Is there a right way to pick someone up?

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Last updated 11:55 13/05/2013
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LINESMAN: Ryan Gosling as a pick-up artist in Crazy Stupid Love.

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"I'm sick and tired of men with cheap pick-up techniques," my friend Lizzie complains. "I'm either being obviously 'negged' (a pick-up trick that relies on back-handed, or negative, compliments), being groped, or being confronted by men too tongue-tied to say what they want. Where are the confident, feminist-friendly men?"

Lizzie's is a familiar frustration. The much-trumpeted "masculinity crisis" may be just oversold media hype, but it's difficult to deny that many straight, single women are exasperated by the mix of indecisiveness and entitlement that seems endemic among their available male peers.

As Lizzie jokes, "maybe Yeats was actually onto something about single men when he wrote that 'the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity' ".

In both the United States and Australia, that passionate intensity is on full display online in the thriving PUA (pick-up artist) communities. These groups and their gurus promise to teach shy, awkward young men "game": tools for how to meet, manipulate and bed women.

As feminist writer Clarisse Thorn, author of Confessions of a Pick-Up Artist Chaser, puts it, too many of these PUAs "frame women as enemies or objects". The results are depressingly predictable; while some shy young men may find a way to get sex they imagine they otherwise wouldn't have gotten, the adversarial nature of mainstream pick-up artistry only increases the distrust between the sexes.

But what if there was a different way - perhaps one that could encourage more of the confident, feminist-friendly men whom Lizzie would love to meet? The positive potential is there: Thorn points out that the success of PUA communities is partly built on the way in which the strategies they teach overlap with standard therapeutic treatments for social anxiety.

Young men get mentored by other men, often getting help with issues of masculine image and identity. The PUAs aren't just teaching misogynistic predation, they're also dealing with the legitimate and too often unmet needs of frustrated and shy young men.

I asked Michael Kimmel, the pre-eminent sociologist of masculinity and author of Guyland, what he offers the young men who come to him, complaining that women "only want macho jerks".

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Kimmel told me he encourages lads to steer clear of women who are "seduced by the old romantic fantasy their love can transform bad boys". Rather, he suggests focusing on women who are working as hard to extricate themselves from that fantasy as young men should work to unlearn the "traditional masculine ideas of either sexual predation or rescuing damsels in distress".

Sustain your integrity, don't proclaim it, Kimmel advises - romantic success will come by "acting ethically and being sensitive and a good listener: in short, being a good friend".

One man who offers a detailed guide to modern sexual ethics for feminist-friendly men is Mark Manson, author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty and the founder of PostMasculine, a site that promises to teach "new and useful behaviour for men of the coming generations".

In an email, Manson points out that most PUAs demean both men and women. Traditional pick-up artistry assumes that women don't really want sex - at least not with men who are authentically themselves. PUAs peddle "the false idea that sex with a woman is something to be won", Manson says, and that it not only unhealthily objectifies women, it leaves men convinced that they themselves "are not good enough as they are".

Young men are missing a clear understanding of how to express their own healthy sexual desires "in a way that maintains respect for women's autonomy", Manson argues. Women deserve the reassurance that men won't react poorly if they hear the truth, even if that truth comes in the form of a clear and unmistakable "no".

Too many women learn too early that men will react to rejection with crude persistence or sulky petulance. In the long run, we'll all be better off if men becoming willing to change that dynamic.

It's just as important to acknowledge that men aren't the only ones looking for the occasional one-night stand, just as men aren't the only ones who sometimes feel stuck in the dreaded "friend zone". The traditional pick-up template rests on the idea that women are supposed to wait with a mix of passivity, wariness, and hope for a man to come along and make an offer that's either honest or deceptive, appealing or repulsive. That "man proposes, women disposes" model sells everyone short.

The notion that women don't need to learn pick-up techniques rests on the myth that men are so eager for sex that any woman ought to be able to "get some" whenever she likes without employing much skill or effort. That myth results in the kind of useless advice that pick-up artist Arden Leigh writes that she was given when she was first on the dating scene: "that I should just go out and sit at a bar and wait for a man to approach me, and that if he didn't approach me then he just wasn't that into me and that I should just accept it and move on".

If there are to be such things as feminist pick-up ethics, they'll have to be as much about empowering women to take the sexual initiative as about encouraging men to be honest and respectful. The reality is that getting what you want from whom you want it can be as challenging for women as for men. Just as men need to work, as Kimmel says, on "acting ethically", women deserve the tools to act boldly.

As Leigh (who founded Sirens, a seduction coaching company for women) puts it, "women need to be able to get off their bar stools and start living their fantasies now. Life is really too short to wait around for someone else to give you what you want."

The worst of the pick-up artists insist that men and women want such radically different things that only the cynical mastery of manipulation techniques will lead to happiness. The good news is the emergence of a different model for men and women alike, based on mutuality, kindness and willingness to prioritise other's boundaries as well as one's own pleasure.

To put it more simply, this new model rests on the idea that men and women aren't adversaries, but collaborators. Even, perhaps, friends.

- Daily Life

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