Pick-up artists are, sadly, a community. It even has a handy three-letter abbreviation: PUA. It dates back to the 1970s and has been enabled and expanded, like all affinity groups, by the Internet's network effect. In the last week, I suspect that tens of millions of people, if not more, have become aware of the extent of the subculture due to a Kickstarter campaign for a book about applying PUA stratagems.

A guy not involved in that community spotted the project and raised an objection in a blog post in its closing hours due to what he said was material intended for the book but not posted on Kickstarter that advised forms of sexual assault. Kickstarter declined to halt the campaign; it funded; Kickstarter then apologized and made changes. Was the writer correct about sexual assault? Are PUAs misunderstood? Did Kickstarter under-, then overreact?

It all has to do with the social ineptness or downright sociopathy of those playing the PUA "game," and how their inability to have the empathy and understanding of those they wish to attract also prevents them from understanding why this book could possibly be seen as a guide to escalating contact all the way to sexual assault.

The author does not believe or understand that he advocates sexual assault, and is thoroughly confused as to why his writing has been interpreted this way. It is also clear that many, many of the PUAs who post on boards do not see the suggested behavior or their own (ostensible, reported) behavior along those lines.

But that doesn't excuse nor condone the advice.

(Note to all you knowledge hipsters: you knew about PUA in the 1800s, of course. Most people didn't have this awareness. I've been talking to otherwise well-informed people for days who thought pick-up artistry died in the 1980s or was the subject of remainder-bin and low-selling, self-published books.)

Ports and protocols

PUAs are nearly exclusively men focused on soliciting women for the purposes of sex without resorting to payment. The PUA world applies algorithms, testing and feedback, and gamification to human interaction, turning women into not just sexual objects but essentially treating that cisgendered biological configuration as a Turing-complete machine in which specifying the right sequence of inputs results in access to specific ports and protocols.

In this case, the vagina is typically the desired port, with other orifices of interest as well. Working one's way through various handshaking protocols and debugging the process of obtaining port access is part of the game. Vaginas have points attached based on various primary and secondary sexual attributes related to "hotness." Some operators obtain status through alleged accomplishment — there is no gameboard with verified scores — and participants in the culture actively exchange tips and advice.

Most of us of any gender and orientation have likely only heard vaguely and contemptuously of PUA as a concept, even though we are aware of the notion of pick-up lines, and perhaps even knew of books that promise the answers to get into a woman's pants. Before a few days ago, I had some sense there was a PUA community, and had occasionally read through a forum, was amused and appalled by it, and moved on.

I thought it was more like frat-boy culture, which involves less rigor and testing, and mostly comprises situations in which alcohol, drugs, and peer pressure are used to blur the line between interest and consent, and which leads frequently to tacit or explicit assault, whether reported or not.

The PUA seems something other, though. PUAs aren't typically an overlap with the frat-boy stereotype of athletes and aggression. Rather, PUAs are social misfits who appear to be incapable of reading and responding to social signals. Just as the Ana subculture arose on the Internet extolling anorexia, which is medically and socially unacceptable even as the body image associated is perpetuated through media, the PUA subculture seems to thrive because it's found a home in which such discussions are encouraged and cultivated.

And it is undeniable to these men that women meet other men and then, immediately or after a number of dates, engage in sexual concourse with them. Why not them? It must not be their personality, pheromones, conversational style, or appearance. There must be a secret that some men have that they have missed, and thus a culture of tips, tricks, and strategies develops.

As Doctor Nerdlove, a former PUA adherent named Harris O'Malley, explains to Alyssa Rosenberg in an interview on Think Progress,

…the pick-up community promises to take men and turn them into sex gods with Terminator vision, able to seduce any woman they want. For a lot of people, that sounds like it will fill the hole in their lives.

The Kickstarter campaign seems to have opened up the subculture to intense scrutiny as it's now been covered by media of all sorts and around the world. The funds were being raised to pay the cost of turning a set of posts called "Above the Game," into a book. They were already part of a subreddit: /r/seduction. The moderator, TofuTofu (Ken Hoinsky), is the author of the posts and the creator of the project.

(For non-Redditors, subreddits are essentially sub-sites within the Reddit infrastructure that have their own rules and moderators. Subreddits came to general culture prominence in October 2012, when Adrian Chen of Gawker unmasked Violentacrez, a Redditor — not an employee of Reddit — who created Jailbait, a site devoted to sexualized photos of girls typically below the age of 16, among other trollish and potentially illegal subreddits. Most subreddits aren't horrible!)

The campaign was well on its way to concluding with over $16,000 raised towards a $2,000 goal when Casey Malone posted an item on his (self-described) lightly trafficked blog about it. Casey followed links from the tame Kickstarter campaign back to the original Reddit posts. He was appalled. His post explains how he thought the entire project was eyerolling until he read the Reddit posts and found advice that, as the chapters progressed, sounded to him increasingly like advocating sexual harassment and assault.

Malone advised people to use the "report" feature on the Kickstarter campaign page to bring it to the company's attention, as well as to tweet at them and use other means. Kickstarter responded to Malone with a statement that while the material was "abhorrent and inconsistent with our values as people and as an organization," its current policy didn't allow them to cancel the project.

The project completed successfully and was funded.

Only yes means yes

A critique of Hoinsky's book and his subreddit posts that categorically calls them rape manuals, or says they solely suggest and encourage sexual assault, is that it misses the mish-mash of advice that he provides.

Some of it is even perfectly reasonable: advice about striking up conversations, progressing with consent, providing physical pleasure to a partner before asking it for yourself, and maintaining a healthy relationship when you find the right person.

Mixed in, however—sometimes in the same sentence—are appalling recommendations that pretend to be scientifically based and generalize certain forms of behavior. Men should use conversation as a "weapon" to keep women off base. Men should use "negs," statements designed to make a woman seek out self-assurance from the passive-aggressive asshole using them. Real interaction is to be avoided. This is a game. You're left-right-down-down-down-down'ing your way to success.

Pick-up artists are advised to act like high-school boys who have never interacted with an adult woman, or possibly even one their own age. But, also, to cherish them — which is itself a form of displacement, paternalism, and objectification.

One of my friends, in his 20s, fell into this scene in the pre-Internet age. One night, at a restaurant, he attempted to demonstrate the strategy on a waitress. It was creepy. She wasn't having any of it. He lacked the tools to read her signals. I stopped hanging out with him.

Then there is outright assault. The PUA should pull a woman onto his lap or try to kiss her without any interest being exhibited, according to Hoinsky. Men should pull a women's hair back while they're kissing. PUAs are supposed to "physically escalate" continuously. After achieving some measure of intimacy, a man should pull out his penis and force a woman to put her hand on it.

Undesired, non-consensual, coercive physical contact of this nature is sexual assault. The ambiguity for PUAs appears to stem from the fact that women sometimes give post-facto or tacit consent for behavior that goes over the line — or simply don't report them to a bouncer at a nightclub, or call the police.

Mutually consensual behavior initiated by either party isn't assault, of course, nor does it have to be spoken aloud. But it requires the ability to read signals and respond to them to know whether consent exists, and to stop — not "escalate" — when there's ambiguity. This category of book provides the excuse for consent to men who can't read signals. The book is advising sexual assault under the guise of something the woman wants but can't ask for. That's not consent.

Shards of insight

I was an awkward youth, and I identify all too well with the longing you can find in the posts on PUA boards. I barely dated in high school and college.

Reading parts of Hoinsky's posts, I had some aha! moments about some of the short relationships I'd had. Hoinsky picks apart the issue of touch, and how it plays into general and sexual attraction: how cisgendered, heterosexual men send cues and women of the same sexual alignment respond to them. (I can't speak of transgender or homosexual attraction, and assume there are broad points of similarities, and many subtle differences.)

His approach of treating sex as the ultimate goal of every encounter, of forcing escalation and pressure, is wrong. But there is a glimmer of truth in the centrality of touch to courtship.

I thought back to a relationship in college, where we shared a clear mutual interest. We had a few polite dates. I often wondered later why we failed to ignite. There was a lack of physical contact. I was quite passive; she likely took this as disinterest.

By the end of college, though, I developed a more intuitive grasp of other people's feelings, whether romantic or otherwise. Part of that was reaching out to meet a hand ready to reach out to mine. Not grasping, forcing, pushing.

Many romances begin with a touch, with a clasp of hands, with a kiss. About that, he is right.

On an early date with my partner of nearly 16 years, I remember dropping her off at home. As she sat in the passenger seat, I took her mittened hands in mine, and said some goopy thing about how much I liked her. I can remember everything: the feel of the yarn on my hands, the look in her eyes, the cool air, the pounding of my heart.

Taking her hands was a significant moment that led to our many years of happiness and our two wonderful children. They were born, partly, by my reaching out in a moment of a mutual consent.

A touch, I don't confess it

Hoinsky writes,

A man is on a date with a woman. The man fails to touch the girl and only goes in for the kiss at the end of the night. He goes home alone. His internal dialogue says, "WTF why won't girls hook up with me? I guess I'm in the friend-zone again."

Meanwhile, the woman goes home, confused, wondering if the guy likes her. Her internal dialogue says, "I thought that was a date. I guess he just wants to be friends?"

Since sex is the prize here, Hoinsky focuses that this putative fellow "goes home alone." He also advises in the next paragraph, "ALWAYS BE ESCALATING!"

It is this misinterpretation, like looking through a distorted lens, that leads to the biggest dissonance between what Hoinsky and PUAs think of as consent—actually sexual assault—and what actual consent is.

Casey Malone's initial objection, which were taken up by many others, is that Hoinsky and the PUA community define consent as whatever one gets away with. Malone quotes a passage from the Reddit posts:

Decide that you're going to sit in a position where you can rub her leg and back. Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don't ask for permission. Be dominant. Force her to rebuff your advances.

Hoinsky responded a bit on his TofuTofu Twitter account and via a Pastebin-hosted message. He objects to material being "taken out of context." But it rings hollow. He points to one section as the most controversial (it was one of several in truth) as being appropriate only, "what to do AFTER a man has met a cute girl, gotten her phone number, gone on dates, spent time getting to know her, and now are alone behind closed doors fooling around."

He reproduces the section in whole to show how it's been taken out of context. I will, as well:

If at any point a girl wants you to stop, she will let you know. If she says "STOP," or "GET AWAY FROM ME," or shoves you away, you know she is not interested. It happens. Stop escalating immediately and say this line:

"No problem. I don't want you to do anything you aren't comfortable with."

Memorize that line. It is your go-to when faced with resistance. Say it genuinely, without presumption. All master seducers are also masters at making women feel comfortable. You'll be no different. If a woman isn't comfortable, take a break and try again later.

Of course if you're really unclear, back off. Better safe than sorry.

It is a matter of some interest that Hoinsky doesn't see the remarkably mixed messages here. By recommending behavior that will almost certainly result in a negative reaction, he defines sexual assault. The consent that comes later, if it comes later, is secondary. By using repetitive coercion, we're at the legal definition.

"Take a break and try again later." No doesn't mean no to the PUA. Yes apparently never enters in the equation at all.

For men who turn to PUA sites and books, who lack emotional maturity or experience with women, these rules blur the line between consent and attack. For sociopaths and narcissists, these recommendations allow them to justify their actions. This is advice that reassures men along the path to physical assault and rape.

Escalator clause

Kickstarter received a lot of criticism over a couple of days about this. I have written about the company for over three years, and believe that it is full of people with a remarkable amount of interest in helping others. This seemed like a significant misstep on its part.

A day after the project funding, Kickstarter issued a mea maxima culpa that was also a bit of an apologia.

You can read the company's words, but the summary is: we were paralyzed in the couple hours we had between it coming it our attention and funding. We're sorry.

Some questioned whether Kickstarter could have halted disbursement of funds, but as I understand it, that's not possible. As a creator, Kickstarter links you to Amazon Payments, where you agree to give them a 5% cut. But the creator gets the money directly. When a project funds, Kickstarter triggers the payment rules, and Amazon starts charging cards.

I don't know the ins and outs here. Kickstarter says it can't reverse that. Technically, the arrangement is between the credit-card holder and the project creator at that point. The backers of this project don't want their money back. And Amazon Payments has rules about what its system can be used for, but it's possible that the book would pass muster because the material for which backers are ostensibly paying is only related to what's listed on the Kickstarter Web site.

Hoinsky slipped between the cracks. His campaign didn't contain objectionable materials. Had he included excerpts from his Reddit posts of the sort he defended later, it wouldn't have been accepted. Was he trying to game Kickstarter like he games the ladies? I don't think so. He seems too earnest for that, however misguided.

The outcome is that Kickstarter will no longer allow campaigns for "seduction" manuals, and one can bet there will be additional scrutiny of material linked from a project that's integral to that project. The company collected $800 or so in fees from the successful funding. It is donating $25,000 to RAINN, a national group in America devoted to the opposition of sexual violence.

Kickstarter apparently has only a giant red stop button for campaigns, not a pause-and-consider button. Perhaps it ought to add one.