Roundtable

Ovid’s Game

Pickup artists trace a path from the Ars Amatoria to Neil “Style” Strauss.

By Donna Zuckerberg

Monday, October 08, 2018

(L) Before and (R) After, by William Hogarth, c. 1730–31. The J. Paul Getty Museum, digital images courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

(L) Before and (R) After, by William Hogarth, c. 1730–31. The J. Paul Getty Museum, digital images courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

The introduction to Julia Hejduk’s recent translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria opens with this declaration:

Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love) has one of the funniest premises of any work of literature: namely, that Love—by which he means the initiation and maintenance of sexual relationships—is a field of study, like chess or astronomy or agriculture, whose strategies can be analyzed and taught.

The Ars Amatoria is from the earlier part of Ovid’s career, when he focused almost exclusively on erotic works. It is an instruction manual for seduction in three volumes: the first teaches its readers how to seduce a woman; the second focuses on how to keep her interest; and the third teaches women how to seduce men. A follow-up volume, published a few years later, teaches men how to fall out of love with unattainable women.

Hejduk’s assertion represents the general consensus among scholars about the Ars Amatoria: it is nearly impossible to find an article or book about the poem that does not contain words such as amusing or ludic (from the Latin ludus, “game”). By awkwardly forcing a poem about seduction techniques into the genre of didactic poetry—a genre mostly used for long technical treatises on subjects such as farming or ethics—Ovid is playing a complex poetic game with the reader’s expectations. His use of the elegiac couplet, the meter of erotic poetry, instead of the dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic and “traditional” didactic poetry, emphasizes the disconnect between the poem’s form and its content. Imagine a college textbook about the history of cupcakes, and you have the idea.

But the classicists who find the poem’s premise so clever may not be aware of how seriously that same premise is taken by the pickup artist (PUA), or “game,” community. A pickup artist is an individual, usually a heterosexual man, who has intensively studied and attempted to master techniques to convince women to have sex with him; these techniques fall on a spectrum from flirting to manipulation to harassment to assault. A few influential members of the community run blogs or publish books to disseminate their knowledge.

The relevance of Ovid to the game community goes beyond a similar, strategic approach to seduction. In an attempt to give themselves legitimacy and gravitas, some pickup artists look back to famous seducers from history and reposition them as the intellectual predecessors of the modern seduction community—and Ovid is one such venerated figure. Neil “Style” Strauss, in his 2005 memoir The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, writes,

Sure, there is Ovid, the Roman poet who wrote The Art of Love; Don Juan, the mythical womanizer based on the exploits of various Spanish noblemen; the Duke de Lazun, the legendary French rake who died on the guillotine; and Casanova, who detailed his hundred-plus conquests in four thousand pages of memoirs. But the undisputed father of modern seduction is Ross Jeffries, a tall, skinny, porous-faced self-proclaimed nerd from Marina Del Rey, California.

Strauss is not alone in naming Ovid the ancient father of seduction. The Ars Amatoria is widely accepted by the community as the starting point of the teaching of seduction. Ovid’s name is casually mentioned not only in Strauss’s memoir, but also in blog posts across the seduction blogosphere with titles such as “The History of Pickup and Seduction, Part I” and “Recommended Great Books for Aspiring Womanizers.”

Portrait of Ovid by James Godby, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1815. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The reason for Ovid’s inclusion in these lists is clear. Ovid gives men advice for how to seduce women, and pickup artists are men who define themselves by their interest in seducing women, so Ovid was arguably one of their own. But the concepts underlying how we think about sex and sexual relationships today—our ideas about sexuality, gender, race, and class—have shifted considerably from the conceptual categories that existed in first-century Rome. Both Ovid and modern pickup artists may be concerned with how to successfully obtain casual sex, but what would casual even mean in a Roman context? If one defines sex as casual if it is enjoyable but without serious consequences, then in a world where adultery was criminal, birth control was less foolproof, and abortion and childbirth were both life-threatening, sex could never be truly casual. Ovid’s advice necessarily puts women at risk.

The category differences are especially stark if, as Ovid later claimed and as many scholars now believe, the Ovidian puella (girl, or in PUA terminology, target) is a meretrix. A meretrix was an expensive sex worker, the sort for whom scholars often use the old-fashioned word courtesan, although the modern category it maps onto most closely might be the “sugar baby.” The livelihood of the meretrix depended on leveraging her sexuality into financial security. So successful deployment of Ovid’s advice would be more than physically dangerous to the woman; convincing a meretrix to enter into a sexual relationship for free would put her in a fiscally precarious position. It could create legal challenges for the man as well. Despite Ovid’s early claim that he only promotes sex that is within the boundaries of the law (“there will be no crime in my song,” inque meo nullum carmine crimen erit), the poem subverts the leges Iuliae, the moral legislation Augustus introduced that punished men and women for both adultery and for remaining unmarried for prolonged periods of time. Ovid’s transgressions against these laws in the Ars Amatoria would eventually have grave consequences for him.

Even though it was published two thousand years ago, the Ars Amatoria can still feel very relevant to today’s world. But it is ultimately a poem that Ovid intended for his time, not for all time. The superficial similarity between his suggestions for how to avoid buying your puella expensive gifts and advice on seduction blogs for how not to buy a girl drinks or spend more than twenty dollars on a date is misleading. Treating Ovid as “the original PUA”—or claiming, as Strauss did on Reddit, that “what works has always been the same throughout history, from Ovid’s writing on seduction to today”—is difficult to justify from a theoretical perspective. Although there are undeniable similarities, most are superficial, and the cultural conditions that shaped Ovid’s text are entirely different from those that shape the seduction community.

 

To understand the seduction community, one must first discard the common misconception that “having game” means only that a man is skilled and experienced at seducing women. Seducing women is a necessary condition of having game, but it is far from the entire story. The truth is more complex and less teleological. Game is about becoming the kind of man women will be attracted to automatically. Such a man—stylish, confident, charismatic—will, as a matter of course, receive everything he wants, including desirable sexual partners. The seduction community claims it can teach almost anyone how to become that kind of man.

Game is about more than learning techniques for how to pick up women in bars; it is a way of thinking about women, men, and how the two genders interact with each other in social settings. This rethinking of the rules of attraction makes pickup artist ideology simultaneously seductive to men and dangerous for both men and women. If game were, as its proponents sometimes claim, simply about helping men gain confidence in their interactions with women, then it would be relatively harmless. It could even be a positive force to help men overcome social anxiety. But that is not really what having game is about—and, in fact, many members of the manosphere mock that way of thinking because it places the power in the hands of women, who are permitted to decide whether a man is attractive or not. At its heart, learning how to have game requires conceptualizing and internalizing ideas about gender that lead to devaluing women and relegating them to the status of sexual objects. Even worse, many leaders of the seduction community believe that women are designed to be sexual objects (and, later, mothers) and that any woman who cares about her education and career—or any woman who does not need validation from men—is unnatural and perverted.

The seduction community’s claim that Ovid is their predecessor fits into the general philosophy of masculinity that pervades websites such as Return of Kings. These sites want to portray their interpretation of masculinity, for which they have coined the term neomasculinity, as revolutionary and subversive, but with strong historical roots and a basis in biological fact—or at least what they perceive as biological fact. Masculinity and femininity, imagined in this way, are not social constructs. They are concepts with a fixed, ahistorical, essential meaning from which we have deviated over time but to which we can return.

(L) Statuette of Venus and (R) statuette of Priapus, Roman, c. 100–200. The J. Paul Getty Museum, digital images courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

If you think about gender expression in this way, comparing Ovid to modern game guides presents few methodological challenges. According to this reading, the categories man and woman have remained static over the past two thousand years. If one believes that the female members of the human species are programmed by nature rather than conditioned by culture to respond to certain kinds of male behavior, then Ovid’s suggestions can certainly still have merit. Having game is about being the kind of man women want, and pickup artists believe that women have always wanted and will always want the same thing: an “alpha male” to provide for them and father their children. This idea is perhaps most clearly expressed in Peter Burns’ 2015 article on Return of Kings, “Lessons from PUA Ovid: The Original Latin Lover.” Near the end, Burns argues,

The “Ars Amatoria” is quite red pill. Ovid frequently mentions cases of female promiscuity and how many women are hypergamous. Female nature does not change according to the country or the age. Women of two thousand years ago and from very conservative cultures had the same vices that the women of today have.

It does not matter to pickup artists that the science underlying this thinking has been repeatedly debunked. Since the invention of the Kinsey scale, most educated people have accepted that sexuality falls roughly along a spectrum. In recent years, gender expression from masculine to feminine has also been conceptualized as a spectrum rather than a strict binary. Scientists now think that, along with sexuality and gender, biological sex is not as binary as previously thought. The Intersex Society of North America recognizes more than a dozen intersex conditions that challenge the strict definitions used by the manosphere: there are individuals with ambiguous or multiple sets of genitalia, people whose chromosomal makeup does not match their genitalia or sexual organs, men and women with hormonal irregularities that lead them to present as unusually feminine or masculine. A seventy-year-old father of four was recently discovered to have a uterus. Such nuances are lost on the writers of the manosphere, most of whom can only comprehend one transhistorical model of manhood and womanhood. The same fallacious thinking about what it means to be “male” or “female” underlies both their gender essentialism and their use of Ovid.

A close analysis reveals the weaknesses and inaccuracies in the seduction community’s use of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. But their reading of the text also poses a fundamental and very important challenge to how the poem is usually interpreted. The fact that pickup artists have so closely embraced this text is reason to look more closely at its disconcerting aspects. Several times over the course of the poem, Ovid’s narrator advises his reader to act in a way that today would certainly be considered sexual assault. The Ars is not Ovid’s only text that depicts rape in such a disturbing manner; Ovid’s masterpiece Metamorphoses has also come under fire for its depiction of sexual violence. One scholar even reports one of her students calling Metamorphoses a “handbook on rape.” While this description fits Metamorphoses somewhat uncomfortably—the text has many stories about rape, but is hardly an instruction manual—one could certainly argue that “handbook on rape” is an accurate description of the Ars Amatoria. Treating the premise of this poem as fundamentally playful or subversive, as some scholars do, becomes irresponsible when there is a community using it today to normalize an attitude toward consent that would not be out of place in ancient Rome. The fascinating and the unnerving aspects of Ovid’s work cannot be detached from each other. And Ovid’s funny, charming, disturbing pickup-artist manual shows that manipulating and abusing women is an integral part of seduction technique.

 

The seduction community is a fully developed ecosystem with complex social dynamics, and the kind of people who rise to prominence within the community can tell us a great deal about what the community itself values. Nearly every successful purveyor of seduction advice uses the same narrative: when he started out, he was completely unsuccessful with the opposite sex, but he gradually learned specific, easily replicable techniques to gain female interest, and then decided to give other unfortunate men the advantage of his hard-earned knowledge.

Young man tries to seduce a lady, by Joseph de Longueil, c. 1740–92. Rijksmuseum.

The strategies used by the community’s leaders to establish their authority are similar to those used by Ovid to construct his narrator’s authority in the Ars Amatoria. Nick Krauser, promoting his $98 textbook Daygame Mastery, writes, “There are specific actionable foolproof steps you can take to become the naturally charismatic sexworthy man.” An instruction manual for obtaining natural charisma may seem oxymoronic, but it perfectly encapsulates the strange and self-contradictory business of establishing oneself as a professor of love (praeceptor amoris). First, the would-be praeceptor, ancient or modern, must convince his reader that love is both learnable and teachable; then he must explain what makes him the best possible teacher.

The writers of these texts preach that looks, money, and charisma are not requirements for seducing beautiful women; the only true requirement is technique. Ovid’s praeceptor—the narrator of the Ars Amatoria, loosely but not perfectly identified with Ovid himself—compares amor to skill at physical activities: “Art (and sails and oars) is what makes speedy ships move, art drives light chariots: art is the thing to steer Love.” He even compares himself to Daedalus, the paradigmatic craftsman of myth: as Daedalus created wings for Icarus, Ovid will master Cupid, the winged god. Ovid exhibits complete confidence that no woman is unattainable if you use the right seduction techniques on her:

First, you’ve got to believe in your heart that they all can be caught:
     you’ll catch them, you just need to lay your trap!
Birds will sooner keep quiet in spring, cicadas in summer, the Maenálian hound
     sooner show his back to the hare,
than a woman will fight back when assailed by a young man’s flattery;
     even the one you might think doesn’t want it will want it.

The self-evident danger of this view is that it encourages the reader to think of female consent as a foregone conclusion once the pickup artist becomes sufficiently skilled.

The most common English translation of Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love, masks the text’s true nature and makes it sound much more flowery than it really is. For one, the Latin term amor does not map neatly onto the English word love; it has connotations of desire and sex that love does not always have. Regardless, Amatoria does not even mean “of love.” That would be amoris, or perhaps amandi. It means “of the amator,” the lover. For another, the word ars does not mean art as we usually refer to the arts—it means a skill or technique, like training a horse or stone masonry, as the Greek word technē does. Ars is often contrasted in Latin with ingenium, which means something like natural talent (literally, the genius that is inside of you). A better translation of the title Ars Amatoria might be How to Become an Expert Lover.

 

Adapted from Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.