The dark heart of the Pickup Industry

Sophie May-Williams 11 August 2021

There’s a multi-million-dollar underground industry that promises to teach men how to be successful with women, and chances are, its techniques have been used on you

The pickup industry is global. Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, it has presented itself as a masterclass of seduction techniques for men who seek to attract women, or in other words, ‘pull’ them. 

For years, it has lured men from all walks of life who are united in possessing the desire to be desired. It has seen countless decent men, some of whom had zero self-confidence, to some who just needed a little bit of help, fall into the unsavoury and unethical clutches of the pickup industry. 

As the power of social media continues to escalate, so does the exposure of such practices. UK filmmakers and brothers Matthew and Barnaby O’Connor have recently taken it upon themselves to unmask the truths of the industry through their own independently produced documentary, The Pickup Game. Described as the documentary that “every woman needs to see”, the film sheds light on the dangers and techniques of the elusive operation.

The documentary offers a view behind the industry’s murky veil and provides unprecedented access to various contributors who have operated within the space.

One of the professionals involved is Minnie Lane, one of the only female coaches in the industry, who early on in her career, became aware of the dangers and controversy of the practice. She has since left the industry to build up her own coaching company that teaches people a more honest and genuine approach to dating. 

“During the time I worked in the industry, I always felt conflicted. On one hand, I could see the majority of the students were honest guys who just needed a little help. They often would gain confidence and start to get more interest from women, but something also didn’t feel right.”

After analysing the advice, and realising how hugely flawed it was, Lane began to see the extremely damaging long-term consequences the strategies had for everyone involved. She saw many coaches turn from “decent men to emotionless predators”, and recalled how this process left them unhappy and unfulfilled. 

"She saw many coaches turn from decent men to emotionless predators and recalled how this process left them unhappy and unfulfilled"

This wasn’t enough to stop the pickup artists, though— the flood of money they were bringing in was the catalyst of the problem, and they still continued to pass on the same pattern to their students, irrespective of the destructive nature it was causing. Feeling uneasy about the ethics of the industry as a whole, Lane decided to flip the practice on its head, and instead of teaching pre-packaged lines and routines, encouraged vulnerability when seeking a partner. 

Released in late June, The Pickup Game leaves you with a wincing fascination. Across the revealing 96-minute documentary, the billion dollar pick up industry is shown to be rife with controversy and scandal.

It’s a business where self-styled seduction coaches travel the world, charging extortionate fees to teach men skills they claim will guarantee ‘success’ with women—with success equating confirmation for sex. 

A fishing bait with love heart fish

The pickup industry might on paper seem appealing to men with low self-esteem, but its established techniques for 'pulling' women have been roundly criticised.

The courses offered are often packaged as self-improvement lessons, and instructors prey on desperate men with low self-esteem. The pickup artists often become more than teachers to their ‘students’, who revere them as idols because of their seemingly impressive abilities to seduce women with manipulative tactics.  

A cornerstone of the pickup industry and one of the earlier key reasons why ‘pickup artistry’ was pushed into the mainstream resulted from the publication of Neil Strauss’ notorious how-to manual, The Game. It promised to teach its readers how to become better at picking up women and in so doing have more sex—the primary incentive of the industry.

Strauss himself was living proof that what he was saying did really work. A self-described “lump of nerd”, he morphed from journalist to a serial dater of models. The self-help book was marketed as The Biblesome even had gilt edged pages and a real ribbon bookmark and talked about tactics or techniques such as ‘negging’, where a man would give a woman a semi-insulting compliment to “slightly lower her self-esteem” to the point where she wanted approval and would then be vulnerable to advances. 

"A man would give a woman a semi-insulting compliment to “slightly lower her self-esteem” to the point where she wanted approval and would then be vulnerable to advances"

Neil Strauss

The notorious pick up artist Neil Strauss in 2009, source: Wikimedia Commons

Strauss now acknowledges that some of the techniques he documented in The Game were “objectifying and horrifying.” It was basically a numbers game with a probability approach—hit on enough women and eventually one of them was bound to succumb to your proposals.

Navigating the tricky waters of romance to find an ideal partner has always been difficult. Human beings overwhelmingly wish to be loved and be in an equitable loving relationship. 

We have also been curious about human actions, postures, gestures and facial expressions for centuries. But it wasn’t mainstream until zoologist Desmond Morris published his book, Manwatching in 1977 which included explanations of their underlying causes and meanings. 

An illustration of a woman feeling uncomfortable surrounded by two men

So-called 'seduction techniques' taught by pickup artists involve manipulation and emotional abuse.

In the digital age, Manwatching has largely been reduced to viewing pictures on an online dating site and swiping left or right. Unfortunately the pickup industry somewhat inevitably has a very dark side—an underbelly of exploitation where not only emotions are torn apart but also huge financial losses can be incurred.

YouTube removed over one hundred videos relating to the seduction industry in October 2019 for violating its “violative sexual content” rules, and Minnie Lane recalls the “three men who are currently in jail for an incident that happened during a ‘coaching’ session.” 

Even Neil Strauss now has a new philosophy. After being treated for anxiety, depression, and even spending some time in rehab for sex addiction, he revealed to Kathy Gilsinan in her The Game at 10—Reflections from a Recovering Pick Up Artist interview that “if you ask me today about it, I’d tell you that anything that involves manipulation or needing to have a certain outcome is definitely not healthy in any way.”

"Anything that involves manipulation or needing to have a certain outcome is definitely not healthy in any way"

Today, as the UK’s hospitality industry continues to reopen its doors after months of inactivity due to Covid-19 restrictions, it’s vital that women become aware of the industry. “These behaviours simply won’t be able to survive once people are able to quickly recognise them,” says Lane. “I think anyone can get value from this documentary, [The Pickup Game] as it exposes the human condition and the consequences of following our egos, which we’re all guilty of in some ways.” 

Perhaps it’s this longing for social acceptance and genuine need for validation that unravels the problematic core of the industry: the pickup artists preying on the weak. Their vulnerability is seen as an easily targeted personality trait that can be moulded, with these men paying good money to be taught how to essentially control another human being.

What they view as a positive personal social evolution is actually a destructive conveyor belt of manipulation.

Read more: Sexual bereavement: The grief we don't talk about

Read more: The relationships that flourished in lockdown

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter