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The sexist pseudoscience of pick-up artists: the dangers of “alpha male” thinking

We can mock the men in silly hats who claim to be experts in picking up women, but their weird anthropological worldview – of “alpha males” competing for “targets” – is a nonsense that has bled out into other sexist discourse. 

“[PUAHate] confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are.”

- Elliot Rodger, My Twisted World

[12:39 PM]: rape is low inhibition, DOM and alpha. its the ultimate DOM move

[12:40 PM]: what's your rape count

[12:40 PM]: rape is pretty beta

[12:40 PM]: if ur havent raped someone by age 22, ur prob a truecel [celibate] for life

[12:40 PM]: not rape rape, but date rape

[12:40 PM]: Not DOM enough

[12:40 PM]: date rape is the behavior of masculine blacks, and very alpha

[12:41 PM]: who is gonna be the next elliot rodger on this chat? i nominate greg

- An extract from a chatroom conversation between members of the now-closed PUAHate forum, as transcribed by Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan

Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, was a member of the PUAHate forum. It was nominally a place for those who felt conned by the pick-up artist promise, and many of its members were rightfully suspicious of what they had come to see as snake oil. Yet PUAHate.com is now a dead link because many of its members reacted the other way - they blamed the women for not doing as they should, instead of the broken models of human interaction that they paid money for. They blamed women with a bile that gave Elliot Rodger a sense of belonging.

A "perfect gentleman", Rodger was driven by an immense sense of entitlement, and yet the surprising thing about his women-hating autobiographical manifesto is how little time he ever spends with any of them. Again and again he sets out to find a girlfriend by going to a local mall or park, sitting on a bench, and waiting. Apart from the female counsellor his parents pay to spend an afternoon with him, he never has a full conversation with a woman; he goes to a party, and stands in the corner, waiting for someone to talk to him first. His expectation was such that he felt his designer clothes, his BMW, even his bone structure marked him out as "a descendent of British aristocracy", a person who women should be uncontrollably attracted to for his obvious social value. He was, as he described himself in his final video, "the superior one, the true alpha male", and every woman in the world was thus in violation of his natural rights for ignoring him.

This attitude might seem alien to pick-up artists - by now, a recognisable pop culture stereotype, the subject of reality TV shows and bestselling books - and to those inside the community it might seem unfair to link them to a mass shooter. Pick-up artists, after all, are all about structuring as many opportunities to meet and seduce women as possible, in every kind of possible social situation. Yet it's not a coincidence that PUAHate was the first and only place where Rodger felt as if he was among people capable of understanding him.

Pick-up artists sell an ideology about women, and an odd one at that - cod evolutionary psychology and pop anthropology mashed together into a kind of brute forced seduction, or a quantified romance that approaches women like mechanical devices that can be debugged and reprogrammed. It takes the phrase “press her buttons” too literally, and assumes there’s a de facto biological Konami code that any man can use on any woman. Not for nothing has Neil Strauss, author of The Game, called it “the revenge of the nerds”.

(Arthur Chu’s “Your Princess Is In Another Castle” is also good at expanding on the nerd-romance trope of women as characters to be “won” by a determined hero, rather than being autonomous beings both capable of choice and deserving of respect.)

If you want to buy into this ideology, you can, for example, pay Erik von Markovik of Venusian Arts (better known as “Mystery”, perhaps the founding father of the modern industry) for literature, classes and boot camps that explore his patented Mystery Method. It uses something called the “M3 Model” of seduction:

Each step, broken down into further constituent steps, is designed to ease a woman into the idea of sleeping with a man she’s just met. (And I hope I’m not the only one appalled by the implicit threat in the penultimate step: “last-minute resistance”.) This is what is known in the business as “structured game”, though even proponents of the more improvisational “natural game” accept the need for some adherence to an overarching methodical narrative, some combination of attract/comfort/seduce.

The sine qua non of this narrative, or ideology, is “social hierarchy”. Much of it is framed by the idea of becoming the “alpha” within a group, or at least of understanding the hierarchy of a social situation enough to make sure that a man is valued enough to be a potential mate, literally by "demonstrating value". A PUA proceeds through his routine with the aim of ascending the hierarchy, which in turn inevitably gives a go-ahead for using further seduction routines.

As “encyclopaedia for pick-up artists” PUALingo.com describes it:

In animal hierarchies, the Alpha Male is the most dominant, and typically the physically strongest member of the group. For example, in wolf packs, the “alpha wolf” is the strongest member of the pack, and is the leader of the group. This position of leadership is often achieved by killing or defeating the previous Alpha Male in combat. Alpha wolves have first access to food as well as mating privileges with the females of the pack.

Social status among human social groups is less rigidly defined than in the animal kingdom, but there are some recognizable parallels. Although people don’t often engage in physical violence to achieve dominance, there are still recognizable leaders in different fields who have wide access to material resources and women.

Here’s Mystery laying out the same concept in one of his many, many training videos:

The apes are still living that way. They have complex social hierarchies, and so do we. If you can systematically demonstrate those three characteristics - again, they are leader of men, pre-selected by women, protector of loved ones - if you can convey and systematically demonstrate those characteristics, you will be the tribal leader. A woman’s brain is designed to align with the tribal leader of her community. Why? Because it improves her chances of survival and replication dramatically. She doesn’t even have to be with the tribal leader, she just has to hook up with one of his friends.”

Even when not explicitly citing this evolutionary psychology, most other pick-up artists will implicitly accept it by reference to concepts like “alpha behaviour”. Through concentration, meditation and training any man can shed his earthly beta skin and attain alpha enlightenment, like a horny Bodhisattva - motivated not by empathy for all living things, but a hard-on.

What makes someone alpha depends upon who is asked, but the rule of thumb seems to be it’s related to whatever constitutes mainstream, attractive heterosexual masculinity in Western society: standing up straight, wearing clean clothes, no spitting, presenting as physically and emotionally “normal”. It’s not necessarily about being physically strongest or smartest, but being strong or smart enough to usurp a rival’s position or to make oneself the only attractive option in the club. All the other stuff - the negging, the manipulation, the codification of body language into categories like “bitch shield” or “indicator of interest” - is built upon this idea.

This is an error of pseudoscience, as much a cousin of skull shape determining personality as it is an unloved child of the neoliberal doctrine of rational self-interest. It’s dangerous, too. It bleeds into the wider “men’s rights movement”, and to places like reddit’s nightmarish r/theredpill sub, where terms like alpha are a bedrock of the lingo and women are seen (without apparent awareness of the contradiction) as both intentionally disrespectful of men and witless automatons in thrall to their genetic programming. Women who deny men their due are feminists, and they must be feminists not because they value themselves but because they're broken, and hate men. It's a catch-all justification that reframes any female action that isn't male-centred as morally wrong: women are bitches, because they are.

It’s a mess, of course. At its root is the idea that the hunter-gatherer societies that existed before the Agricultural Revolution reflect our primitive, and undeniable, nature. That the mating rituals of 200,000 years ago are still there, in our bones.

There is, though, no rule for ape social structure. Gorillas live in troops of around a dozen individuals with a clearly-defined male leader, who earns his position based on strength. Chimpanzees have larger communities of twenty or more individuals, each with a position in a hierarchy that is subject to a kind of ape politics. Orangutans live alone. Bonobo society is polygamous - they mate with each other near-indiscriminately, bonding with each other through both heterosexual and homosexual sex. Males get their social status from the status of their mothers, and some believe that bonobo society is matriarchal. They are capable of empathy and altruism.

In contrast, we can be reasonably sure that prehistoric human societies were non-hierarchical, egalitarian and cooperative, as are the majority of today's hunter-gatherer societies that have survived, and that human nature still tends towards these instincts. They - and we’re not only talking homo sapiens here, but possibly also antecedents like homo erectus - are believed to have had strong ties beyond their bloodline, with individuals in a group caring for children who were not their own. Members of a society who were reproductively useless - such as women too old to bear more children - would have still been valued, as humanity was apparently not synonymous with reproduction or social status. Early art venerated the female, not male, form, and so matriarchal societies may have been common. As kinship was not the main motivation for cooperation, it meant language, technology and friendships spread within and between groups more easily. From computer modelling of social interaction, it appears that egalitarianism may be an inevitable consequence of human-level intelligence.

All of which is to say that if you’re going to do a dumb thing like resort to an is-ought fallacy to justify your sexism - should we start calling it scientific sexism, or is that too formal and dignified a label? - then at least get the first part right.

Research into what makes a human attractive is a bit strange, actually. Spraying yourself with a love phermone isn't going to work, but there is some element of smell involved. There's the aesthetics of body shape, and the degree to which intelligence plays a role. A model of the 1930s looks very different to a model of the 2010s - to say nothing of the myriad norms of gender and sexuality that exist in different communities around the world - so there must be something that shapes how we fancy people, but the nature/nurture interaction here is a foggy one. Weird Science's compliant superwoman is, I'm afraid to say, a fantasy.

(If we ever invent time travel, let's use it for something productive: drop pick-up artists in 17th century London, 7th century Pyongyang, 8th century Caracol and 14th century Timbuktu, give them a phrasebook, and let them test what really works.)

This might seem a bit of a fool’s errand, pointing out that self-help gurus - gasp - make stuff up. Yet, it bleeds. The days after the Isla Vista shooting, as PUAHate closed down and its members spread out to colonise other chatrooms and forums, there was debate about whether it was either a result of mental illness or a misogynist hate crime influenced by social pressures. The two are not mutually-exclusive. The widespread acceptance of the inferiority of other human beings can have terrible, unforeseen effects in shaping the people who grow to believe it. Reduce Africans to stupidity and strength, and it is a short leap to asserting a claim over them; reduce women to their genitals and "tribal" impulses, and it is a short leap to asserting a claim over them. After all, that's what an alpha has every right to do.

Amateur pick-up artist meetings, where they can swap tips and tricks, are known as "lairs". I've never been sure if it's really tongue-in-cheek or not.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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