The appeal of “pickup” or “game” or “The Redpill” is a failure of education and socialization

Since posting “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?” and “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” I’ve gotten into a couple discussions about why Neil Strauss’s The Game is popular and why adjacent subjects like “pickup” and the “Redpill” have become more popular too. One friend wrote, “It’s so tedious to see how resentful men get—a subject much in the news lately because of the Santa Barbara shooting…”

That’s somewhat true, but underlying, longer-term trends are still worth examining. The world is more complex than it used to be in many respects, and that includes sex and dating. Until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school, and marry a girl whose parents the guy probably knows and her parents probably know the guy’s. Parents, families, and religious authorities probably had a strong effect on what their children did, and a lot of men and women married as virgins. The dating script was relatively easy to follow and relatively many people paired early. In the 60s an explosion of divorces began, and that complicated matters in ways that are still being sorting out.

Today there are more hookups for a longer period of time and fewer universal scripts that everyone follows, or is supposed to be following. Instead, one sees a proliferation of possibilities, from the adventurous player—which is not solely a male role—to early marriage (though those early marriages tend to end in divorce).

Dating “inequality” has probably increased, since the top guys are certainly having a lot more sex than the median or bottom guys. To some extent high-status guys have always had more sex, but now “top” could mean dozens of partners at a relatively early age, and the numerical top is more readily available to guys who want it. In the old regime it was probably possible for almost everyone to find a significant other of some sort (and I think families had more sway and say). Now that may be harder, especially for guys towards the bottom who don’t want to realize that if they’re towards the bottom the women they’re likely to attract are likely to be around the same place. We don’t all get a Hollywood ending, and Hollywood itself is unrealistic.

Guys who notice that movies, TV shows, and some books portray an unlikely or unrealistic set of dating and marriage patterns should start to wonder what the “real thing” looks like. The Game isn’t bad, though it is dated, and I expect Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller’s book Mate to be popular for reasons similar to the ones that made The Game popular.

I’ve also noticed an elegiac sense that a weirdly large number of the “pickup artists” or “Red Pill” (sometimes it’s used as two words, sometimes as one) or “manosphere” guys have about the past, and how back then it was relatively easy to find, date, and marry a woman. Much of this is probably mythological, and I don’t think most of them would be happy marrying at 20 or 24 and having two or three kids by 28 or 29.

Like all generalizations, the stereotype above are riddled with holes and exceptions—see further the oeuvre of John Updike—but I’m examining broad trends rather than specific details. Today almost no one gets married straight out of high school. Routine moves from city to city are normal, and each move often rips someone from the social networks that provide romantic connections. Families play a smaller and smaller role. Twenty-somethings, and especially women, don’t listen to their parents’s romantic advice.

If you don’t have the infrastructure of school, how do you meet lots of new people? Jobs are one possibility but looking for romantic prospects at work has obvious pitfalls. Online dating is another, but people who can’t effectively date offline often aren’t any better on—and are often worse.

Technology matters too. Technologies take a long time—decades, at least—to really reach fruition and for their ripples to be felt throughout societies and cultures. Virtually all big ideas start small.* That’s an important lesson from Where Good Ideas Come From, The Great Stagnation, The Enlightened Economy, and similar books about technological, economic, and social history.

A suite of interrelated technologies around birth control (like hormonal birth control itself, better forms of it, and easy condom distribution and acquisition) are still playing out. Same with antibiotics and vaccines against STIs. VOX offers one way to think about this in “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation.” It begins:

The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behaviour. In 1900, only 6% of US women would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today . . . Public acceptance of premarital sex has reacted with a lag.

Culture is still catching up. Pickup, game, and the Redpill, regardless of what you personally think of them, are part of the the cultural catchup. They’re responses from guys frustrated by the way their own efforts fail while some of their peers’s efforts succeed. A lot of women appear less interested in an okay guy with an okay job and an okay but not that exciting or fun life, relative to guys with a different set of qualities. Men invest in what they think women want and women invest in what they think men want, and relative wants have changed over time.

Almost every guy sees or knows at least one guy and often a couple who do spectacularly well with women. Guys who are frustrated or who can’t achieve the romantic life they want start to ask, “What are the successful guys doing that I’m not?” Pickup or game or the Redpill are different strains of systematic answers. All three may have things wrong with them, but all three are better than nothing. Saying “Women are mysterious” or “No one knows what women want” is bullshit, and guys only have to look around to notice it.

Pickup artists and those who read them are responding to a cultural milieu in which most guys get terrible socialization regarding dating and women. Pickup artists are stepping into that gap. They’re trying to answer questions in a concrete way, which most people, including their detractors, aren’t. In a review of Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser I wrote:

feminism does very little to describe, let alone evaluate, how micro, day-to-day interactions are structured. Pickup artists, or whatever one may want to call guys who are consciously building their skills at going out and getting women, are describing the specific comments, conversations, styles, and venues women respond to. The pickup artists are saying, “This is how you approach a woman in a bar, this is how you strike up a conversation at the grocery store, and so forth.” In other words, they’re looking at how people actually go about the business of getting laid. Their work is often very detailed, and the overall thrust is toward the effectiveness of getting laid rather than how male-female interactions work in theory. Feminism, in Thorn’s view, appears to be silent, or mostly silent, on the day-to-day interactions.

Who else is doing that? Almost no one. As with virtually any other topic, one can muddle along through trial and error (and mostly error) or one can try to systematically learn about it and apply that learning to the problem domain, along with the learning others have done.

To be sure, the worst of the group if just trying to sell shit, and sell as much of it as possible to fools. The best of the group is saying things that almost no one else is saying.

Max, Miller, and Nils Parker wrote Mate: The Young Man’s Guide To Sex And Dating, which is, among other things, a description of modern dating and a description of why so many guys do it so badly for so long. Confusion reigns, and the book promises to be the sort of fun-but-comprehensive read that can be given to unhappy, puzzled guys who understand something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

One strategy in response to new social circumstances is to figure out what you should do to be reasonably successful and what you can do to make yourself more appealing. This is not a male-only question: virtually every issue of Cosmo is about how to attract men, retain men, and deal with female friends and rivals. Another is to blame women, or withdraw from dating, or kill innocents because of your own frustration.

If you think half the population isn’t into you, the problem is with you, not the population. There’s an important similarity to business here: If you start a business and no one wants to buy your products or services, you can blame the market or you can realize that you’re not doing what people want.

It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham says the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real “secret” (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.

Blame is easy and improvement is hard. Short guys do have it harder than tall guys—but so what? Go ask a fat girl, or a flat-chested one, how much fun dating is for her, compared to her slenderer or better-endowed competitors. Honesty in those conversations is probably rare, but it is out there: usually in late-night conversations after a couple drinks.

I don’t hate “pickup artists” as a group, though I dislike the term and wish there was something better. Many of the critics are accurate. But so what? criticizing without recognizing the impetus for the development in the first place is attacking the plant while ignoring the roots. This post, like so many of the posts I write, is looking at or attempting to look at the root.

Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.

* Which is not to say that all small ideas will automatically become big. Most don’t. But ideas, technologies, practices, and cultures spread much more slowly than is sometimes assumed, especially among the rah-rah tech press.

Links: Looking Up, change, real estate crowdsourcing, publishing, porn, men, game, and more

* Jeff Sypeck: “Some books you plan to write; others simply happen:” about Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles.

* How People Change.

* “The Real Estate Deal That Could Change the Future of Everything:” letting local people invest small amounts in local projects. The barriers are primarily regulatory.

* “Study: Porn stars aren’t ‘damaged:’ A report finds adult actresses are happier than the rest of us — and that being naked might lead to self-esteem.”

* Guy Kawasaki’s APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur–How to Publish a Book describes what I’m going to be doing and what you might be thinking about doing.

* The 5-Year Humanities Ph.D.: finally.

* The Rules Revisited: Men Don’t Have Commitment Problems.

* The Game life cycle.

* Standup desks gain favor in the workplace. I’m using one, and I’d file this under under the “obvious development” category.

* Awesome: Soaring Rents Drive a Boom in Apartments.

* If Peter Thiel And Garry Kasparov Are Right, Then We’re In Trouble. The essay mentions their book, The Blueprint: Reviving Innovation, Rediscovering Risk, and Rescuing the Free Market, which I pre-ordered; it’s likely the sort of book that, even if it’s wrong, will still be interesting.

Slam — Nick Hornby

Slam starts with great promise: a list of bullets that show a lot of Sam’s life in a short space and show why it’s going well (“For example: Mum got rid of Steve, her rubbish boyfriend.”) It’s got a fun, fantastical conceit in that Tony Hawk talks to the narrator and comes to represent a kind of externalized consciousness, giving Sam a dialogic way of bouncing ideas off another person. But the novel itself meanders. I look for the great sentences and don’t find them. To be fair, there are strong sections.; for example, in analyzing (as best he can) his family, Sam says:

The story of my family, as far as I can tell, is always the same story, over and over again. Someone—my mum, my dad, my grandad—starts off thinking that they’re going to do well in school, and then go to college, maybe, and then make pots of money. But instead, they do something stupid, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to make up for the mistake they made. Sometimes it can seem as though kids always do better than their parents. You know—someone’s dad was a coal miner, or whatever, but his son goes on to play for a Premiership team, or wins Pop Idol, or invents the Internet. Those stories make you feel as though the whole world is on its way up. But in our family, people always slip up on the first step. In fact, most of the time they don’t even find the stairs.

Notice the metaphor at the end: most of the world “is on its way up,” without noting the transportation method (flight? an elevator?), but his family doesn’t “even find the stairs.” It’s a bittersweet passage, with him not exactly castigating his family but still fundamentally aware of social class. Yet why not start the metaphor at the beginning of the paragraph? His family’s story is always the same, with them looking up as other people go by, or being on the ground floor of a building whose top they can’t even conceptualize, or something to that effect? You could do much better than the ideas I’ve come up with in 30 seconds, but the point is that there’s no reason not to extend the metaphor—maybe throughout not just the paragraph but the book. We appreciate that Sam’s awareness is a step on the road to change, but he could be slightly more aware without harming the fundamental structure of the story.

Perhaps not surprising, some of the story’s tension involves whether Sam will continue the family tradition or break it. He meets a higher class, very attractive girl named Alicia. They talk music. He works to avoid being subservient to her, but later thinks that “I knew that I didn’t want to be [Alicia’s] friend, if you know what I mean, and I was worried that her being friendly to me meant that I didn’t stand a chance with anything else. I know that’s wrong. Mum is always telling me that friendship has to come first, before anything else.” Sam knows the score even when his mother doesn’t, or doesn’t want him to know. She is, in essence, pitching him the idealized version of romance, which he has internalized to the extent that he says he knows that not wanting to be Alicia’s conventional friend is “wrong,” imputing a sense of morality on an act that’s more about strategy than morality. In a different world, friendship would come first. If you search Google for “Friend Zone, you’ll find a wide array of articles with advice on how to avoid becoming “just a friend.” Sam’s Mum is trying to give him advice that isn’t highly applicable to the real world.

If you’re already aware of these dynamics, however, the novel will feel like old news. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s not exciting, either. A lot of the book is fun. It just feels average, unlike Francine Prose’s Touch. I’m looking for ways that make it more than average and not finding them. Hornby’s best book, by far, is still High Fidelity. Maybe it always will be. I often think about it when writing contemporary novels that feature love stories; he fundamentally understands that such love stories tend towards comedy, that indecision is the great modern problem, and that love stories need more than just a should-I-or-shouldn’t-I plot. Whenever I read High Fidelity, I’m impressed again at how surprisingly well constructed it is. I keep trying his other books (A Long Way Down, How to be Good, Slam) in search of the same kind of mastery. I keep not finding it.

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