BEN AND I restlessly sipped our gin and tonics, scanning the bar for familiar faces—or maybe just feigning purpose to mask our indecision. An overcrowded dance floor on one end of the room played host to the sexual courtship of a hundred-odd sloppily drunk college students. We stood at the other end where the more timid, prefer-to-talk-rather-than-bump-and-grind group of students stood half screaming at each other above the overwhelming din of Top 40 dance music.
Standing not far from us were two well-dressed dress-wearers, surveying the room in a similar fashion to us. They seemed like they wanted to be engaged.
“We should go talk to those girls,” I said to Ben.
Ben, a handsome stage actor who can be, at times, ridiculously self-assured, looked at me like I was a soul-sucking ghoul.
“Okay,” he whimpered, “but what should we say?”
I deliberated. Then, with a puff of sham confidence, I did my best impersonation of someone who felt comfortable talking to girls at a bar and said, “Just follow my lead.”
I strode toward the two girls, heart thumping uncontrollably, and said the first thing that came to my mind: “Hi there, my friend and I thought you were cute and we wanted to say hello.”
I turned toward Ben, my handsome, confident wingman. He was gone. Instead of following behind me, he had darted toward a window while I flew solo on our two-person mission. The girls’ jaws dropped in unison as they shot confused looks at one another. Then, like a cringe-worthy scene from a movie, they burst out laughing, literally, in my face.
I pivoted 180 degrees and, cheeks hot with shame, promptly left the bar without paying my tab.
Several months before this confidence-shattering event, I split up with my college girlfriend of three years. She graduated university and flew home to Toronto while I stayed at school in Vancouver to wallow briefly in misery. Yet my unhappiness slowly yielded to optimism: I was single. Only, as I found out at the bar that night, being single wasn’t always so fun.
Before my college girlfriend, I had a high school sweetheart. That means roughly eight of my 23 years have been spent in relationships. I never meant for this to happen, but apparently it’s who I am. I have always considered myself nice. Not like the archetypical eager-to-please ‘nice guy,’ but someone who embraces kindness as an identity. According to research from the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, it turns out that guys like me “may not be competitive in terms of numbers of sexual partners,” but are “more successful with respect to longer-term, committed relationships.”
Tied in these relationships, I watched from the sidelines as my generation carved out sexual norms and practices. The harder I tried to re-enter this world, the more it seemed to exist beyond my reach. How did people meet each other? Do they still go on dates? And if they did, what did they do?
It turns out I’m not the only one who is confused—my whole generation is collectively puzzled. I have shared my humiliating bar story with almost a dozen people whose responses have ranged from: “I would have laughed at you too,” to “That’s the cruelest thing I have ever heard,” to an earnest, “I’m surprised that didn’t work.” Regardless of what you think of my failed conversation starter, the point of the story is this: when it comes to meeting members of the opposite sex, no one my age seems to know what to do.
The buzz-term ‘hookup culture’—a casual, sexually permissive atmosphere— is used to describe Millennials’ current attitudes toward dating. It’s a much discussed and widely contested concept. Some wonder if the whole thing is just a myth, a hot topic supported only by anecdotal evidence of the same type of casual sex that has always occurred on college campuses. Whether or not hookup culture exists, whether it signals the empowerment of college-aged women (as explained by The Atlantic’s Hannah Rosin) or deprives a generation of its capacity for intimacy (as argued by Donna Freitas in her book titled, unsurprisingly, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled and Confused About Intimacy) one thing is clear: dating has changed. For that, we can thank the Internet.
In my final year of university, a social networking app called Tinder swept through our campus. It’s a cruel, judge-a-book-by-its-cover application which presents users with several photos of a potential ‘match.’ Based on these photos, users can swipe right for ‘yes’ or left for ‘no.’ When two people mutually swipe left, they are matched and can begin texting. The jury may still be out on hookup culture—generational phenomenon or overblown media invention?— but good God, if Tinder doesn’t signal some sort of psychological shift in how young people treat sexuality, then I don’t know what does.
In any case, I don’t have a smartphone. Even if I did, I’m not so sure I would Tinder. The whole thing seems—for lack of a better word—icky. So here I am, here we all are, single and looking to mingle, or maybe not, or maybe yes, or maybe we’re just not sure.
But mingling hinges upon initiation. And that’s the hard part. If young people don’t circumvent this social-anxiety through the Internet, they often turn to another widely-embraced and more time-honored option: alcohol. In my experience, booze is the number one vehicle through which college-aged singles meet one other. I imagine this is nothing new. But between the hangovers, my general anti-Internet stance on meeting women, and the getting laughed at in my face, I knew I needed a change.
I shared these concerns to a sympathetic friend, somewhat of a high school Casanova, who had similarly gotten lost in the world of college dating. His advice? “Dude, you should read Paul Janka.”
Paul Janka is a self-described “master” of the “art” of pick-up and seduction. He graduated Harvard with a physics degree and has since turned himself a medium-grade internet presence instructing men on how to meet women. My friend sent me Janka’s 19-page PDF “manifesto,” Getting Laid in NYC, which I read in one three-hour sitting.
Janka is but one of many “pick up artists” (PUAs), callous men widely denounced for their sexist and misogynistic guidance on meeting women. They are criticized for perpetuating patriarchy and advising men to treat women as mere objects for sexual gratification. For the most part, this is completely true. Janka himself has gotten his fair share of negative media attention. He’s been featured on Dr. Phil, fielded multiple sexual assault charges, and was nominated for Gawker’s Douche of the Decade—no small feat.
Douchey as he may be, there are a few incredibly simple and surprisingly less-douchey-than-expected principles that make-up his “system” for meeting women. First step is contact. Meet girls midweek in the middle of day when they are walking around (“trying to get a girl’s number a Saturday night when you are competing with every other dickhead is a loser’s gamble”). Introduce yourself, give her a compliment, get her number quickly, and say goodbye. The rest, depending on your style, is pretty much up to you. All it takes is confidence and willingness to approach multiple women despite inevitable rejection (“never let one bitchy or unresponsive girl affect your outlook”).
The book is written with the self-disclosure of a tell-all memoirist coupled with the obnoxious confidence of someone willing to write a pick-up manual (“I just had sex with my 100th women; I should have made a t-shirt for her.”) But behind Janka’s aggressive misogyny, something spoke to me.
Janka told me that as a young, single male, it’s my responsibility to engage the opposite sex. This was novel. Sometimes I have found myself talking to attractive women, but never once—simple as it sounds—had it occurred to ask for their numbers. In this respect, Janka was inspiring. That day, I boarded a bus from Seattle back to Vancouver, where my inspiration would soon manifest.
The wheels of my Laker-purple Clairborne suitcase crackled against the pockmarked concrete outside Vancouver’s Pacific Rail Station. As I made my way to my bus stop, I spotted an ambiguously attractive shape. Half a block closer, I confirmed my initial inkling that the shadowed figure was, in fact, a creature of extraordinary beauty. She was destined for me: a Janka-inspired test of fate. I walked right up to her, puffed my chest and deepened my throat. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, I walked right past her—feet planted firmly three full-length steps to her right.
Deflated, I hopped on the bus and took a seat near the back. She boarded the front door, and as she strode towards me, I got the full force of her beauty: tall, long brown hair, high cheekbones, and almond-shaped eyes. Two thin straps held up a dress which flowed unevenly to her ankles. There it met the leather straps of her sandals, which crisscrossed over her tanned feet until they connected with the sole. A brown leather belt wrapped tightly around her mid-section, etching out the contours of her thin but not-too-thin waist. She looked like Pocahontas.
My bus seat faced inward. She passed up the seat across from me, opting instead for the forward facing seat right behind me. A second chance. All I had to do was turn my head to the left and start talking.
Sometimes it’s the simplest acts that are the most insurmountable. Five minutes passed in silence. Then another five. Five more. I oscillated between desperately wishing she would get off the bus—a default cop-out to my impending pickup disaster—to almost whimpering when she made a move as if getting ready to leave. My brain was on overdrive, a simultaneous stream of possible introductions mixed with intense trepidation and serious self-loathing.
“Hi there, I don’t usually do this, but I think you’re very pretty, and I thought I would introduce myself…no that’s not right…goddamit you worthless coward, you’re not going to say anything are you? Just say something. Anything, please, you miserable sack of testicle-less dog poo…Very nice dress you have…nooo…”
The bus bumped, and I almost vomited.
Then it happened. I don’t know what changed, but for some reason I turned, reached out my hand to get her attention, and asked softy, genuinely perplexed: “Excuse me, but have we met before?”
It was too far-fetched. We both knew it, but she played along. Looking at me, her deep blue eyes intrigued, she leaned forward (good body-language according to Janka) and pronounced in a puzzled yet inviting tone: “I . . . I don’t think so.”
Contact initiated. Now for the compliment.
“Are you famous then?”
She laughed. She Laughed! Adrenaline coursed through my blood. A grandiose delusion instantly formed: I was doing it! I was floating, high on my new-found confidence and day-game abilities.
“No, unfortunately I’m not famous,” she said playfully.
Then, as I opened my mouth again to speak, something happened that Janka hadn’t prepared me for. A voice whose owner I couldn’t see came from the seat behind Pocahontas. It was a woman’s voice, judging by the tone and timbre, older.
“Hah,” she scoffed, “nice pick-up line.”
That was all it took. The delusion crumbled. I suddenly became aware of my mouth, which was open, and my breath, which had shorted. Where was Janka’s section about the malevolent, eavesdropping saboteur on the bus?
I coughed, trying to fill the now silent air with noise. I had about three more seconds until absolute panic, when I saw a sly, knowing smile start to take shape on her face. Why should it make a difference that some lady said aloud what the both of us already knew?
I regrouped and managed to ask, “Where would I have seen you before?”
“Well, I’ve done some modeling here and there,” she said.
Too easy: “Oh, you look like a model.”
And then more of the unexpected: “I’ve done some modeling too,” I announced.
What? I’ve never modeled anything. I’m 5’11¾” (not a single doctor has ever bumped me to six feet even on my chart) Sometimes, if I don’t shave for a week, the stubble from the back of my neck will wrap around and connect with my beard, starting a full circle of hair which travels south and covers the rest of my body. Realistically, the only thing I could be a model for is a product I own called a Mangroomer. Essentially an electric razor on a large retractable stick, the Mangromer is my preferred method for shaving my own back.
But whatever, fuck it. Yeah, I’m a model too.
We chit-chatted for a bit. She was a teacher. She had the next day off, so that night she was going out for drinks. She had done some traveling in Southeast Asia. So had I. She pointed to my purple suitcase, and asked where I was coming from. I tried to be funny, but realized it was just weird when I ran my finger across the stitched blue lettering which spelled “SEATTLE” on my sweatshirt instead of saying it out loud. She didn’t seem to mind. The conversation was okay. My heart’s pace even returned to a regular level a couple minutes in. I tried to focus on the drinking part, attempting to segue into “we should get a drink sometime,” but I couldn’t quite get there.
She reached for the bus cord, and pulled for Macdonald Street. But just seconds before, the stop had already “dinged.” She was signaling; time was running out.
As she got up to leave, my stomach dropped. I didn’t have it in me. Instead of asking for her number I uttered some stupid farewell, all friendly like we were old buddies, “Nice talking to you, see you around.”
She smiled and said “See ya.” Then she left.
Monumental failure times two. I had initiated the contact, given her the compliment—making my intentions clear—she didn’t seem annoyed or disturbed, but I couldn’t take the obvious next step. It was like cooking a five-course dinner only to toss it in the trash after the appetizer. I stomped home absolutely furious, cursing at myself, and violently dragging my suitcase over curbs.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so mad. I went out on limb, and did something scary. If I had a little more confidence, maybe I could have learned Pocahontas’ real name. We could have gone for a drink. Or not. We could have liked each other. Or not. We could have slept together. Or not. I didn’t make it through Janka’s step-by-step system. But I am not Janka.
Much has been said about pick-up-artists, seduction guides, and the like: whether they are/can be “ethical,” the damage of their sexism, the extent of their misogyny. There’s no denying a certain degree of misogyny.
With Janka, an end-game is projected onto the reader: have as much sex as possible. But it was his means, not his end, which spoke to me. At their core, all of these guides are saying the same thing—and it’s instructive, even if masked behind ugly sexism: meeting women is, at last, about meeting women. That’s what most guys don’t get. Especially guys my age, where dating or ‘hookup culture’ is inextricably linked with alcohol, drugs and the internet. In an age where we trade physical contact for virtual ‘connection,’ Janka tells us to be bold, to seek out genuine, human-to-human interaction.
To put it simply: if you want to talk to a girl, you should go say hello.