The man’s guide to picking up

It’s 8pm on Friday at Ivy, Sydney’s classiest pickup joint. I’m standing next to pick-up artist (PUA) coach Damien Diecke while he asks three aspiring pants men — let’s call them John, Paul and George — to state their goals for the evening.

“To stay in a set for 10 minutes.”

“To speak to six women.”

“To get a girl’s number.”

Their objectives clearly established, Diecke sends his nervous but excited charges — who’ve each paid several thousand dollars for his tutelage — out into the heaving throng to work their magic. John and Paul, two average-looking guys in their mid-20s, approach a group (or ‘set’ to use the PUA jargon) of three women. “The dynamics are all wrong there,” pronounces Diecke, shaking his head. Sure enough, two of the women quickly resume a private conversation while John and Paul compete for the attention of their friend, who also soon loses interest.

Undaunted, John and Paul immediately zero in on a nearby group of girls. “Paul’s block is introducing sexuality into the conversation,” Diecke informs me, adding he’s watching for the moment when the eyes of Paul’s latest target will widen in horror or amusement as he makes a clumsy attempt to raunch things up. He doesn’t wait long. Paul abruptly leaves the set and returns to get Diecke’s feedback on his attempt to “escalate” the interaction, which consisted of the following exchange:

Paul: “Hi, what do you do for fun?”

Girl: “I play volleyball.”

Paul: “Do you play it in the nude?”

Girl: Awkward silence.

Next, George, a balding, divorced dad in his mid-40s, walks up to a gaggle of pretty women half his age, singles out the most attractive one and starts talking to her. To my untrained eye it appears he’s batting way out of his league and I wait for the inevitable blow-off. It never arrives. Incredibly, the glamazon begins giggling and running her fingers through her hair. After ten minutes, George successfully executes a ‘number close’. After typing her phone number into his mobile, George struts back to Diecke, elated. I start to wonder if the impossible promise made by PUA gurus such as Diecke might just be true.

Could it be that any man who’s prepared to study PUA theory then put it into practice really can nail as many hot babes as he pleases?

Ever since women were invented, men have been trying to work out how to get them in the sack. And, from the Roman poet Ovid to the Italian rake Giacomo Casanova, there’s been no shortage of worldly sensualists throughout the ages who’ve been willing to offer their befuddled brothers some helpful advice.

But before the pill kick-started the sexual revolution there was little point in the average man boning up on the arts of seduction. The only woman likely to ever sleep with him (without being paid to do so) was the one legally obliged to: his wife. But by the late ’60s, extra-marital sex — previously an indulgence restricted to debauched aristocrats and bohemian fringe-dwellers — had been democratised. In 1970, the Urtext of the PUA movement, Eric Weber’s How to Pick Up Girls, was published. The book sold millions, but Weber wasn’t offering anything more than many who’d come before him — written advice.

Ross Jeffries, an LA-based former comedy writer, lay the groundwork for the modern PUA industry in the late
’80s. Jeffries, a devotee of personal development programs, brought a five-year dry patch to an end by using Neuro-Linguistic Programming to seduce women. He then began offering ‘Speed Seduction’ seminars to men, training them in the Jedi mind tricks he deployed to seduce the fairer sex.

When the internet took off, Jeffries set up a website and a newsgroup. From there it wasn’t long before online forums sprung up and men from around the globe were trading tips online and seeking advice from those who claimed to be achieving impressive results. Erik von Markovic, an obscure Canadian magician with an impressive strike rate and a love of theorising, handed out advice for free for years before deciding to turn pro in 2002. Markovic, commonly referred to by his online PUA handle ‘Mystery’, revolutionised the teaching of pick-up by taking it out of the classroom and into the real world. Mystery accompanied his students to nightclubs and made them keep approaching women until they got a result.

Mystery’s first and most enthusiastic student was a journalist called Neil Strauss. In 2005, Strauss released a best-selling book detailing his almost impossible to believe adventures with Mystery, Jeffries and others in the PUA community. After reading The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists, millions of men around the world were filled with hope that they, like Strauss, could transform themselves from sexually frustrated losers to charismatic players. Many of them went looking for a PUA guru of their own.

Everyone at the free introductory seminar Damien Diecke is holding in a bland function room in a nondescript Sydney hotel seems to have read The Game — all around me strangers are striking up conversations about the merits of “Mystery Method” and the “Cocky and Funny” approach. I’ve chosen to sit in on Diecke’s seminar because he’s one of Australia’s most high-profile PUA coaches, but there are plenty of other seduction gurus around, be they locals or touring international superstars, hawking their wares to lonely men.

Diecke’s confident he’s positioned himself well in a growth market. “It’s very small in Australia, most people haven’t heard of it. You’ve got 500 on the [PUA] forum in Brisbane, 2000 in Sydney and 5000 in Melbourne. We’re not at the point where the average man thinks, ‘I need help with this stuff, I’ll go and get coaching.’ You go to the US and almost everyone has heard of pick-up and there are people making $20 million a year selling their products.”

There’s about 40 men in the room and if they’re embarrassed at the implicit acknowledgement of sexual failure involved in turning up to this kind of event, they’re not showing it. The crowd is representative of the broader population: there are white, black, Indian and Asian faces, guys in $2000 suits chatting to guys wearing reflective vests, 18-year-olds sitting next to 50-year-olds.

In terms of their looks (‘outer game’ in PUA lingo) and personality (‘inner game’), once again it’s what you’d expect of any random sample of Australian manhood — some are plain and dull, some handsome and charming, most somewhere in between. Upbeat music plays in the background as rambunctious male energy crackles around the room.

At every table men are sharing information, debating seduction methods, trying to crack each other up. I ask the guy sitting next to me why he’s come along. “I’m 32 and I’ve never had a relationship with a woman, never even had one want to be friends with me,” he confesses unselfconsciously.

Diecke starts the presentation with his personal story. The standard spiel of most PUA gurus runs something like this: “I was a pasty, Dungeons & Dragonsplaying nerd who couldn’t get a woman to piss on me even on those occasions when the excessive friction generated by my constant masturbation resulted in me bursting into flames. At 25, despairing of ever losing my virginity, I stumbled across something about pick-up while searching for porn on the internet.

Having embraced the PUA mindset, my life is now a constant round of threesomes with Swedish backpackers, hook-ups in nightclub bathrooms with adult-industry actresses and admiring glances from lesser men.”

Diecke, 27, deviates from this script slightly. Yes he was a nerd (he’s got embarrassing pictures in his PowerPoint presentation to prove it) but he did have a girlfriend at high school. Regularly unleashing a high-voltage grin, Diecke soon makes it clear that this was actually worse than having no girlfriend at all.

Exploiting his low self-esteem and confusion about how to interact with women, his partner pussy-whipped him mercilessly. Shortly after starting a degree in telecommunications engineering, Diecke developed a severe anxiety disorder, dropped out of uni and bunkered down in his bedroom for months, reading up on psychology, religion and personal development.

Eventually he found the strength to do some bar and DJing work but, even in that environment, still “never got laid”.

Slowly rebuilding his confidence, he enrolled in public speaking courses, studied to be a trainer and got a diploma in life coaching. Five years ago he joined the pick-up community, voraciously consuming books, videos, CDs and online posts on the art of seduction but never studying under a PUA guru himself.

Two years ago, after being made redundant from his job as a trainer at Aussie Home Loans when the GFC hit, he set up his business, School of Attraction.

After the bio comes PUA Theory 101. Diecke argues that feminism, while necessary and largely praiseworthy, has had some unfortunate consequences, chief among them men believing they have to suppress their masculinity. The theory of sexual polarity that he subscribes to states that women are attracted to masculine men, just as men are attracted to feminine women. Many men now opt to either be the feminised ‘nice guy’ (who women like but aren’t aroused by) or the cartoonishly masculine ‘bastard’ (who gets sex but is too emotionally shut down to have a healthy relationship).

The road to sexual success, Diecke counsels, involves us reclaiming our masculinity without going overboard about it. Among other things this involves: setting clear boundaries (women can’t help but test boundaries and lose respect for any man who doesn’t have strong ones); taking charge (the ladies love a leader) and having a clear purpose in life (a man who’s passionate about his goals is sexy).

Diecke encouragingly argues that women aren’t attracted to wealth and power as such, but rather those who tend to become wealthy and powerful — men with a strong commitment to their “personal mission”. Next come some exercises where everyone has to write down what their purpose in life is and what their boundaries are.

Wrapping things up, Diecke segues into his sales pitch. For $2995 we can do the nine-week ‘Masculine Confidence Intensive’ course, involving three theory sessions and nine field trips.

Pick-up might have gone mainstream in the past five years, but it is still a long way off being respectable.

Understandably, there’s a widespread perception pick-up is about sleazy men manipulating women into putting out.

After spending a lot of time with PUAs, I came to believe the reality, paradoxical as it seems, is that, firstly, pick-up gurus encourage men to be more, not less, respectful of women and, secondly, the vast majority of men who get involved in the pick-up scene are actually seeking something much more profound than the ability to chat up chicks in clubs.

PUA theory holds, probably somewhat over-optimistically, that women want sex as much as men and only social conditioning prevents them from behaving libidinously. It also posits there is nothing a man can do to trick a woman into sleeping with him; all he can do is present himself as an attractive option and hope she chooses to do so.

PUA gurus advise men to be scrupulously honest (if only out of self-interest) with women about whether they are after casual sex or a relationship. It would be disingenuous to pretend that there are no PUAs — especially those who’ve endured long stretches of sexual frustration or who are recovering from messy divorces — with mixed-up attitudes to women. But in all the time I spent with Diecke and his students I never heard misogynist attitudes being expressed. Rather than being resentful or contemptuous of women, PUAs seem desperate to be validated by them.

Of course, no man is going to win the approval of women, or other men for that matter, until he first respects himself.

And this is where the PUA scene can be a powerful force for good. If there’s one article of faith espoused by everyone in the PUA community it’s that a man’s ‘inner game’ will determine his success.

The PUA subculture emerged, and still remains strongest, in California, the spiritual heartland of the personal-growth movement. Those who get involved in it are usually chasing self-transformation as much as sex. They want to become the respected, powerful and, yes, desirable man of their dreams.

It could be argued that the pick-up subculture is, well, picking up where the short-lived men’s movement of the ’90s left off — encouraging men to think deeply about what it means to be a man in a post-feminist world and what they want out of life. “The community is heading away from that sex-crazed, game-playing, manipulative place it started. It’s heading towards working out what men are supposed to be. The guys in the industry that are doing well are the guys covering this stuff about being a man,” argues Diecke.

Which brings us back to the original question: can PUA gurus deliver what they charge so handsomely for?

Diecke himself admits 95 per cent of aspiring pick-up artists won’t stick with it long enough to see life-changing results. “Just like learning a martial art or musical instrument, people will dive into this then realise it’s going to take a lot of work and lose interest; that’s human nature.

And it can be a tough training ground — practising scales to learn the piano doesn’t hurt your self-esteem the way getting rejected does.”

That said, for the five per cent who do have the tenacity to stay the course, the results can be impressive. Cristian is one of Diecke’s star pupils. At school he was “very overweight and always the kid that wasn’t good with girls”. After slimming down he did get a girlfriend but she dropped him after a year, leaving his fragile confidence shattered. He first discovered PUA theory on the internet and began approaching girls to applywhat he’d learnt. “I started doing day
game [approaching women in public places during the day]. I’d see a woman eating lunch by herself and use a routine on them, like asking for their opinion on how I was dressed.”

Did they think he was a nut job?

“No, I discovered that most girls are more than happy to talk to you if they’re not busy and you’re not coming across in a threatening way.”

Feeling in need of face-to-face tuition from an expert, he enrolled in one of Diecke’s courses. “He pushed me and taught me things I hadn’t thought of, like the importance of smiling when talking to girls. I dropped doing routines and focused on being genuine and gained a lot of momentum,” says Cristian.

With a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary smile, Cristian declines to divulge how many women he’s slept with but says, “I’ve learnt that women want a man who is genuine and are quite responsive to guys who are honest with their intentions. At the moment my priority is to have fun,but if the right girl comes along…”

“I’m very passionate about pick-up, the men you become friends with, the women you meet, the stories you hear. A lot of what you learn you can apply in real life. Going up and talking to a girl involves facing your fear and that teaches you how to handle your fear in other situations. For me, that’s what game is all about — setting goals, trying to improve yourself. Game taught me you have no boundaries if you work hard. My life has improved ten-fold since I got involved.”

If there’s a major criticism that can be made of the pick-up industry it’s this: it doesn’t teach men what to do after they’ve picked up. For, believe it or not, what most PUAs yearn for is not to live out their most debauched fantasies but to have a serious relationship. The happy ending of Strauss’s book involves him settling down with a woman who’s impervious to any of his PUA wizardry.

Diecke, who slept with about 200 women in his PUA heyday, has been in a monogamous relationship for the past two years. He notes, “85 per cent of my students tell me that, yes, they wouldn’t mind getting laid in the process but what they’d really like is to find a really amazing woman. But, statistically, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to find her unless they have the ability to meet and talk to lots of women.”