"Negging": the anatomy of a dating trend

Ever been insulted in a bar? It's possible you were being "negged".

A woman is drinking at a bar. She is alone; perhaps she is waiting for a friend. A man sidles up to her. He is nervous, unsure of himself. He is not a classic lothario, nor is he classically cool. He is probably alone too. “Your roots are showing,” he says.

She looks round, confused. Perhaps she has misheard. “Your roots are showing,” he says again, gesturing weakly at her hair. She furrows her brow. “Excuse me?”

The guy tries a different tack. He is sweating. “You know,” he says, “you look just like my little sister.”

You may never have come across this bizarre phenomenon before, but in various forms it is being practised as a seduction technique around the world. Negging, as it is called, is in essence a trick. The idea is to undermine a woman's confidence by making backhanded or snide remarks – give a compliment with one hand, and take away with the other. It is about control, putting the man in charge of the interaction by pushing the woman to earn his approval.

Someone appears to have given an implicit promise: verbal negativity means sexual success. Those two lines in the opening scenario are both real approaches recommended by seductionscience.com, one of a massive range of websites giving advice on this and other pick-up techniques.

Here are a few lines that women I interview have had used on them. “You look amazing. What have you done?” “If your face was as good as your legs I'd have to marry you.” “Nice eyes – even though one is bigger than the other.” “How brave of you to wear an outfit like that,” and even: “You have a great body. Are you bulimic?” (The last interviewee adds that she was, at the time, bulimic.)

A day spent browsing seductionscience.com – which is full of pleasant little tidbits like: “all women will turn into whores and gang-bang the whole football team if you can bring down her anti-slut defense” – is not a happy day. It offers more stock lines, like “I like that outfit you’ve got on, but your shoes don’t really match.” “Your nose is a little red. You’re like an Eskimo.” It explains: “Negging women is ideal for really hot girls – 8s, 9s, and 10s. For an average girl (6s, 7s), you don’t want to use value zingers. All you need to do is demonstrate social value – you don’t need to lower hers. Hers wasn’t that high to begin with.”

It seems, though, that these tactics can sometimes work. I speak to Rebecca*, who admits that she fell for negging when it was used on her in a bar. “I had been feeling quite low, as had recently ended a long-term relationship, and he came up to me and said something like 'you're a bit less hot than your friend, but it's OK, because I fancy you.' Obviously I am a smart, intelligent, confident and successful woman, so should have thrown something at him; but instead I was charmed.

“Anyway, at his house I found he had a spreadsheet of all the women he was seeing, colour coded with days and nights. Do I think he was using those techniques sociopathically, instead of natural charm? Yes. I think he was terrified of having a typical relationship, and he had set lines so he didn't have to risk actual intimacy.”

"Negging" and the pick-up artist was born on internet message-boards in the early '90s, and became a vast subculture, with varying strategies and tribes. It became a global phenomenon following the publication of a book by a music journalist, Neil Strauss. The book was called The Game, and it chronicles Strauss's headlong journey through this peculiar world just as it was starting to gain momentum, and his own metamorphosis into a pick-up master, teacher and guru.

The internet age taught the nerdy kid who was picked on at school that the world was theirs for the taking. The geek shall inherit the earth. Women, who retained an untamed sense of mystery, didn’t fit the matrix. So this community turned the opposite sex into a logical problem which could be solved. These men went online and started comparing notes and running experiments. They stole aspects of neuro-linguistic programming, evolutionary psychology, and some of the techniques of the salesman – the “close”, and so on. Then they hit “the field” looking for “targets”. They wrote field reports detailing what worked, and what didn't. From this, the early pick-up artists were born.

I put out an appeal online to look for someone who had successfully used negging and would be willing to defend it, and get an immediate response from Dan. “Yes, of course it works,” Dan tells me. “I like to think of it like currency: every insult increases the value of my compliment stock - which I then choose to spent wisely at maximum value and the most opportune moment for maximum effect to make my acquisition.”

There it is: “acquisition”. The lingua franca of scientific seduction is pretty unpleasant. Talk of “targets”, “acquisitions”, “sets” and so on put my teeth on edge. Language has power, and if every interaction with the opposite sex is coloured by a certain vernacular set – in this case the metaphors are all militaristic or hunting ones, perhaps with video games as their origin – then that is likely to colour the way the people who use it think about women at a fundamental level, even if they did not already think of them in this way.

But, there is another truth here. The description might be unpleasant, but what is being described is actually quite close to how ordinary flirtatious conversation works. “Writing this kind of stuff down as if its some kind of sensational trick just gives women a reason to get suspicious about a totally normal part of human interaction,” says a (male) commenter on the discussion thread I started. “It's nothing more than good natured teasing, that someone decided to coin as 'negging'. It's just a normal part of flirting. What's the big deal?”

How many of us have teased, or been cheeky, or been the recipient of such, without thinking? The problem I have is with the systematising, the same as explaining a joke scientifically – it kills it. Flirtation is not a war, requiring battle-plans and set-pieces, it is just a part of how humans interact with each other. The systematisation of this natural interaction, however, turns it into a manipulative deception.

There are really three levels of negging users. The first are the proper pick-up artists featured in The Game, who use neuro-linguistic and other more serious tricks, a sort of mind-control for seduction, which is creepy because it undermines female agency of choice and control – but also because it appears, at least superficially, to work. “I suppose I would like to think I am an individual,” says Rebecca, who fell for the pick-up artist, “but it turns out in emotional terms I'm depressingly predictable.”

The second are those like Dan, who sees himself as using his extant charm as a basis, and simply spicing it up with a few tricks here and there. The third and most common level consists of the people don't quite understand these theories, but are too shy to approach anyone any other way than with rote lines. Those are the ones who are making fools of themselves in bars, with clumsy attempts at negs.

The clichés are no longer “do you come here often”, or “nice ass” or “hey baby”; now, especially since the publication of The Game, negs are the new passé. Some of the creepier or more aggressive users have been on the more unpleasant websites, and have used the inherent hatred of women they found there to confirm their loneliness. It can be a downward spiral of misogynistic confirmation-bias.

Dan makes one last appeal for the defence. He admits that there are aspects of the community that have little respect for women. But, he says: “at the same time, there are decent, well-meaning guys out there who want to have meaningful relationships, and who get very sad that things keep going wrong for them, who just need a few pointers about how their behaviour is perceived – and what kinds of approaches would work better; and why.”

Perhaps the hypothetical shy, awkward guy in the bar I described at the beginning of the piece is looking for just that, and perhaps he has a better chance of finding it with this framework around him. But, I feel, it is more likely that framework will help him cement the idea of women as a different, inferior species, to be manipulated, hit with "negs", and preyed-upon.

The really odd thing is that the conclusion Strauss reaches in The Game, the holy bible of pick-up artists, is that picking up women is a lonely, empty, mechanical life. Strauss ends the book in a healthy relationship, which he is clear he arrived at despite – not because of – his tactical approach. The subculture that still worships him ignores this fact, feasting on the beginning of the book and ignoring the personal development at the end. Strauss's final line is: “it was time. . .to leave the community behind. Real life beckoned”.

*some names have been changed

Nicky Woolf tweets as @NickyWoolf

Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.