Playing Games With Our Hearts?

Boorishness And The Practice Of Pickup Artistry

By Professor Eric Cave (Arkansas State University)

February 14, 2017         Picture: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters.

This is a preview article for The Critique’s upcoming 2018 Valentine’s Day Issue “What Is Love? Friendship, Sex, And Romance In The 21st Century.”

Pickup artists sometimes refer to themselves collectively as the seduction community. Let seduction be converting someone’s initial indifference or unwillingness to have sex into willingness to have sex based on sexual desire. Given this understanding of seduction, we might describe pickup artists as persons who practice finding and attracting others who are initially uninterested or unwilling potential new sexual partners, and converting them into desirous and willing actual new sexual partners.[i]

So characterizing pickup artistry leaves open the possibility that it might be accomplished in a morally innocuous way, for instance, by means of an extended courtship throughout which the sexual pursuer is completely transparent about his or her intentions. Or less jarringly, a pickup artist might use charm to woo someone into bed who is aware of and open to the possibility of being so wooed. This might seem odd, as pickup artistry has the ring of shadiness about it. But I want to leave it open that one might engage in pickup artistry (even if we decide to call it by another name) without doing something immoral, rather than defining it into immorality. This is the way to go if one wants to think seriously about moral boundaries on the practice.

That having been said, even a cursory look at a few of the many guides to pickup artistry (for instance, The Layguide, Rules of the Game, Bang!) reveals that pickup artists sometimes apply various kinds of pressure on their targets to accomplish their ends.[ii]   Borrowing Scott Anderson’s memorable turn of phrase, I will call attempts to seduce another by applying pressure boorishness.[iii] So understood, boorishness includes attempts to obtain sex by pestering, wheedling, minor intimidation, threats of mildly adverse consequences, and emotional manipulation.[iv]

Since manipulation can be understood in so many different ways, I should say a bit more about this last category of boorishness. What I have in mind by emotional manipulation is the attempt by one individual to arouse an emotion of another so as to bring this other to fulfill some purpose of the manipulator beyond merely getting this other to experience this emotion and to behave as it typically moves people to behave. And so, for instance, if I try to arouse guilt in you because I think you have done something bad and should think twice about doing the same sort of thing in the future, I have not emotionally manipulated you. But if I try to make you feel guilty because I want to predispose you to do some favor for me that I think you might otherwise have refused to do (a guilt trip), then I have.

As a concrete example of boorish behavior, consider negging, the practice of giving someone a backhanded compliment (“I love your hair; are those extensions?) to knock that person off balance and render them more vulnerable to seduction. Depending on how and to whom it is delivered, a neg is at least a form of emotional manipulation and perhaps sometimes also a form of minor intimidation. Or as another concrete example of boorishness, consider persistent sexual advances in the face of multiple clear refusals, which is a form of pestering and in some cases, may also involve wheedling.

To be clear, I do not equate pickup artistry with boorishness. As noted above, one can engage in pickup artistry without behaving boorishly. Certainly, one can behave boorishly without acting as a pickup artist. And despite the connotations of boorish, I do not mean to settle the moral status of pressuring another into sex in the above ways by my choice of terminology. This is something that should be settled by argument.

In what follows, I rehearse some of the primary moral considerations that tell against boorish behavior. Then I consider what I take to be the pickup artist’s most promising responses to the moral case against behaving boorishly, and argue that these responses largely fail. I close by considering the implications of all of this for the practice of pickup artistry and, more generally, for anyone engaged in finding, attracting, and seducing a new sexual partner.


So What’s Wrong with Pressuring Someone into Sex?

Several considerations converge to suggest that there is something wrongful involved in boorish behavior. Consider first the Principle of Non-Maleficence, perhaps most familiar from the Hippocratic oath. This principle enjoins agents to refrain from intentionally doing things to others likely to harm them.[v] It is foundational in medical ethics, but it supplies an uncontroversial moral baseline for many of our interactions with others that we require special dispensation to cross permissibly. And so, for instance, while hiking in a public preserve, we are enjoined to leave things in as good shape as we found them, so that others are not made worse off by our having been there. And sharing a flight with a passenger who has a severe allergy to nuts, we are asked not to consume anything containing nuts that we might have brought aboard.

In competitive contexts, such as the practice of business, the obligation to refrain from intentionally doing things to others likely to harm them seems to be attenuated. We do not, for instance, criticize a supplier for successfully bargaining for a rate increase knowing that the profits of its corporate customer will shrink as a consequence. But some form of this obligation still seems to be in force. Consider that companies like Walmart have been widely criticized for attempting to drive local competitors out of business entirely by strategically cutting into their own profit margins so far that local competitors effectively cannot compete. So even if we think of sexual pursuit as occurring in a competitive context (a sexual partner market?), it would not put sexual pursuit outside of the domain of non-maleficence.[vi]

Individuals who succumb to boorishness and who consequently have initially unwanted sex are more likely than they would otherwise be to experience unpleasant pangs of self-recrimination and/or regret. As well, their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (and for some, having to deal with an unanticipated pregnancy) is greater than it would otherwise be. Particular individuals might end up benefitting on net from being treated boorishly, but this is less likely than their being harmed by such treatment. Thus, considerations of non-maleficence oppose behaving boorishly.

Now consider the concept of personal autonomy.[vii] In the broadest sense, autonomy is the capacity for self-rule, for being able to determine what goes on in one’s life by means of one’s own choices. A little reflection suggests that just being able to act on your own choices is not necessarily valuable; many of us make choices that we really shouldn’t have made due to factors ranging from addiction to jealousy to rage. There is considerable debate about how best to understand the sort of personal autonomy that has value.[viii] Some have suggested that valuable autonomy is the ability to shape our lives by means of choices that cohere with desires that we desire to have.[ix] Another proposal is that valuable autonomy is the ability to make choices that are responsive to a wide range of our reasons for action.[x] Others propose that valuable autonomy is the ability to make choices that one endorses based on an evaluation of one’s relevant beliefs and desires.[xi] These proposals are representative of the most prominent contemporary conceptions of valuable personal autonomy.

We need not delve into the differences between these proposals. For our purposes, what matters is an area of broad agreement between the three proposals.[xii] All three agree that essential to valuable autonomy is the ability of the agent involved to take up a perspective distinct from the perspective comprised by the beliefs and desires moving him or her to action. And all three characterize valuable autonomy in terms of making choices motivated by psychological states that are authorized from this perspective. Boorish pressures to have sex render a target less likely to make choices that are authorized from the perspective constituted by her desires about what desires to have. And such pressures make it more difficult to take up a perspective in which one can respond to a wide range of reasons for action or a perspective in which one can competently evaluate choices based on one’s beliefs and desires. Thus, boorishness threatens valuable personal autonomy no matter which of the major contemporary conceptions of such autonomy that we take up. And thus, considerations of personal autonomy cut against boorishness.

One might think that some of the best things in life involve having one’s personal autonomy threatened or undermined: being swept off of one’s feet by a lover, being thrown a surprise party by friends, being pressured by a family member to go to get a medical consultation that catches and arrests a potentially devastating disease.[xiii] But although this seems right, it surely matters who is doing the pressuring and what this person’s motives are. Having one’s personal autonomy threatened or undermined by a relative stranger to serve that person’s ends is not usually a force for personal good; as experience with pushy telemarketers and high-pressure salespersons suggests. That we do not outlaw boorish pressuring by such individuals in the course of carrying out their jobs does not imply that such conduct involves no moral wrong. Indeed, to the extent that such pressuring renders people less able to make choices that conduce to their own welfare, there is something straightforwardly wrong with it, even if it were to turn out that we have compelling offsetting reasons to continue permitting such behavior.[xiv]


“One might think that some of the best things in life involve having one’s personal autonomy threatened or undermined. For example, being swept off of one’s feet by a lover.”


Finally, consider the very plausible idea that it is wrong to seek to benefit oneself or others by unfairly taking advantage of some other person’s vulnerability. I am not sure if this idea has a convenient name, although it can probably be subsumed under requirements of justice. Appeal to this idea helps illuminate why it is wrong to pay imprisoned felons a pittance for participation in risky protocols that promise them no therapeutic benefit, for instance, or why it would be wrong to pay significantly less than market value for a house to a mentally disabled seller who has become convinced that you are a long-lost relative. And appeal to this idea also reveals something wrongful about a subset of boorish behavior, in particular boorish behavior directed by men against women.

The issue is not just that in many places, women are still socialized while growing up to defer to men, to avoid conflict, and to please those around them. It is also, as Scott Anderson argues at some length, that men pressuring women into sex takes place in a context where sexual violence against women is endemic, and where men and women differ in their capacities to initiate and resist sexual violence.[xv] Because of this, the physical, psychological, and social costs of being subjected to attempts at forcible rape are differentially high for men and women, so that women are pressed towards succumbing to boorish pressure to have sex in some circumstances as a means of forestalling forcible rape in a way that men are typically not. The upshot of this is that when the boorish pressure to have sex deployed by a man is effective on a woman, it is likely so in part because of social factors over which women have no direct control that render them undeservedly vulnerable to such pressures in a way that men are not. In the context of such factors, boorishness directed by men against women involves men benefitting themselves by unfairly taking advantage of women’s vulnerability to being pressured into sex. And thus, a large subset of boorishness falls afoul of an important requirement of justice.

Interestingly, the above considerations imply that boorish behavior may be wrong for different reasons and to different degrees depending on the circumstances. For instance, it looks like all boorish behavior is wrong to some degree because it threatens to compromise autonomy, but this wrong is compounded when the boor is a man and his target is a woman, at least in circumstances where women are more vulnerable than men to boorish behavior. Rather than exploring any further the differing degrees to which different instances of boorishness might be wrongful, I will here just assume that all boorish behavior involves at least a minor wrong, the equivalent of walking up to a stranger and without being provoked, saying something cruel and accurate about some aspect of his or her person or bearing. I suspect that the considerations raised against boorishness above establish that it is considerably more wrongful than this. But for present purposes, the claim that boorishness always involves at least a minor wrong suffices. And it frames boorishness in the most charitable way that the above considerations permit. If boorishness so framed still turns out to be something that people ought morally to avoid, boors cannot complain of having gotten less than a fair shake.


Is Boorishness Nonetheless Morally Justified?

Over the past several decades, there have been concerted attempts to curtail boorishness in some venues – workplaces, for instance, and educational institutions. But in other sorts of venues – cocktail lounges, dance clubs, fraternity parties, massively multiplayer online games, to name just a few – boorish behavior is widespread and widely tolerated. Given the moral considerations that tell against boorishness, this is surprising, at least on its face. For if a behavior involves a wrong, even a minor one, then other things being equal, people ought not to engage in it, and we ought not to tolerate it when people do. Consider the wrong involved in cutting in line at a restaurant or at the state registry of motor vehicles. This wrong is minor, and yet we think that people ought not to engage in it and we don’t tolerate their doing so.

Of course, other things might not be equal, especially when we are dealing with a minor wrong. For offsetting morally relevant considerations might render an action that involves a minor wrong the sort of thing that we ought morally to do, all things considered. For instance, breaking a promise to meet someone for coffee in order to rush a different someone who has severed a finger to the hospital involves a minor wrong, but surely one still ought morally to perpetrate it. Another possibility is that something might happen to absolve a wrong, minor or otherwise, so that it ceases to be a wrong at all. And so, for instance, if I consent to spar with you, and you split my lip with one of your jabs, what would have been a minor (or not so minor) wrong in other circumstances is no wrong at all.[xvi]

Here I shall consider two attempts to argue that boorish behavior by pickup artists is morally justified on balance, one paralleling each of the above illustrations. I’ll consider the attempts I regard as most likely to succeed. If these attempts fail, it won’t prove decisively that boorish behavior by pickup artists cannot be morally justified, because I might have managed to overlook an attempt that would succeed.[xvii] But in conjunction with the considerations enumerated above against boorishness, a demonstration of the failure of front-running attempts to justify boorishness will suffice to ground substantive, if conditional, conclusions about pickup artistry and more generally, the pursuit of novel sexual partners.


A First Attempt to Justify Boorishness

The difficulty with justifying boorish behavior by appeal to offsetting moral considerations is that plausible candidates for such considerations are hard to come by. We have already invoked considerations of autonomy and justice in making a case against boorishness. We have not yet said anything about utilitarian considerations. But it seems unlikely that boorish behavior produces more pleasure than suffering on net. Even if we suppose that successful boors get a lot of pleasure from their success, there is the potential suffering of their conquests to consider, in the form of discomfort with being pressured, regret and self-recrimination from succumbing to pressure, and the like. And things get much worse, from a utilitarian point of view, when we consider the likely success rate of boorishness at converting sexual unwillingness to sexual willingness. Hard data is hard to come by here, but even if we suppose a conversion rate of 10% for boors (a figure that seems wildly optimistic given the emphasis of many seduction gurus on persistence), that leaves a lot of displeasure in the wake of every successful boor. Additionally, recent high-profile boorishness has generated significant and widespread unhappiness.[xviii] The upshot of all of this is that the utilitarian case for boorishness is shaky indeed.

Perhaps the way to go here is to think about the sorts of things that some pickup artists have said in attempting to justify the practice of pickup artistry. Here is Roosh V, reflecting on the long tradition of patriarchal control of women: “the reason that women had their behavior limited was for the simple reason that they are significantly less rational than men, in a way that impaired their ability to make good decisions concerning the future.”[xix] He goes on to recommend measures that place women’s decisions, minor and major, under the monitoring and control of men. Although Roosh V does not explicitly discuss boorish behavior as a means of placing women’s decisions more under the control of men, his view does suggest a justification of boorishness, at least when perpetrated by men upon women. Suppose that women are both too submissive to take control of their own sexual lives and too irrational to make good decisions about when and with whom they will have sex. Then one might characterize boorish behavior as a mechanism by means of which more rational men can steer women towards making better decisions of this sort, thus making those women better off. On this characterization, boorishness would be like threatening to ground a teenager if he or she were to do something forbidden and stupid, a form of paternalistic intervention.

In the present context, it is most charitable to think of the paternalism involved as a relative of new or libertarian paternalism.[xx] Traditional paternalism advocates restricting individual liberty directly to benefit the individual involved. New or libertarian paternalism asserts that since people are such bad decision makers we should nudge them in the direction of their own desired goals by orchestrating their choices to help them realize their goals. I doubt that many pickup artists care about helping women to fulfill the goals that women actually desire to fulfill, but at least some pickup artists seem to think that women have biologically determined goals the advancement of which makes women themselves better off. From one of Roosh V’s blog posts, here is an illustrative list of such goals: to secure the highest possible value male, to accumulate maximal material resources, to compete successfully against other females, and to “pursue the female primal need for pleasure and vanity.”[xxi]

Drawing on these ideas, we can cobble together a view on why behaving boorishly is morally justified even if doing so involves a minor moral wrong. On this view, women are constitutionally inclined to make sexual choices that do not align with their own good, as constituted by the realization of their biologically determined goals. Boorish pressures to have sex applied by pickup artists nudge women in the direction of better realizing their biologically determined goals, and thus of better realizing their own good. The minor wrong involved in treating women boorishly is thus swamped by the positive contribution that such treatment is likely to make to women’s own good, and boorishness is morally justified on balance.

This view is so fraught with obvious problems that I could probably just dismiss it out of hand, but I will spend a little time articulating some of them. First, it can justify only some boorish behavior, behavior directed by men at women. While such boorishness may be more common than other variants, women can treat men boorishly, and both men and women can treat members of their own sex boorishly. And at least some of the moral considerations raised above against boorishness count against all of its variants. So one difficulty with this justification of boorishness is its limited scope. Admittedly, this limitation is not likely to bother most pickup artists, but it is a flaw in the present context.

Second, even were we to accept the above form of paternalism and its biological underpinnings, it would make little sense to accept pickup artists as paternalistic nudgers of the women they target. Pickup artists have their own goals, and there is no good reason to think their goals would generally align with the biologically determined goals that the above view attributes to women. This is so even if we make the dubious assumption that pickup artists are in general “higher value” males than other males. Even on this assumption, the higher value of pickup artists will presumably itself fall onto a range. Why should we expect, say, a mid-high value pickup artist to stand aside for a high-high value pickup artist to satisfy a woman’s alleged biological goal to secure the highest possible value male? Putting pickup-artists in charge of paternalistically nudging women towards their alleged biological goals would be a case of putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop if ever there were one.

Third, the attempt to equate the natural with the good has been on the ropes since at least the publication of David Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature. Even if we accept that women have biologically determined goals, and we accept the above description of these goals, it would not follow that having such goals realized is good for the women involved. For a vivid illustration of the disconnect between the natural and the good, suppose that we have a biologically determined goal to ingest sugary foods as a consequence of evolutionary pressures placed on our hunter-gatherer forbearers to take in sufficient calories to thrive in a calorie-poor environment. It does not follow that it conduces to our good to satisfy this goal. Indeed, the opposite seems true, at least if we pay attention to currently soaring rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.


“Putting pickup-artists in charge of paternalistically nudging women towards their alleged biological goals would be a case of putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop if ever there were one.”


Fourth, and most obviously, we should reject the characterization of women that underpins of this attempted justification of boorishness. It is telling that apologists for pickup artistry like Roosh V cite theorists like Arthur Schopenhauer in justifying their claims that women are constitutionally less rational than men.[xxii] Such theorists never had good empirical evidence for their views, and the vast bulk of the empirical work available today suggests that there is no significant biological difference in male and female intellectual capacities, including the capacity for “rational” decision-making. There is some work in evolutionary biology that suggests that men and women might have evolved different “reproductive strategies,” just as, say, peacocks and peahens have.[xxiii] But such work is speculative and controversial. And as far as I can tell, none of it supports ascribing to all presently existing women anything like the list of biologically determined goals upon which the above justification of boorishness depends.

I could go on, but I think I have said enough to show that the attempt to justify boorish behavior by appealing to the alleged capacity of pickup artists to paternalistically nudge their female targets towards their own good is a bust.


A Second Attempt to Justify Boorishness

One response that one sometimes hears from the boorish to those who complain about their behavior is something like “if you didn’t want to be treated that way, then you should not have come here in the first place.” Generalizing from this, it might be claimed that by entering certain kinds of spaces, individuals license being treated boorishly by others, rendering such treatment morally unproblematic.

In this connection, consider the concept of a sexual arena, a bounded physical or virtual space in which various kinds of sexual pursuit, boorish and otherwise, are both common and widely believed to be common. So understood, sexual arenas can range from large to small. Representatively large physical sexual arenas include nightclubs, cocktail lounges, singles mixers, and speed dating nights at the public library. An example of a large virtual sexual arena would be something like a virtual discotheque in Second Life. Representative small physical sexual arenas include parking areas and public restrooms that are locally and relevantly notorious. Relevantly themed chat rooms provide an example of a small virtual sexual arena.

The idea that an individual can license others treating him or her in particular ways by entering some bounded space is a familiar one. Outside of cases involving self- and other-defense, it seems wrong, at least on its face, for one individual to strike another with his or her fists. But we think that entering a boxing ring in the right way changes things. On a prevalent and plausible analysis of this phenomenon, such entry constitutes consent to punching and being punched, licensing exchanges of punches that occur within the ring.[xxiv]

This account of how entry into a space can license activity occurring within this space presupposes a particular understanding of consent.[xxv] Sometimes consent is understood as a psychological phenomenon. On this understanding, consent may be a psychological state, something like the thought “I accept that this event occur.” Or it may be the conjunction of a behavior with a psychological state, something like raising one’s hand or saying “I do” conjoined with the expectation that doing so will signify to others one’s acceptance that some happening occur. I will here set such understandings of consent aside, for people enter spaces where they might be subjected to boorish behavior for all sorts of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with acceptance or rejection of the prospect of being on the receiving end of boorishness.

Other times, consent is understood as a purely behavioral phenomenon, no more or less than behaving in a particular way in a context characterized by a shared understanding that so behaving constitutes consent. On this understanding, one can consent to a certain happening without accepting that this happening occur, or even being aware that others are apt to interpret one’s behavior as indicating such acceptance. Indeed, no particular kind of psychological state has to accompany a behavior for it to count as consent on such views, not even an intention to engage in this behavior.

One might think that “consent” completely disconnected from an agent’s intentions or awareness is not genuine consent. Some theorists distinguish between genuine consent and quasi-consent, with the difference being roughly that genuine consent requires the relevant sorts of intentions or awareness, while quasi-consent does not.[xxvi] For my purposes here, nothing hangs on whether what I am inclined to call behavioral consent is or is not genuine consent.[xxvii] What matters is whether this phenomenon can license things.

And we seem committed to accepting that behavioral consent can license things by any number of our practices. Attending a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show licenses others to pelt me with rice at various points during the showing. Merely by asking to be seated at certain comedy shows, I forfeit any moral protection I might have against being gratuitously insulted by a stranger. And I abrogate my right not to have the integrity of my epidermis intentionally violated by nodding to a relevant inquiry by a nurse, even if at the time I was agreeing to something disconnected from the nurse’s inquiry.

Conjoining the concept of a sexual arena to the above analysis of behavioral consent yields a justification of boorish behavior, even given the moral considerations that count against it, at least when it occurs within certain bounded spaces. On this defense, sexual arenas are like boxing rings. Appropriate entry into a sexual arena constitutes behavioral consent to being subjected to boorish behavior, licensing it and thereby transforming it from what would have been at least a minor moral wrong into something that is not morally wrong at all.

This justification of boorish behavior requires that entry into a sexual arena constitute effective behavioral consent. But for it to be plausible to think that any given behavior constitutes such consent, certain background conditions must be in place. To see this, consider bidding on a work of art at an auction by, say, flipping my hand. In order for my gesture to morally oblige me to pay a certain amount for a certain work of art, there must be a convention in place that assigns pecuniary obligations to hand-flippers.[xxviii] Additionally, either I must be aware of this convention, or there must be measures in place sufficient to insure that I would have been aware of this convention were I attentive in the usual way to my surroundings. Finally, it must have been possible for me to refrain from hand-flipping, and to have done so without incurring considerable cost to myself.[xxix]

Why think the above three conditions are necessary prerequisites for a given behavior to constitute effective consent? The idea that an agent can acquire a moral obligation without intending to do so or even being aware of doing so is not a radical one. Anyone who wishes to hold agents morally responsible for the consequences of negligent behavior must embrace some version of this idea. An agent is obligated morally to remedy the bad consequences of her negligence when we can endorse something like the following counterfactual: had the agent involved been reasonable, and had she been fully responsive to the promptings of her reason, then she could have avoided bringing about these consequences. It is plausible to think that a given behavior constitutes effective consent when we can endorse a similar counterfactual: had the agent involved been reasonable, and had she been fully responsive to the promptings of her reason, then she would have avoided consenting had it mattered to her to do so. The above three conditions, if jointly satisfied, justify endorsing this counterfactual. If all of this is right, then within a given context, for a behavior to constitute effective consent, the above three conditions must all be satisfied.

Reflection on these conditions suggests that entry into many real world sexual arenas does not constitute effective behavioral consent to being treated boorishly. By way of illustration, consider entry into a public restroom locally notorious as a place where people connect for sexual activity located in a public park. We can imagine a convention having emerged over time among those frequenting the restroom that permits boorish sexual pursuit, assigning anyone entering a non-negligible risk of being treated boorishly. The first of the above three conditions would thus be met. But we should not expect newcomers to the area, or visitors from out of town, or even locals who have not frequented the park before to be aware of this convention, even if they are reasonably attentive, at least not in the absence of special and atypical attempts to publicize this convention. The second of the above three conditions would thus not be met. And the third condition above would not be met either, for at least some of those entering a public restroom in a public park could not reverse course without considerable cost to themselves. Thus, entry into a locally notorious public restroom does not satisfy the conditions required for it to constitute effective behavioral consent.

As an additional illustration, consider entry into a singles mixer sponsored by a church or community group, one whose organizers simply provide a physical space for mixing and advertise the opportunity to do so. In contrast to the previous case, potential attendees can forego entry into such a mixer without considerable cost to themselves, so the third condition above is satisfied. Whether or not the first of the above condition is satisfied depends on the nature and policies of the group sponsoring the mixer. Some groups might actively work to establish a convention discouraging boorishness. (This is perhaps the more common pattern at present.) Other groups might allow or even encourage a convention permitting boorishness to emerge. But in any case, the second of the above conditions is unlikely to be satisfied at anything like a typical singles mixer. In part, this is a function of the variability between mixers when it comes to conventions discouraging or permitting boorishness. On account of this variability, even experienced attendees will not be able to infer anything about conventions governing boorishness at a given mixer based on prior observations of the world. And in part, it is a function of the continuous influx of entrants into such mixers with little or no relevant or current observations about the world upon which to draw. This influx is driven both by the perpetual maturing of adolescents into young adults and by the perpetual dissolution of (a proportion of) long-term committed relationships. As a consequence of these factors, we should not expect the second of the conditions required for entry into a space to constitute effective behavioral consent to being treated boorishly to be satisfied at any mixer that does not take positive and effective efforts to educate entrants about a convention permitting boorish behavior.

Similar considerations should incline us to broaden this analysis of entry into a singles mixer to encompass entry into other real world sexual arenas mentioned above: nightclubs, cocktail lounges, discotheques, library speed dating nights, parking areas, as well as their virtual analogues, including multiplayer online games, chat rooms, and popular dating apps like Tinder, or Hinge, or OKCupid. Even websites like Ashley Madison and Adult Friend Finder, sites designed for the sole purpose of helping people to find sexual partners, are conspicuously free of posted notifications about what people should expect when it comes to boorish behavior.[xxx]

While some real world and virtual sexual arenas may have evolved local conventions permitting boorishness, few have taken measures to insure that all who frequent them do know of such conventions or would were they reasonably attentive.

Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that there may exist, or come to exist, some real or virtual sexual arenas entry into which would constitute effective behavioral consent to being treated boorishly. Someone in charge of designing or curating such a sexual arena might take a cue from casinos and publicize a convention to those entering that permits patrons to be subjected to boorish behavior. Or a sexual arena entry into which effective behavioral consent to being treated boorishly might evolve on its own. But at present, I think it is safe to say that such sexual arenas are a rarity, so that entry into the vast majority of real world and virtual sexual arenas does not constitute effective behavioral consent to being treated boorishly.


Implications of this Argument for Pickup Artists (And the Rest of Us)

If the above arguments succeed, then pressuring individuals into sex by means of pestering, wheedling, minor intimidation, threats of mildly adverse consequences, and emotional manipulation is morally wrong in the vast majority of the spaces in which it presently occurs, private and public. This has implications for the practice of pickup artistry. Negging is out as a seduction technique, as is refusing to take “no” for an answer. So is trying to impress a target by making a fool of the person with whom he or she is on a date. So is physical and psychological intimidation, as is guilt-tripping a target into sex. The list goes on, for pressuring an initially unwilling or disinterested person into having sex can take many other forms. I have not seen a how-to guide on seduction by a pickup artist that would not require significant revision if the above arguments succeed and the author cared about keeping his recommendations within the bounds of morality. And of course, if the above arguments succeed, it is not just pickup artists that ought to avoid boorish behavior. Anyone engaged in finding, attracting, and seducing a new sexual partner or partners is similarly obligated.[xxxi]

This argument does leave potential spaces in which individuals may permissibly be boorish, namely spaces entry into which satisfies the conditions on effective behavioral consent outlined above. This may tickle libertarians, although I have reservations about boorish behavior even in such spaces, because I suspect it may involve a wrongful element beyond those I have discussed here, one that cannot be expunged by consent.[xxxii] But even with this caveat, the argument developed at length above is practically significant, for it implies that anyone inclined to behave boorishly in pursuit of a new sexual partner or partners ought to exercise considerable due diligence before moving ahead.[xxxiii]


Postscript on Sexual Pursuit

So what are pickup artists and everyone else interested in pursuing a new sexual partner or partners to do? One might worry that embracing the conclusion of the above argument commits us to sexual puritanism, or at least to something resembling Antioch University’s infamous sexual offense policy, which required every member of the campus community to seek and receive freely-given explicit verbal permission for every escalation of physical intimacy with another person. But this worry assumes an impoverished view of human sexual pursuit. Ruling out boorish pressuring as a technique for pursuing novel sexual partners leaves would-be sexual pursuers with multiple other possible options.

Here’s one. Consider Mark, a career postal worker, who wants sex with Connie. Connie, as Mark well knows, has a thing for rock guitarists. Telling Connie about his great admiration for Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana has no discernable effect on Connie, so Mark quits his job at the post office, takes up guitar, and forms a band. Suppose that Mark turns out to have enough of a flair for rock guitar that his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner rouses Connie’s ardor to the point where she becomes willing to have sex with him. In this case, Mark has converted Connie’s initial disinterest to sexual willingness by making himself over into the sort of person she desires. We might say he has won her over, but whatever we call this form of sexual pursuit, it is a clear alternative to boorishness.

Here’s another. Consider Bertrand, an analytic philosopher, who wants sex with Trevor. Trevor is initially unwilling, having an interest in men who are or were incarcerated for non-capital offenses. Aware of Trevor’s preferences, Bertrand constructs an argument to the effect that Trevor ought to be turned on by gentle academics rather than rough felons, the best that he can construct. Suppose that thinking about Bertrand’s reasoning causes a substantive change in Trevor’s desires; he come to sexually desire gentle academics enough to be willing to have sex with Bertrand. In this case, Bertrand has persuaded Trevor, without any hint of boorishness. This case is implausibly rationalistic, but persuasion can be less than fully rational without shading over into boorishness. What is important here is avoiding emotional manipulation, so persuasive techniques like flattery are out. But persuasion that does not operate through emotional manipulation is another alternative to boorishness.

Here’s yet another. Suppose Eve is interested in Adam, who is sitting several stools down from her at the bar and seems not to have noticed her at all. So Eve bangs her glass down noisily, catches Adam’s eye while standing up, arches her back ventrally in a long stretch and tips her buttocks in Adam’s direction. In response, Adam slides over a couple of stools, and starts a conversation about the weather. Here Eve has taken a page from the animal courtship playbook, engaging in a display (sometimes called lordosis) in an attempt to arouse sexual desire. Here is a sampling of such displays, drawn from the voluminous social scientific literature on this topic.[xxxiv] Human beings take measures to make their faces appealing: application of makeup, surgery, cultured beards and moustaches. They use other means to increase the appeal of their bodies: dressing to appear taller or thinner, wearing heels, dieting, tanning. They utilize a wide range of facial expressions in courtship, from an “open smile” which exposes both upper and lower teeth, to the so-called “copulatory gaze,” in which men and women stare intently at an object of interest, sometimes with pupils dilating, then drop their eyelids. They employ as well diverse bodily posturings and movements: chest-thrusting, shifting, swaying, preening, stretching, leaning closer, strutting. And frequently, humans court by showing off distinctively human capacities and abilities: athletic prowess, artistic or musical abilities, moral attributes (charity, generosity, kindness, sexual fidelity, and the like), linguistic abilities, a capacity for humor.[xxxv] A lot of flirting falls into this last category.

It is possible for a courtship display to cross the line over into boorishness, as when bodily posturings and movements become intimidating.[xxxvi] Or they can become boorish if the individual doing the displaying is too persistent and things shade over into pestering. One might have the thought that all courtship displays are a form of emotional manipulation. It is probably possible to manipulate someone emotionally by means of a courtship display, but such displays typically aim at arousing sexual desire, not emotions. More importantly, they are typically deployed to arouse sexual desire in order to get their target(s) to act as sexual desire characteristically moves humans to act. Thus, they are not typically emotional manipulation of the sort involved in boorishness.

I could go on, for there are yet other alternatives to boorishness that those interested in pursuing novel sexual partners might employ, but I have said enough to show that refraining from boorishness commits us to sexual puritanism. Indeed, what I have said even leaves rooms for the practice of a version of pickup artistry. Pickup artists are not likely to be drawn to Mark’s strategy of making himself over to attract Connie. But persuasion and display figure prominently in many of the better-selling handbooks on pickup artistry. I close by noting that ending boorishness would not mean the end of pickup artistry, only its substantial reform.

Footnotes & References

[i] Compare this to Wikipedia’s characterization of a pickup artist at

[ii] Tony Klink, Layguide: How to Seduce Women More Beautiful than You Ever Dreamed (New York, Citadel, 2004); Neil Strauss, Rules of the Game (New York, It Books, 2009); Roosh V, Bang, n.p., printed by CreateSpace, 2007.

[iii] See Scott Anderson, “Sex Under Pressure: Boorishness, Jerks, and Gender Hierarchy,” Res Publica 11, no. 4 (2005): 349-369. Anderson includes “mild deceits” in the class of boorish behavior. Here I will set aside attempts to obtain sex by deceit. It is not that I think that such attempts are morally innocuous. Rather, I suspect that they are not wrong for exactly the same reasons and under exactly the same conditions as the forms of pressuring upon which I will focus. This is a simplifying move on my part.

[iv] Men can behave boorishly towards women, or women can behave boorishly towards men, or men or women can behave boorishly towards members of their own sex. Given my interest here in pickup artistry, much of what I say will focus on boorish behavior of the first sort. (I assume that most pickup artists are men.) Many of the paper’s examples are populated accordingly, although this changes near the end of the paper when I turn to the main argument’s implications for sexual pursuit in general.

[v] Harm can take various meanings; here I mean it only in the broad sense of making someone worse off than they would otherwise be.

[vi] Consent seems in some cases to dispel the obligation to refrain from intentionally do things likely to harm others. Later in this paper, I consider the at length the possibility that an appeal to consent might let those behaving boorishly off the moral hook.

[vii] I discuss how autonomy tells against pressuring someone into sex in more detail elsewhere.   See Eric M. Cave, “Unsavory Seduction,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12 (2009): 235-45, or Eric M. Cave, “Manipulation and Unsavory Seduction,” in Manipulation, ed. By Christian Coons and Michael Eric Weber, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 176-200.

[viii] For an overview of this debate, see the entry on personal autonomy by Sarah Buss at

[ix] See, for instance, Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, The Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 1 (1971): pp. 5-20.

[x] See, for instance, John Fischer and Mark Ravizza, Responsibilty and Control: a Theory of Moral Responsibility, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[xi] See, for instance, John Christman, “Autonomy and Personal History,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21 (1991): pp. 1-24.

[xii] Sarah Buss articulates this area of agreement in her entry on personal autonomy referenced above.

[xiii] Sarah Buss defends this suggestion, and offers these examples among others. See Sara Buss, “Valuing Autonomy and Respecting Persons: Manipulation, Seduction, and the Basis of Moral Constraints,” Ethics 115, no. 2 (2005): pp. 195-235.

[xiv] Sarah Conly argues that however unpleasant and inappropriate such pressuring may be, it is not criminal, but she does not go so far as to deny that it is immoral. See Sarah

Conly, “Seduction, Rape, and Coercion,” Ethics 115 (2004): pp. 96-121.

[xv] See Anderson, op. cit.

[xvi] For a detailed treatment of the idea that consent absolves wrong, see Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others, New York, Oxford, 1987.

[xvii] In connection with this point, Andrew Gaskill (a friend who I enlisted as a test audience for this paper), suggested that boorishness might be morally justified in a case where someone with a fetishistic attachment to being seduced by boorish pickup artists frequented some locale in hopes of being so seduced, and ultimately had these hopes met. This sort of justification of boorishness would obviously have a very limited scope, but it also faces a dilemma. If the seduced in this case clearly expresses his or her hopes, then the ensuring boorishness may be justified, but not by virtue of his or her mere entry into the relevant sexual arena. And if he or she just enters as usual, is treated boorishly, and gets that for which he or she secretly hopes, this seems no more morally justified than walking up and saying something cruel and personal to a stranger who is feeling guilty about something and craves being publicly mortified. That this stranger ultimately appreciated your insult doesn’t let you off the hook for doing something that you expected or should have expected to be gratuitously hurtful to another.

[xviii] See, for instance, “Did Roosh V Really Organize ‘Pro-Rape Rallies’? No, But Here’s Why People are Protesting Him” at Or consider reactions around the world to allegations that then United States presidential candidate Donald Trump had made boorish advances on multiple women over the past several decades.

[xix] See “Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled by Men” at

[xx] For a discussion of such paternalism, see the entry on paternalism by Gerald Dworkin at http://www/

[xxi] See “Understanding the True Nature of Women” at

[xxii] See “Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled by Men” at

[xxiii] For a nice overview of such work, see David Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, revised and expanded edition, New York, Basic Books, 2003.

[xxiv] Again, for detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Feinberg, op. cit.

[xxv] The following way of parsing understandings of consent is indebted to the work of Alan Wertheimer. See Alan Wertheimer, Consent to Sexual Relations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[xxvi] See, for instance, David Archard, Sexual Consent, Boulder, Westview Press, 1998.

[xxvii] I use the term behavioral consent rather than the more familiar tacit consent because the latter has been used historically to refer both to the phenomenon I have described and to behaviors conjoined to psychological states.

[xxviii] For a discussion of a generalized version of this condition, see Wertheimer, op. cit.

[xxix] This condition and the previous one extend conditions required to generate consent-based political obligations on one prominent analysis of such. See A. John Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979.

[xxx] For this point, I am indebted to Andrew Gaskill.

[xxxi] Given the focus of the argument here, I can’t claim to have shown that this conclusion also extends to seducing existing sexual partners (although my own view, defended elsewhere, is that it does).

[xxxii] This is the topic of another paper on which I am currently at work.

[xxxiii] As I noted near the beginning of this paper, this conclusion is conditional on my not having overlooked a successful justification of boorishly pressuring an initially disinterested or unwilling other into sex. But this is not out of the ordinary; many conclusions in philosophy are conditional on the author not have overlooked a telling objection.

[xxxiv] For a nice survey of the literature on human courtship displays, see Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, New York, Random House, 1992. Or for a more involved treatment of human courtship displays, at least within singles’ bars in the late 70s and early 80s, see David B. Givens, Love Signals: How to Attract a Mate, New York, Crown, 1983.

[xxxv] On these more sophisticated means of courting, see especially Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, New York, Random House, 2000.

[xxxvi] If you are having trouble imagining what such a boundary crossing would look like, have a look at a case brief for State v. Rusk. Of course, bodily postures and movements can also be more subtly intimidating.

Eric Cave
Eric Cave
Eric M. Cave is Professor of Philosophy at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He has published a book on rationality and the sense of justice, Preferring Justice, as well as articles on religious belief, the sense of justice, preference change, expected utility theory, pluralism, marriage and love, cohabitation, manipulation, and sexual seduction.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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