The thing is supposed to start at 3PM, but it's 4, the line is scattered, and there are no snacks. I can't stop looking at this one dude who thought it was a good idea to pair a v-neck with a straw fedora. And I feel like if I stay here long enough, my body will eventually morph into the shape of a slug, and I'll have to come back to my loved ones slimy and vile, stuttering to explain what I've become.
The men lining up look mostly excited to be here, though. The more the hallway fills up the thicker the atmosphere of dudebro camaraderie feels. We're all here for the same reason, after all. We're attending a seminar organized by PUA Academy.
Upon registering, they tell us to either silence or switch off our cellphones before surrendering them. The logic of this tactic is twofold: it compels men to socialize without the crutch of a device, and it prevents troublemakers from snapping pictures of attendees whose identities PUA takes great pains to protect. Those who confirmed tickets for this seminar had to agree to the rules of an NDA that prohibits photographs or the divulging of names, so I can't give any real names in this story. They know they're hated.
And at this point, it would be truly surprising if they didn't know. PUA Academy is basically a group of mentors and mentees devoted to the study of picking up women. This brand of pickup artistry takes its cues from the American PUA movement and a book called "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists" by Neill Strauss, who spent years cheating on his girlfriends, picking up women by manipulative techniques, and acquiring a sex addiction, before renouncing the text entirely. This doesn't seem to have discouraged the men attending today though, despite the deserved, scorched earth press the PUA group has been getting. Critics of the Academy charge them to be predators who practice their pickup techniques on the unsuspecting. Here's a video of one PUA Academy coach encouraging you to isolate a woman in the day time. Here's another video from the same coach about how he dated 365 women in one year.
You don’t know you’re beautiful
The function room is about the size of a classroom and all chairs have been filled. The crowd numbers around 60 to 80. And while these men might consider bars, clubs, or cafes to be their primary hunting grounds, this convocation that resembles a Bible study group way too closely for comfort is their natural habitat. I can't get a read on the demographic but the look of it eludes what I was expecting, which was a comic-con melting pot of neckbeards and incels. I got... men. Men of different shapes and sizes. Men of different ages and backgrounds. Some grew up in Manila, some moved in from the province. Some have been rubbing shoulders with PUA higher-ups for a while, some were attending a PUA event for the first time. Their audience is growing.
In the lull before the program, the speakers play filler music. One Direction takes over the room and tells me I am beautiful precisely because I don't know I am beautiful. I don't know how the fuck to unpack this.
A coach comes up (let's call him Ralph) and the vibe I get is a cross between a born again youth pastor and an Axe cologne smoke bomb. Ralph's job for today is to facilitate a number of exercises that sharpen your socialization skills and calibrate your sense of self-worth. One icebreaker exercise asks you to introduce yourself to five people and talk about what to expect while you're here. After the exercise, he asks those who didn't complete the exercise to raise their hands, and then he goes, If you couldn't do that, how can you expect to pick up women? Clever.
A coach comes up (let's call him Ralph) and the vibe I get is a cross between a born again youth pastor and an Axe cologne smoke bomb.
As we're sharing our expectations, I get a dizzying crash course on PUA jargon. There are quite a few terms that hold currency here: "alpha," “approach anxiety,” “game," (sub-divided into two terms: "outer game," which is how you act in the world, and "inner game," which is the inner world that determines your actions), "B.A.G.S.," (Blame, Anger, Guilt, Shame: the things that corrupt your inner game and impede your outer game), "winning," (been a long time since I saw a Charlie Sheen-ism hold sway in a room full of men), "friendzone."
Ralph writes some of these terms with a marker on a large sheet of paper on an easel. He then proceeds to draw two concentric circles. The inner circle contains the word "you" and it is defined as the "comfort zone." Surrounding that circle are the words "judgment," "insecurity," "fear," "anxiety," and "lack of knowledge." These are the B.A.G.S., the things messing with your game and preventing you from reaching the outermost circle, which is called the "winning zone." It contains "career," "cars," "money," "house," "travel," and your "dream partner." This is a theme that repeats over the course of the seminar—as soon as I start to consider that PUA Academy might actually be chasing eudaimonia, I am reminded that the truest form of self-actualization for these men is getting the girl. Conquest. Winning.
In a stunning moment of evangelical rhetoric employed, Ralph asks the audience, regarding their B.A.G.S., "Do you think the man above will not allow his son to be perfect?" Jesus.
“You are inspire me...”
One activity pairs me up with another attendee (let's call him Paolo), a first-timer younger than me who sees his introversion as a thing to triumph over. For a couple of exercises, we are instructed to share with each other our struggles, and our partner is instructed to respond with words of encouragement. "You are inspire me because..." and then we reverse roles. Chair legs scuff and creak on floor tiles. Men shuffle. I am observing a rare sight: a room of aspiring pick-up artists achingly attempting tenderness with other straight men. I feel like I'm watching a lion flop on its back and expose its belly.
I am reminded that the truest form of self-actualization for these men is getting the girl. Conquest. Winning.
At one point, all pairs in the room are instructed to join up with another pair, and these groups of four share with each other their "champion story," which is any anecdote that involves detailing a struggle you went through in your life and how you overcame it. The pair Paolo and I connect with (let's call them Chino and Julio) take to the exercise with verve, opening themselves up to us about their hopes and fears. We are instructed to applaud our groupmates' triumphs with an unusual gesture: a clap that makes no sound. We take our hands and gesticulate outwards and open-palmed. Four times during this exercise, I motion my hands through empty air with little waves. Paolo, Chino and Julio do the same, with earnestness.
There's this psychological term called "lovebombing," which is defined as exercising a degree of influence over someone by giving them (mostly excessive) positive attention and encouragement. It's a tactic mostly employed in cults and abusive relationships to instill in the target a distorted sense of loyalty to the lovebomber. And while I don't doubt that Paolo and the other pair said nothing but true words to me, telling me that I had initiative and courage in the way I dealt with my problems, I couldn't shake the feeling that we were all playing into a lovebomb mechanism.
This is how they get you. It is ridiculously easy to develop a vague sense of empathy for these men, at least in the context of three hours of facilitated, fraternal team-building. I think it was also a factor that I didn't completely lie in this environment. I said I was Jay, a graphic designer who didn't know how to flirt and was single since birth. None of those things are true. But I also said I was struggling with financial anxieties, and that my dad passed away from cancer some time ago and that my grief was making me hustle to fulfill a vague breadwinner role. All of those things are true. And you know what else is true? My groupmates were dealing with their own struggles as well, unrelated to women. They told me I was brave. I told them they were brave.
This is not a heroic tale. This is tragedy. These men are starved of a certain something, and their starvation cannot be satiated by a warm body.
These men are starved of a certain something, and their starvation can not be satiated by a warm body.
And I want to be generous about my assessments here, and say that these men are kind and possess depths that deserve to be plumbed by someone who loves them. At the same time, this feeling is farcical. Of course I think they're nice—I'm a man, fraternizing in a room full of straight men, and of course straight men will be kind to other straight men, especially when they've all come together for the express purpose of learning how to pick up chicks. It is not astonishing or impressive to be kind to one's own, and a lack of women in this room to target prevents from observing the full brunt of conditioned misogyny and homophobia. (And there is homophobia here. A few anti-gay quips are tossed around over the course of the afternoon. Either there are no gay men in this room, or the gay men here are closeted and tragically working to curb that part of them. PUA Academy will not teach you how to get a boyfriend.)
Bakit nagloloko ang mga babae?
The program switches up from activities to an open question and answer forum with one of the higher coaches of the organization (let's call him Mike). Immediately, the discussion homes in on the female psyche in a way that reduces it to a code that can be cracked. Suddenly, narratives of self-improvement and emotional struggle dissolve in the face of macho libido, as grown men pose questions normally asked by pre-pubescents about to attend their first soiree. What do you do on a date? How do you hold a conversation? Bakit nagloloko ang mga babae? Eudaimonia didn't leave the building—it was never here.
Honestly this shit is innocuous, and such questions might be endearing if they were directed to a mother, sister, officemate, gay friend, therapist, or advice columnist. But these men look at Mike like he was Barney Stinson. It isn't difficult to see why—Mike has a Boys Night Out air about him, his vibe a cross between self-styled successor of Hugh Hefner and the 0.01 percent of germs your hand sanitizer can't kill. At one point, Mike says, if you want to hold a girl's hand without coming off as a threat, pretend to be a palm reader. Even the most benevolent pick-up advice here is just icky. You wanna tell her you're interested? Play a love song on your car stereo when you pick 'em up. Mike offers this painfully rehearsed line: "You seem to be cooler than the average chick." As for the question of bakit nagloloko ang mga babae, the answer offered up is that the girl probably felt buyer's remorse about the guy they got with. I don't have the energy to bring Marx into this discussion.
At one point, Mike says, if you want to hold a girl's hand without coming off as a threat, pretend to be a palm reader.
Besides, if PUA Academy truly holds themselves up to be masters of self-presentation, they wouldn’t be so vilely reputed. Isn’t this enough of a counterargument?
I should have expected this innocuousness, this dude-pare-tsong brand of smarminess. A few years ago, a loose online community of misogynistic men's rights activists (a hollow label) called Return of Kings attempted to organize a gathering of their chapters around the globe. (The name of their leader, Roosh V, might ring a bell for some.) The Philippine chapter was supposed to convene in one spot in Makati then move to another location to avoid detection. I went to the meet-up spot for the scoop, expecting to carry out some thriller-esque infiltration mission. But what happened was, I ended up hanging out with two frumpy white guys at a bar while we talked about... economics. One of the guys linked me to a website about hooking up around Asia. Evil is banal.
This whole thing has been banal. There are many ways that PUA Academy disguises its skeeviness. It is hard to say that PUA Academy exploits men's insecurities for profit—even if you have to pay for their bootcamp and immersion services, this seminar was held for free. Still, patriarchal subjugation is what it is, even when it's a freebie, and even when it comes from a place of men putting on the costume of vulnerability before going out into the world to get in some girl's pants. And while Mike repeatedly emphasizes that we shouldn't appear threatening in the moves we make, isn't it part of the playbook of any predator to conceal their motives? I mean, they still neg. And even when PUA Academy tells the men who come to them that wealth and looks don’t define their worth, this isn’t the kind of generous character-assessment they apply to women.
Are the coaches and disciples that comprise PUA Academy's ranks human? Yes. But humanity isn't an excuse. It's the core reason for holding evil accountable. The women they target, after all, are human too, who fear for their lives and dread the day they accidentally get with some dude who gets life advice from a scumfuck that thinks dating 365 women a year is a thing to take pride in. Here's the truth: every man, no matter how kind or cruel, no matter how feminist, no matter how misogynistic, will always be, to some degree, an instrument of the patriarchy's violences. No exceptions. PUA Academy has to swallow this pill, or it will spend the rest of its sad existence making men who don't know better sick.
I think I caught PUA Academy in the middle of a transition period. When asked to define "game" in his own terms, Mike says "We try not to use that term anymore." This caution reads like a growing pain to me, a collective of men exercising tact with excruciation, as if opting to slap a mosquito bite instead of scratching. At one point there is mention of abandoning the "PUA Academy" title entirely. Whether that represents an ideological shift or a move to avoid detection, I'm not sure. But it tells me that the criticisms of harassment, predation, and evil being leveraged against them are making a dent.
I think it's possible for there to be a space in which men, in a contained environment, can learn to be confident, emotionally intelligent beings. Usapang Lalaki for example, a community dedicated to holding conversations about gender issues where men don't have to fear being judged, is one such space. Other activist circles and communities try to fulfill this mission of transformative justice, by recognizing that misogyny is a conditioned thing, and educating men to self-actualize in a way that recognizes women as fellow human beings.
I think it's possible for there to be a space in which men, in a contained environment, can learn to be confident, emotionally intelligent beings.
But if PUA Academy is truly interested in cultivating such a breed of man, it must completely denounce all tenets of pick-up artistry. Right now, PUA Academy is basically John Robert Powers with a dirty goatee. It is the institutional equivalent of a grow-your-penis-with-THIS-
Paolo, Chino, Julio, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I lied. Try to find me and hit me up, I'll take you to the next Usapang Lalaki event and I can meet you where we are and where I am: as men who have to atone for the way we've been duped by the patriarchy's promises. We are not owed nice cars. We are not owed women. We are not owed an exit strategy out of the friendzone. We are not martyrs of loneliness but its puppets.
Embrace community, reject brotherhood. Embrace success, reject conquest. Embrace relationship-building, reject negging. Embrace service, reject winning. Until PUA Academy completely overhauls its view of the world, it will continue to be trapped in its comfort zone, insulated from the way they are called to move in the world: as real men.