Pickup Artists Are Still A Thing. And They Want You To Know They’ve Evolved.

In 2005, Neil Strauss’s The Game changed how we date. Now Mystery, the pickup artist featured in the book, is trying to disassociate from the toxic effects of the industry he helped launch. For more on the “manosphere,” watch the new BuzzFeed News series Follow This on Netflix.

For someone whose entire gig is chatting up women in a nightclub, pickup artist Mystery (real name Erik von Markovik) doesn’t appear to be a chick-magnet, especially in a near-empty pub in Toronto. (Later, when I asked our waitress what she thought of him, she shrugs and says, “He seems fine?”) His most striking physical trait is that he’s very tall, 6’5” — so tall that the average woman can barely look into his eyes. It would be a shame, too, not to see Mystery’s eyes, since they display the opposite of whatever emotion you’d expect a seasoned pickup artist to have: They’re sad, and tired, with far more wrinkles around them than when he was first hosting a reality show on VH1, back in his thirties, living the pickup artist dream, when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

For more on the “manosphere,” watch the new BuzzFeed News show Follow This on Netflix.

If you think about what a pickup artist is, you’re probably thinking of Mystery. He’s made it his life’s work to teach men (for thousands of dollars) how to pick up, fuck, and date the women of their dreams. He was the focal point of Neil Strauss’s 2005 New York Times best-seller The Game, which was all about the seduction industry and the men who make a living from it.

The Game was a how-to guide, a self-help book for clueless men who couldn’t get laid, rather than a Tucker Max–type catalog of depravity. (Max, you might recall, writes a story about convincing a girl to have anal sex and tapes it without her consent.) Instead of just being anecdotal, something to envy, The Game suggested you could learn the seduction lifestyle and live it yourself. The book, which followed Mystery after his move from Toronto to Hollywood, catapulted the pickup artist to fame and helped spread his gospel to the masses. After the success of its release, Mystery expanded his business, and eventually got a show on VH1 called The Pickup Artist where he taught hapless men how to seduce women for two seasons. But over the last decade, seduction became mundane, routine, and recognizable, so much so that women have learned to call its techniques out and even reject them. Even in The Game, Strauss wrote about realizing that the new women he met had already heard the same scripts. Strauss maybe said it best himself: “To win the game was to leave it.”

But perhaps no one has told this to Mystery. He’s now 46, back in Toronto, living with his brother, Rolf, and waiting for a visa to come through so he can return to Hollywood, where he hopes to bring pickup artistry back to the forefront. “I’m starting Project Hollywood 2.0, just like in The Game,” he tells me.

There’s no question that The Game and pickup culture at large is rife with the kind of misogyny — entitlement, dominance, condescension, intimidation — that still influences how men approach women now. (Strauss himself must know that too, since 12 years later, he wrote The Truth, which cataloged his treatment for sex addiction and his near-total reversal from party boy to husband and dad. I’d follow up with Strauss himself, but he didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) The book treats women like objects, calling them “targets,” and suggests ways for men to manipulate women into dating them. “You just fucking push, push, push, and it can’t not work,” says one PUA who goes by the nickname Tyler Durden. “I’ll pummel their asses down.” Strauss tells a story about getting Britney Spears’ number after an interview, while another man recounts picking up Paris Hilton, proof positive (if you believe their accounts) that the Mystery Method could get you anyone. In the chapter titled “Create an Emotional Connection,” Strauss writes a few lines while he is, purportedly, inside a woman. (“I think she’s about to come. Sh e is coming allksd;Good for her.J” [sic])

While pickup artists obviously didn’t create misogyny, they certainly helped perpetuate it and taught another generation how to act out sexist behavior in their romantic lives. PUAs are now part of a larger constellation of groups relating to men and masculinity, often as a counterpoint to feminism, called “the manosphere.” These groups include Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs, who advocate for men’s rights, to varying degrees of legitimacy; Men Going Their Own Way, (MGTOWs), who don’t want women around at all; Proud Boys, a far-right group that discourages members from masturbating in order to maintain their interest in sex with women; red pillers, men who believe that women are actually the privileged group between the two sexes; and the involuntarily celibate, or incels. The groups at once complement one another while also being in vehement disagreement: Incels would likely resent PUAs since they make getting laid seem easy, and are technically representatives of the “Chads” they hate so much; MGTOWs argue that men shouldn’t have any relationships with women at all because they’re so poisonous; and MRAs pretend they have some legitimacy while often engaging directly in misogyny.

While pickup artists obviously didn’t create misogyny, they certainly helped perpetuate it and taught another generation how to act out sexist behavior in their romantic lives.

We’re better acquainted with the “manosphere” now because of a few key moments: Incel hero Elliot Rodger murdered six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, because women wouldn’t have sex with him. Alek Minassian drove through a crowd of people in Toronto and his Facebook posts suggested a connection to incel activity. And pickup artists like Roosh V, who tells stories about his sexual exploits that sound remarkably like rape (he insists it’s satire), are getting more prominence and more attention, thanks to the internet. Fellow pickup artist Julien Blanc got his Australian visa canceled after advocating for emotional abuse in order to attract women. The same thing happened to PUA Jeff Allen when his own nightmarish statements about women and rape were rediscovered.

Pickup artists have historically treated women like props — not exactly prizes, because that would be too complimentary, but rather as objects for the taking. “Landing” women proves their masculinity and virility. Yet their reliance on female attention and sexual interaction for their self-worth has created a toxic sense of entitlement and anger if those needs aren’t met. Merging dating and self-worth creates a world where men aren’t even looking for relationships, they’re seeking power over another person and a kind of external affirmation that makes them feel worthy. PUAs don’t necessarily believe that they’re owed anything from women, but their followers might mutate their message, believing that sleeping with women or getting a girlfriend cures all personal ills.

The pickup artist’s influence on culture — one that has made me and women like me feel unsafe and angry — means that without question, I would like to hate Mystery. In The Game, he comes off as plaintive, vainglorious, abusive, and immature. He whines that his girlfriend doesn’t want to have a threesome with him and another woman, that she doesn’t tolerate the countless ways he’s insensitive and dismissive. He’s the one who teaches Strauss to refer to women at bars as “targets” and leads the charge in teaching men how to “neg” them. (Negging, if you don’t know the term, is the act of insulting or criticizing a woman in order to keep her attention or to get her to vie for your approval.) He encourages the men he teaches to wear absurd clothing and fake jewelry and anything that attracts attention to them — the idea being that even negative attention is better than no attention at all. He explains how to blast through “last-minute resistance” — when women decide they don’t actually want to have sex with whoever’s courting them. (One tactic is to, uh, distract women with puppets “while you play with her tits.”)

Mystery steps into his light, hits his mark, and charms me, and I see, instantaneously, how he’s packaged himself into someone enticing and sweet.

When Mystery doesn’t get what he wants from a woman, he grows mercurial and depressive, and it becomes abundantly clear that his self-esteem is predicated entirely on what women will give him when asked. When he’s rejected by women in the book, he grows morose and sometimes threatens violence, against the woman or her new boyfriend or her unborn fetus or, in a particularly dark passage, himself, threatening to kill himself at one point. Mystery’s own family is quoted in the book, saying that he has a history of depressive episodes generally speaking, but considering how much misogyny and violence are intertwined, reading Mystery say “I want to kill her” about his ex-girlfriend is chilling. It’s surprising that Mystery is still friends with Strauss, or that he’s happy to talk about the book’s enduring impact, or that he wants to talk about that period of his life at all, since he comes off so poorly, page after page.

And yet, over the course of two interviews over the phone and in person in mid-August, Mystery steps into his light, hits his mark, and charms me, and I see, instantaneously, how he’s packaged himself into someone enticing and sweet. At a pub in Toronto where we meet, he shakes my hand and uses his real name when we talk. He tries to present as Hollywood (stupid hat, a lot of jewelry), but he has a recognizable Ontario accent, which is comforting to my local ear. He makes eye contact and never interrupts me. My bar is low, but he clears it. Outside, after smoking a cigarette, Mystery pulls off a thick silver ring with the fleur-de-lis engraved on the front — it’s his brother’s — and does a little magic trick, making it disappear with ease. He shows me his empty hands and grins. My worst quality, easily, is that I love magic, and every time I experience it I hate myself that much more for getting bug-eyed and screaming, “BUT HOW??” Regardless, I do it here. I’m impressed by his stupid trick and he knows it.

Mystery holds his hands up to me, showing his palms and fingers free of this ring he’s made disappear. He smiles, and I do too. Do it again, I think. Show me again how you fooled me and countless others into believing that you’re somehow not responsible for where we are now.

If you somehow escaped your teens or early twenties without reading The Game, all you really need to know is that there’s an entire chapter dedicated to listing all the women Neil Strauss fucked while hanging around pickup artists. Page 35 is composed solely of an email from Mystery to a message board group, with the subject line “Sex Magic,” and comprised of a 13-step how-to. When trying to pick up a woman: Recite a memorized opener, neg her (“It’s so cute. Your nose wiggles when you laugh,” which is, honestly, a terrible neg), pay more attention to the men and the less attractive women present to make her anxious, “isolate” her from the group, then perform “a rune reading, an ESP test, or any other demonstration that will fascinate and intrigue her.” Then tell her, “Beauty is common but what’s rare is a great energy and outlook on life. Tell me, what do you have inside that would make me want to know you as more than a mere face in the crowd?” Wait for her to list all her qualities. Eventually, kiss her, and get her number. The book presents these tips like they’re a foolproof recipe to follow, from the clothes men should wear to the types of women men should approach (beautiful women are, apparently, always in groups, though the evidence for that seems flimsy) to the memorized jokes and anecdotes men should tell.

To be clear, The Game did not invent pickup artistry or dating services for men or women. In the 1970s, Eric Weber published How to Pick Up Girls!, which sold millions of copies and was adapted into a movie. Such gems from the how-to guide include referring to women as “fragile creatures,” and suggesting that women stopped wearing bras and started wearing miniskirts to “stimulate” men. “As a man, it’s your right, your privilege to approach a woman any time you want. But women — they’ve got to sit there and wait.” (My labia cannot help but quiver.) Near the end of The Game, Strauss interviews Weber, where Weber admits that he’s a sexist, “mildly,” before shirking any real responsibility himself. “Part of what came along after my book was repellant to me. I don’t believe in doing things that twist and turn a person,” he said to Strauss. “I was never interested in conquering women in a despotic way.”

“I've leveled up as a human, as a man. I’ve outgrown my own marketing.”

Even noted PUAs are aware that the history of pickup is, frankly, pretty slimy. Ross Jeffries, who refused to answer any personal questions about himself, including how old he is and his marital status, is the self-described godfather of pickup. But he’s only briefly represented in The Game as a needy old dog who does little more than beg Strauss to take him to Hollywood parties. This is maybe unfair — Jeffries has had his own moment in the sun, appearing on Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends and Dr. Phil, managing his own PUA business for decades, and apparently inspiring Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia. But now, he’s done. He’s preparing for his final seminar before pivoting into a different kind of seduction routine — corporate work. (If you want to buy his domain name, he’s ready to sell it off.)

Jeffries says his pivot is partly because he’s bored, but also because he’s outgrown the industry itself. “I will confess to you, and do what you want with this, that the marketing has been very obnoxious,” he told me in an interview, referring to the seduction industry’s long history of treating sex as the ultimate endgame, rather than building a relationship or improving self-worth in other ways. “I’ve leveled up as a human, as a man. I’ve outgrown my own marketing. The back of the comic book marketing — ‘You don’t get laid, I don’t get paid, sleep with any girl in minutes.’ That kind of messaging just hasn’t resonated with who I am as a human being for some time.” Yet, as of this writing, Jeffries’ website boasts, “MEET AND BED MORE HOT, SEXY WOMEN.” His messaging also promises to help you “radiate a powerful, grounded, dominant, playful sexual vibe that gets women wet (BEFORE you even open your mouth).”

The seduction industry’s blunt marketing has, unequivocally, changed since The Game’s release into something a little softer. No longer is it solely focused on the quantity of women to “land,” or on how many “sets” (the rest of us might call these “conversations”) you can open up at a bar. Now, it’s about finding “a woman of quality,” or upgrading in your romantic life to someone worthy of you and vice versa. Mystery still offers weekend boot camps, but he also provides a year-long mentorship program, with only a few slots available to ensure maximum intimacy between client and artist. (Applications are vetted, in part by his 26-year-old girlfriend, Saana, who has been helping out as she gets her master’s in marine biology.) His work has largely taken him overseas, to places like the UK and Helsinki and Rio. For Mystery’s upcoming Project Hollywood 2.0 residential training, it costs a cool $10,000 for seven days with the master.

And he’s toned down his personal aesthetic, too: Though he’s still wearing bright scarves and hats, he’s chilled out on the eyeliner and no longer looks like he ran through a costume store and bought everything with studs and grommets. Mystery’s homepage now boasts reviews from women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Elle that offer carefully worded endorsements: “[It’s] miraculous that it works” or “[The Mystery] Method is a shrewd compression of the phases of love.” The marketing for his boot camps sounds almost like ads for self-defense courses: “Does your game need to be kick-started? Want to truly learn to think like a master PUA? Would you like to be coached by the world’s best?”

These changes could be because he’s become a father of a daughter, so to speak. Shortly after The Game’s publication, he had two children: a daughter, Dakota Breeze, who’s now 11, and a son, Vegas James, now 4. They live in London with their mother. “I’m more cognizant of my words,” he tells me. “I have a mother, I have a daughter, I have women in my life. If I were to be misogynistic, I would get hammered down by them.” He says he now avoids using the term “target” when referring to women (though he says it to me a few times), and no longer rates women on a scale of 1 to 10 for attractiveness. His seminars, he says, are about helping men get more dates and better dates, which might consequently fix a lot of their confidence and self-esteem issues. “I’m more of an outer game guy,” Mystery says. “Once you have a girlfriend in your life, the imbalance will go away somewhat. A person will have someone in their corner to fight the world with.”

“Once you have a girlfriend in your life, the imbalance will go away somewhat. A person will have someone in their corner to fight the world with.”

Mystery has always placed an enormous weight on finding a girlfriend as a cure-all — for himself in The Game, for the men he coaches — but says he has never marketed directly toward the most dangerous kind of insecure man. “For the talk about incels, involuntary celibates, who technically my brand of education is designed for, I would never put that into marketing. That’s something I have no understanding of other than what I’ve read in the news,” he says. “I’m a third-party observer to all this.” He adds that the men who join his boot camps are nonviolent and nonsexist, since they’re all vetted through an interview process by both him and his girlfriend. “I have women’s best interests in mind when I run into these boot camps,” he says. “I’ve got Saana with me on boot camps. Her opinion matters, so if there’s anything that I’m saying to the boys that would offend her or any other girl that’s been on boot camp, I'd hear about it because I ask.”

To his credit, Mystery says all the right things, and both he and Jeffries see themselves as solutions for men lacking self-esteem and self-worth. “I think men need to level up in general and improve their lives in general. There is a lot of that going on in what you call the manosphere,” Jeffries says. “It’s not designed to hurt women. It’s designed to augment men.” Jeffries is vehement about not promoting any abuse toward women at all, though he does think there’s a sense of entitlement with both genders which creates frustration and resentment on both sides. “Men are not entitled to sex with you, but you are not entitled to [them] being patient with you.”

Mystery also says he likes women, doesn’t believe in violence, doesn’t promote rape, and that his manipulation is largely rooted in retelling canned jokes and anecdotes. But it’s also clear he doesn’t get it: our current cultural moment, the way the world has changed and left him behind in the last decade, or the shifts in how men and women date. When I ask him if he supports the #MeToo movement and if it makes him worry about his own reputation, considering his lengthy and public sexual history, he launches into a tangent about how Oprah Winfrey is “simply a role model” and “a fantastic woman in my opinion, all politics aside.” Eventually, it’s made clear that Mystery saw Winfrey wearing a #MeToo pin at an awards show, thus his lukewarm and completely scattered support. “If she wears the #MeToo pin, I’ll wear the #MeToo pin,” he says. “I think it’s scary for men. It’s the story of the fear of it all. Where you get punished for something that you didn’t do.”

The seduction industry has performed a neat trick: It argues that if you work at your love life, the rest of your life will improve too. It should be simple enough, the act of teaching men how to get a girlfriend, but the way in which pickup artists have taught the skill perpetuates long-standing and inequitable norms about dating and gender. Men feel entitled to women’s affection and attention because they are putting in so much work. And rejecting a guy because you don’t like him means you were taking away his hope for happiness.

“The idea [is] that seduction training won’t just help you upgrade your sex life, it will also help you upgrade many other aspects of your life,” says Rachel O’Neill, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of York’s sociology department and the author of Seduction, a book about masculinity, intimacy, and pickup artistry. “It’s not just that you’ll have greater control in your relationships with women, it’s also that you’ll be able to speak more confidently at work and you’ll be after that promotion and go for that job interview and do well in your career. All those kinds of ideas get caught up with the idea of simply becoming more skilled or more confident talking to women.”

All of this is made more intense by the fact that men are feeling like they’re losing their footing, with more women entering traditionally male spaces in society. “[Strauss] positions Mystery in particular, but also other men, as coming to the seduction industry from a place of damage. These are not vindictive men, they are damaged men, and that’s something that plays into an idea of masculinity in crisis that has been circulating in the Anglo-American context for at least four decades,” says O’Neill. Much of The Game is about Strauss feeling insignificant, and his attempts to build himself up through dating. The seduction training PUAs offer is a way to get some form of control in an intimate space. “The people who participated and the men who run these businesses in particular, definitely they have a responsibility for the more noxious aspects for the industry itself,” O’Neill says.

“I’ve said some bullshit in The Game. Just trash talk, very intimate talk between two good friends,” Mystery says. “I felt bad about it for a while but I’m okay now.”

When I ask Mystery about whether the seduction industry is culpable for male entitlement or violence toward women, he distances himself by saying things like, “I fill bubbles of love and live in them,” and “I’m not random, I’m rainbow.” He’s the king of deflection, no matter the criticism. I ask him about the casual anti-gay sentiments in The Game and The Pickup Artist — in the first season of his show, he suggests a contestant is gay because he’s spending time in a bar speaking to a man. “Why are you talking to a guy with no girls present?” Mystery asks while watching the contestant on a hidden camera. “What are you telling us, Pradeep?” He mugs for the camera and shakes his head. Mystery ducks my questions by saying he has gay friends.

But as much as Mystery wants to frame himself as a helpful sage who lives in love and in light, it’s hard to ignore just how harmful the techniques he’s put forward in The Game are. Take, for example, something Strauss says Mystery told him in a hot tub. The event occurs during what can only be described as a mental breakdown for Mystery: The business isn’t doing too hot, his girlfriend dumps him and starts dating his friend who lives in the same mansion as him (the aughts, man, the aughts), and Mystery is drinking more, taking sleeping pills, and becoming more and more depressed. Mystery is giving Strauss advice on “blasting through last minute resistance,” meaning, convincing a girl to have sex with you when she’s starting to have second thoughts. “Start stroking yourself,” Mystery suggests. “Next time you’re in bed together, just take your cock out and start stroking it. ... Then you take her hand and put it on your balls. And she’ll start giving you a hand job. ... Then you put your finger on your dick and put a little precum on it, and put your finger in her mouth. ... You’ve practically had sex after that.”

I read the passage to Mystery over the phone when we first talk, and you can almost hear his whole body tense up. But Mystery is clearly someone who doesn’t like to dwell on the negative, and while what I’ve read is tantamount to me reading his most nightmarish diary entry, it’s also an example of how PUAs use sexual intimidation to drive women toward them. “That was written?” he asks. “That sounds exceedingly harsh. That is a very intimate set of compliances. Wow.” He gets quiet and we’re both silent over the line for a while. “Wow. That’s what I have to say about that; wow, I said that?” he adds. “Makes for an interesting character, doesn’t it?” The next evening, Mystery sends me a WhatsApp, eventually apologizing. “You know, I still feel awkward having been outed for speaking such absolute garbage as reported in the book The Game,” he wrote. “I guess I blocked out the more idiotic stuff. Sorry for that.”

In person, Mystery swerves again from an apology to absolving himself for supposedly harmless misdeeds done long ago, as if they lack any contemporary relevance. “I’ve said some bullshit in The Game. Just trash talk, very intimate talk between two good friends,” he says. “I felt bad about it for a while, but I’m okay now.”

Thirteen years ago, men were sold a handbook that promised to give them any woman that they wanted — and consequently, a kind of self-worth they desired. For some men, those taught strategies didn’t work, and we’re left behind with men angry at Chads and Stacys (and Beckys), men who thought they were owed something merely because they asked, nicely or not. Trickier still is that while PUAs can teach pickup, they can’t teach intimacy, or dating, or marriage, or relationships. They can get you through the first 72 hours, but after that, you’re on your own.

When Mystery and I meet a few weeks after our first call in a quiet pub in downtown Toronto, he brings his friend and fellow PUA, Colgate. (His real name is Wemerson Oliveira, but he’s been dubbed Colgate because of his great teeth.) Colgate started working with Mystery when he was just 14 years old. He was hired by Mystery’s assistant and began writing marketing copy for him. Now 28, Colgate continues to work side by side with Mystery on his boot camps. The weekend before we met, they were hosting one in Toronto, where I live, but Colgate refused to let me attend in order to protect the participants. “It was in their best interest that we keep it intimate,” Colgate says. (Mystery ads that their Airbnb only had four chairs.) It’s a personal bummer for me, since I really wanted to find out who, exactly, would spend $3,900 (USD!!!) for three days and two nights with a couple of pickup artists.

Having Colgate and Mystery side by side creates a fascinating juxtaposition between what picking up women used to be and what it's morphed into now.

But having Colgate and Mystery side by side in an interview creates a fascinating juxtaposition between what picking up women used to be and what it’s morphed into now. Mystery was all about pomp; Colgate has the gift of the gab. Mystery’s longstanding history gives Colgate a sheen of respectability in the industry, while Colgate gives Mystery some youth. Despite his insistence that he’s had his come-to-Jesus moment, that he’s adapted as the culture has shifted, most of Mystery’s techniques still sound like his old ones. It’s a lot of talk about “demonstrating value” and teaching men a few lines which they can use to approach women. He has, however, stopped endorsing “socially violating” situations, meaning conversations that start with something absurd or offensive to get attention. He still focuses on numbers of “sets” and boasts about their “volume and velocity.” (To our male photographer, Mystery gives a ballpark figure of how many women he’s slept with. To me, it’s all about emotional connection.) There is still, unquestionably, an element of manipulation involved. Both of them are still creating scripts, albeit ones that come off more naturally, which invariably means they’re not really listening to you. They’re just waiting for you to stop talking so they can say their line.

Colgate, however, is the most aggressively woke guy I have met in a long time. He’s wearing a pink beanie hanging off the back of his head, he turns his nose up at cigarettes, and makes intense eye contact. He answers my questions about sexism in the industry directly, behaving like the quintessential male feminist. He says he’s never been accused of sexual harassment in his line of work and, moreover, would reconsider any personal and professional relationships with men who have been. He seems like the kind of guy who would own a “The Future Is Female” T-shirt. He’s passionate and exhausting, interrupting me constantly while still being wildly charismatic and liberal. His strategies, though similar to Mystery’s — sets, value, intimacy — are updated for the times. Mystery’s old-guard technique was often about getting a girl to sleep with you; Colgate cautions away from being too “agenda-driven,” meaning too interested in sex, which sounds absurd since that’s the whole point of most of this.

Colgate makes me even more anxious than Mystery. At least Mystery spent his career being honest about who he was and what he was trying to do: He would teach you how to fuck a lot of women. The assumption was that we as women are so stupid that a few canned lines could get any one of us to collapse into a man’s arms, which is obnoxious but honest and recognizable. Colgate, meanwhile, is an actor. According to him, it’s about helping a guy put his best foot forward. Woke seduction is different only because it pretends to be kinder, but the seduction work coming from Colgate and Mystery still relies on external affirmation from women. It’s not actually therapy, or self-care or self-improvement.

Woke seduction is different only because it pretends to be kinder, but the seduction work coming from Colgate and Mystery still relies on external affirmation from women.

The seduction industry didn’t disappear after The Game’s heyday, it just lost its new-car smell. “Even in the wake of the economic recession of ’08, there was a lot of talk within the industry about how this was quite beneficial,” O’Neill says. “You had a lot of very well-paid men being laid off from their jobs or losing their jobs in finance and starting to think, OK, maybe I apply myself to sorting out my intimate relationships.” If anything, pickup artistry became so mainstream that we stopped noticing it at all — their techniques just became the way we dated. How many times have you matched with someone on Tinder and struggled to think of a perfect opening salvo? Even if you’re cold-approaching a stranger in a bar, you’ll still likely want a good line in your back pocket. (Or, I guess, a fucking magic trick.) Neither Colgate nor Mystery like dating apps very much, but not because they’re worried it’s killing their business — you still need to make a good first impression IRL — but rather because it lacks any real intimacy.

“The big move is away from the very scripted content that you see in The Game,” O’Neill says. “It’s not that there’s no longer a script. The person who’s using natural game and is approaching women knows more or less exactly what they’re going to say and the order they’re going to say it in. It’s supposed to really kind of go under the radar. It shouldn’t be detectable.”

So while Mystery’s magic trick works on me (because I am an idiot), it’s emblematic of how he’s likely getting left behind in a PUA industry that’s evolving into something savvy, better suited to fit the times. It’s not cute to be doing magic tricks anymore, wearing scarves and rings and telling canned jokes. You can see the seams.

If we are forced then, in dating, to continue going through the motions of being seduced, maybe the future of seduction looks like Hayley Quinn, a UK-based pickup artist who works with men, women, nonbinary people, and queer people. She used to work with Jeffries and Mystery as well, before branching out into her own work under her own name. “My brand is very much female-led. [Clients are] guys who want to have a more respectful or ethical approach to dating women, and women who are actually a little more rule-breaking,” she says. She offers a course that focuses on consent and learning how to deal with rejection. “They learn to see, I’ve made an offer of conversation, I’ve tried to connect,” she says. “But then wait for the response and understand that half the time, you don’t get a response and it’s not personal. It’s not about them. I try to get, for men, the conversation away from rejection and away from outcome and make it much more about sharing.” (As for the work of her forefathers, she treads gently. “I don’t want to use the word outdated. Can you think of a more soft word than that?” I could not.)

Colgate and Mystery still think their influence on the seduction industry has been innocent and comes from a place of wanting to find love. According to them, anyone subverting seduction toward something more evil — like a Roosh V type, or like, in The Game, the Tyler Durden character who’s so manipulative that even the other PUAs think something’s wrong with him — is responsible for their own damage. “If you read The Game, [Mystery] just wanted to learn this shit so he could be loved. For me, the mindset is so important. If you come in with the right mindset, you can actually go and get some skills. If not, you’re going to be one of those guys who go off and that’s on you,” Colgate says. “If you’re the type of person to look at the dark side and find some commonality with it, it says more about you than it actually does the dark side.” I start to argue, but I can see Colgate isn’t listening to me anymore. He’s already gearing up to give his answer, to say the thing he’s likely said a thousand times before. He’s practiced.

Toward the end of our time together, our photographer leads Mystery and Colgate into one of Toronto’s more hideous bars, darkly lit with black crushed velvet on the walls and a roaring fire despite a summer heat wave. While Mystery and Colgate are photographed, two middle-aged men seated at the bar downing negronis ask me who they are. “How does this work?” asks one after I tell them what Mystery and Colgate do. When I mention Mystery’s astronomical rate, he leaps off his bar stool and throws his hands in the air. “What the fuck is this guy doing? Are you shitting me? You’re fucking joking me. I cannot believe this. What the fuck am I doing wrong in my life?!”

He's negging me, and I only realize it once we say goodbye for good, and I walk away, my skin hot in humiliation because I fell for it again

We chat for a while, mostly me explaining what a pickup artist does and what kind of guy would want such a service. They want to know, of course, if I would ever go out with someone who used a seduction coach. They laugh like it’s pathetic, like Mystery or Colgate and their clients are the first men on the planet to try to crack the code of what women want. One is married, but the other isn’t and shows it by peppering me with compliments while staring at my chest. He’s doing his own little routine, calling me beautiful, offering to buy me a drink, asking me about my ethnicity and my job. Mystery makes his ring disappear; this guy does exhausting flattery.

When Colgate and Mystery return and we get up to leave, my interaction with the men at the bar ends as many of my interactions do with strange men in bars: One of them pleads with me for a hug. I gleefully refuse, as I always do. Once we’re outside, I ask Colgate and Mystery how they advise men who ask women they don’t know for hugs. Both of them wrinkle their noses as if I’ve asked them to eat shit on a first date. “He’s trying to cheat his way into a touch and he’s not able to gauge that discomfort,” Colgate says. “The power of slowing it down lets the woman feel comfortable speeding it up.”

But when we part, Colgate and Mystery offer me hugs, oddly enough. I reciprocate, but when I hug Mystery and pat him on the back a few times — which I would do to nearly any near-stranger giving me a hug at the end of the night — Mystery chastises me. “Oh, don’t give me the pity-pat,” he says. And so instead of leaving like I want to, I stand outside and argue with him about whether my hug was appropriate, what exactly he wanted, and what it was that I did wrong. He’s negging me, and I only realize it once we say goodbye for good, and I walk away, my skin hot in humiliation because I fell for it again. These strategies are so routine and seem so outdated that you know they’re coming, yet you go through the motions anyway. I hugged him because I wanted to be polite. I told him it wasn’t a pity-pat because I didn’t want to be rude. He knew how to make me stay. No wonder men pay so much money for this shit — it works, it still works, and I’m absolutely furious about it. ●

For more on the “manosphere,” watch Follow This on Netflix.

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