Interviews

What Happens When a Feminist Artist Interviews a Pickup Artist

Installation view of Angela Washko's solo exhibition 'A Monopoly on Truth' at San Diego Art Institute (all images courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Angela Washko’s solo exhibition ‘A Monopoly on Truth’ at San Diego Art Institute (all images courtesy the artist)

Tired of the one-sided and often misogynistic narrative of the pickup artist (PUA), visual artist Angela Washko wanted to provide a more complex understanding of PUAs by recasting their stories from women’s perspectives. Washko chose to focus on prolific PUA Roosh V after reading his book BANG. Roosh blogs and has written a series of books outlining tactics for seducing women in different countries, and he stands out among other PUAs as especially anti-feminist and anti-“progressive” women. Rather than rehash the two dominant narratives — that PUAs are sinister, misogynistic swindlers who prey on women or that it’s all fun and games and women are easily manipulated and clueless — Washko wanted to complicate them.

With the help of an Internet Art Microgrant from Rhizome at the New Museum, Washko started BANGED, a project through which she aimed to create a web-based platform to tell the stories of women who’ve had relationships with Roosh V. As a research component, she began by compiling online testimonies from women who’d had exchanges with any pickup artists.

“I wanted to know what might lead someone to frame their entire worldview and existence in opposition to women not relying exclusively on men,” Washko told me over email at the very beginning of the project. “Ultimately, because Roosh makes so much of himself, his process, and his politics blatantly clear and available for all to see, it became more interesting to me to imagine who he sleeps with, what they are like, why they were interested in him, and how they perceived his seduction practice.

Eventually, in a shift toward a deeper investigation into Roosh and his work, Washko managed to interview him in an epic, two-hour-long conversation that’s well worth a watch. But the interview also scattered the focus of the project in many different directions, and Washko found herself becoming one of the subjects of the work, facing unwarranted scrutiny from Roosh and his community online. Unsure of how to present the interviews without Roosh feeling exploited, worried about protecting her sources from the negative attention she was receiving, and paralyzed from thinking about the problems of the initial impulses for the project, she decided to put BANGED on hold temporarily. I reached out over email to ask why, and to hear what she learned during the process.

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Ben Valentine: You gathered a number of women’s experiences with pickup artists, which were insightful, but you also sought out an interview with Roosh V. This was very compelling because I’ve learned from people like Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, that sincere and prolonged engagement is much more productive for countering trolls than the popular adage “don’t feed the trolls” suggests. Sincere engagement with trolls, misogynists, sexists, etc. is an ongoing theme throughout your work. If I, as a white, straight, able-bodied male, can’t find the courage or energy to engage with these individuals, how to you continue to do so?

Angela Washko: Well, I think that being able to engage Roosh V with empathy and respect is kind of my default way of operating and became important once I realized Roosh was aware of my project. But it certainly also came out of three years of working inside World of Warcraft (as “The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft”).

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Angela Washko at work inside ‘World of Warcraft’ (click to enlarge)

In that project I started out with a goal — to try to make the communal game space more inclusive for women and create safe spaces to discuss the issues women and other minorities face in the public social spaces of the game. As I realized how colonial operating with that aim alone was, the project ultimately transformed into having an even less quantifiable aim: to try to figure out how many of the servers I played on had become so misogynistic and homophobic by talking with anyone who had the time and interest to engage with me about my “research project.”

When I started BANGED, I began with a similarly overly ambitious and aggressive goal  — to try to find women who have had relationships with the notorious author of “strategy guides for getting laid at home and abroad” in an effort to create a parallel narrative to his conquest stories (which often allude to specific-but-anonymous women). I wanted to hear their sides of the stories. So there wasn’t really any “courage” or intent to engage with him or his community in the beginning, but rather a more activism-oriented tactical media plan involving distributing a call for these women as far as I could (largely through mainstream media, Craigslist, and physical posting in cities he had been in, to broaden the reach) to solicit the women’s perspectives on their exchanges with him as a response to his perspective, which is present in his blog and books like BANG, Bang Iceland, Don’t Bang Denmark, etc.

It occurred to me that I should interview Roosh V himself after he tweeted about the project’s presence as a finalist for the Rhizome at the New Museum Internet Art Microgrant. It was after his tweet that I realized that broad visibility was necessary to distribute my call for women, but at the same time this widespread distribution would also mean that the project would be in conversation with Roosh himself (something I should have perhaps anticipated).

This prompted me to interview him (see the text transcript, explanatory text, and video here), as I started to realize that nuance was something that was missing from my initial impulsive project and the work would only have more depth if I was able to have a conversation about how he ended up constructing his world in radical opposition to feminism and “progressive” women (12, and 3, to start). Most people that interview Roosh from mainstream news sources tend to frame their conversations to highlight the most extreme aspects of what he does (which is quite easy to do). So I thought I could try to provide a platform to let him speak in a way that didn’t immediately dismiss what he said (though we almost always disagree) and present the interview unedited and in its entirety to make it clear that I didn’t aim to just make a quick hate piece as so many others have. My initial plan, pre-interview, had been way too simple and gestural, and had to be recalibrated (similarly to what happened with The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft). As I moved further with the project, I wanted to move away from the quick, knee-jerk, reactive activism toward a deeper and more ethnographic investigation into motive.

BV: But now Roosh is no longer only a public figure to you. What has he become and how has this complicated the project?

AW: I think that I initially imagined Roosh as a public figure — a sort of mythological figure — and that definitely impacted the original project proposal (the search for women on the receiving end of Roosh’s game). After a month of emailing with Roosh and him ultimately agreeing to do an interview with me, Roosh appeared amused by my project, though not willing to provide me with any of the women he’d had relationships with to do testimonials. After the call started to receive some press I started to see Roosh framing my project as obsessive and stalker-ish for his community (over Twitter and within his forum) and his community framed me as desperate to have sex with Roosh.

Another screen grab from one of the many posts on Roosh V's forum.
One of the many posts about Washko from the Roosh V Forum (click to enlarge)

A lot of people have said to me, ‘you should have expected this,’ and they are probably right, but I didn’t and I wasn’t ready to be examined in the way the 200+ posts of his forum examined me — and I especially didn’t mean to exploit my collaborator who helped me shoot the interview (I should have edited out the portion of the video in which he expresses anger at the way I was addressed by Roosh throughout the interview). This was a horrible mistake, and I left it in as part of the radical transparency process I had tried to set up between Roosh and me within the conditions for the interview itself, but in retrospect it was a dumb call. I also understand that he underestimated my reach and at the time of the interview claimed to be unfamiliar with my work/press history. He never thought that I might legitimately be able to access women that he’s had relationships with from within my “academic, feminist, online art bubble.” So when he did see the call distributed and the possibility that I might gain access to some of the women he’s had relationships with, he acted defensively — by framing me as crazy/obsessed/stalker-like, he was attempting to discredit any of my future interviews with these women. After being frustrated by the discord between our mostly pleasant non-public exchanges and the way he presented what I was doing to his community, I decided to ask him whether he was starting to feel as though this was really invasive to him. His answer made me unsure of how to proceed, as he told me that he didn’t like the tabloid/sensationalized element of it and that it was disconcerting that women would publicly share the details of the sexual experiences they had with him. Part two of that response … oof.

So, I became caught between wanting to be respectful of someone I’ve been trying to understand and interview fairly by trying to create a scenario in which we were able to have a conversation across polarized positions and online communities (digifeminists and manosphere participants) … but at the same time still wanting to seek some form of justice — some form of visibility — for those who are accounted for as receptacles for Roosh’s actions but never given a voice. Also, I feel like at some point in the project rabbit hole, I lost a vision of what the work would ultimately become. It is currently in a state of collection, archiving, conversation, collaboration, performance, media management, drawing, mapping, and critical self-analysis.

Gif from Washko's interview of Roosh V. Gif courtesy the artist.
GIF from Washko’s interview with Roosh V

BV: You wrote that you wanted to do this piece to “break down his performance on the Internet and challenge the myth of objectivity that much of his community clings to, destabilizing his carefully crafted narratives by introducing other complicating voices.” This introduction of complicating voices is a really important tactic for intellectual growth, and one that Roosh and his community seem completely disinterested in. While you’re well-versed now in engaging with trolls, bringing in other voices, even anonymously — putting those perhaps unwilling or scared of this scrutiny into the limelight — is trickier. When did you realize you didn’t want to risk their involvement?

AW: So, after seeing that forum post pop up (it was actually Animal NY who alerted me to it after they’d discovered a lot of activity on the interview redirected from there), what became interesting to me about the introduction of complicating voices is that when questioning or dissenting voices are introduced into Roosh’s community, they are squashed. If someone says something Roosh disagrees with on his forum, he will ban them. If you go through the forum thread I mentioned earlier, there are a number of banned members (not necessarily banned for their contribution on that thread, but it is indicative of an ongoing practice of forum exile). In terms of social media and news, anyone who disagrees with him is subject to harassment and defamation. For the most part I don’t really respond to the trolling and harassment on Twitter. (I mean, I barely use Twitter at all and I’m certainly not going to use it exclusively answer to people united by an online forum debating whether or not they will have sex with me.)

When Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote an article which featured Roosh, he and his community’s response had been to go on a sustained social media campaign to discredit, insult, and bully her. I think this kind of emotional reaction to criticism is especially frustrating coming from someone who said this to me in our interview:

[Angela]: Can you tell me more about your use of logic and science for your arguments? Can you tell me about the logic and science behind sort of your worldview?
[Roosh]: Yeah. I use logic and science.
[Angela]: I mean, but can you elaborate? Because I mean, it’s easy to just say…I mean I could sit here and say ‘I know science! Science! Science! Science!’
[Roosh]: Ok. Ok. Sure. The only thing is this: I believe that the only way to really use logic is to ignore the feelings that you have for one outcome or the other. If you have an emotional investment into a lifestyle and to a way of life that you’ve been taught for four years in school, getting a contradictory piece of information will cause your brain to either accept or reject. And what people do to accept something that goes against what they’ve learned for a long time, it’s really hard because that means for thousands of days they believed in the wrong thing. But me, I don’t know. I have a filter. I’d rather be right than feel good. I don’t need to feel good. I don’t need to feel warm and fuzzy on the inside that my belief system is ok. I don’t care. If I’ve been believing in something wrong for 35 years and new evidence tells me that, so be it. You know, many times in human history scientists they believed one thing but a new experiment has shown: holy shit we were wrong. But people nowadays, they go crazy if you show them a fact that goes against what they’ve been fed for years and years. So that’s all.
[Angela]: So you’re not emotionally invested in the arguments that you’re making?
[Roosh]: No.

When realizing Roosh knew about my project, I felt like I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with him to be published through a mainstream news source that would not set him up for failure, as other interviews have done. So I went to great lengths to be fair with my questions, and to design questions that would allow him to explain himself fully. One of my biggest frustrations has been that Roosh asks the people he’s frustrated with (most often feminists, “social justice warriors,” and “cultural Marxists”) to operate more “logically” and not “emotionally,” but the very thing he and his community does when someone writes that they disagree with him is to create an emotionally motivated campaign to embarrass that person. It is very disappointing. It also made me realize that if I did publish these interviews, these women, though anonymous, may still be subjected to the attention and harassment of his community. Which is something I don’t feel comfortable doing, having been scrutinized myself in that way. I am still trying to figure out what the future of the project is, but I don’t think it will take place across news media. I of course want to be able to include conversations with the women that have reached out to me as a part of the project, but I want to do it in a way that doesn’t put them at risk and isn’t “tabloid-y” … which was something Roosh was concerned about.

One of the many posts from the Roosh V Forum.
Another post from the Roosh V Forum (click to enlarge)

BV: Going forward, what lessons have you learned for engaging with these types of communities?

AW: I am not sure. I mean, I wouldn’t tell anyone to just go make a project about a community like this one unless they were very invested, well-researched, and ready to have their own lives examined. I think one of my biggest failures in the project was that I forgot that I was a subject in the work as well, and as such would end up scrutinized for the impulse to do this work in the first place. Reading Sophie Calle’s The Address Book recently has been really helpful, as she experienced this quite similarly — this kind of turn of the project being about someone else to also being about oneself within the investigation.

Also, I think I learned to be a little bit less naive, which is unfortunate because it was a part of myself and my work which leads me into more interesting and unexpected territories. I assumed that, despite self-identifying as a feminist artist, by taking a more generous approach to interviewing Roosh than he receives from feminist media members, I would have a positive working relationship with him and his community. I assumed that this gesture would be enough for him and his community to accept that I was going to interview women and create this parallel narrative, but as the potential for this to be realized increased, so did the foreseeable impact on Roosh’s mythology. I stupidly did not anticipate the amount of disconcerting responses I got to it. I am used to criticism, but this was something much different. I should have expected this, especially given the polarizing nature of my initial pursuit (the interviews with women). There was some interesting discussion about my approach — some appreciation that I didn’t outright shame him or argue during the interview, and also many questions about whether what I was doing was exploitative to Roosh (certainly fair and hopefully an interesting part of the project) … but it should not be surprising that I was not psyched about the conversations within the forum centered around whether or not forum participants would bang me.

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More posts from the Roosh V Forum (click each one to enlarge)

Roosh says, “WB [would bang] with long natural hair.” Foolsgo1d says, “If she grew her hair longer and didn’t talk so much I WB.” Shortest Straw (now banned from the forum) says, “WB as is. I just plain like her. I wonder if she realizes just how likable she is.” Turkish candy also says, “WB with long natural hair.” AnonymousBosch says “If you can pop a chub for a masculine, short-haired woman with an annoying voice like that, you’re a stronger player than I am.” I mean, this is obviously part of the culture of the forum and Roosh’s community, but it wasn’t intended to be “part of the project.” It has become part of the project because it’s an important consequence of what I set out to do … but I guess if I did something like this again, I would better brace myself for that byproduct of interviewing someone like Roosh V.

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