Since completing my doctorate research into men’s experiences of women’s power in dating relationships three months ago, I have been working on two books, an edited version of my thesis for the academic market and another book based on today’s gender culture for a more mainstream reader. Both books include my findings from ten interviews with pickup artists (PUAs), men who undertake training to become more confident in making approaches towards women. It is therefore with interest that this week I have researched the recent furore regarding the world’s now most famous PUA, Julian Blanc.
For the unaware, Blanc is a 25-year-old Swiss born American man, the latest in a long number of doyens of the pickup artist industry. He is an ‘executive coach’ for a company called Real Social Dynamics which started in 2002 and according to press reports, now makes in excess of $3 million a year running 1000 programs in 70 countries teaching insecure men neuro-linguistic tricks aimed at procuring women’s phone numbers with the hope of sleeping with them.
The pickup artist trainers I interviewed described the industry as being split between light and dark sides; the light using less underhand and misogynistic tactics to gain women’s attention, the dark intentionally doing the opposite. Julian Blanc can be described as engaging in some very dark practices. Many of the reports by those who have attended his classes praise his lack of misogyny, whilst there are clearly some exceptions. Apparently his twitter feed (now set to private) had comments like, “times like these just make me want to choke fuck some whore behind a dumpster”. He has also been heavily criticised for statements made on his social media such as those made against Asian women abroad:
“If you’re a white male? You can do what you want. Just grab her. I pull her in, and she just kind of laughs and giggles. And all you have to say to like, take the pressure off is just yell ‘Pikachu’ or ‘Pokémon’ or ‘Tamagotchi’ or something.”
Perhaps most shockingly, he used a chart designed to educate domestic violence support workers, which listed men’s various controlling behaviours, to which he responds: “May as well be a checklist….#HowToMakeHerStay”. Elsewhere, his videos show him pushing women’s faces into his groin and mock choking them under the hash tag #ChokingGirlsAroundTheWorld.
Time magazine referred to him as the most hated man in the world and right now, they may be right. The worldwide press and bloggers were overwhelmingly negative towards his actions. After a grass roots campaign #Takedownjulienblanc started in the first week of November 2014 by American, Jennifer Li successfully had him extradited from Australia (where he intended to present some PUA boot camps), other grass roots campaigns, women’s rights groups and government petitions – all supported by members of various governments – gained similar results. He was refused entry in Japan, Canada, the UK, Iceland, Brazil and Singapore. There were also petitions to keep him out of Berlin, Korea and Denmark, among others, although Denmark was not allowed to refuse him entry for legal reasons. There is even a pickup artist simulator tongue in cheek game that disparages the skills PUA teaches and the men that use them, now in development. In response to all this Blanc was seen to apologise on CNN claiming much of what he said was an attempt at humour. A great sense of humour you might say.
Having scanned hundreds of the world’s press articles on this subject I can see little variation in the interpretation of his acts; he is a male sexual predator who preys on unsuspecting powerless women. I agree there is no doubt that some of his actions are abhorrent and stupid, yet this is only half of the story. If we genuinely see him as he wishes to project himself, as a male predator, we are as stupid as some of the practitioners that frequent the dark side of pickup artistry. This is because his misogyny is a guard against exposing his insecurities around his masculinity.
Blanc utilises the pickup artist industry’s invention of a particular historic masculine type to which they aspire to be. In their view all men can, and should become alpha males, not the dreaded beta males that they now feel themselves to be. He offers men the ability to “Develop panty-dropping masculinity with this rock-solid structure to self-generate the powerful emotions girls crave”. Note how this sentence is full of historical masculine adjectives like ‘rock-solid’, ’structure’ and ’powerful’…
Pickup artistry is mainly about offering men ‘constructed certitude’ about their masculinity at a time of great gender flux. Without a popular feeling of insecurity among men there would be no market for it. When men are having difficulty knowing how to be male, its no wonder a homosocial environment such as PUA is attractive to some. My experience of interviewing pickup artists is that they are looking to such an aspirational masculine archetype in order to help them through their own confusions around women’s ever changing and difficult to define, demands from men as partners, fathers and work colleagues. As the powerful ones, men have never needed to be so flexible before now (unlike women who have always known they need to be a whore in the bedroom and a Madonna in the kitchen, for instance) and they are finding this difficult to grapple with. Much as PUA would have angered me intensely as a young woman, maturity has taught me that such men will never have the power most women have by simply turning up at a bar in a half decent dress.
It is unfortunate that most articles considered PUA students’ claims of insecurity to be a means of spinning a misogynistic desire to subjugate women further by using women’s own language of victimhood. As Australian journalist, Sam de Brito noted, pickup artists aren’t footballers, bankers or bikers who use their position in society to extract sex from women, nor are they religious people who codify the submission and abuse of females or advertising or media bosses who profit from sexism, they are nerds, those that rarely get the girl.
Much as I don’t support the dark side of pickup artistry (I do think the light side can be quite useful, I certainly learned a lot about approaching strangers), it seems certainly the case that men genuinely have a lot of insecurity about dating women, something that is getting lost in this linguistic game of cowboys and Indians between pro and anti feminists.
All this is happening in a context of paranoia that women can be genuinely short-circuited and duped by such neuro-linguistic yielding, misogynist PUAs. Somehow the current press on this subject supports the idea that men, of whom pickup artists are exemplars, are so emotionally and sexually autonomous that they call all the shots in dating relationships. Yet if this were the case, why the need for such training? My interviews with pickup artists and other dating men point in entirely the opposite direction. Men have a lot of insecurities, which they are not entirely able to vocalise because there is a deficit of cultural discourses/ways of understanding that they can use to describe what they feel.
The other side of this omission of male insecurities, is the exaggeration of some of women’s experiences of sexism. Much as I applaud the on-going campaign #EverydaySexism for its ability to describe hitherto sexist minutiae, I agree with Emma Teitel, writing for McLean, that because social media responds with such speed sexist offences are:
“[A]malgamated… One melting pot of equivalency. The result is that the difference between what’s idiotic, what’s lecherous, and what’s criminal is lost. This is the hapless kind of false equivalency that has infected so many worthy social movements and reduced their stature, with moral persuasion replaced by ideological bullying. The greatest heresy is for anyone, male or female, to suggest that there might be another side to the story.”
Nearly all of the press highlighted Blanc’s use of mimicking a choking action around a woman’s throat as indicative of a desire to choke them in real life, as a recommendation for domestic violence against them. For instance, the Icelandic newspaper, Icenews claims that his techniques “are said to exploit vulnerable men and often lead to them raping women.” Much as Blanc’s behaviour is reprehensible, I see nothing in what I’ve read or seen about him that shows that his teachings has led to real-life rapes of women, but again this ‘sticky’ word gets used, perhaps even as a metaphor, who can tell these days? What is certain though, we are better off looking at what such mock chokes cover up – frustrations against women’s power – than taking them on face value as already recognisable representations and fitting them into existing theories of power such as those of patriarchy. Foucault taught us that in the 1970’s.
We need to develop the conversation around gender to include male victimhood and female power from the male perspective; otherwise we will only have half of the picture. Men are well aware of women’s power; it’s time that feminists were too. As novelist Jojo Moyes, put it, ” I’m not sure we should have banned Julien Blanc. Might have been more effective for women to buy up all the seats and just laugh at him”.