Q&A: A Reformed Pickup Artist on Elliot Rodger’s Anger

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In headlines Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodgers is the Virgin Killer, but online he was an "incel." Short for “involuntary celibates,” incels are part of a subgroup of the many sexually frustrated men, would-be pickup artists, and Men’s Rights activists who share sleazy seduction tips and air grievances about women in the forums orbiting Reddit’s Seduction subreddit. The most extreme of them was a forum called PUAHate (since shuttered, read about its refugees at Jezebel), which Rodger claimed to have discovered about a year ago. “It is a forum full of men who are starved of sex, just like me,” he wrote in his manifesto. “Reading the posts on that site only confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are.” To find out more about the relationship between pickup artistry, misogyny, and violence, the Cut talked to Harris O’Malley, a.k.a. Dr. NerdLove, the author of Simplified Dating (not pictured). A former member of the pickup community, O’Malley now advances an alternative school of dating and self-help for geeks as the advice columnist at Kotaku.

Some have argued that talking about Rodger’s misogyny is crassly using the atrocity to advance feminist ideology. Why did you think now was a good time to talk about it? 
I wouldn’t call it a good time. I would definitely call it an important time. He flat-out tells us that he’s killing women because he hates them, because he resents that he’s not getting what he wants from them.

But what about the idea that he’s too mentally ill to be credible in his misogyny?
I will preface this with my usual disclaimer: Dr. NerdLove not a doctor. I don’t know of any mental illness where misogyny is a symptom. But if you read his manifesto, it’s incredibly lucid. The logic is messed up, but he’s not hearing voices, he’s not overturning some conspiracy. He’s angry and he’s full of hate, and he comes to conclusions that most people would never come to, but that hate is clearly what’s been driving him. I’m sure he has something up with him, mental illness or a personality disorder, but there’s no denying that he legitimately hated women.

Where does that anger intersect with pickup artistry?
You see a lot of that anger and bitterness toward women, and the belief that women only go for certain types of guys — alphas — both in the pickup community and in areas like PUAHate, which started to complain about the pickup community because people felt like it didn’t work. PUAHate members are kind of fascinating not just for their disgust for women but the reasons they invented as to why women reject them. They talk about growing up with “beta face” or not having sufficient brow ridge or needing plastic surgery to get these seemingly arbitrary features that, in their universe, are the only things women go for. When they complain about women refusing to sleep with them they’re also talking about how women are useless, serve no point in society, how any woman who’s five five and over 100 pounds is irredeemably fat and ugly and should hide herself away. They want these women to sleep with them, but they hate them at the same time.

Does the thesis of pickup artistry — women are a code you can break — contribute to men’s anger when they fail?
One of the things that’s really noticeable with Elliot Rodger’s writing is there’s a sense of entitlement. Arthur Chu really knocks it out of the park with his article in the Daily Beast on this, the feeling that we’ve done everything right; why aren’t women throwing themselves at me? They get angry because they feel like they’re being cheated or being robbed. Elliot Rodger had an extreme version of this. He wasn’t actually approaching women at all; he was literally expecting women to be giving him sex without any involvement from women at all. He wouldn’t approach them, because he instinctively knew they would reject him.

You were a member of the pickup community from 2006 to 2009. What drives people to these sites?
Mostly frustration. We know what we want: We want to be better and more skilled with women. As a culture, we’re very bad at teaching people how to improve socially. We live in this weird binary where either you have good social skills, are charismatic and good with women, or you aren’t, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. If you admit to the fact that you’re not good at it, if you admit there’s something wrong with you, there’s this impulse that people will say, Hey, look at this loser. The pickup community is really the only place where men are getting information, no matter how inaccurate or toxic it is at times.

What made you leave the pickup community? 
It was a revelation in stages. Since a lot of pickup is focused on meeting women in clubs and bars, I wasn’t liking the people I was meeting. I also recognized that I wasn’t liking who I was becoming and the way I was interacting, not just with women, but with my friends and family. All I would talk about was going out and picking up women. I saw other men as potential competition — we can be friends on a certain level, but we have to keep in place a certain fear that women will think you’re more alpha than I am. And women, I was literally trying to use them. I remember talking with one woman at a bar in Austin, and it was going really well. All signs pointed to us going to her place, but I was already mentally rehearsing how I was going to get out of there and not have to talk to her later. I was like, What am I doing? and just started recognizing how toxic a lot of my thought patterns had been. I have a complicated relationship with pickup because in some ways it’s good. But it’s also so saturated with negativity and ideas about gender roles and sex and male-female interaction that can’t be separated from the legitimate social skills it imparts. 

In your experience, did that entitlement and frustration ever turn into violence?
I was really lucky. The people I was going out with were a good group of guys. I have heard, mostly from women, about people having more negative reactions. Maybe not outward violence, but coercive techniques to break through what’s called last-minute resistance: No isn’t no; it’s a negotiating point. Or people use a freeze-out: When a woman says, No, not right now, then the pickup artist completely pulls back, making things incredibly awkward. Don’t let her see you be angry, but be cold and distant — use that awkwardness and social pressure to make her give in even though she doesn’t want to. Even I used that! Now I shudder. Why did I even think that?

There are basically three ways men measure their masculinity: how much sex they have, how much money they make, or how violent they are. In many ways, violence is the easiest way to assert one’s masculinity.

Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday got some flak — notably from Seth Rogen — for saying cultural depictions of masculinity contribute to this problem. Do you think men would benefit from more variety in the ways men and women relate in movies and television?
Honestly, I do. When I read that article, there was a part of me that rolled my eyes. At this point, I’m wondering how many things Seth Rogen is going to get blamed for. But underneath all that, in the narrative of movies, we’re taught that women are something you earn. Daniel in The Karate Kid doesn’t get the girl until he gets the karate trophy and then she comes diving into his arms like she’s part of that reward. We see that a lot in video games, especially, where girls are the reward for winning the game. And when they’re not given out as a reward they’re there strictly as a sexual, consumable item, there to titillate more than to be a character. It’s not a cause; it’s a symptom. But it does reinforce this overarching cultural belief.

One of my dark, early reactions to the shooting was that I wished someone had just slept with Rodger. Obviously, that’s not the real problem. But is there something women can do to defuse what you call “toxic masculinity”?
Honestly, it’s not women’s fault. Women aren’t the gender police. You’re not going to see as many women complaining or punishing a guy for being willing to show more emotions the way you’re going to see men telling a guy, Don’t be a pussy, man up. It’s not on women to change men; it’s on men to change themselves. We already put so much unfair responsibility on women when we say things like boys will be boys and women have to dress modestly because men can’t control themselves. That’s bullshit. Saying that it’s women’s responsibility is a way for men to absolve themselves. Even if someone had slept with Elliot Rodger it wouldn’t have fixed anything. If he had had a girlfriend she probably would have been his first target.

Fair enough. What should men do?
The best thing men can do for other men is to be open to each other to support each other instead of treating each other as competition or pawns in status games. Being willing to be honest and not shame each other for having feelings and doubts and for not living up to this hypermasculine ideal.