What would you do with £4000 and a week off work? Head on a luxury spa break? Go on a surfing holiday? According to a new documentary, the answer to this question for some British men is: go to a residential training camp that promises to teach you how to convince women to have sex with you. It’s as shocking as it sounds.
Panorama: Secrets of the Seduction Bootcamp aired on BBC One last night and promises an undercover look inside the £80 million industry that’s built up around online pick-up artists. Big names earn hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, where they post secretly filmed footage of themselves chatting up women in the street in cities like Glasgow and London. Sometimes they even share audio they claim was recorded while they were having sex with them.
These men make promises that make seducing women sound like a computer game. Forget mutual attraction, you just need a series of cheats to get a stranger into bed. These range from pseudo-psychological tips for how to convince a girl to stay at your house once she’s there (get her to take off her shoes) to ready-written scripts for you to rattle off. It’s no surprise this strain of pick-up culture has become known as 'gaming'. What is a surprise, though, is that instead of subscribers being appalled by the invasion of privacy and disregard for consent shown on these accounts, they’re happy to pay for more. Some subscribers are so keen to learn how to 'game' that they’ll pay for exclusive advice via online courses and real-life tuition.
To investigate the work of these new pick-up gurus, journalist Myles Bonnar spent a weekend undercover at a £1500 course run on Oxford Street by one of the UK’s most popular collectives, Street Attraction. They run programmes in London and eastern Europe as well as posting secretly filmed videos of their pick-up attempts online. Bonnar joins a small group of men who all look like they’re in their 30s. Instructors pick girls for them to approach and the rest of the group listen via hidden microphones. The fact that the women they’re approaching are being unknowingly recorded is awful enough, but it’s the content of the lessons that’s most appalling.
Bonnar reports that, all weekend, attendees are encouraged to approach teenage girls. At one point he is pressured into approaching a very young-looking girl despite him expressing discomfort. The instructors remind him that the legal age of consent in the UK is only 16, saying: "Even if she’s underage it’s not illegal to stop someone." Another time we see an instructor approach two young girls. When one retorts: "She’s a child and I have a boyfriend," the instructor is not dissuaded. Instead, he asks the younger girl: "Do you feel like a child?"
Course leaders are shown to tell men to ignore red flags around consent. The pick-up artists say things like "a woman’s no never legitimately means no" and that a hand on a penis is "the point of no return". One piece of online teaching material includes the advice: "If she says that things are going a little bit too fast you can reply with 'Yeah I know babe…’ and then carry on escalating."
As a viewer, you come away with a real sense that women are being dehumanised by these courses. They’re tricked and secretly filmed as YouTube fodder and presented to men as prizes in a game. There’s no regard for the humiliation they might feel because of this. As a female Londoner, it made me feel a bit sick about times when – like many other women in the city – I’ve been walking around Oxford Street and been approached by a man who seems like they’re reciting from a pick-up script. At the time I laughed it off as annoying for me but sad for the person approaching me; now it seems like it could have been something more insidious.
What’s scary is the worldview these courses paint for vulnerable men. Street Attraction is marketed as a place to 'learn to meet and attract beautiful women' and so they might stumble across it because they’re lonely and looking for dating tips. What they’re actually sold is incel-lite thinking. They could come away from these YouTube channels or courses thinking that the only reason women don’t want to have sex is because we’re worried about our 'reputations' and that all they need to do is play the game and suddenly we’ll be up for it – who cares if that’s not what we’re saying, we want them to push our boundaries! Even scarier than the worldview itself is that it’s so convincing that hundred of thousands of men are buying into it. What does that say about our society?
That’s a question the documentary doesn’t answer. Thankfully, what it does cover are the legal changes which mean that hopefully some pick-up behaviour will soon be illegal. In September one artist – Adnan Ahmed, who was secretly filming women in Glasgow – was found guilty on five charges of threatening and abusive behaviour. And criminal barrister Kate Parker, interviewed for the documentary, says that some of the videos made by other pick-up artists could be charged under the communications or miscommunications act. All it takes is one case to set a precedent. Turns out, no really does mean no.
Just this morning it was announced that YouTube has deactivated the Street Attraction and Addy A-Game channels, and has removed hundreds of videos from accounts linked to them. The impact of this could be big. Pick-up artists build their reputations on YouTube: in many ways, they are dependent on those videos. That said, these aren't the only pick-up artists on YouTube and there are lots of copycat fan accounts on the site, too. In order for this shutdown to be a game-changer, it needs to be the start of a wave of better control of 'gaming' channels overall – and a wave of pick-up sites need to be put down.
Panorama: Secrets of the Seduction Bootcamp is available on BBC iPlayer