How 'Pick-Up Artist' Philosophy and Its More Misogynist Backlash Shaped Mind of Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Students march on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara during a candlelight vigil held to honor the victims of Friday night's mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff's officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near UC Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood. 

Women—hot young women, really—owed him sex and, because they reneged on their obligations, Elliot Rodger would get his revenge by going on a killing spree. That was the thesis of a video titled “Elliot Rodger’s retribution,” featuring the angry rantings of the 22-year-old college student before he allegedly went on a murderous rampage through Isla Vista, California, which resulted in six murders, thirteen people injured, and Rodger himself dead.

“You denied me a happy life, and in turn, I will deny all of you life,” he threatened. “It’s only fair.”

This video and others that Rodger put on his YouTube channel were full of language that was immediately recognizable to many: He was speaking the lingo of the “pick-up artist” (PUA) community that feminists have been raising alarms about for many years now, arguing that it’s a breeding ground for misogynist resentment and may even be encouraging violence against women.

“Alpha,” PUA lingo for a dominant male, was in the video threatening the mass murder. Rodger identified as an “incel,” which means “involuntarily celibate,” a term that was developed on web-based bulletin boards devoted to PUA enthusiasts that weren’t finding much luck getting laid. His theories about what “women” are thinking and why they are denying him the sex he felt entitled to came straight out of the theories of mating and dating that underlie the entire concept of PUA. He followed many PUAs on YouTube and was a frequent poster at forums that purported to analyze PUA theory.

Pick-up artistry is a huge, if generally ignored industry, with self-appointed PUAs selling an endless stream of videos, books, and seminars purporting to teach “the game,” which is invariably packaged as a surefire way for men who learn it to get laid. PUAs like to portray themselves to outsiders as doing nothing more than trying to provide dating advice to men, in an environment where most dating advice is aimed at women. But there’s one major difference. Dating advice of the sort you find in Cosmo magazine and other women’s media usually starts from the premise that the advice-seeker has flaws that need to be fixed in order to make her more attractive. But pick-up artistry argues that men who can’t get laid are fine the way they are, and it’s women—the entire lot of them—who are broken. And that by accepting that women are the ones to blame here, the student of PUA can finally start getting the sex he feels entitled to.

Most PUA philosophy is based in a half-baked pseudo-scientific theory of the genders derived from evolutionary psychology. The argument is that women are programmed to overlook “nice guys”, sometimes called “betas,” who are gentlemanly and kind and and instead are drawn to cocky assholes who mistreat them, usually nicknamed “alphas,” Often, women are accused of “friend zoning” the betas, exploiting them for companionship and gifts while getting sexual satisfaction from the alphas. (It’s taken as a given that “alphas” are bad men who can’t treat a woman right and “betas” are nice, though the seething misogyny of many self-identified betas gives lie to that notion.)  

There’s no scientific evidence to support this theory, but since it allows adherents to believe themselves to be unimpeachable victims and to blame women for their loneliness, it remains wildly popular, so much so that men seeking non-misogynist dating advice cannot find it in a sea of PUA literature.

Rodger was a clear adherent to this philosophy of women’s failure to be attracted to the correct men, as he imagined himself to be. “I’m the perfect guy, and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men, instead of me, the supreme gentleman,” Rodger complained in the video. “I will punish all of you for it.”

Having established that women are stupid and awful for supposedly preferring men that are bad for them, the PUAs then go on to argue that it’s OK to treat women like garbage. PUAs tell their followers that since women are attracted to assholes, then the best way to get laid is to trick women into thinking you’re an “alpha” by acting like an asshole. Even the most mainstream and arguably least offensive PUA, Erik von Markovik (a.k.a., “Mystery”), teaches that the best way to get “hot babes” into bed is to insult them and ignore them in hopes that the women will be feel insecure and sleep with you in order to try to earn your approval.

Since Mystery got famous from Neil Strauss’s book The Game, and a tie-in series on VH1,  PUA has exploded online as various entrepreneurs start their own little empires, and various websites and forums trade increasingly misogynist tips, such as isolating the “target” from her friends or teaching men to keep pushing back “last-minute resistance,” techniques that make it so scary or difficult for a woman to decline sex that they often amount to rape.

 

Despite PUA guarantees to the contrary, there’s no reason to believe any of this actually makes you more successful with women, which is why a site called PUAhate, which Rodgers was a frequent contributor to, emerged. Members of PUAhate, by and large, are men who bought wholesale into the PUA ideology, only to find it doesn’t work for them.

PUAhate members continue to subscribe, however, to the theory that women are inferior and forbidding monsters, pre-programmed to reject worthy betas in favor of supposedly awful alphas, and their main complaint against PUAs is that they mislead betas into thinking they can game the system. PUAhate, therefore, devolved into a pity session of misogynists explaining to each other how women are the source of all their misery, and the only solution to the problem was to start stripping women of all rights to sexual self-determination.

This theory—that ordinary and worthy men are oppressed by women who refuse to have sex with them—was articulated in Rodger’s 141-page manifesto he sent to newspapers.

Women are incapable of having morals or thinking rationally. They are completely controlled by their depraved emotions and vile sexual impulses. Because of this, the men who do get to experience the pleasures of sex and the privilege of breeding are the men who women are sexually attracted to... the stupid, degenerate, obnoxious men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magnificent gentlemen like myself.

This sort of rhetoric is fairly common on some of the more embittered PUA forums, and the “men’s rights” forums that have quite a bit of overlap with them. (Jaclyn Friedman wrote about the “men’s rights” (MRA) movement for the Prospect, which you can read here.) The argument that it’s not women who are oppressed, but men who are kept down by women’s “unfair” systems of distributing sexual favors (for PUAs and MRAs, sex is a commodity, not really an activity) is the central organizing principle of both pick-up artistry and “men’s rights” organizing, so much so that the main text of “men’s rights”—Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power—features a woman’s naked butt on the cover, to drive home how men are supposedly helpless pawns of women’s game of sexual distribution.

Obviously, the discourse of male entitlement to female attention has long been a problem in our society. Young men angry at women for supposedly overlooking their charms for less worthy and more brutish sexual rivals existed long before The Game was published or PUA/MRA forums proliferated online. But the internet and the PUA community have created a self-haven for young men engaged in this self-pitying discourse, encouraging them to cultivate that chip on their shoulders, wallowing in misogynist accusations that women en masse are failing them by not giving up the sex these ostensibly unappreciated men believe they deserve. With so many men spending so much time egging each other on, and trying to top each other when it comes to blaming women for their own pitiful lives—to the point of advocating for the denial of basic rights to women—it’s little surprise that one of them would finally work up the nerve to get his “revenge” for all these imagined slights.

 

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