Chris Porter stands on the edge of Riverfront Park with his hands in his pockets. He keeps looking over his shoulder, and over mine, as we talk. She's running a little late, he tells me. He asks if there's a convenience store around here. He has coffee breath.
Porter shifts his weight from one big, black combat boot to the other. He says he's more excited than nervous about his Friday afternoon date. But having a reporter tag along is throwing in an extra wrinkle.
The 40-year-old stands about 6-foot-3, with a long beard, wearing a purple-and-red plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled back once. We're talking because he recently posted to Craigslist looking to organize a group of guys "to work on their game and wing each other."
At first, it looks to me as if Porter is trying to start a local cult of bros who prey on drunk women at bars. Groups of these misogynistic assholes, whose only goal is to manipulate as many women as possible into having sex with them, have risen to national infamy in recent years. They congregate in the slimy corners of the internet known as the "manosphere" and swap tricks and hookup stories. Some guys have even started consulting companies.
Porter says that's not what he's about, though he's aware of the negative stigma attached to "pickup artists" or "PUA" as they're called on internet forums. That reputation is earned in part from the types of "PUAs" slapped with prison time for gang-raping an unconscious woman in California. (Two of the San Diego men sentenced recently to eight years in prison for the gang rape were "teachers" for Efficient Pickup, a company that specializes in training pickup artists. The third man sentenced was their student.)
Instead, Porter hopes to pass along some of what he's learned in the past six months about self-confidence. He sees himself as more of a cheerleader for the bashful dope than a coach teaching a guy how to manipulate women into bed.
"I want to be able to sleep at night," Porter says. "I want to have a clear conscience. I've had plenty of sex in my life. That's not what I'm looking for. I'm interested in a physical connection, but also a spiritual connection. Somebody who is my best friend, and we can go out together, go fishing together, or do whatever."
Just before his date shows, Porter plucks a strand of wheat from a nearby planter. He hands it to her when she arrives.
We walk by the big Red Wagon in Riverfront Park, and the two start reminiscing about being kids riding the carrousel. Porter links arms with his date. We'll call her Rachel, because she asked that we not use her real name. And the three of us stroll awkwardly down the Centennial Trail.
Rachel starts by talking about her day at work so far, and describes one of the team-building exercises she calls "potato poop." It's a relay race where you put a potato between your thighs and waddle over to a bucket. If you drop the potato before you get to the bucket, you have to start over.
Porter brags that he makes a mean grilled-watermelon-and-arugula salad, to which we both ask how the hell you grill a watermelon. Apparently, you just throw it on the grill.
"It makes the sugars really pop," he says.
Despite the forced awkwardness of this date, there is never any gawky silence. We discuss Rachel's plan for a new tattoo, chide Porter for his untied shoelaces and wonder where people get the hair for beard implants.
The hourlong date ends on the corner outside MOD Pizza downtown. But before they leave, I ask Rachel a couple of questions.
She says that Porter is different than some of the other guys she's met recently. His online profile paints an accurate picture, she says. (They met on Match.com.)
"Tall, dark and handsome doesn't hurt either," she adds, bumping him with her hip.
Afterward, Porter tells me about his journey from introverted wallflower to a confident "alpha" male.
"I've been in quite a few relationships," he says. "But I've never had success past the two- or three-year mark. And I wanted to figure out why."
He started small — researching online, watching TED Talks on flirting and social cues, and reading books. Specifically, Porter talks about The Game by journalist and author Neil Strauss, who exposed in his 2005 book the sleazy underground world of pickup artists, then slipped into that world himself. In recent interviews, however, Strauss has denounced the very pickup tactics he wrote about as "objectifying and horrifying."
Indeed, Porter has taken some tips from Strauss' book. He mentions IOIs (indicators of interest) and the "shit test," which, according to pickup artistry, is a woman's tactic to gauge a man's worthiness.
But Porter rejects other, more manipulative seduction tricks. Specifically, he says, neg theory, or "negging" — a backhanded compliment designed to diminish a woman's self-confidence so that she'll seek the man's approval — is gross.
"I think that you want the woman to make the conscious decision that she's interested in you," Porter says, "rather than trying to trick her into thinking that she is, and then later regretting her decision."
He's also imposed a few rules on himself. Now, when he goes out, he generally doesn't drink. And he doesn't take out his phone unless he's getting a woman's number or checking the time. He also has a sex rule.
"I basically took sex completely out of the equation," Porter says. "Usually I have, like, a six-date minimum."
As we walk together after the date, Porter seems genuinely excited. She's a really cool chick, he tells me. Really lighthearted. He likes her. Who knows? he says. In six months I might have a follow-up for an entirely different story.
So far, Porter has gotten only one response to his Craigslist post (besides the Inlander's interest). But it didn't work out, so he's still looking.
"I'm still learning," he says. "I don't have all the answers. I just hope I'm on the right track." ♦