The Pickup Artists

Surely you’ve heard of The Game by now: Neil Strauss’s exposé of the secret society of pickup artists whose techniques of neurolinguistic programming, backhanded compliments, magic tricks, and mind control have struck fear in the hearts of monogamy-loving women and pitched tents in the pants of pasty-faced computer geeks everywhere.

With one of its leading pickup gurus (and there are many) boasting a mailing list 2 million strong and counting, this secret society isn’t exactly small. And thanks to Strauss’s book, it won’t be secret for much longer. So before New York is overrun by master seducers hypnotizing their way through the five boroughs, we wanted to find out what those outside this community think about its main tenet: that within every man is a player waiting to get out. The only difference is that some acquire the tools to liberate them.

“I’ve never hooked up with someone I didn’t already know for a bit first,” says Greg, a 28-year-old writer—though he’s no stranger to the ladies. “I’m not thick-skinned, so I hate rejection. I don’t want to hoodwink people, and I get too attached to be good at any numbers game.”

His friend Patrick, a 29-year-old entrepreneur, thinks Greg is just not trying hard enough to live up to his innate potential. “If you don’t have the balls to make a move, then it’s hard for you to understand the wandering-eye syndrome.” In other words, it’s easier to be monogamous if you can’t get laid.

Steve Santagati, a self-proclaimed “bad boy” who just landed a book deal on the topic of himself, agrees. “All men want to be bad boys,” he says. “Some are just better at suppressing it. Or else they’re just lazy and don’t want to hunt.” He thinks his brand of bad behavior is in a separate league from the cold and calculating quicker-picker-uppers featured in The Game. “Bad boys aren’t frustrated or annoyed by women, we’re amused by them and embrace them. We love women and have made it our mission to understand them fully.” Of course, Santagati never gets very close to them, so as not to “crush” them when he inevitably ends things.

Such contradictions (not to mention the Trekkie tinge to much of the pickup lingo) might explain why so many see an inverse correlation between prolonged playerdom and depth, or at least maturity. “Whether you’ve been with 20 women or 200, there comes a point where I don’t think the next one really adds much to your sense of having lived a full life,” says one married thirtysomething. Even Strauss, when asked why guys ever agree to be faithful, says, “Because there are other, higher needs: an emotional connection, support, raising a child.”

Our favorite explanation for what drives men to the pickup game, though, comes from Henry, a 26-year-old self-proclaimed nonplayer. “I wonder if these guys are would-be badasses, except they’re afraid of being punched,” he suggests. “So they engage in shallow, antisocial behavior, but against people who probably can’t knock their teeth out.”

But what about the ladies? Is the term “female pickup artist” an oxymoron? In New York, anyway, they’re a force to be reckoned with. They want a challenge, and if they find themselves being fawned over, they move on. “What can I say? I like men, and I like the thrill of the chase!” says our friend Rachel, a 32-year-old PR rep. “And just like guys, I don’t think we women are only interested in sexual conquest. I think it’s more personal, as in, ‘Can I charm him and him and him?’ ”

So who can do it better? At the end of The Game, after becoming the best pickup artist in the community, Strauss finally falls for a woman who, by her nature (not by a handbook), plays him harder than he plays her. They’re still together. Ultimately, “the woman always chooses the guy,” Strauss says, so she may not need the techniques, though she certainly can employ and perhaps benefit from some of them. But, he added, “women probably wouldn’t learn them as analytically or apply them as mathematically as men.”

“We may lack focus or willpower at times,” says Chelsea Handler, comedienne and author of the memoir My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands. “But women are the master manipulators. And we can get away with a lot more than men, because we’re not as obvious. Take a woman with a plan and a man with a plan and have them both follow through? The woman will always come out on top. Literally.”

The Pickup Artists