Why Pickup Artists Are Reading Ovid

The “Red Pill” community online frequently appropriates ancient classic literature as justification for their beliefs.

A portrait of the Roman poet Ovid.
Design Pics / Getty

In 2013, the pickup-artist blog Chateau Heartiste—a resource for the sexually frustrated heterosexual man looking to learn how to seduce women—published a list of “Recommended Great Books For Aspiring Womanizers.” Compiled by the site’s main author, known online as Roissy, the list kicked off with the ancient seduction manual Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love, written in A.D. 2 by the Roman poet Ovid.

Ovid is considered by some within pickup-artist circles to be a founding father of pickup artistry; the famed pickup artist Neil Strauss also names Ovid in his 2005 memoir The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists as a towering figure in the art of woman seducing. The Ars Amatoria instructs readers that they don’t need to be exceptionally handsome to be successful with women, but being well groomed, wearing clothes that fit, and generally behaving in charming ways can be helpful; it also contains passages that would seem to endorse ignoring women’s subtle hints that they don’t want to be approached and kissing and touching women without an invitation (even when they’re resisting). It also instructs the man who’s been rebuffed to “press on and eventually you’ll get what you want,” and perhaps most troubling to scholars—and held most dear by some pickup artists—is Ovid’s quip that “what [women] like to give, they love to be robbed of.”

This kind of thing doesn’t sit well with Donna Zuckerberg, who got her doctorate in classics at Princeton and is the founder and editor in chief of Eidolon, an online classics magazine; for one thing, it’s an oversimplified reading of Ovid, and for another, that oversimplified reading of Ovid is being used as inspiration for frequently unethical behavior toward women. As Zuckerberg argues, Ovid’s didactic writings on seduction were likely meant to be read as parodies of the didactic poetry genre, which more often instructed readers on less frivolous topics like agriculture or ethics, and not as actual instruction manuals.

But it’s not just pickup artists who appropriate the great texts of classical literature to justify their own beliefs. Zuckerberg (the younger sister of the Facebook CEO Mark) characterizes the “Red Pill” online community as the corner of the internet dominated by men’s-rights activists, the alt-right, pickup artists, and the sex-eschewing communities known as Men Going Their Own Way. According to Zuckerberg, virtually all these subgroups appropriate classical literature for their own purposes.

Zuckerberg first began spending time in Red Pill communities online when she noticed a 2015 Eidolon article titled “Why Is Stoicism Having a Cultural Moment?” getting unusually heavy traffic after it was posted on Reddit. “As I scrolled down the comment thread, something caught my eye: a comment attributing Stoicism’s resurgent popularity to the Red Pill community,” she wrote in a blog post this week. After that, she spent the next few years getting intensely familiar with the Red Pill community, and her book Not All Dead White Men, an exploration of this appropriation phenomenon and why sometimes these texts don’t quite mean what the appropriators think they mean, is out this week.

I spoke with Zuckerberg  about the rise of the Red Pill community, the long-held fear of false rape accusations, and pickup artists’ oversimplified understanding of Ovid. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Fetters: How did you first stumble across this whole phenomenon—men in the Red Pill sections of the internet appropriating the classics for their own purposes?

Donna Zuckerberg: The first time I discovered it was actually in The Atlantic! It was an interview with Neil Strauss, when his follow-up to The Game came out—The Truth. The interviewer asked him something like, did he still stand by the seduction advice that was in The Game, if not the mind-set behind it? He said he thought the advice that he gave was still essentially sound, and then he said what works has always been the same, from Ovid to the present day.

I had already been thinking about Ovid and pickup artists, but from a comparative perspective: How did these two similar-looking things compare to each other across the ages? And that was my first glimpse into the fact that pickup artists might actually be reading Ovid and thinking about what Ovid meant to them.

Fetters: As a classicist, how did you feel discovering these guys were reading Ovid in that way?

Zuckerberg: It was such a disturbing stew of feelings. On the one hand, I already felt on some level like the Ars Amatoria was a pretty disturbing text. So seeing people with ideas that I found disturbing reading it, that part wasn’t really a surprise. But some of the texts that they were interested in [in other subsections of the Red Pill community], I had a feeling of grief. Like, am I ever going to be able to just enjoy reading this text again, knowing how much white supremacists love to talk about it?

Fetters: What were the other texts or authors that you felt that kind of grief over, after seeing that they were popular on Red Pill sites?

Zuckerberg: Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I’ve seen it used so many times by Red Pill men that now whenever I hear somebody quote Meditations, I feel a slight thrill of apprehension: Is this person secretly a Red Pill person? Which is sad, because it’s a fantastic text, really a model of healthy introspection in a lot of ways.

Fetters: One thing I was shocked to learn from the book was how pickup artists claim Ovid as one of their own, as this prototypical pickup artist. That’s … something of a mischaracterization of Ovid, right?

Zuckerberg: Yeah. The most obvious differences between Ovid and pickup artists have to do with the social position of the reader and the social position of the putative “target.” The audience of a pickup-artist manual is pretty well understood within the community: awkward guys who are completely lacking in confidence when it comes to how to interact with the other sex and who need a set of protocols to follow. That person already feels marginalized by society; they already feel that there are a lot of people who just seem to know this stuff automatically, and that there are people who might be more attractive than they are, or more professionally successful or whatever, who will have an easier time picking up women. And they might have some resentment toward those people.

I don’t think that that was an audience that Ovid was writing for. Ovid is writing for a sophisticated literary audience, and a very elite audience. Extremely educated, probably extremely wealthy—books in that time were somewhat difficult to come by. They were possibly  reading the text at face value as a seduction manual, but also reading it as a literary text that is participating in several different genres at the same time. The Ars Amatoria is sort of mocking the form of didactic poetry, and there are also a lot of tropes from comedy in there. The young man who’s hopelessly in love with a meretrix, or an expensive sex worker—that trope is common in Roman comedy. There are places in the text where it almost seems like he’s writing a manual on how to be this kind of sitcom character. So it’s extremely literary in that way, and I don’t think you see pickup-artist texts working on all those levels in the same way. There’s an underlying sense in pickup-artist manuals that they are validating the reader’s fear that he is being sidelined in our society. Ovid’s text does the opposite: It assumes the reader is, if not on top of the world, very close to it.

And one of the fundamental assumptions of most pickup-artist texts is that the woman who you are attracted to has a lot of power over you, by virtue of that attraction. I think that the power dynamic in Ovid is a little different, because I don’t think that there’s ever any question in the reader’s mind that he is ultimately more powerful than the woman. [In Ovid’s time], he is the one with all of the social capital, and her financial well-being ultimately depends upon her desirability to men.

Fetters: You have a chapter on certain Red Pill groups’ fixation on false rape allegations and the pervasive belief, in that sphere, that women knowingly make false rape allegations quite often. I read it during the Kavanaugh hearing, and it felt really relevant.

Zuckerberg: That chapter was the hardest to write in a lot of ways; it’s just become more and more relevant over the past few years in a way that has been really disheartening. It’s so easy for patriarchy to wield this idea—that women make false rape accusations to ruin men—as a way of insinuating that women are too powerful. That the balance of power in society has tipped in women’s favor, that #MeToo has gone too far.

In reality, you see these fears about false allegations happening in societies that almost could not be more patriarchal. In classical Athens [as depicted in Greek historical myths like the Hippolytus myth, which involves a false rape allegation made by the female character Phaedra], women really had no legal existence; they were supposed to be neither seen nor heard in public, ideally. If that was the ideal woman in their society, and these men were still afraid that false rape allegations are going to ruin their lives, then it can’t be really about fear that women are too powerful. Even though that’s sort of how they always get framed.