Sleazy pick-up artists are thriving – and they’re exploiting men’s insecurities over #MeToo to do it

Harriet Hall

Has #MeToo helped stamp out sexism? It has certainly exposed the sexism women have faced – and been saying we’ve been facing – for aeons. But what of the sexist men behind the assaults and the degradation – are their minds changing?

This week’s Panorama saw journalist Myles Bonnar go undercover and join one of the UK’s “seduction boot camps” – weekends during which men desperate for sex set themselves back as much as £1,500 to learn how to persuade women to go to bed with them, making the “cold approach” on the street and securing “same-day lays”.

Guided by so-called coaches Richard Hood and Eddie Hitchens, Bonnar is taken to Oxford Street to seek out prospective “targets”. The coaches mic up their students and listen in as the men adopt one of several manipulation techniques in order to keep the women talking. Many of these recordings are then uploaded onto their YouTube channels alongside footage of the encounters shot from afar.

Some of the footage includes apparent audio recordings of the men having sex with the women; others include video, all seemingly taken without the women’s knowledge.

Viewers see Bonnar being encouraged to approach girls he believes to be underage (“even if she’s underage, it’s not illegal to stop someone,” Hitchens tells Bonnar, coaxing him to continue), taught how to “escalate” his interactions so they become sexual, and being told that “sometimes, guys are a bit too shy or a bit too scared to keep pushing forward because they want so much consent. I mean that they want like a written permission slip from her like, you know?” Another interaction sees Hood explain that once a woman’s hand touches your penis, that’s “the point of no return”.

The coaches use acronyms like LMR (last-minute resistance) to explain how to disarm and manipulate women into sleeping with them. Resistance to sex, they explain, is only performative, adopted by women as a means of appearing less promiscuous. It’s all part of the “game”.

Of course, none of this is new. So-called “pick-up artistry”, as it is embarrassingly named by its advocates, has been widely known since infamous pick-up artist (PUA) Neil Strauss wrote about it in his chart-topping 2005 manual, The Game. Strauss described a world in which men are taught to target, approach and seduce women using a set of rules.

The manual included, but was not limited to, tactics designed to insult and undermine women (or “neg” them) in order to put them on the back foot and desperately seek the man’s approval; it included encouraging men to ignore their “target” when they initially approach a group, so that she craves his attention; then to “isolate” her, separating her from her social group in order to move onto the next phase. In The Game, Strauss proudly recounts getting celebrities’ mobile numbers, including Britney Spears.

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In 2014, feminist protesters marched against American pick-up artist Julien Blanc being let into the UK. His website, Pimping My Game, promised to help men develop “panty-dropping masculinity” and to teach them how to “make girls beg to sleep with you after short-circuiting their emotional and logical mind”. The Home Office later banned Blanc from entering Britain. In 2015, Strauss published The Truth, in which he wrote about how he’s since been treated for sex addiction and is now a changed man – a husband and a father.

The Panorama episode reveals just how popular pick-up artistry continues to be, and how far the legal system has to go to catch up with it. Far from catering to a minute number of men, Bonnar explains, the pick-up industry is booming, worth over £80m globally, and spans the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and India.

These are more than just a few predatory men adopting manipulation techniques to make women sleep with them out of self-hatred and a need for validation. These groups target unconfident men and deliberately teach them to adopt predatory behaviour and a mindset that poses a direct threat to consent.

Following Bonnar’s investigation, YouTube deactivated two channels operated by PUAs for violating its regulations: those of “Addy A-Game” and “Street Attraction”. Adnan Ahmed, the 38-year-old behind Addy A-Game, is currently remanded in custody for harassing young women. He will be sentenced this month. One of his “targets”, 17-year-old Beth, told Panorama that she found his comments “really crude” and said he had “just a horrible manner, and he was really quite touchy” with her. Ahmed’s advice had included: “Listen to her actions – her body – not her words.”

Contrary to what we might think, #MeToo and discussions surrounding consent haven’t deterred these men; they’ve apparently fired them up, presenting an added hurdle over which they want to leap.

Consent is just one part of the threat posed by this type of subgroup. You just have to look at how, in recent years, unsuccessful PUAs have become embittered and angry, morphing into an altogether more concerning group: incels, or self-proclaimed “involuntary celibates”, who direct their rage at female, and wider societal, rejection.

This was the rage expressed by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who pulled a gun on the University of California campus, killing six people and injuring another 14, then turning the gun on himself. Before doing so, Rodger had written a manifesto about the women who had rejected him.

In 2018, Scott Beierle channelled his rage when he walked into a Florida yoga studio and shot two women, injuring four others. Beierle, who posted videos online in which he called women “sluts”, cited Rodger as an inspiration.

Inceldom, PUAs and “men’s rights activists” alongside them are the darkest extremes of misogyny. They are what happens when sexist jokes trickle into a pool of inappropriate touching, unequal pay, discrimination, objectification and sexual harassment, by which point sexism has transcended unconscious bias to become a fully fledged ideology.

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