that’s going to take them home and bend them over … We need to get you to be that guy.’

On any given weekend, events such as this one in London take place in cities around the world – from New York to Tel Aviv, Stockholm to Mumbai. The attendees, largely in their 20s and 30s, receive detailed instruction in the so-called ‘art of seduction’: learning and rehearsing techniques to meet and seduce women.

Commonly known as ‘pickup’ or ‘game’, the seduction industry first took shape in the United States in the early 2000s. What began as a few online forums and meetup groups soon gave rise to commercial products and services. Some of those with a personal interest in seduction began to style themselves as professionals, offering practical training and personal development for heterosexual men who wanted greater choice and control in their intimate lives. While deploying the language of artistry – with terms such as ‘pickup artist’ (or ‘PUA’) – seduction trainers frame their activities as quasi-scientific endeavours, involving the development of hypotheses, strategic field-testing and the cultivation of expertise. Their thinking is often shaped by evolutionary psychology and management theory, particularly of the pop-sci and self-help variety, and comprises a suite of techniques that men can use to navigate their interactions with women. The basic precept is that male-female relations are subject to certain underlying principles that, once understood, can be readily manipulated.

A typical training session might include instruction in female psychology and body language, alongside lessons in mindset and motivation. Students receive detailed guidance about how to approach and ‘open’, as well as about general conversation patterns. Further direction might include techniques to sexually ‘escalate’, and strategies for dealing with resistance. With an emphasis on experiential learning, virtually all live events encompass an ‘in-field’ component where men approach women on the streets, in shops and cafés, at pubs and clubs. As well as choreographing men’s interactions with women, trainers observe and give feedback. Some use covert devices so as to watch interactions without the women’s awareness.

In short, men are taught how to walk, talk, stand, speak, think and feel. Through seduction training, all aspects of the self are made available for assessment and improvement. The aim is not simply to impart a discrete skill set, but to inculcate deeper dispositions of body and mind based on a particular conception of what it means – and what it takes – to be a man.

Unsurprisingly for an industry that promises men ‘mastery’ with women, seduction has attracted a good deal of feminist commentary and criticism. Websites such as Jezebel publish articles challenging its underlying assumptions and raising concerns about the propensity of its teachings to promote sexual harassment, coercion and violence. Prominent seduction trainers are subject to campaigns seeking to restrict the availability of their products and services, and to limit their ability to travel internationally to teach.

Feminists and others have good reasons for attacking the industry. Yet much existing commentary tends to parcel it off as anomalous – a subcultural oddity that, already contained, can be easily eliminated. In this way, those who participate in this sphere are framed as readily recognisable and uniquely deplorable – an ‘army of sleazebags, saddos and weirdos’, in the words of Hadley Freeman at The Guardian.

But this underestimates the popular resonance of seduction techniques. While it’s true that a relatively small number of men attend live training events, the sector’s reach is large. Mailing lists of some seduction-training companies (often small enterprises in terms of staff and turnover) easily reach tens of thousands of readers. Online forums attract even larger numbers of commentators and browsers. Instructional videos posted on social media can accrue hundreds of thousands of views.

Outside observers have paid scant attention to what makes seduction so compelling to so many men right now. What leads them to seek out this form of expertise? What kinds of problems are they hoping to address? What is it that they want to realise or achieve?

To be clear, I’m not saying we should avoid criticisms of seduction – far from it. But I’m wary of how the tendency to isolate the industry – to section it off as an egregious subculture – prevents us from examining what its existence and appeal might reveal about contemporary patterns of eros and eroticism, sex and intimacy, lust and love. During my extensive ethnographic fieldwork, I came to see that seduction training is far more complex and disturbing than mainstream commentary suggests. Rather than being an anomaly, the seduction sector is evidence of how neoliberalism – as an economic system and cultural rationality – embeds market logic into the most intimate dimensions of our lives.

I first met Ali at a free lecture in central London in 2013. (All participants are referred to by pseudonyms.) Such talks are a key recruitment strategy for speakers to reach potential clients. Ali was relatively new to seduction: he’d started attending in-person events about six months before, although he’d been consuming materials online for longer. He had an easy smile and an amiable disposition.

Over coffee, I asked what had drawn him to seduction. His eyebrows knitted in thought: ‘I guess it’s just an area of my life I’ve never felt like I really … handled that well. I did well academically and creatively, and I’ve always been fine socially, but when it comes to the relationship side of things … I never had much control.’

For Ali, as for many of the men I spoke with, the discovery of this system of expertise offered relief and reassurance. Later, Ali told me of the calm he now felt: ‘I’m working towards something, so … I will get better. And there’s, like, a peace knowing that, as long as I keep doing this, I will have this area of my life sorted.’

Seduction training disrupts the notion that being ‘good with women’ is a matter of luck or inheritance – that some just have it, while others never will. Instead, the industry frames sexual ‘success’ as something that any man can obtain. It offers agency and empowerment in place of uncertainty and anxiety.

Those who participate are encouraged to cultivate a sexual work ethic – to actively labour on and transform themselves in line with the dictates of seduction. Ali’s calm came from working to improve himself and become more skilled with women. In this way, the industry taps into the meritocratic ethos that suffuses contemporary society and culture, insisting that anything can be achieved with the right combination of grit and determination.

‘It kind of gives power back to those who are not the biggest, strongest, most athletic,’ said Adam, a trainer with many years’ experience. ‘It’s a set of skills that can actually be learnt by different people, which makes it quite accessible to all.’

Within a neoliberal context, the logic of competitive individualism has come to dominate spheres such as education and employment. Framing attraction as a skill that can be acquired, the industry channels this logic into the private realm. Men are told that they can achieve the kind of sexual encounters and intimate relationships they aspire to, provided they are willing to put in the necessary time, energy and, crucially, money.

It’s often assumed that men who seek out seduction training lack sexual experience. However, the relationship histories of the men I interviewed varied widely. Some told stories of one-night stands and casual affairs, of no-strings-attached or friends-with-benefits arrangements. Others spoke of live-in girlfriends and long-distance partnerships, or marriages followed by separation and divorce. What they all had in common, however, was that they were uniformly dissatisfied with their intimate lives.

The very architecture of desire is being remade by the dictates of consumer culture

This unhappiness points towards a broader trend, in which intimacy and sexuality have become sites of persistent forms of discontent. In Why Love Hurts (2012), the sociologist Eva Illouz demonstrates how romantic disappointment – generally perceived as a uniquely personal experience – is culturally patterned and commercially managed. Illouz argues that ‘culturally induced desires … create ordinary forms of suffering, such as chronic dissatisfaction, disappointment, and perpetual longing’. Her insight suggests that, in order to understand what brings men to seduction, we need to consider what’s feeding their disappointment at a cultural level.

Listening to men talk about what they wanted from relationships, what was most striking was the relentlessly aspirational ethos. Past partners were routinely held up and found wanting, often on aesthetic grounds, while many men enumerated detailed physical criteria to which women should adhere.

Danny, another trainer, crisply articulated this preoccupation with attaining a higher ‘calibre’ of sexual partner: ‘The reason why a lot of guys want to do game is so that they can attract higher-value women. So they might be dating, say, fives and sixes, and they actually want to have a girl who’s a 10 in terms of looks.’ The market mentality underpinning this situation was not lost on Danny, who acknowledged: ‘It’s an exchange of values – “What can I get for what I’m offering?” It becomes very economical.’

In societies in thrall to market metrics, in which women’s bodies are constantly held up to sexual scrutiny, it’s both lamentable and predictable that a philosophy of value-exchange should pervade how heterosexual men relate to their intimate partners. The desire to access ‘high-value’ women shows how the architecture of desire is being remade by consumer culture. As in so many other aspects of life, the ‘upgrade’ logic has taken hold.

Over the years, techniques originating in the seduction industry have gained wider social purchase. The most well known also tend to be the most gimmicky, as with ‘peacocking’ (dressing ostentatiously to attract attention) and ‘negging’ (making backhanded compliments). Yet, on the whole, seduction is a more sophisticated enterprise than these examples suggest – and all the more insidious for it.

Sublimated in all seduction practices are the unwritten ‘feeling rules’ of heterosexuality – a phrase first used by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in The Managed Heart (1983) to delineate the social norms that shape how people try to feel (or not feel) in a given situation. Hochschild uses the example of the bride on her wedding day, who – knowing it is supposed to be the happiest day of her life – tries to feel happy. But precipitating the moment of marriage are the myriad socially regulated and culturally enforced norms about how a woman should feel when given a compliment, how she ought to respond when told she is desirable.

Seduction methods tap into these emotional patterns. One popular model known as ‘daygame’ exhorts users to harness the power of heterosexual ideals of romance, specifically romantic comedy films – a genre overwhelmingly aimed at and consumed by women. The website explains: ‘Once you learn how to strike up a conversation with a beautiful woman during the day, you’ll play into her fantasy of randomly meeting the guy of her dreams just like in the movies. She’ll believe that YOU are the guy of her dreams.’ What matters, of course, is not whether men really are ‘the guy of her dreams’, but rather than they can seem like they are – at least temporarily.

Mutuality and reciprocity are beside the point; sex is reduced to a series of technical feats

Tom Torero, a noted proponent of this method, gives further details in his self-published book Daygame (2012) – the ‘incredible story of Tom’s journey from Oxford nerd to top street seducer’, according to his website. Torero approaches women using the same basic opening line, continuously adapted so as to appear unique. Dates, too, are conducted according to a predefined script as Torero goes to a set venue, where he tells the same stories, makes the same jokes, asks the same questions. Later, he invites women home by suggesting they watch a film, having compiled a ‘girl-friendly’ DVD collection for just this purpose. He then proceeds to ‘escalate’; any objections are met with the ‘tried and tested “I know, it’s okay, I understand”.’ Finally, he deploys the ‘Torero signature move’: ‘getting my dick out’.

These interactions are not devoid of emotion. Rather, emotion is deployed tactically as a means to an end. As a mode of sexual conduct, seduction centres on the instrumentalisation of feeling. Significant effort goes into affecting attraction, orchestrating desire, engineering intimacy, conjuring trust. Mutuality and reciprocity are beside the point, as sex is reduced to a series of technical feats. Eroticism becomes little more than a matter of impression management.

Given the formulaic and repetitive character of seduction techniques, it’s unsurprising that practitioners often report a kind of listlessness – which in turn fuels ever more extravagant sexual exploits. Towards the end of the book, Torero recounts:

It had been a crazy week – on Saturday I’d fucked the older Slovak in the care home, on Sunday I fucked the English nanny in the afternoon and that night I’d fuck the Romanian, and was about to fuck my regular Slovak girl. Four girls in three days – I was getting bored of sex.

Here the dehumanising effects of seduction are thrown into sharp relief. Yet plenty of men stand ready to follow in the footsteps of these ‘role models’. ‘You see the guys that are good at it, like the finished products, and you want to be that,’ said James, recently divorced. In books and blogs, seduction trainers document their transformation: from a past in which they were supposedly lonely and unpopular, to a present in which they enjoy near-constant access to beautiful women, plus an enviable lifestyle of world travel, financial independence and male camaraderie.

Inevitably, not all those who use seduction methods actually find the relationships they’re looking for. Many men I interviewed freely admitted that ‘success with women’ continued to elude them, even after months or years of training. Yet when they failed to master the ‘art of seduction’, these men almost always framed it as a personal failing – a testament to the depth of their own deficiency, or evidence that they were simply not trying hard enough.

The tendency to blame oneself persisted even when seduction techniques had resolutely negative consequences. Anwar, a business-owner, described how a weekend training programme had brought about the demise of a much-valued relationship. ‘She just said I’d changed, and that she didn’t know me anymore,’ he said, blinking in an effort to hold back the tears. His coffee had long gone cold on the table between us. ‘I have really deep feelings on this, in the sense that… she was the reason I took the course, because I wanted her. She was the only thing I really cared about.’

How did this make him feel about seduction? ‘I’m mad and angry,’ Anwar said. ‘But not at pickup, I’m angry at me. Because it’s my fault… It’s a bit like you give me a set of tools and, if I didn’t know how to use those tools properly, I’m going to make a mistake.’

Anwar thus remained attached to the promise that, properly administered, seduction skills could furnish his desires. When we last spoke, he was browsing the prospectus for a residential course: ‘It isn’t cheap, but … I’d love to do it, and I’d love to get better at it.’

Anwar’s insistence on blaming himself might seem illogical. Yet it’s only by locating the fault within that he can sustain the fantasy that seduction will, eventually and effortfully, enable him to attain the relationship he desires. His engagement with seduction is a form of what the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant described in Cruel Optimism (2011), when something we desire becomes an obstacle to our flourishing.

For some men, seduction can become a consuming, even compulsive, pursuit. Derek had been a client of the industry for more than a year when I met him, and had spent several thousand pounds on training courses. As we were waiting to buy coffee before our interview, I observed him talking to the woman behind the counter. His whole persona transformed, as he became suddenly playful and teasing. Later, he explained that he’d brought a different woman here every day this week, and wanted to be sure that the attractive barista took notice.

It might be called ‘game’, but it’s a form of labour that requires ongoing investment, often at considerable cost 

Sitting down at a window table, Derek told me how seduction had changed his life for the better. It freed him from the boredom and indignity of the ‘arrangement’ he’d struck up with a friend’s ex while at university, he said. He declared himself finally confident with women, and described the sense of freedom this gave him. But his tone shifted as he recalled the events of the previous evening: ‘I was out last night, and I’m just walking around the streets at 11 o’clock at night, on my own, and I’m just like: “What the fuck am I doing out here?” … It started out with some real motivation, desire to be good at this, but now it’s almost fear of losing this ability.’

Derek’s attempts to seduce women had become entirely dissociated from any kind of embodied desire for sex or intimacy. In this, he exhibited symptoms of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism (2009) terms ‘depressive hedonia’. Where depression is typically characterised by anhedonia, an inability to experience pleasure, depressive hedonia denotes ‘an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure’. As an affective and somatic condition, it exemplifies the profound insecurity that neoliberalism fosters at the level of subjectivity itself.

For Derek, the need to maintain the skills he’d worked so hard to develop has become an end in itself. This industry’s promise of control is itself seductive for many men – such that they find themselves continuing to invest even when the system does not serve their needs and interests. It might be referred to as ‘game’, but clearly seduction is not a recreational pastime or entertaining diversion. It’s a form of labour that requires ongoing investment, often at considerable cost. The pursuit of sex and sexual relationships becomes a form of work: the work of seduction.

By promoting an entrepreneurial solution to the problem of finding and forging intimate relationships, the seduction industry shows up some of the most dubious tendencies of neoliberal culture. Individual self-work is prescribed as the solution for problems that are culturally and socially shaped. Labour-intensive and profit-orientated modes of socialising end up eclipsing other forms of being and relating. Ethical concerns are cast aside in favour of personal promotion and unencumbered self-interest.

While seduction training is often framed as a deviant subculture, the men involved are entirely ordinary. If their desires and discontents strike us as strange or pathetic, perhaps we should look more closely at the context in which they have been formed. To ask what makes seduction so compelling for those drawn into its folds is not to dispense with critique; rather, it is to insist on the necessity of posing difficult questions and having uncomfortable conversations.

In the meantime, seduction continues to attract adherents. As one trainer told me, simply: ‘It’s an industry that feeds itself.’

Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy by Rachel O’Neill is published via Polity Books.

Rachel O’Neill

is a fellow in the department of Media and Communications at London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy (2018). She lives in London.

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