Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Interview with Pickup Artist Chaser Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn on her experiences chasing "pickup artists".

I'm fascinated by subcultures. Last year, while I was doing research for an article about narcissists ("How to Spot a Narcissist"), I got a chance to witness a particularly fascinating subculture-- the world of "pickup artists". I attended a weekend long summit, where a variety of "coaches" gave their advice to a group of "frustrated" guys on how to approach and attract women. While there was definitely some sexist advice, many of the coaches actually made some pretty insightful observations about social interactions, consistent with the latest research in social and evolutionary psychology.

One night, I went out with them after a day of talks and watched their training in action. Each coach worked with a few "students", and throughout the night they encouraged their students (sometimes quite forcefully, I'd say) to approach women and then they gave their students feedback on their interactions. They even put an earpiece on some guys and told them what to say in the moment to help them ease their anxiety. It was truly fascinating, if not sometimes just plain surreal to watch. While I could see some of the guys become less anxious about approaching women by the end of the night, I'd say for many of them, their main issue appeared to be social anxiety in general, not specifically with women. But still, this sort of encouragement from other guys seemed to help them with their general social anxiety talking to strangers.

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Looks like I'm not the only one intrigued by this subculture. In his bestselling 2005 book, The Game, rock journalist Neil Strauss wrote about his experiences with the pickup artist community. More recently, feminist S & M writer Clarisse Thorn entered their world and wrote about her experiences in her book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser (available for Amazon Kindle as well as every other ebook format at Smashwords; you can also buy the paperback at CreateSpace).

I found her book to be insightful, thoughtful, engaging, and very well-balanced. She talks about all sides of the community, the positive, negative, and horrendous, and she draws larger lessons about society and human nature. These topics are relevant to Clarisse's work, as she has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to universities and museums across the USA, and her writings have appeared all over the internet, from The Guardian to Jezebel. She blogs about feminism and sexuality at clarissethorn.com, and she tweets @clarissethorn. Her new collection The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn is now available for Kindle, for Smashwords, and in paperback.

Clarisse was cool enough to answer some of my questions.

SCOTT: On your website you identify yourself as a “feminist, pro-BDSM sex-positive activist”. There’s a lot to unpack there. How do you define each of those elements (feminist, pro-BDSM, sex-positive activist)?

CLARISSE: I like to use bell hooks' definition of feminism, which is "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." But feminism is a diverse movement with many different strands. Sex-positive feminism arose from a desire to talk about sexuality in a positive way, and to honor consensual sexual expression, while acknowledging feminist critiques. As a sex-positive activist, I try to raise awareness of how sexuality can be wonderful and different for different people; I also try to help people understand themselves, and to help them make choices that avoid sex that's not good for them.

BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym that stands for Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadism and Masochism. It's sometimes referred to as S&M, B&D, leather, or fetish. I personally feel S&M deeply as part of my sexual identity, so I write a lot about S&M. In particular, I write frequently about the intersections of S&M theory and feminist theory.

SCOTT: What is a pickup artist (PUA)?

CLARISSE: The pickup artist subculture is an incredible amalgam of online discussions plus books plus conventions plus instructors selling personalized "coaching" plus competing "schools" of seduction. The overall goal is to help men sleep with women, but in practice, there's a lot of general self-help and relationship advice too. I'm obviously fascinated by gender issues, sexuality, and masculinity; PUAs are a weird intersection of those three topics.

SCOTT: What kinds of guys seek out PUA advice?

CLARISSE: In my book I offer a "Taxonomy of Pickup Artists," in which I boil down a few different motivations for why guys get into the subculture, and offer six "types" of PUAs. (I might make trading cards, too!) Some guys are so shy, anxious, or socially inept that they legitimately don't know how to approach women. Others are hedonists who just want to have fun; still others are misogynist predators who enjoy finding ways to take advantage of women. A few PUAs are analytical people like myself, who obsessively seek to understand sex and gender and human interaction. And some are in it because they see an opportunity for profit.

Personally, I relate best to the guys who look into pickup artistry because they're socially inept or obsessively analytical, because I am both of those things. I'm kind of awkward, and I never stop thinking about culture and social norms. I met some guys in the subculture who I now count as my friends.

SCOTT: Do you like the phrase “average frustrated chump”? Personally, I think it’s bullying when PUAs use that phrase to describe socially awkward people who may have approach anxiety. To me, it comes across as a way for “master” PUAs to distance themselves from their former selves. What do you think?

CLARISSE: A lot of PUAs feel the need to look down on men who aren't in the community, or who don't get laid much. I'm sure it's partly to convince themselves that they've learned something of value from pickup artistry, but it's probably also a classic response to bullying: they've been bullied themselves, so they buy into the hierarchy that hurt them because they can't let go of their pain. They have to justify their own hurt feelings, and they have to believe that they were bullied for a reason.

SCOTT: Do you think some women are more susceptible to PUA tactics than others?

CLARISSE: There are so many "PUA tactics" that this is impossible to answer. Which tactics do you mean? Also: what counts as a "tactic," and what counts as a framework or a way of thinking? PUAs talk a lot about developing good social "calibration" -- in other words, they want to learn how to read social situations without any verbal questions. Is "calibration" a tactic, or is it a framework?

On the other hand, I'd say that a specific memorized pickup line definitely counts as a tactic. Yet pickup lines depend so much on delivery and calibration that many experienced PUAs eschew memorized lines entirely.

I do think that most PUA frameworks are designed for certain subcultures that are very status-based and appearance-based, like nightclubs. Mystery, a famous PUA who established a lot of the current subculture's approaches, developed his Mystery Method based on experience in the mainstream clubs of Los Angeles -- and it shows. I suspect that Mystery can pick up girls wherever he goes, but I think that a dude who only ever picks up girls in mainstream LA nightclubs might have some trouble shifting gears if he tries to pick up an introverted PhD student at a World of Warcraft convention. That said, I do think that many basic principles of "the game" are generally valid, and a smart charismatic dude from LA will figure out how to work the WoW convention pretty fast.

To me, the more important question is how you frame these things. You can choose to believe that many "game" ideas are valuable because women are stupid self-centered gold-diggers...or you can see them as valuable because people in general, including men, respond to certain social dynamics.

                                                      PUA Techniques

SCOTT: What is strategic ambiguity?

CLARISSE: "Strategic ambiguity" is a phrase that I devised to describe the contrast, challenge, unpredictability, and novelty that can make romance more exciting. Some couples seek ambiguity by doing novel and challenging things together, like playing difficult board games together or attending new events. Some people explore new forms of sexuality together. S&M creates intense ambiguity sometimes, especially when people really challenge their boundaries together; the boundaries of physical pleasure and pain are never simple. And I think that "the game" described by pickup artists fits somewhere into these activities as well.

Some people want a more straightforward romantic interaction, but a lot of people enjoy being a little uncertain about where things are going or how things will work out. Many people seem to like setting social tests for each other, verbal sparring, et cetera. At the same time, if these interactions become too ambiguous, then they're toxic. I like pushing myself in some ways with S&M, but if I never have a clue what my S&M partner might do, or if I'm afraid he might break my leg or something, then I'm not interested. The ambiguity has to be contained, and there has to be some amount of mutual understanding and boundary-setting: it has to be strategic.

SCOTT: Is it necessary to have strategic ambiguity to maintain attraction?

CLARISSE: I think different people are attracted to these ambiguities in different ways. One person might hate verbal sparring, and be bored by S&M, yet enjoy playing an adversarial board game. Another couple might run a fascinating business together that challenges them every day. And some couples genuinely get off on playing social games with each other. No matter how you slice it, though, if a relationship has zero contrast, challenge, unpredictability or novelty, then I doubt the couple will remain very attracted.

SCOTT: You defined the dark side as “using strategic ambiguity to influence targets towards feeling confused, anxious, scared, and dependent, rather than helping them feel confident, loved, energized and free.” At what point do you think strategic ambiguity becomes mean and manipulative? Have you identified that line for yourself?

CLARISSE: The process of writing and thinking through Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser was my attempt to understand that line, and to recognize it in my own life. I've got an okay sense of how I want my S&M relationships to go -- the types of sensation that I like to play with, and how to contain those sensations and communicate about them. But I still make mistakes and have problems, as I discuss in the book. I also obviously enjoy some level of "the game" in my flirtation. It's hard to find a specific line of "good" or "bad," because so much of these interactions depend on context and calibration. But in my book, I describe different PUA tactics, and I talk about how some of them can be used in a "mutual" way or an "aggressive" way. 

For example, there's a whole constellation of PUA techniques called "Last Minute Resistance" tactics (LMR tactics). These tactics are designed to convince a woman to have sex after she has indicated that she doesn't want to. Most of them are seriously screwed up. Sometimes, I read PUA discussions about LMR tactics, and it looks like a guy went out and raped some poor girl and then claimed she really wanted it. Sometimes, it's callous manipulation: the PUA might act all charming, and then if she tries to say she doesn't like having sex on the first date, he guilt trips her and makes it obvious that he'll be Very Disappointed Maybe Angry if she doesn't have sex with him. Those are the aggressive versions.

But sometimes PUAs try to understand her reasons for not wanting sex, and then find a way to help her with those reasons. Like, maybe she's on her period and she's afraid he's gonna freak out, so the guy might be like: "This is so not a problem.  We'll put down a towel." Thus, he shows her that he's not one of the dudes who thinks period sex is Gross And Disgusting, which might help motivate her to have sex. Some women don't like period sex at all, but I can testify that when I avoid period sex, it's often because (a) I'm worried about mess or (b) I'm used to guys freaking out about it.  When a guy makes it clear that he doesn't have a problem with period sex, I feel more comfortable with it.  So I generally classify those discussions as a mutual tactic, because he's trying to understand her reality and make her feel genuinely comfortable.

SCOTT: I LOVE this sentence in your book: 

“The truth is that everyone is different, and that many individual men and women have more in common with each other than with stereotypes of their gender. If people saw cross-gender relationships as more mutual than oppositional, then people would expect sex to be more mutual than oppositional. Instead, most people expect aggression and trickery to be part of sexuality…”

Are adversarial gender roles intrinsic to pickup artistry?

CLARISSE: I think a lot of PUA culture encourages adversarial gender roles. But I don't think the tactics themselves have to be adversarial. I often compare PUA tactics to mundane tools, like swords or tables. Some tools, like swords, are hard (but not impossible) to use in a friendly way.  Some tools, like tables, are hard (but not impossible) to use in a fight. I think the way we frame our relationships helps us decide which tools to use, though. If you feel like your partners are enemies, then you care less if you use social tactics that hurt them. On the other hand, if your partner is also a friend, then you'll be more careful. So my problem with the PUA subculture is not so much most tactics in themselves -- it's that many PUAs frame relationships as a battle.  Fortunately, not all of them do.

SCOTT: You noticed that many people attracted to the PUA scene have social anxiety, and many PUA techniques are actually just “safety-seeking behaviors”. What are some of those behaviors you identified?

CLARISSE: Well, to clarify, I think that most of their techniques serve multiple purposes. But some of the techniques appear to fit the psychological category of "safety-seeking behaviors" that have been described by people who study social phobia. For example, people with social phobia will often memorize lines to say to other people, because they're so scared of the interaction that they have to prepare for it in advance. Some PUAs (though not all) will also memorize lines. In fact, even the PUAs who promote lines and "routines" usually say that those memorized patterns can be discarded once a PUA reaches a certain level of competence. This suggests that they understand that those routines are a crutch for socially incompetent people.

SCOTT: What is “One-itis”?

CLARISSE: It took me a long time to get what PUAs were talking about when they mentioned "one-itis." The term indicates a kind of infatuation. At first, I thought that when they discussed it, they were being bitter and cynical and incapable of love. But it's more complicated than that. One-itis is actually a type of infatuation that derives from scarcity. PUAs developed the term because they recognize that some lonely guys will fall in love with the first girl who's nice to them, because those guys are so unaccustomed to attention from women.

SCOTT: What is “outcome independence”, and how is it related to one-itis?

CLARISSE: "Outcome independence" is the state of not caring whether you get with a girl or not.  PUAs encourage it because it both decreases the pain of rejection, and improves a guy's game.  They know that men who don't appear to be obsessed with pussy (or attention) are more attractive to women -- and they also know that outcome-independent guys have more fun, too, because they're not so neurotic about getting chicks. A person who is outcome-independent is much less likely to contract the dreaded one-itis.

SCOTT: Doesn’t outcome independence go away once you actually fall in love with someone? And isn’t that a good thing? I mean, should you maintain outcome independence once you’re in love? Doesn’t that decrease the possibilities for intimacy?

CLARISSE: Exactly. A relationship based on a neurotic sense of scarcity is bad... yet at the same time, isn't love partly feeling that one person is incredibly special and irreplaceable? And sometimes commitment is important and necessary to improve a relationship; it's not always a minefield or a trap. This is an interesting paradox, and one that I explore in my book.

One thing to keep in mind is that some PUAs go so far down the rabbit hole that they desperately need to deprogram themselves. In fact, there are PUA gurus who offer deprogramming coaching along with normal PUA coaching. If you get to the point where you don't care about other people, that's just as big a problem as falling in love too fast.

SCOTT: What is “emotional escalation”?

CLARISSE: PUAs talk about "sexual escalation," which is the process of initiating and moving along a sexual relationship. I devised the phrase "emotional escalation" to talk about "the game of falling in love." I think that women are usually tasked with the interpersonal "responsibility" of initiating emotional escalation, the same way men are usually expected to initiate sex.  (Obviously, there are exceptions; I'm talking about general social expectations here.) In Confessions, I explore whether we could describe a framework for emotional seduction like the framework PUAs have described for sexual seduction.

SCOTT: Does it bother you when PUAs fake emotional intimacy just to get laid?

CLARISSE: Yeah, I think it's messed up. Some PUAs learn how to make women fall in love, and then give the ladies the exact minimum of hope and validation that they need to stick around -- but they never plan to give those women the relationship they want. One of the chapters in Confessions highlights the "friend zone" and the "fuckbuddy zone." Sometimes, a person gets locked into the "friend zone" or the "fuckbuddy zone" with a person who means well, and it's nobody's fault. But sometimes people will cruelly string their partners along. And some PUAs become experts at stringing women along. I describe the mechanics of this very carefully in my book.

SCOTT: What is “enthusiastic consent”? Do you think PUA techniques promote this form of consent?

CLARISSE: "Enthusiastic consent" is a feminist concept that's designed to encourage awesome sex for everybody. The idea is that you don't have sex with a partner unless you have that partner's enthusiastic consent -- rather than merely their "well, okay, I guess" consent. There are some critiques of this idea, and I talk about those critiques in my book. But overall I think it's a useful concept for many people, including at least one PUA coach who told me that it helped him learn to understand his own boundaries better.

Like I said before, there are mutual forms of a lot of PUA techniques, and there are also aggressive or adversarial forms. I think that the mutual forms promote enthusiastic consent; the aggressive ones don't.

SCOTT: You mention the popular book The Rules, which is also about maintaining power in relationships, but from a female perspective. Must relationships always be about power? Aren’t there people who are just not interested in playing power games?

CLARISSE: Maybe, but I think those people are pretty rare. Power interacts with the human psyche in powerful ways that we don't fully understand. I don't believe that anyone has zero interest in power. The real questions are: How do we talk about power and deal with it in a positive way? I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility." I would amend that to say, "With power comes responsibility." 

This isn't to say that everyone wants to be in charge all the time. And I do believe that most people want relationships that are respectful. But everyone has some power in their relationships, and everyone gives up some power too. Respecting your partner actually means knowing how to use your power gently and compassionately, rather than pretending power doesn't exist.

SCOTT: Towards the end of your research, you concluded that “most people have an instinct for some actual patterns and strategies that PUAs have pointed out”. Which strategies are you referring to?

CLARISSE: There are too many to name. But I will say this. PUAs have spent years collectively identifying patterns and strategies that people were already using. They aren't always right, and sometimes the framework that they impose on their observations is absurd and sexist. But for the most part, they make a genuine effort to describe and understand human behavior and instincts. I've never seen a widely-used PUA strategy that wasn't accurate in some sense, even if the PUAs were misogynist idiots when they theorized about it.

It reminds me of my thoughts on "drama." A lot of people claim that they "don't do drama." But in reality, "drama" is an all-purpose label for what happens when people are trying to work out conflict.  When people don't have good relationship tools, or don't feel like engaging with a conflict, then they usually find it easier to call the whole situation "drama" and leave it at that. And I will say, I think it's legit to walk away from a relationship if it's too difficult to communicate with your partner. But I have a pretty exact lens for detecting power-plays in relationships now, and usually, when something looks like "drama," I see a lot of power-plays going on. When a person gets mad about "drama," they're usually mad because someone is trying to grab power in the relationship -- or they're making a power-play themselves.

And they might not be consciously aware of it. They might be doing it instinctively, or because they've built that tactic into their habits.

When I was younger, it used to be super easy for clever boyfriends to argue me into accepting their view on a given situation, because I didn't trust my instincts as much as I do now. A guy even argued me out of breaking up with him one time. One interesting thing about getting older and learning new social frameworks (not just from PUAs) has been identifying how manipulation happens in ways that I can point to and describe with words. Ironically, this made me less reliant on words. Now I'm like, "Oh, I get it; when I felt awful that one time, it was because he was doing this thing -- whether he knew it or not. I should have listened to my instincts, which knew he was manipulating me, rather than listening to the words he used to convince me that he wasn't."

SCOTT: You note “pickup is a barometer of what’s fucked up in wider society”. I found this statement very intriguing. Could you please unpack it a bit for me?

CLARISSE: That statement actually came from the blogger Hugh Ristik. I don't always agree with Hugh, but he's a genius, and he has a great perspective on PUAs; he was very helpful when I wrote my book. His point expands on what I said earlier, about how PUAs develop tactics based on observation. PUAs have gone and figured out what works during seduction, partly by watching more "successful" dudes do it. This means that when PUAs use a fucked-up tactic, they aren't the only ones using it. They're just the only ones who have elaborate jargon for it.

Obviously, I think it's completely reasonable to criticize misogynist PUAs, and I spend large chunks of my book doing that. But it's a mistake to think that PUAs are unique in doing any of the things they talk about.

In fact, I think we should look carefully at the tactics PUAs use and try to understand them, because they're a goldmine of information about sexual behavior -- including pushy and problematic sexual behavior. Other feminists are usually too busy freaking out about PUAs to think critically about PUA tactics, which is too bad.  Even feminists who hate my guts and think that I'm wrong about everything would learn a lot if they'd take the time to wrap their brains around PUA ideas.

And incidentally, PUAs often point out problematic female behavior, too. Again, I think PUAs are often sexist and stupid, but occasionally they're right. Women do unethical things while dating, too. 

SCOTT: How can we create a society where both male and female sexualities aren’t repressed?

CLARISSE: Firstly, studies have shown over and over that men and women are more similar than we are different. And gender is not so simple as mainstream culture would have you believe; there are plenty of exceptions to every gender "rule." With that said: I do think there are sexual stereotypes that create different problems for both men and women. In my sex-positive activism, I usually focus on raising awareness by sharing experience. I also hope to help others honor their differences and communicate their desires. I think that if anything can save us, it's empathy.  

SCOTT: Do nice guys always finish last? 

CLARISSE: One of the smartest things any PUA coach said to me was this, which I quoted in my book:

Some women may appear to love assholes. But those women are not actually looking for assholes. They're looking for something that's most closely approximated by an asshole. Men don't have to be assholes to get girls, and they shouldn't. Men should figure out what assholes do right, and do that, without being assholes themselves.

A lot of guys think that they're ignored by women because they're "too nice," but that's nonsense.  Men who are genuinely kind, friendly, and respectful get laid all the time. But those men are usually confident, too, and have other positive qualities.

SCOTT: Must everything be framed in terms of a game? What if you want to be successful with women but you just don’t want to play games? You want to opt-out of that worldview?  

CLARISSE: There are lots of women who want to opt out too, so keep an eye out for those women.  One thing I noticed over and over about PUAs was that they often blame women for "the game," but then they focus on women who are the biggest gamesters around! It's like... come on, guys, if you resent snippy manipulative women, then don't chase snippy manipulative women!

However, I'll also note that plenty of people believe they don't want to play games, but they do it anyway. Once again, "the game" was developed primarily through observation of people's actual behavior -- and one thing that PUAs point out very well is that people's words are often at odds with their behavior. It was eye-opening for me to investigate PUAs because it made me more conscious of my own game behaviors.  f you believe you don't want to play games, I'm not going to argue with you.  But I'd suggest that you take a careful, honest look at your behavior.

                                                 S &M and feminism

SCOTT: In what ways is feminism misunderstood in our society?

CLARISSE: There are too many to count. Just the other day, a guy found out I was a feminist writer and he said, "That means you're a lesbian, right?" and I was like, "Wow, people still believe that?"

The anti-feminist misunderstanding that I thought about most while writing Confessions is that feminists are perceived as man-haters. The truth is that most of the best gender theory, for both women and men, has emerged from feminism. Neil Strauss, who wrote the famous PUA book The Game, quoted famous feminists at the beginning of every chapter.

SCOTT: How is feminism compatible with S &M?

CLARISSE: Feminists are very concerned about sexual consent, usually out of anxiety about assault. The S&M community is also very concerned about sexual consent, but it's because we often do complicated sexual things and push boundaries. Both communities are having extensive conversations about the same topic.

One of my big things has always been describing the ways that S&Mers communicate about sex, and trying to bring those communication tactics into feminism. Not all S&Mers are brilliant communicators, but the S&M community has developed great strategies for negotiating consent in complex situations. The most famous example is safewords: when people want to have sexual interactions where one partner is saying "no!" or "stop," but they don't want to actually stop, then it's useful to have a word that either partner can say when they actually want the interaction to stop.

 Reference:

* http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/the-annotated-safeword/ 

SCOTT: In what ways is feminism compatible with pickup artistry?

CLARISSE: Feminists, including myself, usually have problems with the manipulation and pressure that some PUAs use against women. But pickup artistry also fills gaps that feminists often ignore.  For example, feminists focus hard on verbal communication. But PUAs focus on non-verbal communication. When PUAs talk about ways of understanding consent using non-verbal communication, in some ways they're serving feminist goals.

SCOTT: You note some differences between PUA writings and S & M, including different modes of communication. Could you elaborate on those differences?

CLARISSE: It's the same deal as with feminism. S&Mers often prioritize explicit verbal communication, and don't talk very much about non-verbal communication. I wish that both S&Mers and feminists would be more willing to think about how people communicate non-verbally. 

SCOTT: I learned a lot about S &M through reading your book, including the importance of “aftercare” and “safewords”. Something that concerned me though is this line: “sometimes calling my safeword can feel like the worst failure of all”. If this is the case, then isn’t it possible for the guy to take things too far, knowing that he can push you beyond your boundaries and you will be reluctant to call it quits?

CLARISSE: The truth is that any sexual encounter, whether it's "vanilla" sex or S&M sex, can include well-intended miscommunications. As I already said, S&Mers often focus on careful communication tactics, like safewords, which are intended to minimize problems. But nothing is failsafe. In Confessions, I describe an S&M encounter in which my partner pushed me much further than he intended. I also describe the emotional fallout for both of us.

S&Mers are often reluctant to talk about our screwups, because S&M is so stigmatized. So many people seek excuses to label S&M "insane" or "pathological" or "wrong," that S&Mers are afraid of talking about actual S&M problems, because we don't want to give ammunition to the haters. But I believe that we have to be honest about our S&M mistakes and S&M problems. How else can we learn and improve?

Further reading:

http://clarissethorn.com/blog/2011/12/09/what-happens-after-an-sm-encounter-gone-wrong/ 

SCOTT: Tell me about your interview with Neil Strauss. You say he was pro-feminist in his interview, and he still got in trouble with feminists?

CLARISSE: Talking to Neil was fascinating, because he has been influenced by feminist thought, and I believe that he means well. On the other hand, his book The Game promotes some icky tactics. When I interviewed him, I thought that he came across as relatively pro-feminist, meaning that he's more feminist-friendly than a lot of PUAs. In fact, I think he's more pro-feminist than a lot of mainstream guys. He even told me during the interview that men who hate feminism are "scared of powerful women," and he also said that "we still are a patriarchal society." And in fact, Neil was attacked by anti-feminist PUAs for his interview with me. They called him a traitor and a hypocrite.

But Neil said things that were problematic from a feminist perspective, too. When I posted the interview on a feminist website, the feminist response was anger, and feminist commenters spent days ripping apart the problematic things he said. That's legitimate, but I often wish that feminists would spend more time looking at larger cultural patterns -- understanding where more people are coming from. It's easy to tear apart a few random statements by Neil Strauss and obsess about every little word he used. It's much harder to recognize how he took a stand within his cultural context. Lots of feminists don't understand the mainstream, and Neil Strauss is pretty mainstream.

The interview is available as an appendix in my book, and also here:

http://timeoutchicago.com/sex-dating/12914409/neil-strauss-interview 

                                          Your Journey

SCOTT: You note that through the process of entering the world of PUAs, you became more cynical and manipulative, and increased your negative attitudes about men. What aspects of the PUA subculture made you feel that way? 

CLARISSE: There's plenty of negative PUA talk about women; it's difficult to hear that without lashing back, emotionally. Worse, PUA reports make it clear that some of these guys learn social rules in a calculated way so they can come as close as they can to raping people without being convicted. Not all of them, but some. They exploit weaknesses in the social fabric (what feminists would call "rape culture") and they use those weaknesses to take advantage of women. And there are also PUAs who aren't blatantly taking advantage of women sexually... but who are taking advantage of women emotionally in a calculated manner, as I discussed above when I mentioned the "fuckbuddy zone."

SCOTT: As you note, a common PUA critique is “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”— meaning that once you buy into the PUA worldview, that way of thinking colors every interaction. Did this happen to you—did you start seeing nails everywhere?

CLARISSE: To some extent, yes. I like to think that I detected what was happening to my brain and pulled out before it went too deep, but maybe I'm wrong. However, one thing I like about PUA theory is that it acknowledges how people don't have unified minds.  People are pulled in many different directions by their emotions, thoughts, values, outside incentives, and biology. I knew this, but now I have more ideas about how to look for the outward signs of those internal conflicts.

SCOTT: Have you recovered yet?

CLARISSE: I was talking to a friend about this the other day, and he said that he thinks I've actually detoxed "too far" from the PUA mindset. He thinks I am now overly aware of how tiny manipulations can hurt other people, so I've become overly cautious and anxious in my relationships; he also said that I expect my partners to understand their mental conflicts better than most people are capable of.  I guess that's possible. I do think that looking at all these tiny behaviors and social tactics made my social anxiety worse. But I was already kind of an insecure person in some ways, and I already spent a lot of time worrying about relationship dynamics and sexual ethics.  So I don't know how different I am from when I started.

SCOTT: What is your Grand Theory of The Ethical Game?

CLARISSE: I used the entire final chapter of Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser to outline my Grand Theory! So it's hard to summarize it. But it can be boiled down to what I said earlier, about "mutual" tactics and "aggressive" ones. Playing the game ethically requires people to think about the experience of their partner, and to look for ways to enjoy the game together.

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.