Neil Strauss: ‘I look at the pickup-artist world like college. I went there and learned a lot and left’
Strauss made his name with ‘The Game’, his account of the art of picking up women – and of group sex. Now he’s married with a baby and has been treated for his sex addiction. So what’s his new life like?
Neil Strauss: “There was a threesome I had, and a husky dog there kept trying to make love to me. I left that out of the book”
‘How do you take notes while participating in an orgy?” is a question I’ve not asked many interviewees. But now Neil Strauss is explaining how it’s done. You don’t scribble in a notebook there and then, he says, but “that night, no matter what happens, you have to write everything down. I’d be there at the keyboard with a string of ‘ffffs’, because I fell asleep with my finger on the keyboard.” And sometimes, he says, “I’d sit down with my partners and we’d review the night in detail.”
Strauss, a small, unassuming man with a shaved head, glasses and a hoody, is the author of The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book about Relationships. It’s a memoir that begins with a relationship crisis and features its author undergoing treatment for sex addiction, exploring the worlds of polyamory and group sex, before finally settling down to monogamous domesticity.
Strauss is already quite famous. Once a rock journalist, and the biographer of the porn star Jenna Jameson and the rock band Mötley Crüe, he is the author of The Game, a controversial book from 2005 about a community of men devoted to the art of picking up women and obsessed with tactics and jargon (“negging”, “sarging,” “peacocking”). He became an icon of the pickup movement. Calling himself Style, he ran seminars on seduction and quickly followed up The Game with another bestseller, The Rules of the Game.
The Game is a strangely ambivalent book about a creepy, regressive and cult-like community. Pickup artists have increasingly been both ridiculed and, more seriously, accused of manipulative, misogynistic and predatory behaviour. Nowadays Strauss is a bit uncomfortable being “the embodiment of a culture” that he says he never really believed in.
“I definitely didn’t mean The Game to be an endorsement. I mean, it begins with the greatest pickup artist in the world” – his friend Mystery – “about to commit suicide, and it ends [with me] kind of coming out of it . . . I was in that world for two years . . . I look at the pickup-artist world like college. I went there and learned a lot and left.”
But he lectured to aspiring pickup artists for years. “Yeah, but I don’t think I was ever in the culture of the world afterwards. I feel I taught people the stuff that was positive . . . not some of the supercreepy stuff.”
He’s very aware of the supercreepy stuff. “My experiences changed my life for the better. However, I think there are a lot of negative sides to it as well – manipulation, objectification. There’s a hateful side to that world. There’s a side that subscribes to a distorted and apocryphal view of masculinity . . . a confused code of masculinity that’s harmful to women and men.”
Strauss also thinks that the “dark side of the community”, now associated with murdering misogynists such as Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who shot six people in California last year, has become much darker since The Game. “Maybe it’s to do with the growth of the internet, but part of that culture has gone down a rat hole.”
Is he having his cake and eating it (after all, he has made a lot of money out of it)? “Not really. I think things are very nuanced. Coming to a strong conclusion that something is good or bad is probably what’s wrong with the world.” That’s probably what causes war and genocide, according to Strauss. “I think there’s a narrative that says I’m turning against that world when in fact my feelings on it haven’t changed. They were always ambivalent. It’s just a different kind of ambivalence now.”
So is The Game misunderstood? “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of interpretations of the Bible that weren’t healthy, a few hundred years of inquisitions and torture and religious genocide.”
Rites of passage
For Strauss, all of his books are personal journeys first and foremost. “At different points of my life I get stuck, and I write books trying to get myself unstuck. These are rites of passage in my life.”
The Truth began with an inability to stay faithful to his girlfriend, Ingrid De La O, who is now his wife. It’s “about questions a lot of people ask. ‘Is monogamy natural?’ ‘How do I know if this person is the right one?’ ‘Can I be with this person forever?’ ”
To explore these questions he once more infiltrates intriguing groups of people. “I find subcultures fascinating. It’s fun for me being inside these groups where I don’t belong,” he says, “being accepted and learning the jargon.”
The early chapters see him being treated for sex addiction alongside addicts, although he’s reluctant to come to a conclusion about whether sex addiction even exists. But a lot of the points that the therapists were making were right, he says. “They showed me patterns that I was not aware of that were operating in my life.”
These patterns ultimately related to the problems in his parents’ marriage. Their dysfunction led to his cripplingly low self-esteem, which he then medicated with sex.
Strauss reveals a lot about his parents’ relationship in the book, including details of his father’s fetish for women with disabilities, and his mother’s self-absorption. These sections are deeply uncomfortable to read.
Have his parents read the book?
“Not that I know of.”
Is he worried about when they do?
“Whatever happens happens.”
Did he tell them he was writing about them?
“I told them and said, ‘Hey, if you want I can change your names and where you’re from and the way I describe you, so you can at least tell your friends I lied and made it all up.’ I gave them an out and they didn’t take it.”
Did they know the particular things he was going to write about?
“I just said, ‘Everything’s in here.’ ”
What did they say?
“Don’t write it.” He laughs.
How does he feel about that? “I think the entire message of the book is . . . you have to separate from your parents and live your own life if you want to be an adult.”
The Truth, like The Game, reads like a novel. Strauss resists the advice of his sex-addiction therapists and his wise friend Rick Rubin. (Yes, Rick Rubin the famous record producer.) “I was really angry. I thought they were trying to moralise and neuter the culture and that it was like a neo-Victorian movement,” Strauss says. “I thought that relationships . . . were broken and I was going to find a new kind of relationship that was natural to me and to our species.”
He breaks up with De La O and embarks on a tour of swinging clubs and polyamorist communities. He recounts a series of encounters, some embarrassing (Strauss too stoned to have sex at an orgy), some bizarre (bumping into the 1980s child star Corey Feldman at an orgy), some funny (being kicked out of an orgy for eating popcorn too loudly) and some just designed to titillate (more orgies). These sections are explicit and uncompromising. Did he leave anything out? Only for reasons of length, he says. “There was a threesome I had, and a husky dog there kept trying to make love to me. I left that out. It was funny, but it didn’t move the story forward or progress the journey.”
Sometimes the narrative feels a bit disingenuous. Did he really, for example, think that setting up house with three women he barely knew would work out?
“I thought it would be great. In retrospect it makes perfect sense that if you can’t make one relationship work you’re not going to make three work.”
Even now, though, he thinks about the failure of his menage and says, “Maybe I could have done it in a way where I wasn’t so miserable the whole time.”
How was it for De La O reading about his sexploits? “It was tough on her. But I think in the end it gave us a better relationship.”
Nowadays he’s all about warts-and-all honesty. Could he handle it if she’d written a book like this? “For sure, yeah. I handle all the shit I read about in the press, right?”
Eventually, through the experiences he recounts, Strauss realised how much he loved De La O and that self-awareness and openness are the roots of happiness. The couple now live in married bliss with a new baby.
It’s quite a traditional situation, right? “Yes and no. I don’t think The Truth is an embracing of monogamy. I think it’s an embrace of being authentic to yourself. Our agreement is that we do what’s healthy for the relationship. I think the end of it is that a lot of the questions we ask about relationships are the wrong questions. Whether you accept monogamy or non-monogamy, it’s a stupid dichotomy. You should do what’s healthy for you and your partner and your relationship.”
I tell him that at times in The Truth he seemed to be celebrating the bad decisions he was supposedly decrying and that I wondered if I was being gamed. Strauss is a bit taken aback, but he says that he’s heard this before. (Earlier he lamented that the shadow of The Game “obscures this book”.)
“Did you feel that after reading the book?” he asks. “Because that’s a tough game if I was to rip my heart out for 400 pages.” But, he concludes more stoically, “I think the only person who it’s important believes me and trusts me is my wife.”
He stresses how much the revelations in the book have helped him. “If The Game is about behaviours, The Truth is about beliefs. You believe your thoughts about yourself that were programmed into you and [that are] holding you back from happiness in life.”
You Can’t Handle the Truth
He’s thinking of writing another book that further explores the ideas he stumbled on. Something like The Rules of the Truth? “Exactly,” he says. “Or maybe You Can’t Handle t he Truth.”
I observe that there will probably be people who read this book who gloss over the psychological reflection and think all that sex sounds like a great idea. “Probably,” he says and sighs.
He has already been teaching his new insights to the men who come to his seminars, and it has been great, he says. There have been “tears and vulnerability and breakthroughs . . . The game is what they want, but the truth is what they need.”
One of the things he has learned is that being obsessed with sex is very time-consuming. When he was last in Dublin “the pursuit of sex kept me from seeing a lot of the city”. He spent hours, he says, “trying to get someone back to the room”.
For this visit he’s determined to get some culture. He’s keen for me to suggest some local bands he can check out, and he has compiled a list of restaurants to try. “I think if you’ve a curious mind,” he says, “you love music and what goes in your ears and what goes in your eyes.” He laughs. “And I’m working on what goes in my mouth.”
The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book about Relationships is published by Canongate