Pickup Artistry: an Exploration of Hypersexuality and Toxic Masculinity
by Jamie Achtmeyer
“Don’t lean in”, a desperate warning to all men posted under a picture of a man and a woman with green lines drawn over them (Rivelino). The woman’s line is straight up and down, while the man leans toward her. The post has over four thousand likes and nearly one thousand retweets. It was made by the Twitter user Rivelino, a 40-year-old divorcee dedicated to helping men achieve the woman of their dreams. He tweets these reminders almost daily. Leaning in is his trademark. He states that if men lean towards women, they “subconsciously believe that she is more important than him” (Rivelino). The women can subconsciously recognize this and will leave the weak men that lean toward them. The solution? To always stand up straight, to never lean towards anyone, as that is “falling into their frame”. Rivelino and his ideology, however, are not particularly unique. He comes from a community of “pickup artists” or PUAs; a fringe ideology based entirely around figuring out the best and most efficient ways to sleep with women. Many men pay thousands of dollars for workshops, buy dozens of books, and visit one of the many forums based on discussing these ideas. So how can this strange, recluse community tell us anything about how regular everyday people interact with masculinity? Harmful ideas of masculinity are extremely ingrained in our society, they can be hard to isolate and identify. Having an extreme example can help to see the harmful hypermasculinity we see and perpetuate in our everyday lives. Although there are many resources on pickup artistry, the primary focus of this paper is Neil Straus’ The Game, a foundational text of pickup artistry that is a core part of nearly every pickup artist’s curriculum, despite coming out over a decade ago. Exploring pickup artistry, an extreme example of hypermasculinity can help to illustrate how these tropes and practices are carried out more subtly in everyday life and how these practices can cause harm to both men and women.
The core element that holds pickup artistry together is a desire for sex. Some men spend hundreds of hours reading over various books and forums to gain the ‘secrets’ to being able to sleep with women. The Game is a book entirely dedicated to the pursuit of sex, Straus dedicates a significant portion of the book to the first sexual experiences of the men who follow his ideology. This description, however, is unexpected. One man describes his feelings after his first sexual experience as feeling “dirty and used” (Strauss 73). He goes on to describe how he can use this feeling to have sex with more women, despite his apparent aversion to it. In another instance, the author of The Game starts to have feelings for a woman he is pursuing, and she expresses that she wishes to wait to have sex with Strauss. When expressing his feelings about her wishes, he tells his friends that he “just wanted to get the whole sex thing over with so we could be normal together” (Straus 380). Sex is not framed as an enjoyable activity, but instead as an obstacle to normality. In framing sexual and romantic relationships this way, it is implied that normal and healthy relationships must have immediate sexual contact. It is not something to be done within a relationship, but rather something to get over with. In this framing, women become simply a means to gain sexual experience.
This view of women is further enforced throughout The Game. Women are reduced to their merits and flaws. Women are described as “Ferret faced”, “Dumpy”, “mediocre”, and “shrill” (Strauss). Yet paragraphs after these descriptors are used, the men in The Game describe having sex with these same women that were shrill only sentences ago. The traditional reasons many people have sex are removed from the sexual world of The Game, sex is not viewed as enjoyable, nor are the women with whom sexual contact is made. Yet the men in The Game go to seemingly extreme lengths to attain this sexual contact. Stories of leaving school, jobs, homes, or past girlfriends to pursue pickup artistry are not uncommon within this book. Sex within the pickup artist ideology seems to be less about the pleasure that comes with sex and more about the validation that comes with this sex. Sex is used as proof, both to the pickup artists and to others, that they are adequately masculine.
“A woman becomes emotionally invested in a man that she has sex with and is physically intimate with” (@speakwomanese, 2022). In this tweet from the pickup artist account @SpeakWomanese, the writer explains that when a woman becomes sexually intimate with a man, she becomes emotionally invested in him. Before the point of sexual contact, @speakwomanese explains that women are evaluating men for their value, particularly concerning money. Yet after sexual contact, women become emotional, lose their rationality, and thus they lose power in the relationship. Patriarchy is loosely defined as a system of “male domination and the power relationships by which men dominate women” (Beechey 66). In patriarchy, women are seen as submissive to the dominant man. The ideals of patriarchy can be seen within the @speakwomanese Twitter account. Within the worldview of the pickup artist, women have control over sex. Twitter user Rivelino expands on this idea stating that “If she controls the sex, she controls the relationship” (Rivelino 2020). Under patriarchy, women’s sexual desire is seen as something negative and unnatural, a woman is either “either good and chaste or as bad and promiscuous.” (Kahalon 1). Women, at least those who are labeled ‘good’ are seen as completely uninterested in sex. Men, on the other hand, are seen as hypersexual by nature. This hypersexuality can be used as proof of masculine identity or it can become an emotional weakness that can be exploited. “When a man thinks with his dick, he becomes gullible; his lust turns his brain to mush and he becomes easy to manipulate.” (@speakwomanese 2022). Emotions under patriarchy are feminine and thus are a weakness. Excessive interest in sex from men in the pickup artist community is seen as being overly emotional, and thus subject to manipulation. In having sex with women and making them “emotionally attached” to a man, women are reinstated as emotional and easy to control. Sex becomes a way for men to regain control lost in the emotions of hypersexuality, thus demonstrating a man’s strength over a woman.
Frequent sex with women is also used as proof of a man’s attraction to women. Often, when men don’t frequently have sex with women they are accused of being gay, putting them in the worst position one can be as a man under the patriarchy: “feminine” (Bailey). By demonstrating and telling other men about their sexual experience, a man can prove and secure his place as a man, even if the security is only temporary.
In The Game, Strauss describes himself before discovering pickup artistry as having a “… large, bumpy nose, small, beady eyes, glasses, balding head, and, worst of all, painful shyness around women..” (Strauss 20). The other men featured in The Game describe the same phenomenon, before pickup artistry, they are “nerdy”, live with their parents, or live online rather than in real life. Their access to traditional masculinity is limited, they are not traditionally attractive, strong, or rich. Strauss sums up this feeling by stating that before pickup artistry he was “half a man” (Strauss 20). Because of his lack of access to traditional manhood, he denies himself the label of being a man altogether. This fragility of gender identity is fairly unique to men. When women fail to uphold femininity, there is no significantly lower status that they can fall to below being a woman, because they are already viewed as feminine. Under patriarchy, this is a status of weakness. When men fail to uphold masculinity, that status can be revoked, causing them to be viewed as feminine. They can lose their status in ways that women cannot. This “fragile masculinity can motivate compensatory attitudes/behaviors meant to restore the threatened status of ‘real’ manhood” (DiMuccio 25). Pick up artists turn to sexual encounters with women to reinstate their roles as men, and thus their power. It gives them an avenue both to increase their interactions with women, as well as a socially acceptable place to brag about sexual encounters, thus proving their masculinities to others in the community.
These communities are typically homosocial, meaning that they consist only of men, presenting a unique need to prove masculinity. In a passage about the fragility of masculinity, Kimmel argues that “Masculinity is relational, performed before the evaluative eyes of others. More than that, it’s homosocial; those evaluative eyes are men’s” (Kimmel 161). Because women’s opinions are not valued in pickup artistry, men turn to other men to validate or invalidate their masculinity, creating an environment where sex, something seemingly about men’s relationships with women, becomes more about men’s relationships with each other. PUA communities are made up almost entirely of men, creating an even greater need to prove and maintain a status of masculinity. “With no women around, men have to work particularly hard to maintain their status in the gender hierarchy” (Bailey 301). Because of the lack of women, these men don’t have a platform on which to establish their place at the top of the gender hierarchy, so they turn to stories about the ways they maintain traditional gender hierarchies through sex with women.
The dependence on other men to confirm their masculinities as valid combined with the fragility of their masculinities leads to an environment where men must constantly prove themselves to each other. In her essay Sex in a Masculinities World: Gender, Undesired Sex, and Rape, Kimberly Bailey argues “it is impossible to perfectly perform the ideal masculine identity all of the time… a man’s masculine identity is constantly under threat; he must continuously work to try to maintain his place within the masculine hierarchy” (Bailey 299). Because of this instability, men must constantly fight to prove themselves as “manly”, leading to an unstable and unreliable view of their masculinity. This is particularly true in the pickup artist community, where every move is analyzed to create optimal masculinity. Gender is a core tenet of most people’s identities; however, pickup artists cannot depend on this identifier because it can be revoked at any time. They must continually prove themselves as “adequately masculine” or risk losing their masculinity. Because of this, they put a lot of pressure on outside identifiers of masculinity, such as traditional gender roles. This creates a cycle that is very common in pickup artist media, where men will not only act hypermasculine in an attempt to erase their emasculine pasts but also to combat the feeling of being threatened by other, “more masculine”, men.
In Pickup Artistry, there is a concept known as the ‘alpha male’. This is a man who seemingly fits perfectly into masculine standards; he is tall, strong, and does not express emotions other than anger. He poses a threat to the pickup artists because he is “more masculine”, and thus gets to sleep with more women. Alpha male is used not only as a noun but as a verb, often in the context of what the ‘alpha male’ is doing to the PUA. For example, “That guy is AMOGing (Alpha male of the group) me” (Strauss 440). Being an alpha male is not seen as an inherent characteristic, but rather something that is done, often at the expense of the pickup artist. At one point, Strauss has a chance to interview Tom Cruise for an unrelated article. He explains after each dialog with him how Cruise was “AMOG-ing” him (Strauss 440), meaning he is consciously demonstrating that he is an ‘alpha male’ and thus better than Strauss. This analysis of Cruise’s every move assumes manipulation of power dynamics where most would see none. Men who achieve the masculine ideal are seen only as threats. Any friendship or comradery is replaced by this competition.
Pickup artists have an extensive body of work dedicated to “out-masculating” the alpha male, often based around displaying typically masculine behaviors to emasculate the alpha male. “To Amog means to put down another male, to lower their value without them particularly noticing to the extent where they get extremely angry/upset” (Lynch). These behaviors are consistent with recent research around masculinity that found “adopting masculine traits and behaviors is a strategy by which fragile men attempt to gain, maintain, and reclaim ‘real’ manhood.” (DiMuccio 26). By escalating their performances of masculinity, the pickup artists can combat the feeling of shame that comes with the feeling that they do not meet the standards for men. This escalation of masculinity often means engaging “in traditionally masculine gender scripts—disavowing femininity and gayness, striving for dominance and success, showing toughness, taking risks, and being aggressive.” (DiMuccio 26). Emotion within the world of pickup artistry is viewed as a scientific phenomenon. Emotions are only expected from women, and displaying them revokes men’s status as a man and places them in the realm of femininity. Pickup artists combat this in two ways: rationalizing their feelings and dehumanizing women. They often employ scientific words to make their methods seem objective and fact-based, rather than subjective and emotional. Pseudoscientific language is also used to combat any emotions that surround women or sex. One pickup artist defines the feeling of love as “pair-bonding”. He believes that the only purpose of pair-bonding is for reproduction and survival. The vulnerabilities around sex and love are minimized, and all emotion is blamed on evolution. The paradoxes between upholding traditional masculinity and experiencing love are ignored. Those feelings are assigned solely to science. When Mystery, the pickup artist at the forefront of The Game, is dumped by his girlfriend. He, understandably, starts crying uncontrollably. He tells his friends that it is a ‘chemical reaction’ due to the loss of a potential mate that’s making him cry rather than his feelings. Any attempt to get him to talk about his feelings is met with a “long-winded explanation of how his emotions and actions were evolutionarily justified” (Strauss 405). By passing on his feelings to evolution, he distances himself from emotions and vulnerability becoming rational and thus masculine again.
This view of biology is expanded on throughout The Game. According to Mystery, interactions between men and women are entirely dictated by biology. Women are biologically programmed to reproduce and thus have sex with men to achieve that goal. Women are biologically programmed to look for a mate who has an equal or higher value than her, so the goal of pickup artistry is to exploit this system and prove that the pickup artist has a higher value than the woman he is trying to sleep with. This can be done either by raising one’s value through displays of masculinity or by lowering the woman’s value. This can be done in several ways. Negging, a word for the technique of using insults that come off as accidental with the clear goal of lowering a woman’s self-esteem, is one of the most common ways in which pickup artists do this. Negging can also be achieved by ignoring her in favor of her friend or humiliating the woman in front of her friends. Straus suggests using phrases like ‘you have man hands’, ‘your teeth are crooked when you smile’ or ‘I like that skirt, I saw another girl wearing it a few minutes ago’ (Strauss 37) to ‘neg’ a woman. By lowering a woman’s self-esteem, the pickup artist raises his own perceived value in comparison to the woman’s perceived value of herself. Metaphors of evolution and biology are also invoked. Strauss uses phrases like “She was my prey” or “I am a wolf and this doe separated from the herd was mine” (Strauss 53) to describe the feeling of pursuing a woman. These phrases imply that these men have no control over their actions; they are simply doing what is natural. Instead of seeing these actions as potentially harmful, pickup artists see them as evolutionarily necessary.
This pseudoscientific approach does not end when pickup artists enter a relationship. The two-thirds rule was created as a way to formulate a perfect relationship. The rule states that the pickup artist should give their romantic partner two-thirds of the attention, love, and affection that the partner gives them. In doing this, relationships become a formula, just like picking up women. If they enter the right amount of attention and maintain a higher “value” than her, then the relationship cannot fail. It becomes a fact of basic biology. The ‘female brain’ is turned into an object, a concept that can be analyzed and manipulated if the right formula is put in.
“A woman’s verbal communication is what she wants you to believe and it’s within her conscious realm of control.” (@speakwomanese, 2022). In this tweet, the Twitter account @speakwomanese expresses the idea that women are inherently manipulative. All verbal communication is simply what a woman wants someone to believe. It is implied that this communication is not informed by truth or true emotion. Because of this view of women as inherently emotional, pickup artists decide that the only way to stand a chance with women is to lie and manipulate back. Pseudoscience is used to explain away a woman’s emotions as well as her boundaries. When a woman is rude to these men or withdraw consent after sexual activity has started it is due to something called the “anti slut defense.” (Strauss 440), or the idea that the reason women say no to men is that they don’t want to be viewed as a slut. In using this language, boundaries turn into a scientific phenomenon that must be overcome.
Another concept that is often used is called “going caveman.” It is based on the idea of “giving into primal instincts.” Effectively it means to disregard women’s consent completely and quickly escalate sexual activity through aggressive action (Strauss 440). Women must be conquered through sex and it is a man’s job to do that. In applying this language to attraction to women, harmful action is not only justified but necessitated. If these coercions and power imbalances do not occur, then the man has not kept his place as “adequately masculine.” He has failed to be a man in the right way. He has failed to uphold “nature.”
In a study of threatened masculinity and shame responses in heterosexual males from the journal of Psychology of Men & Masculinity, the research found “that if men struggle to meet masculine gender role expectations, they are likely to report distress” (Gebhard 429). This distress often manifests as shame around failure to act ‘like a man. To correct the failure in masculinity, men often turn to displays of hypermasculinity. In turn, the shame response enforces the process of turning to hypermasculine actions when men feel threatened, escalating the expectation of masculinity and causing other men to feel emasculine, thus leading them to repeat the cycle. A clear connection was also found “between threatened-masculinity shame-related responses and self-reports of a tendency to be physically aggressive” (Gebhard 429). Being physically aggressive is a show of strength. If a man can prove that he is strong, he can prove that he is a “real man”. In addition to being a show of strength, it is a demonstration of his control over others, particularly over women.
These acts of control do not have to be explicit to be effective. Bailey explains that violence is seen as representative of the lower class and “counterproductive to elite success. . .Thus, those men who dominate the hegemonic masculine hierarchy sometimes perform their masculinity in ways that appear nonviolent and respectful of women and their autonomy.” (Bailey 300). The ways that some men, particularly those who are white and upper class, perform this violence are not explicit, but are nonetheless violent and controlling, often manifesting in gaslighting romantic partners, coercing women into sex, or pushing past set boundaries. Pickup artists often claim to be better for women than ‘bad boys’ or other hypermasculine stereotypes, yet they perpetuate the same harms. Emotional abuse tactics are employed to get women to sleep with them. Pickup artists use many techniques where the goal is to elicit “equal parts fear and arousal” (Strauss 53) from women. One of the most popular of these is called ‘icing out’. When a woman expresses control over sex, either by asking to stop or slow down, the man will stop everything, turn the lights on, and check his email until she agrees to do what he wants (Strauss 440). This emotional abuse and need for control manifest in many other ways as well. Often, women are referred to by a number rating their attractiveness and indicating their hair color, for example ‘blonde 9’. One pickup artist suggests reading a dog training manual to help understand women. Another breaks up with his girlfriend of 4 years because she could not be ‘convinced’ to be a bisexual. All of these actions had the intent of expressing control over women, yet more explicit ways of controlling women, like explicit violence, are condemned entirely. Because they are not explicitly violent they are ‘one of the good men’. They are not capable of harm because the way that they harm women does not fit into their narrow view of violence and control. The Game opens with the story of the author sleeping with a woman who froze up after he started to kiss her, but he keeps going. He later tells his friend that he was “surprised by her quiet compliance” (Strauss 11). The woman’s pleasure is pushed to the side, she is seen as simply a means for sex.
With the rise of feminism and sexual liberation, women have been given more control and autonomy over themselves and their bodies (Strauss 53). Because of this newfound control, women gain more power despite still being in a patriarchal society. This leaves men, especially white men, in positions of power, but less so than they would have in a strictly traditional patriarchal society. In his book Healing from Hate, Kimmel describes the ways that white men specifically feel entitled to power over others. “He feels powerless, yes, but he still thinks he’s entitled to power—as a white American man—by a combination of historical legacy, religious fiat, biological destiny, and moral legitimacy” (Kimmel 140). Because most men in the pickup artist community are white, this attitude of entitlement to power is very prevalent, particularly in their attitudes towards women. They have been promised success by society because of their places as white men, and this success involves access to women and their bodies.
In The Game, Stauss states that “As anyone who regularly reads newspapers or true crime books knows, a significant percentage of violent crime, from kidnappings to shooting sprees, is the result of the frustrated sexual impulses and desires of males. By socializing guys [who are socially awkward] Mystery and I were making the world a safer place” (Strauss 387). Often the men who commit these acts of violence are on the fringes of traditional masculinity, but they have been told from birth they are entitled to women’s bodies and sexualities, much like many men in the pickup artist community. Because of this promise of power and a perceived loss of masculinity, many pickup artists turn to the same control and violence that Strauss refers to in order to reclaim what was promised to them due to their place in society. The solution to this violence that Strauss proposes is to turn to more subtle ways of expressing control.
Although pickup artists do not explicitly encourage sexual assault or threats of violence, the ideology still encourages both of these things. It endorses the dismissal of women’s emotions and boundaries, often leading to assault or emotional abuse. Pickup artists self-police their actions, only allowing those within their community to perform tasks viewed as adequately masculine or risk expulsion from the community. This toxic view of masculinity is self-enforced and spread throughout their community, creating a cycle that is doomed to create the next generation of men who need to overperform masculinity. 10 years after the release of The Game, Strauss released The Truth. The book details the “moral dimensions of his pickup lifestyle”. (Goodreads, 2022). He explores the consequences that the dehumanization of both men and women had on his self-image. Although the pickup artist community claims to help a man meet all of the expectations of masculinity; dominance over other men, sleeping with lots of women, and the removal of emotions from love and sex, it has disastrous consequences for the members of the pickup artist community. Pickup artist forces us to ask what the achievement of traditional masculinity really looks like, and what the consequences of that masculinity can be.
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Speak Womanese 101: Learn Women’s Secret Language. (2022, April 22). “a woman becomes emotionally invested in a man that she has sex with and is physically intimate with – unless she is a prostitute and has learned to detach herself.” – get womanese 101 https://t.co/w4bmh8ucif. Twitter. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://twitter.com/speakwomanese/status/1517594821388431360
Speak Womanese 101: Learn Women’s Secret Language. (2022, April 18). If you notice a hotspot ,or, a contradiction between her verbal communication versus her non-verbal communication, then trust the latter. A woman’s verbal communication is what she wants you to believe and it’s within her conscious realm of control (manipulatable). Twitter. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://twitter.com/speakwomanese/status/1516143810077597699
Speak Womanese 101: Learn Women’s Secret Language. (2022, March 7). When a man thinks with his dick, he becomes gullible; his lust turns his brain to Mush and he becomes easy to manipulate. to be a player, you have to always be alert and sharp. don’t let your lust for sex cloud your logical thinking and observation skills. Twitter. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://twitter.com/speakwomanese/status/1500922960386748417
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Rivelino [@alpharivelino] (2020, Nov 20) “36-Sex Starts with a blowjob 37-Licking Her Pussy Is like Buying Her FLOWERS 38-If She Controls the Sex, She Controls the relationship 39-the Way She Feels about Your Cum Is the Way She Feels about you 40-Don’t Fall in Love with an Impatient Woman, No Matter How Big Her Tits.” Twitter, Retrieved April 26, 2022 https://twitter.com/alpharivelino/status/1329855044649447424.
Rivelino, [@alpharivelino] (2020, May 2). Don’t lean in, strong man! pic.twitter.com/hwm8lr3rz5. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://twitter.com/alpharivelino/status/1256697210936463362
Rivelino [@alpharivelino]. (2020, December 10). They are now divorced when you believe your girl is more important than you, you lean in to her subconsciously. by leaning in, you inadvertently reveal your feelings of inferiority. women find this very unattractive. so don’t do it. stand up straight, gentlemen. don’t lean in! pic.twitter.com/rvg9bmacxa. Twitter. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://twitter.com/alpharivelino/status/1336851849337593862
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Jamie Achtmeyer is a sophomore nursing student at the University of San Francisco. They are passionate about understanding the ways that niche subcultures can reflect dynamics of homophobia, racism, and misogyny. In their free time, Jamie enjoys reading, playing soccer, and drinking tea. Jamie plans to pursue a job in trans healthcare after their graduation in 2024.