Picture this: on holiday, you meet a man in a bar. You’re both a couple of drinks down, both aware that whatever happens next is unlikely to end with chapel bells and two-point-four kids. There’s just a natural electricity between you. And you’re both consenting adults, right?
What, though, if you knew that he was talking from a script? That he had taken a course or watched the ever-growing number of YouTube videos detailing exactly how to get you into bed? Would that change things? Would it tip the balance of power between you?
“The average heterosexual man is now very, very likely to have come into contact with ideas originating from the seduction industry,” says Dr Rachel O’Neill. “One of the guys I interviewed called it an ‘open secret’ among men. And there’s a real sense that summer is the season.” Seduction bootcamps are popping up across the UK and popular holiday destinations, all with a single aim: teaching men how to get laid this August.
O’Neill is a sociologist based at the University of York and the first woman to thoroughly infiltrate and investigate the seduction industry. Her book, Seduction: Men, Masculinity And Mediated Intimacy, is also the first to examine the hold that the industry has taken here in the UK.
The seduction industry burst into popular culture in 2005, when the American writer Neil Strauss published his autobiographical guide to “pick-up artistry”, The Game. It outed techniques like negging (undermining a woman’s confidence so she becomes keener for your approval) and caveman-ing (“to directly and aggressively escalate physical contact”).
Over the last decade, the techniques have grown in popularity in the UK and, over the course a year, O’Neill immersed herself in this murky world. She attended seminars, bootcamps and residential programmes. She interviewed trainers and the men attending their courses and even went on nightclub “field trips”, where they attempted to use their newfound “skills” to pull unsuspecting women.
In the process, she busted a lot of myths. Negging might have become notorious but, says O’Neill, the industry has now moved on: “Right now, it’s all about developing techniques that fly under the radar, ones that are far less obvious or familiar. Staging the appearance of spontaneity and authenticity.” It is becoming, in other words, difficult to spot.
Here’s another myth: “The men who get involved in this industry are often portrayed as saddos or losers,” says O’Neill, “the kinds of men who would be readily identifiable. But the men I met were ordinary. These guys are not the anomalies.”
The men O’Neill met during her research were “teachers, engineers, in business and finance…” Not creeps, mostly outwardly successful and often clever, some voiced “ethical concerns about the techniques they thought they were misogynistic or sexist”.
But here’s the concerning thing: “They still used them in the end. Because the wider promise of the seduction industry is so alluring: control over your sexual life.” And thus, by extension, over women.
Negging might have become notorious but, says O’Neill, the industry has now moved on: ‘Right now, it’s all about developing techniques that fly under the radar’
Ali, one of the men O’Neill interviews at a seduction workshop, explains it thus: “I never had much control [when it came to women]… And this kind of seems like a way to gain control in that area of my life… There’s like a peace that I know as long as I keep doing this I will have this area of my life sorted. It just feels better, in a way, knowing that you do something. And there’s… it’s like another skill.”
Approach your sex life like your work life, goes the strange sales pitch for seduction; invest time and money in its courses and materials, and you’ll get a promotion – an upgraded sex life.
Thus, whether seduction trainers or students, the men O’Neill interviews tend to talk about women not as living, breathing human beings. Instead, they become a means to an end. But here’s the strangest thing: that “end” is often not even about sex.
“I don’t know,” complains one man called Derek about his constant quest to pull women. “Like, sometimes I don’t want to, you know, I just don’t want to, but I’m still out there… You’ve gotta do this, cause if you don’t, you could be back to where you were.”
The real aim, for many of the men involved, is boosting their own status and self-confidence. It’s about the macho kudos derived from upping the number of notches on your bedpost or from dating “a girl who’s a 10 in terms of looks,” instead of “fives and sixes”, as one seduction trainer tells O’Neill. It’s not a desire for women, just a desire to exercise mastery over their bodies.
It all adds up to what O’Neill calls “murky conditions for consent”. But, she says, sexual consent – how to be sure you have it and the implications of not obtaining it – were never discussed in any serious way, at any of the events she attended.
Yet O’Neill is reluctant to give women tips to detect the seduction techniques that might be used on them. “I really worry about that idea,” she explains, “because women are already so constrained in the way we’re supposed to navigate relationships. I’m hesitant about saying anything that heaps more responsibility on women to avoid threats.”
Meanwhile, these techniques, and tutorials in them, continue to flourish. “Confidence and dating coach” Johnny Cassell is running “How to get laid in Ibiza” workshops throughout the summer (modules include the delightfully titled “how to bang the cleaner, waitresses, and bar staff”).
Real Social Dynamics is launching a programme called Get Me A Girlfriend with the winning tagline “stop getting disrespected and instead get a model girlfriend”. Their executive coach, Julien Blanc, by the way, was barred from entering the UK in 2014, after being accused of promoting sexual assault.
An organisation called Social Attraction is holding PUA – or pick up artistry – courses in Prague, London, Stockholm and Madrid this summer. They range in price from £499 to £1,999.
There is, it seems, a lot of money to be made from male pride. But who ends up paying?
Rachel O’Neill’s Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy is published by Polity Press