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The Art of Pickup: Misogyny in Action

Have you ever read The Game1 or seen the VH1 series The Pickup Artist? Even though The Game is no longer topping the New York Times bestsellers list and The Pickup Artist has long since left the air, the pickup community is alive and well. In fact, in my hometown of Austin, Texas, there are at least three major pickup companies and dozens of independent instructors, all willing to provide (expensive) one-on-one lessons designed to teach the unlucky-at-love how to play the game. As someone who enjoys the nightlife arguably more than she should, it was only a matter of time before I stumbled across the local pickup community and, as a result, met some of the biggest names in the seduction industry (yes, I have met Neil Strauss. No, he did not make a pass at me—and no, I’m not disappointed). Just as these self-ascribed pickup artists had a lot of questions for me (a relationship scientist), I had a lot of questions for them, too. I had the strange pleasure of attending their weekly meetings, sitting in on coaching sessions, and watching “students” approach woman after woman (oftentimes trying out lines like, “Hey, nice shoes, wanna f***?”). As I listened to them obsess over why their strategies worked on some women but not others, I couldn’t help but wonder the same thing—and I also couldn’t help but wonder why these men found assertive relationship initiation strategies to be so appealing in the first place. 

Recently, researchers at the University of Kansas addressed precisely these questions by conducting two large online surveys, one involving college students and one drawn from the broader population.2 To do this, they first asked men and women about their willingness to engage in casual or short-term sex (or, in research-speak, their sociosexual orientation), as well as their feelings of hostile sexism (antipathy toward women based on the notion that men ought to have more power than women) and benevolent sexism (subjectively positive yet stereotypic beliefs about women which highlight the role of men as providers). Then, the researchers asked the men about how often they used assertive mating strategies, and they asked the women to indicate the extent to which they found such strategies appealing. The specific assertive mating strategies that the researchers focused on were the use of teasing or “negging,” attempts to isolate the female “target” from her friends, and the tendency to directly compete with other men for a woman’s attention.

Perhaps not surprisingly, men who had a less restricted sociosexual orientation—that is, they were more willing to engage in uncommitted sex—reported using assertive initiation strategies more often than men who were more restricted. Further, men in the community sample (but not the college sample) who reported higher levels of hostile sexism also indicated that they were more likely to use assertive mating strategies. The authors suggest that, because college men are regularly encouraged by their peers to act in a cavalier manner toward women in order to “get laid”3 (think about any fraternity party you’ve ever been to), their use of assertive strategies may have little to do with their sexist beliefs.

The researchers found a similar pattern for women—specifically, those who held more hostile beliefs about women and those who were more willing to have casual sex found the use of assertive strategies to be more desirable. Interestingly, women who scored higher on benevolent sexism were also more receptive to assertive initiation techniques. Basically, it seems that women who hold stereotypic views about their own gender—whether subjectively positive or negative—tend to be more open to assertive courtship strategies, as such techniques may serve to reconfirm their pre-existing beliefs about women’s place in the world (and, by extension, how women should be treated by men).

It all really comes down to what these strategies are designed to do. Because these assertive pickup techniques are intended to propel the relationship from hand-shaking to bed-shaking as quickly as possible, it makes sense they would appeal to people who feel more comfortable sleeping with strangers. And because these strategies are an exaggerated version of the traditional courtship script (featuring the male as the sexual initiator and the female as the sexual gatekeeper), it also makes sense that individuals with sexist attitudes would be more drawn to initiation strategies in which men assert their dominance. So, ladies, before you worry your pretty little heads about becoming the next notch on your local Casanova’s bedpost, think about whether or not you actually find these types of come-ons to be attractive. If you don’t, chances are you won’t find them appealing when you’re the recipient of one, either.

(Extra credit: +2 points to anyone who caught the benevolent sexism in the prior paragraph—and another +2 points to anyone who appreciated my use of Style’s “point system.”)

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1Strauss, N. (2005). The game: Penetrating the secret society of pickup artists. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

2Hall, J. A., & Canterberry, M. (2011). Sexism and assertive courtship strategies. Sex Roles, 65, 840–853.

3Paul, E. L. (2006). Beer goggles, catching feelings, and the walk of shame: The myths and realities of the hookup experience. In D. C. Kirkpatrick, S. Duck, & M. K. Foley (Eds.), Relating difficulty: The process of constructing and managing difficult interaction (pp. 141–160). Mahwah: Erlbaum.

Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life.  She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.

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