I want you to take that shot Johnny Cassells takes his pickup workshop in London last week. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian
Attending todays workshop are Mike, a 31-year-old tech worker, and Raj, 26, who lives in Dubai and works in finance. We sit around a circular table in a panelled conference room. Oil paintings of horses stare down at us. Ive been doing this for 14 years, Cassell says. It started off as a need for myself. Now I teach other people.
Raj uses PUA terminology abundantly. I have an issue with approach anxiety, he says, meaning that he gets nervous hitting on women for the first time. He also refers to sarging, the process of picking up women. Both Raj and Mike are (perhaps unsurprisingly) edgy around me. I shunt my chair into a corner and arrange my features into a neutral expression.
The workshop begins with Cassell urging Raj and Mike to pick their dream women. Raj favours Kylie Jenner; Mike opts for Amber Gill, from Love Island. With the right mindset, Cassell says, they can bring their dream women into existence. He says reassuring if somewhat oblique things such as: You are not a mass-market product, and, If you are getting rejected, you havent worked out what you want, and, The magic word here is, choose. (Cassell writes choose on the whiteboard.)
Pop psychology session over, Cassell teaches them a conversation model. When approaching a woman, they should begin by making an assumption, before using a hook to draw her into conversation. Next they should challenge her, then introduce a time constraint and close the interaction by asking for a phone number. Raj and Mike hunch over their notebooks like dutiful schoolboys.
In recent years, Cassell has been describing himself as a dating coach as well as a pickup artist, and avoids the worst excesses of the PUA community, such as sexually coercive tactics. Notorious pickup artist
Daryush Valizadeh known as Roosh V was accused of advocating legalising rape, on private property, in comments he later said were satirical. The American pickup artist Julien Blanc was banned from entering the UK in 2014, after 157,000 people signed a petition protesting against his visit. Earlier this month, pickup artist Adnan Ahmed who called himself Addy A-Game was jailed for two years after being convicted of threatening and abusive behaviour. Ahmed would harass women on the streets of Glasgow, causing them distress, and offered tips on his YouTube channel on how to overcome last-minute resistance to sex.
While his patter is assured, Cassells teaching feels to me very similar to the message of Neil Strausss seminal pickup bible. At one point, Cassell suggests challenging a woman who is into Crossfit by telling her that Crossfit is for people who arent really good at any sport. This appears to be textbook negging.
Conversational model learned, its now time for what Cassell refers to as fieldwork, but would more accurately be termed street harassment. Thus follow two of the most dispiriting hours of my career, as I walk around central London in the rain, watching as Raj and Mike pester women. They pretend to ask for directions, and after the woman has pointed out the route, say: Actually I just wanted to talk to you, or, You look cute.
At one point, Mike stops two women on Oxford Street and pretends to ask for directions. After they walk on, Cassell sends Mike chasing after them he is convinced one was being flirtatious, because she crossed her legs while speaking to Mike. (She tells him she has a boyfriend.) Outside Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly, there is a surreal chat about whether the men should approach a young woman shopping with her mother. Cassell decides in favour of it, but by then, thankfully, the women have moved on.
As a young woman who has experienced street harassment throughout my life, it is an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing to observe. I know that, on a fundamental level, women do not want to be approached in this way by strangers on the street. Not when they are running errands, or chatting on the phone, or on their way home from work. We want men to leave us alone.
But I am here to observe. So I say nothing and we squelch on through the rain. I am struck by the fact that all the women being approached are uniformly young, slim, white and uniformly polite. They smile and refer to boyfriends, but with the exception of one woman Mike interrupts having a cigarette outside Pret who looks furious they do not seem put out. Why dont any of these women tell Mike and Raj to get lost?
Women are socialised not to challenge men, explains Dr Bianca Fileborn of the University of Melbourne, an expert in gendered street harassment. But this response may also be about managing the situation safely. When you confront a stranger you risk escalating the situation. You dont know whats going to happen next. These are men whove already crossed your boundaries deflecting them, by telling them you have a boyfriend in effect, saying, Im the property of another man, please leave me alone can be a strategy for managing the situation.
As we walk, Mike is having an internal tussle. You do wonder, am I bothering people? he admits. Especially with things like #MeToo. But then I think, youre being nice. Youve gone up to someone and said theyre attractive. This message that the men are doing a good thing, and that women enjoy being hit on in the street is continually reinforced by Cassell. He urges them on, an officer rallying his troops. I want you to take that shot. Youre just making someone feel better about themselves.
After Raj is rejected outside Topshop (who knew so many women in central London had boyfriends?), Cassell reassures him he has done nothing wrong. Shes going to call her friend and say: Oh my God, this guy just hit on me! You made her day. Outside Piccadilly Circus tube station, the cold rain whipping my face, Cassell repeats: Youre just making someone feel better about themselves. It would be selfish not to.
Thats not true. I think I am witnessing street harassment something Fileborn makes emphatically clear. This behaviour has a profoundly negative impact on women. Its often excused as flirting, or seen as good-natured. And on the individual incident level, I can understand why you might think that: someone came and spoke to you in the street, whats the big deal? But for many women, these arent one-off experiences, but are repeated constantly, often from childhood. They add up. She sighs. I dont think men live with this experience of being intruded upon and having people feel entitled to your time.
On we walk. I think about the smartly dressed man who said something crude as I was having lunch at a former job. I told him not to talk to me like that. His fury was sudden and total. Fuck you, he snarled, as I recoiled in terror. I always remember how quickly the rage came, like it had been there all along. Eventually, we head back to the hotel. As the men write down their aspirations for the future, Cassell, surreally, puts on the score to Inception.
We decamp to the hotel restaurant and eat while making stilted conversation. It is not an easy meal for anyone. The men feel that I am judging them. Mike says he thinks men should be physically stronger, so they can protect women, and waits for a response. I chew my food. Cassell tells me about a girlfriend who would prefer to pay a handyman rather than ask him for help. He didnt like that, he says. It made him feel redundant. What do you think about that? Cassell says, fixing me with a cold look. I make a feeble joke.
And so, to the bar where the staff know Cassell and dont seem to mind that he is bringing men into the venue expressly to pester women. For the next three hours, Cassell identifies groups of women. The men trot over obediently. Try that blonde at the bar, he tells Raj. Youd only be adding to her night. She looks bored. Cassell suggests going up to a woman, saying Trick or Treat?, and then holding her wrist. At one point, Cassell sends Mike to sit with two women who are having a quiet drink. What should I say? Mike pleads. He is vibrating with nerves.
In that moment, I feel sorry for Mike. It is easy to judge these men, but they are painfully introverted and shy even childlike in the way they look to Cassell for answers. I dont think they are bad people. But they are denying women the
chanceto exist in public spaces without being treated as objects of desire. Just to be free, without an imaginary boyfriend or a place you need to be.
The night wears on. Im not sleazy, Cassell says, apropos of nothing. My feet hurt and my chest feels tight with emotion. I say goodnight. Raj and Mike look relieved Im leaving. On and on they circle, men on the prowl.