Hey there! Happy New Year! I’m not much one for New Year’s resolutions, but I am doing my darnedest to check a bunch of things off my long-standing to-do list, and it seems this week inspiration is in the air. So I’ve got a few book reviews coming for ya. I’ll post them individually this week. For the first installment, read on!
Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser by Clarisse Thorn
Just to lay out my bias from go, I’ve been known to call pickup artist (PUA) gurus “rape coaches.” Given that I came in with my side-eye pre-sharpened, I was pleasantly surprised to find Confessions quite an intriguing and educational read.
I suppose a feminist SM writer might be about the only kind of writer who could stand much chance of getting me interested in reading about PUA culture. Not just because of my own proclivities, though. It’s more a question of framework. Thorn makes this book a kind of point-for-point comparison between the ways pickup artists handle the questions of power and consent and the ways sex-positive, kink-positive feminists do. The result is a detailed breakdown of these two seemingly disparate approaches to sex, interpersonal communication, relationships and social power structures, where Thorn asks the reader to look carefully at what the PUAs are doing instead of dismissing them as nothing more than woman-hating AFCs. (That means Average Frustrated Chumps, one of the many acronyms you’ll need to remember to follow her discussion. Luckily there’s a glossary.)
By taking this approach, she finds nuggets of wisdom in unexpected places. She has bravely gone where someone like me would just never have the patience to go, establishing a taxonomy of PUAs that ranges from “freaks and geeks” (socially awkward guys who need instruction) to “Darth Vaders” (who seek power and revenge against women for, y’know, existing). At times her level of sympathy for PUAs verges on apologia, given that no matter how benign their intentions, they are all willingly taking part in a subculture that seriously objectifies women. But she never stops condemning the places where PUA frameworks and techniques dip into (or revel in) misogyny and coercion, so she managed to keep me in a place of cautious suspension of hostility.
As well, as the title indicates, Thorn readily admits that she has a PUA fetish, which makes the whole enterprise a little meta. What happens when the mouse learns to meow, buys a fur coat and chases the cat? It’s not exactly a pretty thing, but it sure is interesting to watch. Especially when the mouse’s politics keep her self-questioning at every step of whole cat pursuit. Thorn sometimes feels a bit dirty about what she’s doing, and I don’t blame her. I do appreciate her level of self-examination though, and her willingness to let us in to see some internal processes that are both unflattering and very human.
Thorn does occasionally get a bit too self-indulgent, airing her insecurities and vanities in a way that detracts from the overall arc of her explorations (and her occasional use of the third person in writing about herself is… well, just don’t do that). From an editing standpoint, her choice to self-publish means that some odd choices were left in, such as the front-and-centre explanations of the musical inspirations behind her chapter titles – twice each. Really, this could have been a footnote. Plus, the inappropriate and excessive use of italics sometimes made me want to scream. But overall, the book is probably her smoothest effort, so much so that even these editing speed bumps didn’t slow me down too much as I followed her journey.
No surprise: I did not come out feeling a lot of love for PUAs. But I did learn that PUA culture attracts plenty of people with much more benevolent motivations and approaches than you might guess from the kind of toxic-masculinity figureheads who get most of the media attention. Thorn also points out places where a feminist culture focused on direct verbal communication as the only kind of valid consent can be out of step with the reality of human interactions, and asks us to consider expanding how we think about and do what we do without simply sliding right back into the manipulative exertions of social power that mainstream hetero society teaches us and PUAs hone to a science. I appreciate Thorn’s ability to stay firm in her politics while turning a critical eye both outward and inward. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who’s getting a bit too comfortable in their consent politics and could use a poke or two to get you thinking again.