There have been dozens of them. Young guys, undergrad age, who pop up in my path when I’m strolling around the Toronto Eaton Centre. They talk not so much to me as at me, in rehearsed, cringingly earnest sound bites: “Do you know where H&M is? … Actually, I just wanted to talk to you.” One day, two in a row complimented my “unique style”; I was wearing Uggs and Lululemons.
Finally, I confronted one of them: “Am I being punked?” He stammered something about watching “pickup artist” videos on the Internet. That night, a Google search drew me into the rabbit hole that is the online pickup artist (PUA) community, a maze of forums, websites and YouTube clips dedicated to meeting and seducing women. Pickup is a subculture, complete with its own jargon, that’s grown into a North America–wide industry, with “gurus” charging thousands of dollars to teach would-be Casanovas—or “AFCs” (Average Frustrated Chumps)—their “game.”
The community has roots in Toronto, where, in 1997, a guyliner-wearing professional magician named Mystery began offering seminars on seduction, designed around the idea that women desire “alpha males,” and advocating techniques such as “peacocking” (sporting loud clothing or bizarre accessories, like glow-in-the-dark jewellery, to attract attention) and “negging” (paying women backhanded compliments to suggest disinterest—thereby increasing their desire to win your approval). Mystery gained notoriety after journalist Neil Strauss detailed his methods in the 2005 book The Game. In the last decade, facilitated by the Internet (and camera phones), the culture has grown. Many forums now boast over 100,000 members.
Last December, a Reddit user reported that 850 people had RSVP’d to an Eaton Centre PUA event on Meetup.com, to be led by a coach named Junaid, who was charging $5 a head. The description read: “We will be ‘beasting’ (aka entering BEAST MODE). Defined along the lines of approaching continuously and consistently—targeting every approaching set” (group of girls). Mall security was alerted, the meet-up was kiboshed, and a debate was sparked, with media and commenters calling out PUAs for harassment, misogyny and general creepiness. Was the criticism too harsh? I don’t object to being approached in public; I’ve dated guys I met at Starbucks or on the subway. But I hate being put on the spot, and I’m disturbed by the aggression some guys displayed, pursuing me long after I demurred or flat out said, “Not interested.”
Junaid heads a Toronto company called Pickup Strategy, whose home page features a carousel of babes in bikinis and a graphic of two nude women kissing, and reads, “Beautiful women aren’t confined to any one corner of the city—so why should your game be?” The coaches offer one-on-one consulting starting at $40 an hour and two-day boot camps for $500. I meet Junaid and one of the coaches, Scott (both withheld their surnames), at a café. Both are in their early 20s. Far from the pallid basement dwellers or schmoozy car salesman types I imagined, they’re clean-cut, articulate and decidedly non-creepy.
Junaid works as a tech marketing analyst along with running the company, which he founded in 2011 after breaking up with a long-term girlfriend. He speaks in low, measured tones and frequently cracks his knuckles, at once mellow and imposing. Pickup, he tells me, has evolved since the Mystery days. Junaid and Scott follow what they call a “holistic curriculum”: they advocate healthy eating, exercise, meditation and “the pursuit of life goals.” Each client undergoes an evaluation, during which a coach might advise him to improve his posture or wear better-fitting clothes. Then it’s time to “sarge” (go on the prowl). “The point is to be the best version of yourself, and you’ll find a good match,” Scott says. The best pickup artists don’t rely on tricks like negging, adds Junaid: “That’s a very primitive technique.”
When I tell them about my experiences at the mall, Junaid frowns and shakes his head, one tradesman confronted with another’s shoddy workmanship. “I think a lot of guys try to find the perfect algorithm for talking to a woman,” says Scott, “rather than seeing her as a human being.” It’s hard to reconcile their pleasant real-life personalities with the tone of their blog, where I’ve encountered such gems as “Toronto has its fair share of sluts” and “Informing someone that you won’t take ‘No’ for an answer may be cliché, but this strategy could prove fruitful.” (These posts have since been removed.)
Junaid and Scott take pains to dissociate themselves from the many other organizations offering pickup coaching in Toronto. One is Big Willie Style, run by a wiry 28-year-old German transplant named Willy Beck, who offers “dating advice and lifestyle development.” He charges $2,000 a head for three-night bootcamps, wherein he’ll take two or three clients to a nightclub, encourage them to talk to girls and then provide feedback, like whether they spoke too much or should have gone for more “kino” (physical contact, like touching a girl’s shoulder or stroking her hair). I meet him at a Toronto library. “Most of my clients are very introverted and shy,” he tells me. “Sometimes their goal is just to be able to talk to people.”
Beck has the air of a motivational speaker, full of words like positivity, destiny and deeper purpose. A tattoo occupying his right forearm reads “Die for your dreams,” words echoed on the “About Us” section of his website, which also says: “Imagine you are entitled to the most beautiful women.” I’m troubled by the word entitled, and I ask Beck why he uses it. “Guys often think, I don’t deserve her, she’s out of my league,” Beck tells me. “I think that is total bullsh-t. You should feel entitled, or you should feel, I deserve a beautiful woman in my life.” He insists it’s all about self-esteem; this notion of entitlement seems his way of expressing that old chestnut: “You have to love yourself before anyone else can love you.”
Like many PUA websites, Beck’s features “infield” videos, in which he chats up and makes out with women; one even includes audio of Beck having sex with a girl. These women weren’t aware they were being recorded. If I were in one of those videos, I tell him, I’d be mortified. “I do understand how you can be embarrassed,” he begins, and then pauses for a good 30 seconds. “It’s not that I don’t care,” he says eventually, “but it is what it is now.” He doesn’t seem proud of the videos, but he doesn’t plan to take them down, either.
I bring up Beck’s Twitter feed, which reads like a ticker tape of inspirational quotes, including one from the controversial Irish politician Gerry Adams: “Your determination, selflessness and courage have brought the freedom struggle towards its fulfillment.” Puzzled as to how the quote, from a statement to the Irish Republican Army, might apply to pickup, I ask Beck why he tweeted it. “When it comes to whatever you want, you’ve got to be very determined,” he says. He explains how he set out to study pickup because he felt sexually suppressed and riddled with anxiety; now, his efforts are serving others. “It’s selfless,” he says. “I want to give this to the world.” He puts me in touch with a 26-year-old who says Beck helped him overcome a debilitating shyness. “I’m not interested in countless ‘lays,’” he tells me. “I want the confidence and emotional resilience the practice is going to build for me.” Testimonials on Beck’s website describe similar motivations—and triumphs.
Another coach, Jan Huang of Vancouver’s JanLifestyle, insists, “If you met a girl who’s dated a good pickup artist, she’d tell you she loved it.” So I speak with a woman named Kim Bagayawa, 34, whose husband, Mike, studied PUA material like The Game during a period when they’d split. After they reconnected, Kim noticed he’d become more confident. Curious, she read The Game herself. “I was happy Mike learned about pickup,” she tells me. “If you’re a good guy to begin with, it’s going to enhance who you are. For women, there are so many outlets for self-improvement, but for guys, not so much.”
It seems pickup can be as much about men connecting with themselves as connecting with women. Self-betterment is a worthy goal, but I often get the sense that women are being reduced, like the girlfriends in action movies, to conduits for men’s personal evolutions. I tell Huang I don’t think a guy’s desire to build social skills trumps my right to browse a shopping mall undisturbed. He disagrees, and argues women stand to benefit from pickup: “Do you wake up and go, ‘I hope I don’t meet the guy of my dreams today?’” The thing is, the guy of my dreams? He would have agreed with me.