Are Pickup Artists Contributing to Rape Culture?

Much of the language around surrounds the idea that women put up “token resistance,” encouraging PUAs to not take resistance and requests to stop seriously.

Jul 31, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

Pick up artists (PUAs) have been working the field for, well, since forever, but the Internet has really helped them along; now they can exchange tips on forums and websites, sell DVDs and books and offer tips in podcasts and pretty much any other fora you can imagine. They even have their own reality television shows, and their own unique insider slang. They’re determined to position themselves as players, and the game pieces are women.

Anna North raises an important question, though: Do widely discussed, promoted, and reproduced PUA techniques cause rape?

I’d argue that they definitely contribute to a culture of what some people call “gray rape,” those situations that can be difficult to express or define for the women who experience them; for example, a women doesn’t feel like she’s been raped because she didn’t firmly object to sex, or a woman is uncomfortable with calling what she experienced “rape.”

Obviously, PUA tips alone can’t be the sole cause of a complex cultural problem, but they’re a contributing factor, and that makes them important to examine.

The infamous Reddit rape thread certainly featured some examples of PUAs who used tried-and-true techniques to rape women, and in some cases didn’t necessarily recognize it as such until after the fact. PUA techniques focus heavily on a steadily escalating process of coercion and many come with an assumption that a man has a right to have sex with any woman he wants. Additionally, he’s less of a man if he doesn’t succeed in landing a given “catch,” which puts tremendous pressure on him to seal the deal at all costs.

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You, too, can learn to be a pickup artist! Photo by Flickr user Frank Swift, Creative Commons license.

Clearly, people can read PUA tips without becoming rapists. They can even identify as PUAs and use some of these techniques in the pursuit of sexual partners without engaging in rape; though I’d still argue that they are participating in a smarmy, objectifying, highly sexist culture that treats women like prizes to be won rather than human beings. That’s their choice. Women who aren't interested in that can, in turn, choose not to have sex with them. 

The problem is that so many of these tips, and indeed much of the terminology, are misogynist and directly encourage rape and boundary-crossing behavior. PUA tips provide a classic example of the kind of rape that is most difficult to identify and define. Their maintainers would firmly argue that they aren't promoting rape, based on a flimsy and outdated notion of what rape looks like; after all, they're not telling visitors to jump out of dark corners and sexually assault women.

They are encouraging men to use tremendous pressure to get women to sleep with them, though. Overcome “last minute resistance,” for example, with a series of coldly calculated steps intended to get a woman to cave and have sex. These steps notably don’t include an active solicitation of consent.

PUAs assure each other, for example, that women who feel uneasy about one night stands are simply conditioned to do so or acting on uncontrollable instinct and thus they need to be pushed into sex. This will surely come as a surprise to women who don’t feel uneasy at all about them and actively seek them out.

Oh, wait, those are the sluts.

Speaking of which, PUAs are fond of exchanging tips on how to deal with “anti-slut defense” (ASD):

Women’s internal mechanism to create plausible deniability before sex with a new man. It ensures that she doesn’t appear (to herself and others) that she’s too easily seduced.

Much of the language around ASD surrounds the idea that women put up “token resistance,” encouraging PUAs to not take resistance and requests to stop seriously. The idea is that it’s necessary to plow right through a partner’s inhibitions because they aren’t really serious; she’s just faking it because she wants to create a smokescreen to hide behind. Since, obviously, women who have casual sex should be embarrassed by their behavior.

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If by "pickup artist" you mean "someone who enjoys picking up cats," guilty as charged.

“No means no” doesn’t apply here, and there’s not a lot of discussion about how PUAs are supposed to tell the difference between this so-called faux resistance and the real thing. The language used implies that all women are secretly sexually available and willing at all times and just need a little “encouragement.” Some might need a little more than others, sure, and you can buy the DVD for $29.99 if you want to know more about how to reel them in.

There is nothing, of course, in the PUA dictionary for “rape.”

Obviously, it’s possible to utilize PUA techniques without raping someone. But these techniques definitely encourage rape, and as North stresses, they set a dangerous social precedent. The structure of such techniques creates the idea that forcing women to have sex is normal, and that pressuring sexual partners is acceptable. And as these techniques spread out beyond the PUA community, they become internalized by the rest of society. In the process, they can become increasingly distorted.

When a culture judges its men on how many women they have sex with and the hotness level of their conquests, it’s inevitable that at least some men would turn to gray zones that they ultimately consider acceptable because everyone says so with the kind of advice found in PUA tips. Some of those men may not consciously realize that what they are doing is rape, and that they are committing sexual assault, not seducing willing partners.

Others are aware that they’re rapists, and they appreciate the step-by-step guides provided though PUA tips. They also appreciate, of course, the cover offered by this widespread and popular “advice,” because they can hide among ordinary PUAs and say they’re just playing the game. Thanks to the normalization of coerced sex, their victims may have difficulty discussing what happened to them, let alone reporting it to authorities who might be able to take action.