The pickup artist, or “pua” in the systematic tongue of the seduction community, sits across the table from me talking about picking his nose, as it relates to picking up women. “I did it right in front of the hottest chick in Las Vegas,” says the well-groomed, if average-looking, business executive in his late thirties, a self-described “South Park conservative” dressed in designer jeans and a short-sleeve collared shirt. “Just to show her I didn’t care.”
We’re at the Dark Horse Tavern in Virginia-Highland on a Thursday night. There are plenty of “targets,” as the PUA, “Henry,” refers to attractive women. (Worried about having his cover blown, personally and professionally, “Henry” insisted on a pseudonym.) The targets are doing what humans habitually do at bars, unaware of the PUA in their midst. We are, as they say, “in the field.”
Tonight, though, Henry and I aren’t nose-picking or “peacocking” (wearing outlandish clothing, such as a feather boa) to attract attention, or “negging” (using an “accidental insult,” such as “I love your eyes—especially the left one”) to demonstrate lack of interest, or even using the elementary “triangular gazing” (looking from left eye to right eye to the lips) to insinuate desire. We aren’t running any manner of “game.” I’m simply discussing its particulars with this local lady-hunter, who is unabashedly laying out and admiring his psychological ammunition among his potential prey.
Analyzing the “game” is a large part of the appeal to Henry, a one-time student of animal behavior at Berkeley who went to the Congo during college to study chimp flirtation. He’s since gotten into finance (“I make damn good money but don’t wear it on my sleeve”) and casually drops words such as “confiscatory,” “exigent,” and “olfactory” into our conversation, displaying fluency in the disparate worlds of finance and animal reproduction. Yes, Henry wants to get laid. But he also wants to understand why and how we choose our mates. This is not a rationalization so much as a cold, hard, human fact. (The rationalizations come later: I’m a better public speaker now; I can navigate awkward situations more easily; I always try to leave a woman better than I found her.)
He sips his second, and final, Jack and water—“if I have too many, I lose the verbal dexterity I rely upon”—paying scant attention (an implicit demonstration of his “higher value”) to the high-heeled young professionals milling around and evaluating, however unconsciously, possible mates. “I’ve always had an interest in biological psychology,” he says. “Before I even discovered the community, I wanted to make a comprehensive model for picking up women, using my background in animal behavior and evolution. I looked online and realized the work had already been done.”
Over the last four years, “running game” or “sarging” (a seduction term traced to a legendary PUA’s house cat) has gone from underground art to pedestrian weeknight activity. The watershed moment was the 2005 publication of a book by Neil Strauss documenting his infiltration and ascension to the top of the seduction community (The Game), followed by VH1’s The Pickup Artist, a show hosted by Strauss’s guru, a former “nerd from the Great White North” named Mystery.But sarging is still a chiefly West Coast and Northeast urban phenomenon. With the exception of perhaps Miami, southeastern metropolises haven’t been “sarged out” like, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where Henry lived and learned “game” at a workshop called PickUp 101 until moving east for work earlier this year. “You go into a club in L.A. and use a canned line,” he explains, “and you might be the fifth guy to try it that night. You get called out a lot.” One might assume, then, that other West Coast PUAs like Henry may be gradually migrating south and east, to relatively greener pastures.
Henry has certainly found “easier targets” here. And he’s lately been wading through Atlanta’s online PUA “lairs”—anonymous forums where members of “the community” discuss techniques and post long, detailed “field reports” of conquest and failure alike—looking for male “wings” to go sarging with him. (“I don’t do as well on my own,” he confides.) Such a lair is where I found him. Practitioners of the game range from business executives like Henry to computer science majors at Georgia Tech. Many, he admits, “are dorks in the IT sector who need help simply talking to girls.” The successful ones are analytical, disciplined, and dogged more often than they are attractive, connected, or wealthy.
Henry, who discovered “the community” in his early thirties, insists that he’s “a natural introvert.” He lost his virginity at eighteen but approached no more than a dozen women at bars over the next sixteen years. Friends or coworkers had introduced him to all the women he’d dated, or the women had approached him. In the last four years, during his evolution from AFC (“Average Frustrated Chump”) to PUA, Henry estimates that he’s made some 1,500 approaches, during which he’s fine-tuned his game. “It’s just not virile to not approach,” he says, before going into a brief exposition on the “three-second rule,” whereby one must approach any attractive woman he sees at a bar in the same breath that he notices her. “I simply have to be able to isolate the woman, get her in a conversation, and find out what moves her. Then I simply move her. I’m successful about 80 percent of the time.” The seduction model that Henry uses is one of the community’s oldest and most relied upon. It’s called the Mystery Method, named after the magician-turned-PUA who decoded and organized the mystifying process of getting laid into three phases: attraction, comfort, and seduction. Notably, there is no “relationship” phase. PUAs do not claim to understand what comes after successful seduction, beyond more of the same.
A few days later, Henry is running game at Midtown’s RA Sushi, where he initiates a conversation with two nurses from Miami who have ordered California rolls. “You can just get those at Publix,” he laughs, “demonstrating value” as he walks up to them. He then suggests a few more exotic dishes before segueing into a discussion of his time spent in California. His approach is not rebuffed.
Not long after the conversation begins, another guy steps into Henry’s “set” (the PUA term used to describe a group of targets) and says something to his target. “I had to show dominance or risk losing the set,” Henry tells me afterward. “I had to show her that I was a ‘leader of men.’ So I said, ‘Wait a second, are you hitting on my ex-girlfriend?’ And [the guy] got really defensive and said, ‘No, no, man.’ I responded, ‘Don’t worry, you can have her. But there’s one thing you’ve got to know—she’s terrible in bed.’ The target spun around in her chair and playfully punched me in the chest, smiling, establishing kino”—physical contact. “He disappeared, and I knew I had her. I’d activated an attraction switch in her that responds to social dominance.”
There were other challenges: establishing comfort, isolating her from her friend, recognizing her values, taking her home and dimming the lights. But they were having a good time. Then a conversation began about a burn victim and briefly brought him out of game mode. He was, perhaps, himself. Later, I ask whether this is a good thing. No, he says. “I’d rather be called out for using the game than be called out for who I am.” There’s a girl, incidentally, back in California—many conquests ago, before he began playing the game—whom he hasn’t been able to forget.