In September 2019, a thirty eight year old man called Adnan Ahmed, or ‘Addy A-Game’, was sentenced to two years in jail for five counts of threatening and abusive behaviour towards women, in addition to being placed on the sex offenders’ register. Ahmed is part of the seduction industry, a worrying, misogynistic movement. Men calling themselves ‘dating coaches’ charge significant sums for courses which promise to teach men to pick up women. Dr Rachel O’Neill has spent the last ten years studying the seduction industry: “There’s an idea that seduction essentially provides a blueprint that men can follow as a way of interacting with women, so you’ll be given a more or less scripted set of lines, routines that you can follow.”
In 2005 Neil Strauss published a hugely successful book called The Game, in which he claimed to be able to teach men to become pick-up artists. Women who went to university in the mid-00s were puzzled by men who said oddly unpleasant things to them at parties. Then we heard no more about it until it started to get a lot of media coverage… Pick-up artists (PUAs) range from those with a patronising, sexist approach, to others who have deeply problematic attitudes towards women, essentially promoting rape. Techniques advocated by coaches like Eddie Hitchens and Adnan Ahmed are troubling – insulting women to put them on the back foot, encouraging course participants to approach underage girls to practice their ‘techniques’ and wearing ‘targets’ down. Most worrying is the idea of overcoming ‘last minute resistance’, namely actively ignoring signs that a woman does not want to have sex and engineering situations to make it harder for her to leave. Coaches claim that women don’t mean no, they are simply making token efforts to protect their reputation.
Rachel O’Neill has discussed the reasons why men attend seduction courses. While she is highly disapproving of the industry, she suggests that it is inaccurate to assume the men who sign up for these courses are ‘pathetic, pathological or perverse’. Some have come out of long term relationships, others feel nervous approaching women but most expressed a desire for more control and choice in their relationships with women. (I can understand a desire for control in one’s relationships. Dating often left me feeling that I was being d*****d around by people whose behaviour seemed to have neither rhyme nor reason.) Some men said they wanted to have more casual sex, worrying they would look back at their lives and regret not having more sexual partners. Others wanted to sleep with more attractive women, with one man gratingly saying that he didn’t like how his ex-girlfriend looked in the morning without make-up. One common thread seemed to be the status that men associated with sleeping with conventionally attractive women (read slim, young and able bodied). These men seemed to look up to other men who had slept with lots of women; the status conferred by conquests seemed more important than the actual sex.
The men attending these very expensive courses seemed to see them as an investment – follow the rules, work hard and you will be rewarded. It has been suggested that for this reason, the seduction industry hurts both women and men; men who aren’t successful at picking up women often believe that they have failed, or aren’t working hard enough, rather than seeing the folly and misogyny of pick up artists.
I am still disturbed as to what leads people to sign up for these courses. What is it about controlling women or notches on the bed post that appeal to some men so much? David Grazian (2007) talks about the ‘girl hunt’ – men actively pursuing casual sex which is less about physical pleasure and more about male bonding as a result of boasting about their conquests. Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth, interviewed hundreds of people for her book – one young man was quite open that telling his friends the story of a encounter was far more important than the sex. Good potential stories included having sex with a girl who he thought hated him, a girl who was the object of ridicule or indeed a Victoria Secret model.
Why does male bonding need to be so sexist? What is it about demeaning women that binds men together? A Whatsapp group rife with violent rape fantasies led to a number of male students from Warwick University being suspended, banned or excluded from the institution. A Guardian Long Read (it’s ok, it’s written by a man!) looks at, among other things, the shocking ‘banter’ and ‘lads’ behaviour of the LSE Rugby Club. (Why do we have special words to pretend that disturbing fantasies of sexual violence and a complete lack of respect for other human beings is ok?)
I ask the Doctor why some men behave like this, hoping for an insightful, philosophical perspective. He simply replies that such men are ‘bell ends’.
I’m struck by the idea that that the seduction industry and violent, misogynistic ‘banter’ seem to be more about power and a sort of toxic sense of belonging far more than it is about sex. There is however another group of men who represent a more extreme, ugly tangle of a desire for power and sex underpinned by a violent rage: the Incels or Involuntary Celibates.
In 2014, a twenty two year old man named Elliott Rodger, who had subscribed to the American pick-up artist Julien Blanc’s YouTube channel without much luck, wrote a lengthy manifesto including the following words:
‘All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.’
Rodger wasn’t wrong to highlight that sex and fitting in are both important to people. Ross Douthat suggests that ‘frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states’. Rachel Hill’s book The Sex Myth looks at the value we place on sex and in turn on ourselves, based on whether or not we are getting any. She interviewed hundreds of people for her book: one who had never had sex said – ‘It’s hard work to make sure I don’t wake up every day and feel like I’ve failed’.
Rodger however killed 6 people and injured 14 before shooting himself. He was bullied primarily by boys but blamed women for denying him sex and was angry that he wasn’t having lots of sex with beautiful blondes. Much of it seems to be about perceived status: the fixation on sleeping with alpha females, seeking the validation of Victoria’s Secret’s models.
The Incels are an online community of very angry men who rage against women and the world because they haven’t had sex. Jia Tolentino suggests that if what they wanted was sex, then they might support sex workers’ rights and campaign for decriminalisation or legalisation of sex work. But sex isn’t what they want. They want male supremacy and control of women. Angered by women having sexual agency, they revile sexually active women, as seen in the terminology they use. They are keen on virgins and teenagers, attractive women are referred to as Stacys who pursue Chads, men portrayed as jocks, muscly and handsome. The emphasis on so-called sex deprivation and their perception of entitlement to sex is terrifying. One Reddit group was titled ‘It should be legal for incels to rape women’, equating raping a woman to a starving man stealing a loaf of bread. In response to such shocking attitudes, Jessica Valenti asserts that incels are not just sad men in a society which has a problem with loneliness. They are violent misogynists in a society which has problem with sexism and sexual entitlement.
Incels are not interested in engaging with the fact that lots of people, who would like to have sex, are not getting any. Despite the fact that the term ‘incel’ was coined by a woman, incels refuse to believe that women can ever be without sex. “Nothing with a p*ssy can be incel, ever. Someone will be desperate enough to f*** it . . . Men are lining up to f*** pigs, hippos, and ogres.” claimed one forum user. Women are held in shockingly low esteem, hated and reviled by the Incels – “Society has become a place for worship of females and it’s so f****** wrong, they’re not Gods they are just a f****** cum-dumpster,”.
This rage directed at women raises the matter of how men and women respond to situations, internalising their woes or blaming others. In an article for The Washington Post, Monica Hesse discusses her adolescence in a small mid-Western town, where she and her peers wondered which one of their male classmates would turn into a mass shooter and kill them all. ‘…we got to the point where troubled young women vomit quietly in bathrooms, and troubled young men go online and order assault-style weapons, as the Dayton shooter allegedly did, and then commit mass slaughter.’
The desire to fit in and be understood is what led a woman, known only as Alana, to start the Involuntary Celibate Project online in 1997. In her mid-twenties at the time and living in Toronto, Canada, she wanted to create a space where people could share their struggles with loneliness and not being able to meet anyone. She observed that some men who joined the site hadn’t grasped that women are individual people. (Interestingly, the men who sign up for seduction industry courses are keen to buy into the idea that a set of rules can be used to manipulate and pick up women.)
Alana was horrified at what had become of her online support community. In the wake of the Elliott Rodger and Alek Minassian murders, she started another website called Love Not Anger, aimed at helping people find what the BBC referred to as ‘respectful love’. Alana commented, “Dating is hard and happens a bit later in life for some people. Some people need help learning social skills and that doesn’t mean they should be stigmatised for that difference.”
I absolutely support Alana’s project but I think that stopping violent misogynist murderers would take an awful lot more than teaching a person social skills. Srinivasan (2017) and Tolentino (2018) talk about both men and women blaming women for feeling undesirable; they point out that groups other than straight men have responded to feeling unwanted in entirely different ways, Alana being one example. ‘It is a horrible thing to feel unwanted—invisible, inadequate, ineligible for the things that any person might hope for. It is also entirely possible to process a difficult social position with generosity and grace.’ (Tolentino, 2018). ‘It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies. (Srinivasan, 2017)
Srinivasan explores in great depth the idea of whether anyone can ever be entitled to sex. She compares the idea to refusing to share your sandwich with someone and that it would seem accordingly fairer to redistribute access to sandwiches, to ensure that everyone had a sandwich. This however does not translate well – ‘Sex isn’t a sandwich, and it isn’t really like anything else either.’ (Srinivasan). With sex, it is not a case of sharing something, an object outside of yourself that you own or have; we are talking about women’s bodies. As Rebecca Solnit points out, if we are talking about allowing men access to sex, as a woman, you are the sandwich: ‘when you yourself are the sandwich, you have the right to decide who gets a bite of you.’ Ensuring universal access to ‘sandwiches’ would be nothing short of enslaving women to be men’s sexual slaves, like something from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Robin Hanson wrote an article suggesting that sex redistribution might be a way to address the incel plight. Following widespread outrage from the internet and the media, he took great pains to make it very clear that he was not advocating sexually enslaving women, as imagined by Margaret Atwood. Disturbingly, Jordan Peterson, another high profile academic, suggested that enforced monogamy was the answer, seemingly not thinking that this equates to forcing a woman to remain in a sexual relationship with a violent murderous man.
While acknowledging that the Incels’ attitudes are unacceptable, I wonder if there is a further dimension to the their movement. Alice Hines wrote an article charting the very sad story of a young man who had spent a year in a psychiatric hospital and struggled to get better despite extensive therapy, attempting to commit suicide again. Having unsuccessfully tried The Game by former PUA Neil Strauss, he found himself on Incel websites which advocated getting expensive plastic surgery in order to have better luck with women. We know relatively little about most Incels beyond their anger. How many of them are struggling immensely? I feel slightly conflicted about this; of course I can only feel empathy for people who are in so much pain, but I don’t want to be an apologist for such awful attitudes and behaviour or indeed do men’s emotional labour for them, trying to justify why it’s ok for men to do and think such dreadful things. (Dockterman, 2019).)
What can we, what can society offer people who are so troubled and angry? Where Alana calls for support for people to develop interpersonal skills, I feel this needs to go much further in terms of the provision of relationship education for young people. I don’t approve of how creepy the American Christian abstinence programmes are but could we create an atmosphere, a culture, an attitude where it’s ok not to be having sex? Where we can be honest about sex, where people don’t feel pressured to have sex just because they think other people are, because they are lonely, because they were very drunk, because it’s been a while and it’s better than nothing, because they are bored, because they thought they should do something wild or exciting or because they are feeling insecure and want validation. I’m struck by the horrid, awkward and at times disturbing sex portrayed in Girls, Unge Lovende and Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, all shows written by women. (Lena Dunham told the New York Times that she felt ‘cruelly duped’ by the sex she had seen on television.) Can we teach young people to behave with kindness, to treat others and themselves with respect and to have and exercise emotional intelligence? Can we teach them to feel good about themselves and not to bully each other? Can we teach them to feel good about themselves without making other people feel bad about themselves, whether that’s taunting someone in the playground or treating romantic partners callously or dishonestly for one’s own ends.
Many lay the blame for men’s woes, which in turn become women’s woes, at the feet of concepts of masculinity. The psychiatrist James Gilligan, formerly head of Harvard’s Centre for the Study of Violence ascribes acts of violence and suicide, which are predominantly committed by men, as a response to feeling shamed or humiliated, or feeling that they would be shamed and humiliated if they didn’t prove they were real men. Both Grayson Perry and Robert Webb take issue with the idea of being a ‘real man’, viewing it as an oppressive construct which doesn’t do anyone any favours. And it is here that people start to discuss the idea that men should be more like women – able to talk about and make sense of their feelings, to seek support and take constructive steps to cope. An awful lot of lives could be saved from mass shootings and suicides.
Jessica Valenti highlights that we are failing to protect women and failing boys. She is vociferous that boys need to be raised to understand that being a man need not involve inflicting pain on others and that they are not entitled to women’s sexual attention. Most of all, she asserts that we are failing boys unless they learn that feeling fear and making mistakes does not make them weak.
Sarah Rich takes issue with constructs of masculinity, writing that there are too few positive variations of the idea of a ‘real man’. ‘Instead of understanding that children can resist or challenge traditional masculinity from within the bounds of boyhood, it’s assumed that they’re in a phase, that they need guidance, or that they don’t want to be boys.’ (Rich, 2018).
Robert Webb suggests that men need the freedom to express their individuality with both confidence and humility, to recognise their feelings and to take responsibility for their actions. Grayson Perry finishes his book with a section I’d like to borrow – a charter of men’s rights: ‘The right to be vulnerable, to be weak, to be wrong, to be intuitive, not to know, to be uncertain, to be flexible and not to be ashamed of any of these.’ Hear hear.
(Intriguingly, Neil Strauss, author of The Game, went on to publish a book called The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. He underwent treatment for sex addiction and is now married with a young child.)
Anonymous BBC Article – 2019 – ‘Pick-up artist’ Adnan Ahmed jailed for two years for threatening behaviour. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-50137960
Anonymous BBC Article (2018) – Elliott Rodger: How misogynist killer became ‘incel hero’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-43892189
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