A fortnight ago, we saw a huge controversy arise around LawSikho and its now-infamous dating webinar. To summarise, LawSikho, an educational platform aimed at spreading legal education, invited Kshitij Sehrawat, a self-styled ‘dating coach’, to speak on ‘how can busy professionals have a dating life’.
The event was only for “men”.
Sehrawat’s mission statement, as can be seen on his LinkedIn page, is “helping high performers unleash high worth by eliminating subconscious anchors creating a void inside”.
In a nutshell, he focuses on ‘mentoring’ men in the art of ‘getting’ women. Much has been written about the sexist content of the webinar, and how it promoted a culture of toxic masculinity. However, it brought the flourishing industry of ‘dating coaches’ in the limelight, and its rise in India over the past few years.
For the uninitiated, PUAs, or pick-up artists, are (usually) cis-heterosexual men who market their skills at coaxing women into dating men, or sleeping with men, by using manipulative tactics. This seduction industry is valued at $100 million, and has been propagated by the likes of Neill Strauss, Roosh V and Julien Blanc.
The underlying notion behind this industry highlights women as trophies to be achieved. With the premise that women have “a problem of plenty” – with many men to choose from – these coaches posit that acquiring female attention requires specific tactics. These are not confined to theory – in many cases the coaches have a series of practical guides for making the clientele proficient in ‘picking up chicks’. Neil Strauss’s 2005 international bestseller The Game, which sold 2.5 million copies, introduced ideas such as negging – or peacocking.
Following the LawSikho debacle, we were morbidly fascinated by the worldviews of the just that one dating coach we saw, and it led us to wonder what shape the industry had taken in India. At the end of our research, we were able to confirm what we had already suspected – Desi PUAs were hotbeds of ignorance, misogyny and toxic masculinity, and were brazenly spreading this message among Indian men.
This practice of picking up girls has been given a specific term – “gaming”. PUAs profess to know the answer to the question of what women want, and claim to have received professional training qualifying them to give advice on dating, relationships and personality development. The PUAs guarantee that their clients will be able to ‘get’ girls.
In order to train men how to “game”, PUAs travel from city to city, organising bootcamps that transform guys from “soft-spoken, nice guys with ill-fitted clothes to confident bosses with swagger (and clothes that fit right)”.
At rates ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 60,000, these sessions do not come cheap.
Multiple PUAs use the term ‘infield’ training – practical sessions which entail taking the students out and showing them how to pickup girls, how to get phone numbers, get to make out, get laid – basically how to ‘game’.
Videos of these infield sessions are up on YouTube channels and websites. In them, interactions with women are recorded stealthily – without their knowledge that they’re being filmed.
Videos with catchy titles and clickbait thumbnails are usually from parties, clubs, streets and even private rooms where the coaches show how they have approached girls and flirted with them. The girls in the videos are blurred and their names muted for privacy concerns but everything about them is visible to any viewer.
Over the course of our study, we were able to cull out the following main lines of strategy that such PUAs prescribe:
1. Being a man entitles you to the attention of women.
2. Women like men who act like they don’t care about them.
3. The stage must be set for ‘gaming’; one can walk upto women in a public place regardless of their wishes to start talking to them.
4. Permission makes you a beggar. The strategy is to compliment and flatter the woman, pretend that you know her and be assertive.
5. Close proximity is advisable, and this must be increased in proportion to how much she is laughing at your banter.
Consent is not something that they usually discuss, but the one video we found that does talk about it ends with the explanation that one should back off when there are clear signs of resistance, and if not, then one can be persistent.
While the promotions raise the promise of finding a partner, in reality, most PUAs only provide tactics to find ways to have sex.
It is fairly obvious that dating coaches are deeply problematic in numerous ways. The perception this underground industry preaches is that girls have an abundance of men lurking around them. From mediocre ones to the ‘really hot ones’, as explained by Mohit Arora, girls have many “options”. On the other hand, men either don’t have options or when they do, they might not be good enough which reduces their value in a woman’s eyes.
This reinforces an antiquated and oversimplified idea of interaction between the genders, and is dangerously close to the ideology of radicalised incel culture, where men are united by their inability to convince women to have sex with them. It is not hardly a stretch to conceive that PUAs find a home among similarly inclined people who view women solely as sex objects.
These stereotypes are deeply problematic from the point of view of masculinity as well. Sehrawat argues that since thousands of years women have been attracted to an “alpha male” who can protect them and men to women who are youthful, beautiful and nurturing.
This perpetuates a one-dimensional view of the concept of manhood, and otherises those who do not fit this image. Hegemonic masculinity, i.e. the pattern or practice allowing for the continued dominance of men finds a fertile breeding ground through this discourse.
The fact that this line of business insidiously promotes rape culture is not in question – in one case, the PUA alarmingly advocated rape itself as a tactic. Questions of equality, feminism and consent find no place in this set up.
Yet, the demand for them clearly exists, as evidenced by the thousands of men who pay to learn this art of gaming. Their existing patriarchal indoctrination gets reinforced and finds expression in toxic ways. The agency of the woman is completely eliminated from the picture.
Often, clients describe their sexual conquests in graphic detail, screenshots of which are readily available on the aesthetically crafted websites for quick reference to wherever is on the fence about joining their programme. Needless to say, the entire trend is geared towards queer erasure, and is therefore far from being inclusive.
Toronto recently saw brutal attacks that were held to be the outcome of the incel movement. We posit that as things stand in India – a country where the sex ratio remains abysmal, where a rape is reported every 15 minutes, where objectification and misogyny abound across class and caste lines, albeit in different forms – we cannot ignore the insidious spread of PUA culture. This is explicit in its mistreatment of women, and does not belong in a country that has begun to proclaim itself as a ‘Surakshit Bharat’.
On a personal note, we wish to inform our male compatriots that these strategies are unlikely to work, and will fail at bringing meaningful or fulfilling interactions of any kind. We encourage men to engage constructively and respectfully with the women in their lives; this, in our opinion, goes farther than any ‘game’ possibly could.
For, as Gloria Steinem says, the masculine realm is killing them, and in this case, any attempt at romance.
Padmini Baruah is currently a graduate student working on gender issues. Shivangi Sharma is a final year law student at HNLU working on gender and child rights awareness.