"I was an extremely isolated youth who came from a broken home," wrote Reddit user throwbabyaway89 on a much-discussed thread about the motivations of rapists last week. "My escape was the internet." Specifically, pickup artist (PUA) websites. From the ages of 16 to 20, throwbabyaway89 wrote, he was heavily influenced by "PUA material" that was "very objectifying and sexually aggressive towards women."
All this is background for the real point of his post: a confession that he committed sexual assault at age 17. He says he penetrated a girl he knew with his finger in the backseat of a car, despite her repeated objections. Years later, she allegedly told him "the experience had left her a bit shaken for a year or two."
Throwbabyaway89 wishes to remain anonymous, and since the assault was never reported, it's impossible to confirm the details. But his post does raise a question: do pickup artist websites, books, and TV shows convince boys and men to assault women?
Throwbabyaway89 told BuzzFeed Shift in an email that pickup artist ideas profoundly influenced him in his teens: "If a girl liked me, I felt great and was on cloud nine. If she didn't I'd hit the books and learn more 'techniques.' [...] There was always a way to act differently, there was always something subtle to say or do to bring them back in. If you couldn't get them back then you did something wrong." But ultimately, he didn't blame the techniques for his offense, saying, "PUA may [have] helped me to get into that situation, but I made the choice to do what I did."
Psychologist David Lisak, whose research has included many interviews with rapists, told BuzzFeed Shift that most sexual assault is actually committed by serial offenders — men who tend to be narcissistic, antisocial, and able to turn off their empathy for others. Websites or TV shows aren't what cause these men to commit assault. However, the lessons of pickup artistry — like the idea that a woman's "resistance" to sex is just something to be overcome — do create a certain culture that may allow rapists to thrive.
Messages from pickup artistry can seep into the mainstream, said Lisak, and these messages may give men already contemplating sexual assault "the sense that there's nothing wrong with this, and if you're a real man this is what you do." By encouraging various forms of coercion, these messages can act "almost like camouflage," making a rapist's behavior seem normal — at least to him.
Writer Clarisse Thorn, who spent time with pickup artists for her book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, concurs. She cautions that "millions of men look at PUA tactics and don't rape people" and that pickup artists were far from the only people in society espousing problematic attitudes toward women. However, she added, some "tools" of pickup artistry are especially prone to misuse: she specifically cited "Last Minute Resistance" tactics designed to convince a woman to have sex after she's already said no.
Her book offers a disturbing example. In a "field report" of a date posted to a PUA forum, one man wrote that he offered to drive a woman home and then took her to his house instead. He continued, "This chick did not verbally [acquiesce] in the least. I tried to take her pants off, 'Take me home.' I tried to kiss her, 'Take me home.' I'm rubbing her tits, 'Take me home.'" Instead, they had sex — it's not clear if she ever actually consented.
Thorn adds that individual PUA techniques aren't really the biggest issue. Rather, the broader "attitudes about sex, relationships, and women within the PUA subculture" could encourage assault: "When relationships are framed as an adversarial conflict, and you become entirely focused on 'winning' (i.e. getting laid), then you may indeed do 'whatever it takes' to get what you want."
Throwbabyaway89 says he no longer identifies with pickup artistry at all. And in a post on her blog, Thorn notes that encouraging ever-greater levels of coercion may not actually be good for business. "PUA companies lose clients because of stuff like this," she writes. Pickup artists may have gained some mainstream acceptance, but if they advocate actions many people find morally repugnant, they may find themselves pushed back to the margins.