SAY THE WORDS “pickup artist” and every face within earshot wrinkles in disgust, picturing the slick lothario wearing too much cologne and scanning the room for his next conquest.
But James Norton is more of an overgrown teddy bear. He’s a former rugby player, 6-foot-1 and topping 200 pounds. Norton swears he was once like the men he teaches in his workshops: intimidated by women and scared to make the first move. Now there’s no one he won’t approach. It’s just a mind-set, he says—one he has passed on to more than 50 guys through Professional Pickup, the coaching business he runs with Ernesto Gluecksmann, a 36-year-old technology consultant.
Enrolled in this session are A.K., a recent college graduate who works on Capitol Hill and just got out of a relationship; B.D., a muscular tech professional in his 30s who fares quite well with women (“but I’m lazy—I end up taking what falls in my lap”); and S.W., a soft-spoken federal worker in his mid-20s.
Frustrated and embarrassed, men come to Norton—$600 registration fee in hand—looking to crack a secret code. Some are virgins. For most, the thought of starting a conversation with a woman provokes a paralyzing fear.
Dozens of self-proclaimed gurus have emerged to soothe that anxiety. Some run websites, host conventions, and offer “seduction boot camps” for $2,000 or more. Popular sites such as Pick-up Artist Forum are littered with advice that’s both misogynistic and unethical. But Norton insists that his program is different, that it’s ultimately about self-confidence and forging emotional connections.
“The whole journey is a process of them finding out who they are and then connecting with people, which a lot of them are not that capable of doing,” Norton explains. “Because if they were able to connect with people, they’d be getting laid all the time.”
NORTON AND GLUECKSMANN espouse a pickup philosophy known as “natural game,” meaning they don’t believe in canned lines or routines. They would rather a student approach a woman and say, “Hey, what’s up?” than try to spark her interest with a question like, “Who lies more—men or women?”
That was the line Norton always used when he first started learning about pickup. He was 28 then and suffering his third big heartbreak.
Looking for help, he turned to websites and best-selling books such as The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed.
The books and Internet forums promoted specific—and sometimes appalling—attraction techniques, from feigned apathy and casual insults to subtle mind control and hypnosis. Men were advised to wear attention-getting apparel, such as goggles and big hats, and to open with goading questions.
To Norton, some of it—such as understanding body language and sexual chemistry—made sense, but a lot of it backfired.
In 2007, Norton found his ultimate wingman in Gluecksmann. The pair began going out together regularly, refining their methods. In 2008, they decided to offer a free six-week coaching session. By the end, Norton and Gluecksmann were in possession of several thank-you notes, plus the basic idea for a business plan.
In every conversation, there’s an alpha and a beta, Norton says, and “whoever’s frame is most dominant has the lead to say what’s going to happen.” Men are supposed to be leaders, women followers.
Norton says students have a much easier time coming up with reasons not to talk to a woman, so the next topic is the elimination of negative thoughts. Anxiety is useless, Norton tells them. “It’s not what reality is.”
The coaches talk about ways to build trust to grease the wheels for sex.
“It’s really about listening,” Gluecksmann tells the men. “This creates comfort. This creates familiarity.”
But it’s not just about listening. Earlier, the men learned a technique called “body rocking”—leaning in toward a woman, then away from her. It’s meant to be a teasing motion, as if to say, “Maybe I’m interested. Maybe I’m not.”
The emphasis is on “kino” (short for kinesthetics). “The longer you wait to touch her, the weirder it gets,” Norton says. First arms, shoulders, hands, Gluecksmann tells them. “Then more intimate.”
Pickup is a kind of hero’s journey, Norton declared at a pickup conference in New York last summer. Wearing a tuxedo with no tie and an unbuttoned collar, he stood in a white-walled Manhattan loft addressing 50 guys, many adorned in distinctive attire—orange eyeglasses, aqua pants, a fedora—intended to elicit a second glance. “You decide that your life is no longer working, and you decide to go down a different path. So you go inward and start trying to figure out what’s right and wrong. You’re going to start finding the dragons and demons and everything else that’s in your way. And you’re going to come back stronger, better—more of a hero to everybody.”
He was riffing on Joseph Campbell’s classic 1949 text The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which deconstructs the arc of history’s most famous protagonists, from Odysseus to Jesus.
Norton is a seeker, set on a continuous self-improvement project. As a kid, he moved around a lot and was teased about a slight lisp; the teenage Norton filled notebooks with personal musings and confessions.
At the start of his freshman year at Guilford College, a small liberal arts school in Greensboro, N.C., Norton signed up for a program that required students to make solo wilderness excursions. For three days, each freshman camped alone on a mountain with no food or worldly distractions.
Norton came back changed. “It makes you really just stop and be with yourself and start listening to yourself,” he explains.
As an upperclassman, he led younger students through the process. The last stage of a hero’s journey, he told the crowd at the conference, is to bring some benefit back to the community. It’s what he believes he’s doing with pickup now.
Norton and Gluecksmann refer to themselves as “dating coaches” and are hyperaware that “pickup artist” carries a stigma of chauvinism and lasciviousness.
Even coaches such as Norton who say their goal is to make men believe in themselves could be damaging how their students relate to the opposite sex, says Denise A. Romano, a former therapist who has posted a set of Web articles titled Game Over: What Women & Men Need to Know About the Pick-Up Artist Industry.
She says pickup tactics are “wholly dehumanizing to both women and men.”
“Women will have to become even more vigilant,” she continues, “wonder which men are lying, which men are only dating them to get laid...as opposed to being emotionally and psychologically healthy enough to be in a relationship.”
FOR THE THIRD class, J.K. joins the group. He emigrated from South Korea as a 10-year-old, went to a prestigious college, and landed a high-paying technology job. At 27, he’s successful but has never had a girlfriend.
“What’s the word for ‘extreme hunger’?” he asks when describing why he joined the workshop. “Somebody who’s been starved—not in a nutritional way, but just for emotional connection.”
Sexually, he says, “I’m quite inexperienced, so I guess I’m trying to increase my odds.”
On the docket tonight are lessons on keeping a presentable home, approaching large groups of women, and expressing attraction.
To see whether a girl is into them, Norton and Gluecksmann suggest a “compliance test”—giving her an instruction to see if she follows it.
“You want to tell her, ‘Look, I can’t hear you. Come over here for a second,’” Gluecksmann says. “You’re leading her to test to see if she’s willing to comply and come with you.”
But tactics like these, which equate control with confidence, don’t seem so different from tricks taught in more manipulative circles of pickup. For all the talk of self-improvement and forging “emotional connections,” in the end, most of Norton’s lessons still revolve around helping guys achieve what he calls “the ultimate kino”: sex. But before they can go for “full closing,” they have to learn to go in for a kiss.
“You want to do the triangle,” Gluecksmann advises. “Look at her eye. Look at her other eye. Look at her lips. Then you kind of want to lean in.”
At some point, Norton tells them, they should make a “statement of intent.”
“I look at her, and I’m like, ‘You know what? I kinda want to make out with you—that’s what I’m feeling right now,’” he says. “It’s you sexualizing the interaction.”
Sealing the deal, Gluecksmann continues, is all about logistics. They need to have a place for a woman to park her car and condoms at hand. “You want to provide her with sufficient excuse. Like, ‘Hey, let’s go to my place, ’cause I got this great collection of stamps I gotta show you,’” he explains. “As opposed to saying, ‘Let’s go back to my place for some hanky-panky.’”
“And be perfectly okay with her saying no,” he continues. “In your mind, it just means, ‘No for right now.’”
Honesty is key, Norton insists, because women deserve it, but it’s important for the guys, too; if they’re just putting on a charade, he says, they may still be thinking they’re not good enough.
When he was in New York at the conference, Norton put his skills to use. He locked eyes with a 5-foot-10 redhead while out at a bar. He spent the night with her and the next night, too. And when he told her he was a dating coach who went out with multiple women, she shrugged and told him she was seeing other people, too.
His students are still trying to reach a point where they have that option. The previous week, J.K. talked with several women, including one who seemed to like him. “This girl was just latched on to me, and I was just absolutely shocked,” he says. “And I started panicking. I lost my step. And she kind of lost interest.” J.K.’s luck with women hasn’t changed dramatically, but he’s working out more, paying attention to fashion trends, and forcing himself into social situations. “I’m just seeing a spark of light,” he says.
A light was coming on for Norton, too. He went back to New York and stayed with the redhead the weekend after he met her, and again the next week. Six days later, she visited him in Washington.
“She lit something inside of me that had been dormant for a while,” he says.
Still, a month after they got together, he went through with plans to spend a week in Bermuda with another woman. “After that is kind of where it went downhill,” he says. “I think she got really upset that I went.”
She stopped returning his calls. In the weeks that followed, Norton was dismayed and contemplative, regretting that things went sour.
“If I could find somebody really special and they could be in my life right now, I’d be pretty [expletive] happy about that,” he says.
So his hero’s journey continues. He’s still meeting women in bars and posting on websites, still speaking at conferences and recruiting new protégés.
Still trying to teach other men about emotional connections.
The Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News. From a longer article by Ellen McCarthy that appeared in The Washington Post. All rights reserved.