In 2005, I spent Thanksgiving lying on my friend Patricia’s bed reading The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, while she cooked the entire dinner alone. I was supposed to help, and I really meant to, but I barely put the book down, even when I finally staggered in for dinner. I was mesmerized.
For the uninitiated, The Game, written by Neil Strauss, is part memoir, part exposé of the paranoid and superstitious world of pickup artists. Strauss, a previously self-diagnosed loser in the romance department (don’t worry, he’s a winner now) immersed himself in this world of snake-oil salesmen to improve his dismal luck with women.
And Strauss did indeed improve his luck — if you consider a staggering amount of one-night stands, plucked from sticky-floored hot spots of the Sunset Strip lucky. But perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that a lot of men do, in fact, consider that lucky: The Game was a runaway success, spending more than a month on the New York Times bestseller list, and zooming to number one on Amazon.
Strauss wrote The Game before our collective obsession with life-hacks, but that’s exactly what this book provides men who can’t find a date. Strauss became a deeply committed student of pick-up artist methodology, absorbing an immense amount of theory and sharing it with his audience by condensing it into easily understandable tips and tricks, or “romance-hacks,” if you will.
These romance-hacks are based almost exclusively on the premise that men and women are motivated by the basest survival instincts. The simple theory — which sounds like it came from a stoned college freshman who just discovered Darwin — is this: women want to mate with the strongest male in the community, and as a result, men have to continually broadcast their alpha status. You can almost smell the bong water.
There’s the romance-hack known as “peacocking,” the relatively benign practice of wearing a loud shirt, feathered boa or a huge hat into a club to stand out from other men, apparently signaling to women’s lizard brains the man’s elevated status. The more outrageous the outfit, the theory goes, the more the man asserts his status in the pack, or um, herd? (I have trouble describing human men as part of animal groups, but the theories of The Game leave me little choice).
But there’s also the now well-known (thanks to Strauss), arguably cruel practice of “negging,” in which a man throws a woman off balance by tossing out a compliment that’s really an insult. “Did you know your nose wrinkles when you smile?” is an apt example, or “those shoes look so comfortable” would do the trick.
A successful neg will confuse the targeted woman. Her conscious brain registers a compliment while her unconscious brain understands that she was just called ugly, dowdy or old. According to negging theory, this moment of imbalance and anxiety is the perfect time for the until-now beta man to morph into an (albeit fake) alpha male, by engaging in more chest-puffing, flirting and peacocking. Ideally, the woman now feels anxiety about her attractiveness, so she reaches out to the nearest man for validation. Sadly, that validation often comes in the form of sleeping with a schmuck in a blue feather boa.
Armed with this knowledge, Strauss began nailing so many women he barely had time to sleep. He moved into a group house in the Hollywood Hills with other pick-up artists and they wandered through Hollywood nightlife together, racking up notches on their belts.
Let me stop here and say that the descriptions of this house curled my spine. Imagine a single tangled comforter on an unmade bed, a single usable fork, protein smoothies, barbells flung about, no furniture, beige carpet. To be fair, I can’t remember if that description is entirely accurate, or accurate at all. I may have made up that beige carpet, or even the whole thing. But I remember my feeling when reading about a house filled with men singularly focused on — and there’s no other way to say this — hunting women: the unmistakable empty feeling.
In the end, like many hero journeys, Strauss discovers what he thought he was looking for was not actually what he was looking for. Sleeping with a different woman every night isn’t that fun after all. Like the unfurnished house with beige carpet, casual sex can also give you the empty feeling. Finally, Strauss meets a smart woman who doesn’t fall for peacocking or negging, and he is enthralled. The end.
In 2010 I started dating M, who was newly divorced. After weeks of crushed out dating bliss, M started yelling (yes, yelling) that after almost twenty years of being with the same woman, he was supposed to be “fucking everybody.” (His words, not mine). M felt, very acutely, that he had missed out on his share of screwing while he was married and he was out to rectify the imbalance. Dating me was interfering with this plan.
“Don’t let me stop you,” I calmly told him. I bought him a copy of The Game, gift-wrapped it and left it on his front door. He read it cover to cover and loved it.
I bring this up to point out that I was, and sort of still am, a fan of Strauss. I didn’t really care that much about the objectification of women in The Game or even the outright misogyny. The practices of peacocking and negging say more about the men than they do the women: it’s unspeakably sad that some men have such intense social anxiety that they need tricks to connect with other people, that they view women as mysterious and unattainable, that they don’t believe their real selves are enough.
So I was ultimately rooting for Strauss and his band of fellow losers, in a way, because the tips and tricks Strauss shared clearly helped give shy, awkward men a sense of confidence. If peacocking and negging help reduce their anxiety, good for them. Indeed, if mass shootings have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is more dangerous than a white guy who can’t get laid.
In 2019, I was flying to New York and looking for the perfect airplane book: trashy, but with a little jolt of self-help. I picked up The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, also by Strauss. Written in 2015, ten years after The Game, we now find Strauss with a gorgeous, supportive girlfriend. This would be wonderful except he can’t seem to stop cheating on her — a lot. So powerful is his compulsion, Strauss even screws one of her good friends. (Let’s deal with that “good friend” another day, shall we?). Realizing that he’s about to blow it big time, Strauss sets off on another journey of self-discovery to figure out why he can’t stop being a total fucking asshole.
Strauss tries a number of things in an effort to stop being a jerk, but they’re too numerous to take a deep dive into all of them here. In short, they include rehab (for sex addicts), group therapy (for sex addicts), leaving his girlfriend so he can have sex with whomever he wants, creating a group sex house (a house where all the roommates have sex) and finally realizing that maybe his compulsions are a reaction to a childhood filled with anxiety, sadness, and neglect.
The Truth is a great read in the same way The Game is, but Strauss lost me anyway. There was something that just didn’t ring true about his journey to treat his compulsive behavior, which I never really bought as disordered. To me, it simply seemed that Strauss didn’t like that he might have to give up one thing (screwing anybody he wants) for another thing (a nice, hot girlfriend). Rather than owning that he had selfish desires (as we all do) and finding the discipline not to act on them (as we all try to do), Strauss pathologized himself further, turning the fact that he didn’t want to be monogamous into a book.
But of course, I still googled Strauss while reading The Truth, and discovered he was now promoting something called “The Society.” The description on Strauss’ website made The Society sound exclusive and mysterious — apparently the group works with “industry leaders, entrepreneurs and influencers” to “[achieve] goals.” But because we often see things as we want to see them, as opposed to how they actually are, I somehow decided that The Society was a modern-day salon, rather than what it obviously was: a coaching business with a secret-handshake vibe.
I came to this realization pretty slowly. At some point, Strauss’s mailing list (I was on it now) announced an opportunity for a two-day event in Los Angeles — but you had to apply to attend, which I did, still operating under the assumption that this was a group of thinkers getting together to drink wine and talk about art and culture and politics, Gertrude Stein style. (Except instead of Paris it was in Los Angeles, and instead of good French cheese and wine, it would be tacos and beer).
Soon I received a call from a member of The Society, to do an over-the-phone interview. His name was something masculine and short, like Jack or Mike or Jake. Let’s call him Jack.
Jack called me early in the morning while I was walking my dog, and started the interview by asking me what I wanted to get out of the event. Still thinking I was trying to score an invite to a party, I gave such a bullshit answer I can’t remember it now. Then Jack asked what I could bring to the table, and I probably muttered something about being an attorney but really an artist at heart.
It was at this point I realized this was not going to be a cool person party. The interview was, sadly, just a sales technique to make me think I was vying to get into something exclusive. It was a version of the neg: the interview was designed to make me feel anxious about my worthiness, so I could be validated by ultimately being allowed to pay what I later learned was an exorbitant amount of money to go to the event. Everyone who has ever stood patiently in front of a tiny velvet rope knows this is one of the oldest sales techniques in the book. Confused about your status, you reach out for validation, in the form of paying someone to let you in the door, after which you have the honor of buying terrible watered-down drinks.
Jack went on to explain, in vague but bold terms, that the event would provide me with the tools to transform my life, based on everything Strauss had learned over the years. So much for my salon fantasy; I now realized that Strauss was taking on the role the pickup artists occupied in The Game: he was going to teach people, mostly guys, how to be winners.
Jack wrapped up by telling me that the event cost a pornographic amount of money, but I could attend for a less shocking amount (I remember the figure being $2,500) if I acted soon. This is, of course, the second-oldest sales trick in the book — convincing a potential buyer that a crucial moment is about to slip through their fingers. At this point, my dog and I were back home, and I remember fumbling with my keys and the leash while trying to open my door. I told Jack I would think about it.
It’s weird to admit, but the conversation with Jack bummed me out. Up until then, I thought of Strauss as a modern-day intellectual, sort of a poor man's Malcolm Gladwell. But he was using his immense talent for synthesizing information into entertaining reads to promote one of the oldest scams: the promise of being able to change your life with tricks, tips, and strategies. (Spoiler alert: you can’t really do that).
To be fair, all marketing is based on this promise. Face creams, diet sodas, jeans, cigarettes, feminine hygiene products, birth control, makeup, Botox, ranch dressing, you name it. Advertising always promises that buying a product will be the turning point from an unsatisfying life to a satisfying one. So why shouldn’t Strauss benefit from the same tried and true tactics to promote his business?
Because it’s just so…basic. It feels beneath him, or beneath my fantasy of who a great writer should be: above marketing, above the falsity of life-hacks, above the notion that they have specialized wisdom to impart. Worse, according to his social media, the advice Strauss was dispensing was, well, really obvious. On the one hand, Strauss’ posts were sweet in that they promoted the notion of kindness, understanding, and patience as a solid foundation for interpersonal conflict, but on the other hand, kindness, understanding, and patience are maddeningly obvious solutions to pretty much everything. It was as if Strauss had just discovered O magazine.
I did consider that perhaps women are light years ahead of men in relation to stuff like this, that maybe Strauss truly believed that, for instance, trying to see someone else’s perspective before raging at them was actually novel advice. But either way, it was almost infuriating that he promoted these tidbits of advice as though they were unique insights born of his particular expertise, rather than something that anyone who has spent more than a week in therapy already knows.
So Strauss is a life coach now and it feels cheap. To be fair (and yes, I realize I’ve had to use that phrase three times now) Strauss is a demonstrably good student and a very gifted writer, enabling him to pass along his findings in the form of fun, enjoyable reads. In between The Game and The Truth, Strauss wrote Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, which he spent three years researching by hanging out with survivalists, tax-dodgers, businessman and government-types. So perhaps Strauss truly does believe that he has unique wisdom to pass along, and perhaps he truly believes it will help people.
But I’m simply allergic to self-appointed experts, or life-hacks or shortcuts of any type because they, at their core, are totally fake. And while I’m a fan of life coaches (because they’re basically cheerleaders in disguise and we all need a cheerleader), encouraging lonely and unhappy people to open their wallets by promising them a transformative life experience is the neg in its most sinister form. It requires you to confuse the target about their worthiness, and then promise them validation in the end by convincing them that their choice to engage in a program or buy a product is the solution to their insecurity.
This isn’t cool. It isn’t what humans seeking a real connection with other humans do. But then again, neither is peacocking.
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