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Feminism’s Flip Side: A Cultural History of the Pickup Artist

Abstract

This paper provides a historical account of the ‘pickup artists’ (PUA) phenomenon, tracing the origins back to the early 1970s when more liberal attitudes towards sexuality were on the rise in the West. Today PUA advice not only includes information about seduction techniques, but also programs about self-improvement or so-called ‘inner game’. Seduction and dating gurus can be found across the internet—from individual bloggers to dating coaches and relationship experts—all providing niche services and products on how to seduce and/or have fulfilling relationships with women. By addressing the moral panics around the PUA discourse, the paper seeks to illustrate the connection between second wave feminism, as a discourse increasingly interested in the idea of ‘gender egalitarianism’ and the popularity of seduction techniques for men based on emerging scientific research.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Data from Amazon shows the book’s long tail reach—it currently sits at number 6612 of the most popular books ever sold; number 11 in the ‘Social Sciences > Gender Studies > Men’ category, and number 26 in the ‘Self-Help > Sex’ segment.

  2. 2.

    Restrictions on printed publications were being lifted too; the word ‘fuck’ being included in the Oxford English dictionary for the first time in 1972. The Sensuous Man (1971) and The Sensuous Woman (1969) were two classic sex manuals written at that time (by authors simply known as ‘M’ and ‘J’). The Sensuous Man includes a good deal of information about male sexuality, covering topics like penis size, impotence and premature ejaculation.

  3. 3.

    Not all feminists would deny the existence of biology in helping to shape gendered and sexuality identities, but by looking at media debates about quotas in politics and the military, for example, these voices are less prevalent. At times Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was almost entirely based on the feminist ‘gender egalitarian’ presupposition that, because of her sex, she was at a disadvantage and would make a better political leader.

  4. 4.

    Kaplan goes so far as to say that ‘gaming logic culminates in the dehumanization of all parties and suspends moral considerations’. It’s important to consider that all interactions cited in the article—like those mentioned in PUA books—are consensual, and objectification in and of itself is not necessarily amoral. The implicit assumption here is that traditional dating practices (whatever they are), by contrast, are morally superior in some way.

  5. 5.

    Morton Hunt’s Sexual Behaviour in the 1970s (1974), for instance, resurveys some of the same terrain that the Kinsey’s studies covered in 1948 and 1953, including new data on the emerging swingers lifestyle. Hunt optimistically suggests that ‘[t]he double standard [regarding female sexual permissiveness] has been relegated to the scrap heap of history’. The research was funded by the Playboy Foundation.

  6. 6.

    There are, of course, downsides to both male and female forms of promiscuity, just as there are limitations to more conservative forms of relationship. It’s not my aim to promote ‘one side’ over the other, but to seek a better understanding as to how public debate (including within academia) has been shaped in the first place. Scientific research is by no means infallible, but I do believe it has an important role to play in cultural studies’ exploration of the topic.

  7. 7.

    A number of studies (Dunn and Hill 2014; Dunn and Searle 2010) highlight how markers of material wealth (such as luxury apartment- and car-ownership) can increase a woman’s sexual attractiveness towards men. These findings align with the ‘parental investment’ theory, which posits that—because of the risks related to childbearing—women tend to seek out resources and security in a sexual partner. Recent research provides a more nuanced view, considering the influence of hormones and risk-taking behavior during the menstrual cycle. What defines ‘status’ too is an important question to bear in mind, and one which relates to the individual woman’s personal values. Data on male sexual attraction, on the other hand, continues to highlight the importance of female youthfulness, physical attractiveness (shiny hair, nails and clear skin) as well as a hip-to-waist ratio of about 0.7. Evidence suggests a strong correlation between these traits and female levels of fertility.

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Funding

This study was 100% self-funded.

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Correspondence to Andrew Stephen King.

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Conflict of interest

Andrew Stephen King has received no grants or research funding from any external, commercial and/or institutional sources.

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This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

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King, A.S. Feminism’s Flip Side: A Cultural History of the Pickup Artist. Sexuality & Culture 22, 299–315 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-017-9468-0

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Keywords

  • Pickup artist
  • Seduction
  • Attraction
  • Feminism
  • Dating advice
  • Moral panics