Can the World’s Most Famous Pickup Artist Survive a Stint in Sex Rehab?
With his international best-seller “The Game”, Neil Strauss brought the mysterious art of no-fail seduction to the masses — and became the movement’s top practitioner. Then he fell in love.
I am not the hero of this tale. I am the villain. When I look back on my teenage years, I see a malnourished nerd wearing cheap black-rimmed plastic glasses too big for my little face yet too small for my gigantic ears. And I see brown hair chopped awkwardly short—at my request. I hated my curls.
Everyone else had straight hair, and I wanted to fit in.
My losing ways continued not just through high school—where my prom date left the dance with another guy—but through college and my twenties. I eventually got a job touring with rock bands as a music journalist, yet even with an all-access backstage pass dangling around my neck, the adventures happened to everyone else.
But one day, everything changed: I embedded myself in an underground community of pickup artists, hoping to turn my losing streak around. Soon I found myself traveling around the world with them, meeting women in bars, clubs, cafés, and streets. I became obsessed with making up for all the fun and adventure I’d missed out on. “The Game,” the book I wrote about my education at the hands of these unlikely lotharios, became so infamous that it eclipsed everything I’d done before.
Then I found I couldn’t turn it off. Even after I finally snapped out of it, found a girlfriend, and shut the door behind me, I still couldn’t stop. “The Game” was like a disease. Quite possibly an addiction.
So it is with equal parts frustration, remorse, and irony that, five years later, I find myself standing in the parking lot of a Level 1 psychiatric hospital*, preparing to check in and unlearn everything I’ve spent so much time and energy learning.
There are people in this hospital who will die without the intervention. They’re going to drink or snort or inject themselves to death. Next to them I feel like an impostor. Because I am here for a very different reason: I cheated on my girlfriend.
I told you I was the villain.
A hairy man in green nurse scrubs takes my luggage, stretches a pair of latex gloves over his hammy fists, and starts searching for contraband.
“We don’t allow books here.”
The only other place I’ve been where books are confiscated is North Korea. Taking away books is a tactic of dictators. Even in prison, inmates can have books.
But this is my punishment, I tell myself. I’m here to be retrained, to learn how to be a decent human being. I’ve hurt people. I deserve to be in this hospital, this prison, this asylum, this convalescent home for weak men and women who can’t say no.
After he also confiscates my razor and nail clippers, a green-smocked nurse—rail-thin and sinewy, with sun-damaged skin—leads me to a private room and wraps a blood pressure cuff around my arm.
“We need to take your vitals four times a day for the next three days,” she says. Her eyes are dull, the words mechanical.
“Why is that?”
“We get people withdrawing and we want to make sure they’re going to be OK,” she explains. She lets me know my blood pressure is high.
Of course it’s high, I want to say. You’re taking away all my shit and treating me like I’m about to die from lack of sex.
But I stay quiet. And I submit. Like a good cheater.
She gives me a pager I’m told to wear at all times. Then she thrusts one form after another in front of me. Patients’ rights, liability, a pledge not to commit suicide—and the rules. More damn rules. One paragraph forbids me from having sex with any patient, nurse, or staff member. The next says that patients may not wear bikinis, tank tops, or shorts—and must wear bras at all times.
“So I have to put on a bra?” I joke.
“It’s kind of silly,” the nurse concedes, “but we have sex addicts in here.” The words leave her mouth with scorn and fear, as if these sex addicts are not normal patients but creepy predators to beware of.
She moves on to the next form. “What are you here for?”
It sounds lame. I’m in a mental hospital because I couldn’t say no to new sex partners. So I add: “And to improve my relationship.”
There comes a time in a man’s life when he looks around and realizes he’s made a mess of everything. He’s dug a hole for himself so deep that he doesn’t even know which way is up anymore. And that hole for me has always been relationships. When I’m single, I want to be in a relationship. When I’m in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don’t know what I want anymore. You go through this cycle a few times, and one day you realize that, at this rate, you’re going to grow old alone: no wife, no kids, no family. You’ll die and it will be weeks before the smell gets strong enough that someone finds you.
The nurse looks up to face me. It is the first time she’s made eye contact. I see something soften. I’m no longer an addict or a pervert. I’ve said the magic R-word: relationship.
Her lips part and moisten; her whole demeanor is different now. She actually wants to help me. “The first step,” she says, “is finding someone to date who’s healthy.”
I think of Ingrid, whose heart I broke, whose friends want to kill me, who never did anything wrong but love me.
“I found that person,” I say with a sigh. “That’s what made me realize it’s just me.” She hands me a red badge with a long piece of white string looped through it. “You’re in red two,” she says. “You’re required to wear your badge at all times.”
“What does red two mean?”
“The tags are color-coded. Red is for sex addicts. And the red two group is in therapy with”—she pauses and flashes a brief, uncomfortable smile—“Gail.”
I can’t tell whether it’s fear or pity in her expression, but for some reason the name fills me with a crawling dread.
“These are the ways in which my sexual addiction has hurt my life,” the man begins. He is skinny and blond, with a sweet, boyish face, ruddy cheeks, and the beginnings of an oddly incongruous potbelly. His red name tag identifies him as Calvin.
I’m in a group therapy room, and there are 10 chairs pushed against the side and back walls, each filled with a broken man. Against the front wall is a rolling chair, a desk, and a file cabinet filled with the sins of countless sex addicts.
Sitting in that chair is a tall woman with a pear-shaped body and a tight bun of unwashed brown hair. She’s wearing a loose-fitting flowered top over brown slacks and flat shoes. The edges of her lips are pulled slightly downward. She looks the group over, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. Whatever the opposite of sex is, she embodies it.
This is Gail.
“I lost my house and my brother,” Calvin continues. “I booked a trip around the world with him and snuck away to see escorts in almost every city. I’ve spent a total of $125,000 over the course of my life on escorts.”
“Are you counting everything you’ve spent?”
“I think so.” He braces himself as if he’s about to be attacked.
“Did you include your Internet bill?”
“Do you use the Internet to find escorts?”
“Then include your Internet bill. And your phone bill, if you called any of these women whose bodies you masturbated with. Include the money you spent on taxis to see these women and the money you spent on condoms and the entire cost of any trip where you saw them.”
“OK, then, maybe it’s $250,000?”
A quarter of a million dollars is still not enough for Gail. As she pushes him to add up every penny even peripherally involved in the pursuit of sex, I think about how I’ve made my living off my so-called sex addiction, writing books about players, porn stars, and decadent rockers. My sex addiction pays for my phone, rent, and health insurance. It pays for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; for movies, books, and the computer I’m writing on; for socks, underwear, and shoes. I couldn’t even afford to be here getting treatment without it.
Meanwhile, Calvin is done. His head rolls down and he covers his eyes with his palms as the tears spill out. Victorious, Gail takes a verbal lap around the room, asking patients to report on what their sexual addiction has cost them, breaking down their defenses, stripping them of the last vestige of ego and pride they’ve retained from any affair or adventure or transaction.
Except for Calvin, who’s never had a serious girlfriend and is here because he got a Brazilian hooker pregnant, every other sinner was caught cheating. And so they come here, trying to work off the sins of the flesh and hoping a miracle can save the family that is both their greatest achievement and their greatest burden.
I’m here not just because I cheated: I’m here as a preemptive strike against having a marriage like theirs. Either I’ll learn to have a committed, intimate relationship with Ingrid or give up and say, “Fuck it, this is my nature,” and avoid monogamous relationships altogether.
When we break for lunch, Gail stops me as I try to leave the room. “You need to sign some paperwork,” she informs me, without making eye contact. She turns to her computer and calls up a document. The bold print on the screen freezes my heart:
She reads it sternly:
I will refrain from the following:
Implicit or explicit pornographic material
Flirtatious, seductive, romantic, or suggestive comments or behavior
Sexually overt or covert contact with another person or myself
Secretive sexual fantasizing: I will report objectifying, fantasizing, or obsessing to appropriate staff members
“This contract is effective for 12 weeks,” she informs me.
“But I’m only supposed to be here for four weeks.”
She fixes her eyes on mine: They are brown and glassy, with as much empathy as a snail shell.
“It takes three months for your brain to return to normal after all the damage caused by the high of sex!”
“So I can’t even have sex when I leave?”
“Not if you want to recover.”
I sign the contract. Like a good cheater.
As i walk through a drab hallway to the cafeteria, I feel a pain in my groin, a psychologically induced ache. I’ve sold my soul to Gail and turned my dick into an appendage, doomed to dangle desolately between my legs, waiting for an occasional piss.
I join Charles, a sad but dignified-looking sexaholic with Bill Clinton hair, in the food line. “Let me ask you,” I say, giving him a nudge. “Do you think it’s male nature that makes us want to sleep with other people, or is it really an addiction?”
“It’s definitely an addiction,” Charles says authoritatively. “And the day I finally admitted I was powerless over it was the happiest day of my life. After that, if I was attracted to a beautiful woman on the street, I knew it wasn’t my fault. I just looked away and said, ‘This is a disease and I’m powerless over it.’ ”
At a table near the caffeine-free coffeemaker—they don’t allow sugar or caffeine here—I spot a woman with a red tag. She’s the first female sex addict I’ve seen. So of course I sit next to her.
She’s a tall, attractive, dark-haired businesswoman in her late thirties. Her name, according to her tag, is Naomi.
Charles refuses to sit with us. “We signed a contract,” he admonishes me. “We’re not supposed to talk to female patients.”
“Says who? That’s not even in the contract.”
“You’re threatening my sobriety,” he warns.
Naomi laughs as Charles walks off. As we eat, I ask Naomi about her story. She says she cheated on her husband 17 times. “I remember the first time I slept with someone else. I got my first client at work and my boss took me out to congratulate me. We started drinking, and he leaned over and made out with me. That acceptance was a big high. My head was spinning. I’ve cheated since then, looking for that same high, and it’s always the same situation: wanting acceptance from powerful men.”
The thought occurs to me before I can stop it: This is a great place to meet women. Naomi is divulging the exact strategy to seduce her.
Shit, now I definitely broke the contract. Maybe Charles was right.
I need to follow the rules here without questioning them.
As I walk along the path to the dorms after the meal, another patient in my group spots me and motions me over surreptitiously.
“Your last name is Strauss, right?” he asks when I join him on the lawn. He’s thin and laid-back, with thick dark hair and black designer sunglasses. His name tag reads troy. He’s a certified sex addiction therapist who cheated on his wife with an import model he found on a Web site for women seeking sugar daddies. “I read your book.”
“Do me a favor: Don’t tell anyone who I am,” I plead. “It’s just too ironic: The guy who wrote the book on picking up women is being treated for sex addiction.”
“So why are you here, man? I thought you’d be out living the life.”
“I was. But at some point I want to be in a healthy relationship and be a dad, so I have to learn how to shut it off.”
“I’ll tell you something,” Troy whispers conspiratorially. “As a sex therapist, I’ve heard every story out there. And after 15 years in this job, I don’t know if I believe in monogamy.”
I clap him on the back and breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve found either an ally in truth here or a partner in crime.
I’ve been sitting in this room with Gail for three straight days now and I’ve barely spoken a word or learned a thing. Today, Calvin is in trouble for fantasizing about a female in-patient.
“Go ahead, Calvin,” Gail says icily, “tell us all how you pornified Carrie.”
“I don’t know. I just noticed that she had riding boots on, and she was talking about how she liked horses, and I do, too. So I was fantasizing about riding away on a horse with her and getting married.”
I always thought that sex addicts fantasized about deviance, not, like, finding a woman who shares their interests and getting happily married.
When I tune back in to the room, Charles and Troy are bickering about pronouns. Gail asks them to sit in chairs opposite each other and talk using the “communication boundary.” She holds up a big poster board reading:
When I saw/heard ________.
The story I told myself about that was ___________.
And I feel ____________.
So I would like to request that _________.
Charles tries it: “When I heard you say that ‘we’re not monogamous by design,’ the story I told myself about that was that it’s not true for me. I’m here to get better. And I feel angry. So I would like to request that in the future, you use I to refer to yourself instead of we.”
Language is a big deal here. The day before, Troy was discussing a girl he had an affair with, and Gail spent 15 minutes lecturing him on the use of the G-word. “As a therapist, when I hear the word girl, I have to automatically assume that you’re talking about a minor. And I’m obliged to report that.”
“I’m a sex addiction therapist also,” Troy replied. “I’ve been practicing for 15 years. And I have never heard that interpretation of the word girl before in my life.”
Gail raised her head, like a cobra ready to strike: “If you use that word again, I will report you. And you won’t make it to your 16th year as a CSAT.”
Troy shut up.
Now I look around the room in frustration: This has been a complete waste of time so far. No one’s problems are being dealt with. They’re going to leave rehab the same as they walked in, just with more guilt and an awkward way of communicating. I can’t take it anymore.
My voice cracks: “How is this helpful to us?”
“The way that we’re communicating in here is how people should be communicating with their spouses,” Gail responds coolly.
“And that’s going to stop them from sleeping with other women?”
It’s a serious question, but everyone laughs. Gail’s face trembles for a moment, as if she’s nervous that she’s about to lose control of the room. Then she regains her composure and answers, “You learn to love yourselves by learning to be relational, in the moment, with each other.”
“And that’s going to stop us from cheating?”
“What I’m saying is that if you have true intimacy with your partner, you won’t need to seek sex outside the relationship.”
In the hallway after the session, Troy and my roommate, Adam—a God-fearing, patriotic American man clipped right out of a 1950s aftershave ad—are waiting for me. “Hey, man, I like the way you stood up to Gail,” Troy says under his breath. “We all have those questions, you know, and it’s cool you’re asking them.”
“Don’t give in to her,” he encourages me. “She’s going to try to break you. But you have to stand up for us.”
“Why don’t you guys just speak up for yourselves?”
“You know, we just want to make it through to the end of the program.” They exchange glances. “Gail, she doesn’t forget. And when our wives come for family week, we don’t want her making things any more difficult for us, if you know what I mean.”
I’ve heard other guys here mention family week like it’s the equivalent of an IRS audit, so I ask them about it. During the third week here, they explain, parents and wives visit so your therapist can help heal your entire family system. For sex addicts, the process includes something called disclosure, which requires coming clean with a partner about past affairs and transgressions. Ideally, once these wounds heal, the couple can build a new relationship from a place of truth and intimacy. With a therapist who’s not tactful, though, or one who has an agenda, disclosure can quickly turn into disaster—and the next time the addict sees his wife will be in court.
“One of the other therapists tells me that the male sex addicts have been talking to a female sex addict,” Gail says as our afternoon session with her begins. “I told her that it couldn’t have been my guys. But then”—she raises her eyebrows in feigned shock—“I was told by a member of this group yesterday exactly what happened and who was responsible.”
I flash Charles a dirty look and feel Gail’s glare heating my face.
“As a consequence of your behavior,” Gail continues, “I’m going to have to take more extreme measures with all of you.”
She holds up several slips of paper bearing the words males only. “I’m requiring all of you to wear this, displayed prominently at all times. From this moment, you are not allowed to even say hi to a woman.”
“What about you?” Charles asks. “You’re a woman. Are we allowed to talk to you?”
And that’s the last straw for me. I’m not like Charles. I can’t just blindly obey. The method needs to make sense to me. So far, this program is as effective at teaching monogamy as prisons are at teaching morality.
“Is the underlying principle of all this the idea that if we have true intimacy in our relationship, we won’t seek outside sex?” I ask Gail, repeating her words from earlier.
“Yes,” she says, with satisfaction that I finally appear to be getting it.
“I have this thing that’s been going through my head all day. Is it all right if I ask it?”
“Please.” The word drips with disdain.
“Can I use the blackboard?” I don’t know another way to explain it.
Her back stiffens. She senses something unpredictable may happen. She shoots me a stern look, trying to melt my resolve.
I write her words on the board: IF TRUE INTIMACY, THEN NO OUTSIDE SEX.
“That’s your theory,” I say. “Boil it down to the basic idea, and what you get is this…”
IF TRUE X, THEN NO OUTSIDE Y.
“And the problem is, this equation just isn’t true.” In school, I never thought I’d actually have to use algebra in real life. I was wrong. “Let’s say that your wife is the best cook in the world. Then according to what you’re saying, you’ll never want to eat anywhere else. But that’s just not true. Sometimes you want to go to a restaurant.”
Gail is quiet, rattling me with her lack of reaction. The guys are watching intently. Calvin is on the edge of his seat. Troy has a big smile on his face. Charles’ brow is deeply furrowed. “So let’s go back to your original premise: ‘If true intimacy, then no outside intimacy.’ But you seek intimacy with your family and your friends, right?”
The guys are staring openmouthed now, big dopey grins on their faces—except for Charles, who’s looking at Gail imploringly. I must be interfering with his recovery again.
“People are under the logical fallacy that when their partner wants sex outside the relationship, it’s harmful to their intimacy together,” I conclude. “Perhaps instead of retraining us to accept a relationship on our partners’ terms, we could just as easily retrain them to accept the relationship on our terms.”
The room is completely silent. It’s like a chess match. Everyone’s wondering if it’s checkmate.
“I think you’re intellectualizing to be able to control the overall addiction,” Gail says as I return to my seat.
That’s all she’s got? To tell me to stop using my brain? “That’s what dictators like Pol Pot and Hitler and Stalin say. They burn books and kill intellectuals so no one can question them.”
I don’t mean to sound so confrontational. “So help me,” I add, beseechingly. “I want to be wrong. I want to recover. But I need to reconcile this contradiction. What you’re teaching us needs to actually make sense.”
“This is your addict fighting against recovery and not letting go,” she says sharply. She looks at the clock and rises. “You’re all late for dinner.”
She walks to the desk and starts gathering papers, holding her head high as if she’s prevailed. Yet everyone, possibly even Charles, is aware that she not only failed to defend her thesis but quite possibly couldn’t.
At dinner we all sit together, the demons of the round table. We are bonded now in brotherhood, in celibacy, in shame, in sickness, in punishment, in victory, and by the fact that we’re all wearing signs that read males only around our necks. If the guys could carry me on their shoulders, they would. I am their white knight, their sacrificial lamb, their dick in shining latex.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about how Gail made me add up all the money I spent,” Calvin says.
“Most was worth it. I was with a porn star from Serbia once. She was a 10. Cost $1,000—and she worked me over. It was the best experience of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” He pauses and reflects. “I’ve probably wasted more money on bad food.”
Troy flashes a big grin. “We’re guys. We like sex. Everywhere you turn, you’re shown pictures of gorgeous women who look like they want to cater to your every desire. And then what? If you think about sleeping with them, suddenly you’re sick and unhealthy?”
Suddenly Charles slaps the table, as if trying to snap us out of a trance. “This is your disease talking right now, guys. Don’t trust your thoughts. Your addiction will say anything so it can keep controlling you.”
“I’ll tell you honestly,” Adam says. “I like sex that’s exciting and sometimes a little rough. But my wife, she just lies there, like once every three months, and basically lets me have sex with her.”
A vision forms in my head. I grab a pen and sketch it for the guys:
THE MALE DILEMMA
1. Sex is great.
2. Relationships are great.
3. Relationships grow over time.
4. The sex gets old over time.
5. So does she.
6. Thus the problem.
It’s a horrible thing to write or even think. No one could ever say this in regular society. They’d be destroyed for it. But it seems to be the reason most of these middle-aged guys are here.
Charles jumps out of his seat and announces, “This is not good for my recovery.” He walks away, looking for another table without women.
The counselor supervising a table for patients with eating disorders turns and scowls, so we whisper. We’re rehab insurgents plotting a revolution.
“Wanting variety is natural,” Troy says quietly as the guys lean in. “Look at porn: Guys don’t watch the same girl every time.”
“You know who the best girlfriend would be?” Calvin interjects, his eyes lit up. “That mutant from X-Men who can turn into anyone she wants. I’d never get bored with her! You could have sex with Megan Fox one night and Hillary Clinton the next.”
“Hillary Clinton?!” Troy asks for all of us.
“Why not?” Calvin says. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it.”
None of us has.
She is too pure for this place. She stands in the nurses’ area, wearing a fitted plaid button-down shirt that’s open to reveal a triangle of flawless skin, and black jeans that stop just above her high heels. No one wears high heels in here. It’s not healthy for the fragile libidos.
She stiffens as she sees me and everything comes up at once in her face—the love, the hate, the desire, the fear, the hope, the hurt—and pushes through the scab covering it all.
The words Oh, my God escape from her mouth. Then the tears roll. When we hug, it’s like she’s dissolving into me. A sense of unworthiness sweeps over me. Here I am, lusting after female sex addicts and arguing against monogamy, while she’s come all this way with so much hope that I’ve changed. “What are you thinking about?” Ingrid asks.
“I’m just happy you’re here.”
We walk to the cafeteria to eat. “Miss, you’re going to have to button your shirt higher,” the dining-hall counselor and anorexic-feeder barks when he sees her, as if the sex addicts are going to break into spontaneous public masturbation when they see that extra inch of cleavage.
We grab plates of flavorless chicken parts over soapy rice and walk to the sex addict table. Troy claps me on the back and says, idiotically, “You didn’t tell us how hot she was.” Maybe that counselor was right after all.
Ingrid asks each guy in the group about his story. She then tells them her family’s story: Her grandfather cheated on her grandmother, her father cheated on her mother, and now she ends up with a cheater herself.
“Maybe that’s the female dilemma,” Troy interrupts. “A woman marries someone who’s giving her love and romance, but over time she gets taken for granted or turned into a domestic robot or becomes a baby factory or gets cheated on. Then her husband has the nerve to complain that she’s not sexual or attractive when he’s drained all the life out of her.”
After dinner, the anorexic-feeder curtly tells Ingrid that visiting hours are over. As we head back to reception, a patient who’s here for post-traumatic stress disorder falls into step with us. As we talk, he slowly becomes aware of Ingrid’s presence and asks if she’s my girlfriend.
I turn toward Ingrid and our eyes search each other’s for an answer. “Yes,” she tells him. “I am.”
Waves of relief flow through me. I’m done fantasizing about women here and non-monogamous decadence outside. I’ve been given a second chance to not perpetuate the multigenerational pattern of cheating men and the women who love them. The sins of the parents are the destinies of their children—unless the children wake up and do something about it.
“Thank you for believing in me,” I tell her.
After she leaves, I sit on a bench and tears come to my eyes. Ingrid seems to love me unconditionally, but I fear that I love her conditionally. I look at her sometimes and wonder if I’ll still be able to make love to her when she’s fat and wrinkly. I pick apart her features, looking for imperfections. Of course, I have plenty of my own: I’m short, bald, bony, and big-nosed, with huge greasy pores. I’m lucky to be with her again. Still, I wonder: Am I even capable of love? I can’t tell whether my tears are for the beauty of her love or the tragedy of my own failure to feel worthy of it. ■
Photos by Photographed by Edwin Tse