In December 2007, Aynne Valencia was playing with a dreidel at a holiday party in SOMA. Then 35, she had been single for more than two years and was hoping to meet somebody worthwhile. So when a man wearing a Santa hat and resembling John Lennon approached, she was excited.
“We started talking about dreidels, and he knew what all the symbols meant,” says Valencia, a graphic design director. “I thought he was so cute and so smart.”
Although the man smelled a little funny, the two spent the whole night talking. Eventually, she stole his Santa hat and put it on her own head, and they started making out. The next morning, the Santa hat rested on her bedroom floor.
For the next two weeks, it seemed the guy always wanted to sleep over at Valencia's place in Hayes Valley, which she initially didn't think was unusual. But as time passed, she started to suspect that her new love interest was intentionally keeping her out of his home.
It turned out he didn't have one. She was dating a homeless man.
He didn't sleep on the street or think he was a bird or anything, she explains. He would crash at the youth hostel where he worked part-time if a bed was available. Other times he would sleep on random people's couches. It reminded Valencia of the lyrics of the well-known Smiths song: “Driving in your car/I never, never want to go home/Because I haven't got one/Anymore.”
The hobo boyfriend thing certainly wasn't ideal for Valencia, but she liked the guy. He had a careless authenticity she admired, and she was willing to give it a shot.
“I continued to see him a couple more times,” she says. “Then he dumped me.”
Although Valencia has yet to meet anyone else who has been seduced and then dumped by a homeless man, the whole ordeal strikes her as “very San Francisco.”
What she means is that being a single, straight woman in this city can be an exercise in frustration and humiliation. All around the city, successful single women complain about not being able to find quality partners.
Although there's no hard data to prove it, anecdotal evidence abounds.
One possible explanation is that in San Francisco, men who aren't gay, married, or damaged by a previous owner are decidedly cagey when it comes to dating and relationships. “Men are more timid here to ask women out,” says Emily Morse, a local radio show host who regularly discusses sex and relationships. “They also seem to think dating just isn't cool.”
Since being dumped by the homeless guy, Valencia's dating life hasn't seen much improvement. Until recently, she had been keeping a stable of what she calls “Velveeta boyfriends” — guys she can hang around with, have dinner with, and even go on vacations with, but for one reason or another, they're just friends. Not the real thing. She is willing to try almost anything to change her luck.
Enter Jeremy Bonney, aka Soul. He's not a potential boyfriend, but a wily, 26-year-old British-Indian man who has made a career as a PUA (the commonly known abbreviation for a pickup artist), helping men to meet and date women. He was recently named the number eight PUA in the world by online magazine TSB, and had flown to San Francisco the week before Valentine's Day to coach a men's workshop titled “Day Game.” It's what it sounds like: a set of strategies to help men pick up women in a daytime setting. After developing those strategies by trial and error and teaching them for two years, Soul says he could basically run the workshop in his sleep. Now he's ready to try something more challenging that could expand his client base to include the other 50 percent of humanity: “Girl Game.”
Soul doesn't exactly have a curriculum developed, but he agreed to take Valencia and four other women out on a recent Wednesday for an experimental workshop. There would, of course, be challenges.
It was dubious that the tactics used by PUAs, many of which rely on aggressive pursuit, would simply transcend gender roles. That meant Soul would have to formulate different techniques for hitting on men, something with which he had no personal experience. Going in, he also had no idea what it was like to be a single woman in San Francisco.
“I've never had as much trouble finding people to date as I have here,” a woman wrote. It was the first response to an SF Weekly tweet calling for women fed up with the dating scene in San Francisco and willing to subject themselves to a pickup artist's workshop. “I moved to the city after a nasty breakup, expecting to casually date people,” she continued. “I couldn't even get laid at first.”
Plenty of other responses zoomed in, many including pointed complaints about male-female relations. “I've never seen so much dating down in my life,” a woman wrote, referring to how many couples she knows that seem to include a smart, attractive woman and an average, barely tolerable guy.
An e-mail from Jennifer Pattee arrived just minutes after the tweet went out. The blond, 38-year-old boot camp instructor isn't about to settle for just anybody. Based on how she says men often react to her when she travels elsewhere, she believes that at least part of the problem lies with San Francisco.
If Pattee still hasn't found a boyfriend by the end of this year, she intends to go on what she calls a “man tour” of the world, visiting all the places she knows lots of attractive men reside. “The fishing villages of Norway. Colorado. Alaska. Done and done,” she says. “Whatever it takes.”
Valencia has also had better luck in cities like Paris and Chicago, where she says men are forward about what they want. “They'll buy you drinks and talk to you,” she says. “They act like they're interested, and it's so refreshing.”
In San Francisco, though, women have to deal with a lot of ambiguity. “We don't even know what it is,” Valencia said of some men she has encountered around the city. “Is it gay? Is it straight? Is it a friend? Is it a foe? Is it looking for a job? Is it looking for a place to crash?”
Another contributing factor to the dating doldrums: “There's no pressure to grow up here,” she says. “The way I act now is pretty much the same way I acted when I was 24. It's culturally reinforced here. Nobody cares that you're in your late 30s and have roommates.”
There are certainly plenty of single residents between the ages of 20 and 40. Based on San Francisco's population of single people, Forbes magazine named it the second-best city in which to be single, behind Atlanta. That may be true for guys, but it's seemingly not the case for straight women.
“Cities like San Francisco where the gay population is twice the national average may pose a challenge for single women looking for mates, even though the data suggests otherwise,” says urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who created a map of single populations in cities across the country.
To find out whether the population of gay men and women would skew the numbers as Florida theorizes, SF Weekly took a look at the most recent census numbers. As of 2008, San Francisco had a total population of 808,976, including 93,820 single men and 83,840 single women aged 20 to 40.
Based on the best estimates by the Department of Public Health, there are around 65,000 gay men and about 27,000 lesbians living in San Francisco. Assuming that many of them are single (remember Proposition 8?), we calculated that 36 percent of single men in this city are gay and 18 percent of single women are lesbians.
After factoring in that information, there are 60,045 single heterosexual men and 68,749 single heterosexual women in the age range we examined. That would mean that in San Francisco, it's easier for men to play the field, while women have to compete harder and make compromises more frequently in their relationships with men.
Amy Brinkman, the S.F. franchise owner of the high-end match-up service It's Just Lunch, says she's heard from many female clients over the years that there aren't enough available hot men in the city. She doesn't buy that — she has plenty of male clients she considers desirable. But as someone who has lived in New York City, she has noticed that in San Francisco, men are not very bold in approaching women.
“Here, there are all these group get-togethers,” she says. “Men prefer to see women a few times before asking them out.” And, as in any other city full of young, ambitious people, San Franciscans seem less interested in settling down than in exploring their options. Of course, that can apply to the women as well.
Narrowing down the applicant pool for the pickup artist experiment would have been a difficult task — dozens of women replied to our tweet — but many quickly dropped out after they learned their photographs and names would be included in this story. Only the boldest women were willing to take part. They all had their reasons.
The Tipsy Pig crackled with activity on a recent Wednesday evening as an unlikely group of nine made its way to the outside patio of the Marina bar, where the relative quiet would allow them to learn the art of “sarging” men. (Sarging is the PUA term for approaching attractive strangers and running game on them.)
Pattee and Valencia were joined by three other women — Laura Stevenson, a 23-year-old barista; Janene Lin, a 25-year-old who works in advertising; and Anna Walters, a 23-year-old administrative assistant at a marketing firm.
Within minutes, the women had identified commonalities and bonded, making it somewhat difficult to quell various side conversations. But eventually Soul found an opening to introduce himself and his PUA sidekicks: Jesse “Starlight” Krieger, a store owner from the East Bay, and Aaron “Whim” Panasbodi, an Australian entrepreneur living in San Francisco.
Then came the disclaimer. “This is sort of breaking new ground for us,” Soul said. “We can't promise a hugely structured syllabus, and we won't necessarily be complete with everything we say … but we do have some notes for you.”
He then touched on many of the same points he does with his male students. Too many people believe love should be left to the fates, he said, which is “a bullshit notion.” He believes that naturally shy people — like himself — can be taught certain skills to manipulate the odds of success in their love lives. “Why should it be any different than finding a job?” he asked.
Lin was nodding. Having been in relationships all her adult life with men from her circle of friends who had pursued her, she wanted to try being the chooser rather than the chosen. She felt inexperienced at meeting strangers, having never sat at a bar, looked around, and said, “I want him.”
Sometimes, that can be an elusive experience for a woman, Pattee pointed out. “I'm kind of looking around this bar, and there's nobody I'd want to bone with,” she said. “Or flirt with. Or get with. … Maybe I'm being too critical.”
Valencia, who is active in the local art and design scenes, said she often meets men in whom she could be interested, but has trouble filtering them. “I get myself in the dirtbag ho cycle,” she said, a joking reference to promiscuous men. When she isn't wasting her time with those, she's playing mom to guys who are “superneedy and in my face” or just “fucked up.”
“If I wanted to be on Jerry Springer, I would have gone on Jerry Springer,” she said. “I don't need your circus.”
Stevenson's story is a bit different. She's from a small town near Seattle, and until she moved to San Francisco, she always knew everything about the people she was dating. Here, that's not the case, so sometimes after seeing a guy for a week or two, she realizes he irritates her. Other times, a man she likes will suddenly, inexplicably opt out. (Valencia refers to this as “fragging,” as in, “I was totally ready to frag him but he fragged me first.”)
Walters, as it happens, recently fragged a PUA dating coach. He picked her up at a wine bar several weeks ago, and it wasn't until they were on their first date that he mentioned his job. After she declined a second date, she found details of their interaction posted on the Internet. Still, she's intrigued by how pickup artistry works, and has even read Neil Straus' 2005 book, The Game (essentially a bible for PUAs). “I'm not going to knock it,” she said. “There's nothing wrong with using strategy to get to know someone you want to get to know. I'd just like to understand it a bit more and be on the in instead of the outside.”
That was Soul's cue to explain his plan for the women. The thrust of his advice was that they should forgo aggression, and instead create a “window of opportunity” for men to initiate a connection. This can be as simple as using eye contact, body language, or, if absolutely necessary, starting a “functional” conversation. For instance, “How was your week?”
The women were sort of miffed by this. Weren't they here to learn how to approach men? Why couldn't they show off their intelligence or sense of humor right away?
Soul changed gears, and asked the women how they usually initiated interactions. “You eye-fuck them,” Walters offered, and Soul asked her to describe how this works.
“You look intensely at them and try to catch their eye across the bar,” she said. “If they respond, you kinda go in.”
Soul approved. “Okay, eye-fuck Aaron,” he said.
“I don't think that's happening,” Walters said, and the circle of women roared.
Soul moved on to another way of opening a window of opportunity. Just standing near a guy can work, he said. Although he doesn't get hit on a lot, he admitted, when it does happen the woman has usually started some kind of “functional” conversation. “This isn't necessarily a woman I saw and said, 'I want that woman,'” he said. “But maybe she's pretty cute, and she's showed some interest. For a man, attraction does begin with physicality. But it doesn't end there.”
He encouraged us to try out some functional lines. “Do you have the time?” Or, “Hey, are you French?” (This is good, Soul says, because a man can jump and say, “Ah, oui!”)
The women were starting to catch on. And make jokes.
“How about, 'Do you have jumper cables?'” Pattee offered. “Can I have $10?” Stevenson deadpanned.
Bored with their material, the women demanded to know what lines Soul, Starlight, and Whim use. Tell the fun ones, they demanded.
After a brief hesitation, Whim admitted that when he's really feeling whimsical, he'll sometimes walk up and say, “I like salad.” Pause. “With croutons.” Pause. “But no anchovies.” He doesn't recommend this for anything other than self-amusement.
A better one, he said, is to approach and say, “I have a rule where I have to flirt with the most attractive woman in the bar.” He pauses for effect. “Can you introduce me to her?” (In PUA language, this is referred to as a “neg,” or a subtle and playful stab meant to suggest to a woman that a man may not be interested.)
“Can we neg men?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
Walters wanted to know whether she could use the line she had just come up with: “Hey, I'm being coached on how to pick up guys. How am I doing?”
“That's gonna make the guy really nervous,” Whim said.
“Is it making you nervous?” she asked.
“He's a professional,” Soul interjected.
Walters had in fact begun to notice that Whim's game expertise and Australian accent were kind of sexy. For now, though, she wanted to practice her lines. She jumped up, took off her coat, and pulled me with her on a wingwoman mission, targeting three guys in the back of the bar patio.
The men's conversation about finance trailed off as they peered up quizzically at Walters and me. “Tainted Love” came on the jukebox, which seemed totally appropriate, and she presented our line from Soul. “We were on our way out, but you guys look … interesting,” she said. “We just wanted to come say hello and introduce ourselves.”
Though a bit weirded out, the guys offered us seats, and even asked if we'd like beers.
That was easy.
The conversation meandered from North Face apparel to Mad Men to the Carolina-Duke basketball game, and finally the men asked us what we were doing that night. We said we were part of, um, a seminar. “We're learning how to pick up men,” Walters announced, seizing her opportunity. “How are we doing?”
Looking a little taken aback, the men said we'd done well, and that it was refreshing to have women come to them. But they weren't entirely impressed. “You focused a lot of your attention on him,” one said, indicating his friend. “It was a little aggressive.” Another awarded us a B-plus.
We left the Tipsy Pig without getting any numbers.
Starting with the publication of The Game, the seduction community grew into a full-blown pop-culture movement. PUA all-stars like “Mystery” (Erik Von Markovik), who starred in his own VH1 reality series, The Pick-Up Artist, started to attract a huge online following.
Gurus like Mystery and even rising stars like Soul routinely get recognized on the street (during the men's workshop in San Francisco, a random guy approached Soul and insisted on getting a picture taken next to him). Soul has built his reputation to the point where desperate, adoring men will fly across the world to attend his $1,500, eight-hour seminars.
Self-proclaimed female pickup artists or FPUAs, on the other hand, have largely operated under the radar. A few give advice online and offer tips on how to pick up men, but there is no FPUA community. In fact, many of the Web sites and forums dedicated to women picking up men, including Womenslair.Herforum and Natural Seductress, are seemingly inactive. The idea just doesn't stick.
The reasons for this may seem obvious. First — as the PUA coaches seem to have recognized — society tends to frown on aggressively forward behavior in women, and men are often turned off by it. For that reason alone, the average woman might not be inclined to sign up for a course on how to meet men, no matter how much dating trouble she may be having.
Of course, we weren't thinking about any of this on our way to the Hemlock Tavern, a Tenderloin bar and rock venue that seems perpetually filled with available men. The women agreed that after practicing on the “low-hanging fruit” at the Tipsy Pig, the Hemlock — a classic San Francisco hipster pick-up joint — should become stop two in our experiment.
As we entered the dark club, pretty much quadrupling the number of females inside, a few heads turned briefly in our direction. Stevenson went straight for the bar, where the male bartender chatted her up. The others broke into pairs and scouted out the scene: one attractive man surrounded by nearly all the other women in the bar. A few more men with mustaches stood around, looking aloof. And, finally, there were two men off in the corner. They were hot.
Soul beckoned to Stevenson and Pattee and prepped them on how to approach. They should be casual. Smile a lot. Flip hair if necessary.
They slowly made their way toward the men, stopping every few steps to whisper something about strategy. They didn't want to blow this opportunity. But when the women got within about five feet of the men, they abruptly turned and hustled back to the group.
“Gay,” Pattee explained.
“How do you know?” Soul asked.
“We just know,” Stevenson said. In fact, the men were practically sitting in each other's laps.
It was Lin's turn. She was ready to do something she never had before: approach men at a bar, and hit on them.
There was resolve in her graceful step as she approached not one, but three men sitting in a semicircle, and introduced herself with a big smile. The men immediately swallowed her up and placed her on a stool. She held their attention for the next 20 minutes, and each took her phone number. Although she was impressed that one was a professional videogame designer, she said they weren't really her type.
The other women were mulling around the bar, marveling over how a novice had held down three men at once. There weren't really many options for them. A shaggy-haired creep here. A seemingly foreign guy there.
Finally, Walters and her roommate, who had come as backup, decided that the attractive men at the back, gay or not, were the most worthy of an approach. They walked up, introduced themselves, and had a friendly 10-minute conversation about the wonder that is Tila Tequila. At one point, Starlight wandered up to see for himself whether these guys were gay. He still wasn't convinced.
“He's jammin' the clam,” Stevenson joked, using the female version of “cockblock.”
Upon his return, Starlight conceded. “It definitely would have worked if they were straight,” he said brightly.
Maybe it was because we were out on a Wednesday. Maybe we had chosen the wrong bar. But that particular scenario — having just a couple of attractive men to fight over, finding out they're gay, then hitting on them anyway — seemed a perfect representation of what it's like for a single woman in San Francisco.
Standing by herself, Valencia didn't feel much like sarging any men. It's just not something she does. She didn't believe that any of the methods Soul and his sidekicks were explaining were relevant to her or the kind of men she was normally interested in.
“I don't think they're very helpful,” she said. “I think they could use us coaching them. … These guys are what, 23?” She was doubtful that someone with so little life experience could explain much to a woman about how to handle a man. She had been married before. “It sucked, you know,” she said. “It was just the wrong guy.”
Valencia said her mother has a theory about men. “A good guy is like a good bra,” she used to say. “He should uplift and make you look beautiful. He should fit really well. He should flatter you and never poke you in the wrong place or make you uncomfortable.”
Hearing this, Stevenson took out a pad and pen, and for the first and only time that evening, she wrote down the advice.
Whatever the women thought of Soul, by the end of the night he had come to understand San Francisco from their perspective. “There weren't that many good-looking or interesting dudes,” he said.
For their part, some of the women didn't make things easy on him, either. They weren't as receptive to instruction as he would have liked, but he said he could understand why. They hadn't paid $1,500 or flown across the world for his class like the men who typically soak up Soul's wisdom in reverent silence. The women, on the other hand, seemed to take pleasure in contradicting him.
Soul also noticed that women have different areas of need. They are naturally more social, he says, and they know how to have conversations. He recognizes now that with women, the focus should be on selecting, filtering, and “learning to get the coolest guy in the room.”
“Also, women need a bit more coaching on the date management,” he said. That could require weekly or monthly meet-ups for a dissection of dating possibilities, rather than just a single session on approaches. He admitted that an experienced woman would probably make an ideal coach of such a class, and that he would be on the lookout for talent.
All that said, the night's coaching session did involve some degree of success. After leaving the Hemlock, the group wandered into Rye, a candlelit, upscale lounge where plenty of men were drinking and cavorting. Within minutes, it seemed every woman had used a functional line to score a talking partner.
Lin, aglow with the knowledge that she had hit on men for the first time, confidently spoke with several more. Pattee later e-mailed the group to say that she had successfully sarged two guys, one of whom asked to hang out again.
There were also promising scenarios that ended with disappointment. Stevenson met a man at Rye, and they ended up talking for the rest of the night. He took her number, but never called.
The coaches eventually forced Valencia to approach a long-haired man she was drawn to. She said hello, and quickly decided he wasn't her type. “He didn't have to say much,” she explained. On a bit of a roll, she then introduced herself to another guy, whom she spoke with for a good half-hour. He asked for her number and e-mail address, and even wrote her a few days later, but she said the e-mail felt noncommittal and nonactionable. She got the feeling he might be looking for a work connection.
“Here in San Francisco, people are so unclear about what they want,” she says. “I never got back to him.”
The results from the informal experiment were almost perfectly aligned with what single women say about San Francisco. In some cases, the women had no real interest. In others, the men failed to follow up, or did so in unacceptable ways. “Failure to launch” is what Valencia calls it. There was, however, one gratifying exception.
For the entire evening, Walters had refused to abandon her natural aggression, and contrary to everything the coaches tried to instill, in the end she became the night's greatest success.
Upon entering Rye, she scanned the room and quickly decided that the most attractive man there, by far, was coach Whim. She stood close to him by the side wall, and made easy conversation about the night's events, how each woman fared, and pickup strategies in general.
“So, how am I doing?” she asked, defying her instructions one last time. Whim smiled, and they left the bar holding hands.