February 28, 2024   6 mins

To say that The Game has aged badly would be to understate how outrageous it was even in its own time: 20 years ago, just as women had finally become empowered to pursue sex on its own merits, and on their own terms, the pick-up artist Neil Strauss published his guide to remaking an entire generation of men in the illustrious image of Casanova. He, and men like him, seemed to have figured out how to subvert women’s hard-won agency through a mix of reverse psychology and weaponised charm, which infuriated feminist critics. That the pick-up artist movement’s most celebrated star was Erik “Mystery” von Markovik, a man with goth eyeliner and a penchant for terrible faux-fur hats, only further cemented the consensus that women who went to bed with these guys were doing so, if not against their will, then certainly against their better judgment.

By 2013, the hostility had crystallised: when a man named Kevin Hoinsky set out to improve on existing pick-up artist strategies in a new book titled Above the Game, his project was subject to mass internet backlash and ultimately banned from Kickstarter for “glorifying violence against women”. And while some critics later and grudgingly admitted that this might have been overstating things a bit, a sense remained that any so-called seduction guide should be understood, essentially, as criminal in spirit if not in substance. The Cut warned: ​​”Hoinsky’s book may not be a rape manual, but it is a guide to exploiting the less-than-ideal conditions under which women have sex.”

A decade letter, I’m struck by the astonishing prescriptiveness of this line: the notion that any sexual encounter preceded by flirtation, negotiation, or indeed any assessment of a suitor’s desirability should be understood as “less-than-ideal” — and that any man who seeks to make himself desirable to an as-yet-uncertain woman is doing something inherently sleazy. Granted, the anti-Game backlash began in the form of reasonable scrutiny of controversial seduction techniques like “negging” (a slightly backhanded compliment deployed for the sake of flirtation).

But since then it has morphed into something much stranger: the idea that anything a man does to impress a woman, from basic grooming to speaking in complete sentences, should be viewed with suspicion. Behind this is the same low-trust mindset that leads women to treat every date as a hunt for the red flags that reveal her suitor as a secret monster. If he compliments you? That’s lovebombing, which means he’s an abuser. If he doesn’t compliment you, that’s withholding, which also means he’s an abuser. Other alleged “red flags” include oversharing, undersharing, paying for the date, not paying for the date, being too eager, being five minutes late, and drinking water — or worse, drinking water through a straw.

Today, the turn against pick-up artistry can be understood at least in part as a reaction against some of its more prominent contemporary practitioners, including men such as Andrew Tate, who makes Mystery look like a catch by comparison. But it is also no doubt an outgrowth of a culture in which male sexuality has effectively been characterised as inherently predatory, while female sexuality is seen as virtually non-existent. The question that seduction manuals once aimed to answer — “how do I, a shy young man, successfully and confidently approach women?” — is now, in itself, a red flag, one likely to provoke anything from squawking indignation to abject horror to bystanders wondering if they ought to call the police. That you are even thinking of approaching women just goes to show what a troglodyte you really are. What do women want? The contemporary answer appears to be: to be left alone, forever, until they die — or to meet someone in a safe and sanitised way, via dating app
 although even that option is increasingly positioned as inherently dangerous.

“Male sexuality has effectively been characterised as inherently predatory, while female sexuality is seen as virtually non-existent”

Meanwhile, I was surprised upon revisiting The Game to realise that the strategies contained within the book are not just useful but mostly in keeping with more traditional dating and courtship advice, from “peacocking” (wearing something eye-catching or unusual that can act as a conversation starter), to passing “shit tests” (responding with humour and confidence when a woman teases you). Even the much-derided negging wasn’t originally designed with the goal of insulting or belittling women, but rather to teach men how to talk to them without fawning and drooling all over the place. In the end, the message of The Game is more or less identical to the one in popular women’s dating guides, like The Rules or He’s Just Not That Into You: that confidence is sexy, and naked desperation is a turnoff.

And while this may just be a function of one too many viewings of the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice (featuring Mr Darcy, a man in possession of ÂŁ50,000 a year and an absolutely legendary negging game), I wonder if the aim of seduction guides is, paradoxically, to restore our confidence in the tension, the mystery, and the playfulness of courtship in the age of the casual hookup. Even as we rightly rejoice in the fact that society no longer stigmatises women for desiring and pursuing sex, there is surely still something to be said for subtlety — and just because we aren’t consigned to the role of the passive damsel, dropping a handkerchief on the ground in the hope that the right man will pick it up, that doesn’t mean every woman wants to be horny on main. It’s not just that announcing your desire through a megaphone can seem uncouth; it’s also a lot less exciting than the dance of lingering glances, double entendres, and simmering chemistry that characterises a mutually-desired seduction in the making. Certain people might deride this brand of sexual encounter as “less-than-ideal” for its political incorrectness, but it’s wildly popular — in novels, in films, and in the fantasies of individual women — for a reason.

Meanwhile, the contemporary dating landscape is one in which the sheer fun of dating, courtship, and, yes, falling into bed together has been largely back-burnered in favour of something at once formal and immensely self-serious. In a world of handwringing over sexual consent — in which a man just talking to a woman at a coffeeshop can trigger an emergency response protocol — the stakes of sex itself come to seem unimaginably high, a breakneck gamble where one wrong move will result in a lifetime of trauma (or, if you’re a guy, a lifetime on a list of shitty men). Add to this the proliferation of dating apps, which makes the entire romantic enterprise feel more like a job search than a playground, and the whole thing begins to seem not just fraught but inherently adversarial — a negotiation between two parties whose interests are completely at odds, who cannot trust each other, and where there’s a very real risk of terrible and irreparable harm.

It’s no wonder that young people are both dating less and enjoying it less when they do. And when it comes to what women want, the writing on the wall suggests that it isn’t this. When they’re not hyperanalysing a man’s every move for the tell that reveals him as a serial killer, they’re languishing in unsatisfactory situationships — or opting out of dating entirely. In a recent newsletter series, “Good at Sex”, the writer known as Aella described a generation of women “sick of being clumsily seduced”, and a generation of men who desperately need to rediscover the value of being a persuasive flirt. “I’m belaboring the point here,” she wrote, “because people often have an aversion to deliberately attempting to be seductive. We equate being intentionally sexy to tricking a woman somehow.”

Indeed, somewhere in the course of trying to empower women to say no to unwanted advances, we’ve somehow arrived at a bizarre and toxic conclusion: that no advance is wanted, ever — and that a man who tries to make himself desirable to women must be some kind of weirdo, or worse.

And if the way out of this mindset doesn’t necessarily lie in The Game, as in the book, it might still lie in the idea of love and sex as a game, conceptually: not in the sense of a competition with a winner and loser, but in the sense of a shared activity that you do with someone you like, or that you might try to convince someone you like to do with you. Games can be playful, rather than adversarial; in the best cases, they’re so much fun that nobody knows or even cares if there’s a scoreboard.

And that doesn’t mean things never go wrong, as anyone who’s ever taken an elbow to the face during a round of Twister, a tennis match, or an energetic tango can attest. But if you imagine sex and seduction as an enjoyable, mutually desired dance, it means that when accidents happen, and someone treads on your toes — or feelings — it’s not the end of the world. Not a permanent violation, or a high-stakes trauma — just a chance for one person to say “ow” and the other person to say “I’m sorry”, and then maybe you try again. Because maybe you’ve begun to understand that sex isn’t just an act of nature but a skill, one that improves with practice, with confidence, and with knowledge that can only be gained through experience. And if some of those experiences are less enjoyable than others, they also represent an opportunity to learn what you need to know in order to do better next time.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.