Connect with us


Love/Hate Reads: ‘Rules of the Game,’ Revisited

When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine’s Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better. 2007 was an objectively terrible year to publish a book about heterosexual cruising techniques. Online dating, already widespread, was moments away from being normalized. Within a few years, an…



Love/Hate Reads: ‘Rules of the Game,’ Revisited

When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine’s Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.

2007 was an objectively terrible year to publish a book about heterosexual cruising techniques. Online dating, already widespread, was moments away from being normalized. Within a few years, an Old Testament flood of hookup apps would populate most everyone’s rapidly-improving cell phones and all but decimate the demand for a guidebook about how to accost attractive strangers in public. Which is kind of nice! In a vacuum, reading about how to conduct romantic and sexual pursuits without iMessage might be refreshing; instead, Strauss spoils this almost-analog throwback with the worst #tbt of all: regressive gender politics!

Despite being a sequel to his classic pickup artist text The Game, Neil Strauss’s Rules of the Game isn’t really a book about sex, dating, or relationships. Though the putative goal of the Rules is to help the reader pick up, succeed with, or otherwise achieve women, the book doesn’t have much to say about women as anything other than an endgame. With that in mind, here are some things Rules of the Game actually is: a time capsule, an RPG and strategy guide, a bog-standard self-help book, a pro-magician propaganda document, a catalyst for the incel community, and a short story collection.

The core of RoTG is a 30-day challenge, called the “Stylelife Challenge,” because “Style” is Strauss’s pickup artist nickname/alter ego/presumably his AIM username at the time. The Stylelife Challenge is part self-help, part tactical guide to hornily approaching strangers, and part fun little worksheet. Should readers complete all of the readings and “missions” they’re tasked with over 30 days, Strauss promises his faithful acolytes both self-betterment and significantly improved odds at access to women and their affections.

What “success” with women looks like is left up to the reader; Strauss asserts that “The Prize” for completing the 30 days is: “The company of quality women, the envy of your peers, the lifestyle you deserve.” The Rules are here to tell you at what point in your seduction routine you should deploy a magic trick for an optimal “demonstration of value”—the value demonstrated presumably being monetary, what with all those quarters you’ll be pulling out from behind unsuspecting women’s ears. As Strauss writes:

Your goal today is to be so cool that she doesn’t want you to leave. The quickest way to reach this goal—the hook point—is to demonstrate value. After all, she has the possibility of meeting any number of guys that day. Why you?

What Strauss isn’t here to advise you about is sex, or even what to do should you actually wind up on a date. This book is more thirsty than it is horny; its are teachings primarily concerned with how to transmute your desire for others into making women desire you. His thesis is clearly outlined in the “Day 7” section of the Challenge (shockingly, with one of the book’s only disparaging mentions of magic):

If there were a single sentence that magically made women fall in love or lust, every man would be using it… What does exist is a specific sequential process that can be used to develop a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman.

The idea that there might actually be a way to hack human interaction and speed-run your way to love or lust is broadly appealing—the Times has their 36 questions shtick, which promises potential couples the ability to fall in love after mutually answering 36 carefully designed questions about themselves, their goals and their values—so how is that kind of boldly analytical optimism so different from the Rules? Consent, is how! Talking through a series of increasingly intimate questions, exchanging astrological star charts, or even speed dating requires two or more parties mutually debasing themselves to try to find the keyboard shortcut to passion; ROTG relies on one-sided manipulation and coercion.

The book openly admits that the romantic tactics Strauss outlines are manipulative (“So is this material manipulative? Of course it is. Every great romantic comedy begins with some sort of manipulation”), and that its foundations are misogynistic and essentialist pseudoscience. Sentiments like, “Men pay more attention to youth and beauty, women to wealth and status,” are offered as “universal principles of selection”—inarguable facts to be internalized quickly so the reader can continue to seek the attention of people who, according to the Rules, behave more like magpies than human beings.

Anyone who’s been even vaguely online over the last decade could draw a direct connection between broadly describing women as social-climbing golddiggers and the unfulfilled promises made by professional pickup artists like Strauss to the propagation of anti-PUA forums. These forums promptly congealed into havens for incels and other less savory parts of the manosphere.

Among all those graver sins, one glaringly obvious fault stands tallest in The Rules of the Game: This book is corny as hell. It’s not just the magic tricks. (Though magic is brought up a fucking lot.) The sample dialogue is corny:

Don’t touch or grab her right away. If she touches you say, with a smile, “Hey now, hands off the merchandise.”

The insistence that the reader raise their nonspecific, but seemingly essential “status” is corny:

Study after study has shown that women are attracted to personality, dominance, and status… In other words, if you exhibit the right traits for success, some women will take a chance on you even if you’re currently unemployed.

The turn-based-strategy game approach to human interaction—opener, hook, root, display value, dodge, attack, dodge—is not just corny, but backbreaking. Every part of a conversation, from inserting yourself into someone’s conversation to (somehow) obtaining a phone number, gets its own special name and explanation for how it can be optimized to prove to the woman you’re talking to that 1. You don’t want to sleep with her, but 2. She should definitely, definitely want to sleep with you. It’s almost a shame that Rules was released before the proliferation of dating apps. While systematizing in-person conversations is flat-out sociopathic, an entire, slightly less repugnant industry has grown up around gaming the various dating apps and helping users accrue more and better matches. Had Strauss focused his energies on coming up with quirky introductory messages to send to Tinder matches, or recommending ways to move a conversation from DMs to texts to a coffee date, Rules of the Game could’ve been sinister-yet-practical, instead of sinister-yet-hopelessly-outdated and a foundational text for a new strain of violent misogyny. Sliding doors, man.

While reading the book, I wrote in my notes, “What is human interaction. Why and how do we do it,” and I hadn’t even gotten to the short stories yet. (Did you think I was kidding about those?)

After the Challenge and a brief interlude comprised of various scripts for readers to employ in their seduction routines (like “The Albino Gary Coleman Opener,” where one approaches strange women to ask if they would date an invented unattractive friend in order to suss out what personality traits they value; “The Double Date Threesome,” the subtle art of inviting a second woman on a previously one-on-one date at the last minute; or “Blood-strology,” which is something about assigning personality traits to blood types—even for this book, suggesting the reader approach a stranger and demand to know what their blood type is is 100 percent buck wild), Strauss treats the reader to 11 short stories, all framed as roman à clef “diaries” from his pickup artist exploits. Don’t worry: One of them absolutely features Strauss’s misadventures with a magician.

The stories read like Tucker Max blog posts with all the fratty joy surgically extracted from the prose and replaced with gritty “realism,” a few limp gestures towards the erotic, and some obvious examples of Strauss’s narrator deploying the PUA techniques the reader has presumably mastered by this point in their journey with the Rules. Here, Strauss’s narrator tries to develop an emotional connection (“Create an emotional connection” is step three of his five courtship “checkpoints”):

“If you had to choose one thing in the world that makes life worth living, what would it be?” I asked as we walked in the room.

“Hmm,” she said, nodding her head and pulling off her dress.

Mostly, the stories depict a burnt-out and sad Strauss acting the part of an international playboy despite himself. In the years after Rules of the Game‘s publication, Strauss reportedly checked himself into rehab for sex addiction, retired from pickup artist life, got married, and spawned. In 2015, he wrote a book called The Truth about his journey out of the “seduction community” and assimilating into monogamous, heterosexual adulthood. In a later interview with The Atlantic, Strauss described pickup artist tactics as “objectifying and horrifying,” and said The Game, the prequel to the Rules, “became the Bible of what it was trying to chronicle in a more neutral way. So I think all of a sudden there were these horrid ideas that people read about in The Game and… The Game became the origin of those ideas.”

Though he’s out of the game himself, Strauss’s books and their cultural impact are still with us. Well, most of their cultural impact. Try as he might, he hasn’t done much for magicians.

Follow Calvin Kasulke on Twitter.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply


Goop’s Horrible Netflix Show Accidentally Makes a Case Against Social Media Censorship

When Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab premiered on Netflix last month, the collective eye-roll on social media was palpable. Goop—Paltrow’s “wellness and lifestyle company”—has been rightly panned by critics over the years for promoting pseudoscientific claims and wellness devices that range from the absurd to the overtly harmful. The Goop Lab is no exception; one…



Goop’s Horrible Netflix Show Accidentally Makes a Case Against Social Media Censorship

When Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab premiered on Netflix last month, the collective eye-roll on social media was palpable.

Goop—Paltrow’s “wellness and lifestyle company”—has been rightly panned by critics over the years for promoting pseudoscientific claims and wellness devices that range from the absurd to the overtly harmful. The Goop Lab is no exception; one Washington Post op-ed called the series “horrible,” while the Guardian gave it 1/5 stars in a review.

Despite this, my curiosity got the best of me one night and I tuned in to watch the most talked-about episode: the one in which Paltrow misidentifies the scope of the vagina, revealing that she’s not particularly informed about the anatomy she so often claims expertise on. The episode, entitled “The Pleasure Is Ours,” is centered on the work of 90 year-old sex educator Betty Dodson, famous for her workshops in which she teaches women how to effectively masturbate to orgasm.

The episode, which comes with a disclaimer, is not quite what I expected. Rather than peddling jade eggs, it sells the viewer on Dodson’s methods (which have, for what it’s worth, been the subject of empirical research). And perhaps most surprisingly, the episode is quite graphic: Dodson’s colleague Carlin Ross demonstrates the technique, her vulva shown on screen as she masturbates, along with several others in a slideshow meant to depict diversity.

What was surprising about this was Netflix’s willingness to show, in close-up detail, a part of the body that is—with precious few exceptions— verboten in Silicon Valley. As I’ve written in the past, social media platforms appear to have taken their cues about morality and governance from other forms of media. Just as the American film industry is “self-regulated” by the notoriously prudish Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Facebook’s own policies ban nearly all depictions of the nude human body—regardless of the fact that it’s constitutionally-protected expression.

Facebook and its properties, such as Instagram, have a propensity to go overboard when enforcing these policies. Take, for example, The Vulva Gallery—like the sex episode of Goop Lab, the Instagram account seeks to normalize the vulva by posting illustrated images based on user-submitted photos. Illustrations are permitted by Instagram’s Community Standards, but that didn’t prevent the account from getting banned at one point—no doubt a mis-application of the rules, an unfortunately common phenomenon.

In fact, the over-banning of sexual content is so common that there are numerous articles highlighting accounts that seek to challenge and circumvent the rules. While social media platforms often claim that bans on nudity are meant to protect users from porn and non-consensual exploitative imagery (often called “revenge porn”), we should be questioning the harms that this black-and-white approach to nudity and human sexuality is causing to our society—and to women in particular.

As The Goop Lab episode makes clear, many women (including Paltrow) don’t know a whole lot about their own anatomy. In most societies, we’re taught that our nether regions are something shameful, to keep covered up, at least until we’re wed. While I clearly remember a high school sex ed demonstration that involved putting a condom on a banana, I can’t recall seeing any images of women’s nude bodies. Many women report seeing another vulva for the first time in mainstream porn, where only certain body types (and hair removal practices) are commonly shown.

That’s what makes this episode so important—and one of the reasons the pervasive social media ban on depictions of the human body is so damaging. But it’s not the only reason; platform bans on the human body disproportionately affect women. Facebook’s community guidelines, for example, allow depictions of topless men but ban women from appearing shirtless. Not only does this discriminatory practice reinforce damaging ideas about the female body as inherently sexual, it’s also rooted in an outdated binary perception of gender.

No one has illustrated the latter point better than Courtney Demone, a trans woman who challenged Instagram’s rules by posting topless photos of herself as she transitioned a few years ago and documented the process for Mashable. Demone’s piece draws parallels between the street harassment she was subject to as her appearance became more traditionally feminine and the loss of the privilege to be topless that she experiences, which she describes as a “clear example of the sexism that comes with living in a female body”.

Interestingly, as executive producer Shauna Minoprio told the LA Times, Goop execs chose to shoot the masturbation scene without asking permission—not unlike the many women who regularly challenge social media’s prudish rules by posting their nudes anyway.

In sexist Silicon Valley, that may just be the only way to move the needle forward.

Continue Reading


The ‘Goop Effect’: The Women Who Spend Hundreds Seeking Spirituality

Two years ago I took a mirrored hotel lift with three bored and ageless Russian women, wearing a cascade of furs, silk scarves and matte lipstick. Up in the penthouse – featuring faded peach upholstered furniture, a bed surely built for orgies and a swimming pool masquerading as square bath – a man greeted us…



The ‘Goop Effect’: The Women Who Spend Hundreds Seeking Spirituality

Two years ago I took a mirrored hotel lift with three bored and ageless Russian women, wearing a cascade of furs, silk scarves and matte lipstick. Up in the penthouse – featuring faded peach upholstered furniture, a bed surely built for orgies and a swimming pool masquerading as square bath – a man greeted us (picture a Johnny Depp lookalike back from a gap year spent discovering the golden ratio). He started to cleanse the space by burning Palo Santo – endangered sacred wood. A brunette woman began an impromptu photo shoot in the bathroom without a note of interest on her face. “Who is keeping us waiting 15 minutes?” another woman scoffed, from a cushion on the floor.

We were gathered at central London’s five-star Mandrake Hotel – named after the hallucinogenic, mystical plant – for a gong bath, now running slightly behind schedule. It’s one of several services you can book through the hotel’s in-house spiritual concierge service. That entails meeting with the concierge to pick from a series of healing treatments, organised for your specific needs – likely a culmination of physical, emotional and spiritual ills. Some menu examples: a £40 weekly gong bath; a similarly priced “sound healing”; a £375 or £475 (duration-dependent) “soul retrieval” therapeutic service, promising to “restore your body, mind and spirit into an alignment and the state of immense soundness”.

When the Mandrake opened in London, its owners were smart enough to cater to a new subset of working-age adult: the wellness-hunters with significant disposable income. They are the new vanguard of luxury spirituality. Alex Holbrook who runs Otherness, a site that curates all the trusted spiritual and wellbeing events in London in one space, tells me the hotel owners contacted her to help build their spiritual offering. “Spirituality is not just a niche thing anymore,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s reaching big brands who realise that we’re all looking for a connection now, and how to slow down.”

Whether you opt for elaborate crystal healing facials or pay £80 to breathe for an hour in a roomful of strangers, most luxury spirituality offerings are in fact spruced-up versions of the basics. Scratch at their glowing surface and they all pretty much promise peace, quiet and focusing your self-awareness on your body. It may be difficult to measure how the price of these experiences and products may improve your life but as with so much of what we buy, we’re meant to assume higher cost means better quality. What’s the endpoint of that logic when you’re assessing spirituality?

In 2015, academic studies and lifestyle media began telling a story about Western millennials: we were continuing to move away from organised religion, as previous generations had, but becoming attracted to spirituality as a concept. “As the political and economic landscape becomes more anxiety-inducing, people are looking to spirituality as a form of self-care and to find more purpose and meaning,” Harriet Kilikita, associate editor of lifestyle & interiors at trend forecasters WGSN, tells me. “Ancient practices such as crystal healing, meditation and yoga have become central parts of wellbeing routines as the younger generation in particular seek to go beyond physical wellness and connect to something bigger.”

Quickly, spirituality and wellness attracted those with high salaries, merging aspiration with the now-debated concept of “self-care”, stripped of its radical meaning since being coined by Audre Lorde. In May 2017, Brooklyn’s William Vale Hotel in New York offered an “energy hygiene and deeply immersive sound experience” and a “full-moon + chakra healing event” with THINX, the period underwear brand. It took another three years for a similarly branded event to hit London: a “lunar cycles” book launch sponsored by Lululemon. Prestige upper and upper middle-class brands like Lululemon and Selfridges have joined with gurus, astrologers, psychic mediums and spirituality authors to show they acknowledge what women’s lifestyle brands must now to survive: the ‘soul’ aspect of total mind, body and soul wellness.

The women who go to these events – or stay at wellness hotels – believe they live in “alignment” or “consciously”. They tend to be in their thirties and early forties, successful executives, designers, older fashion bloggers and entrepreneurs; the sort of women whose careers are very much visible on, or even facilitated by, Instagram. Their feeds become a blur of charcoal chai lattes, large crystals on tabletops, expensive athleisure or workwear: a vision board for integrating yogic ideologies with a highflying Mumpreneur lifestyle. Bios read things like: “creative director with a free spirit” and “conscious girlboss”, claiming “intuitive entrepreneurship” and “business and conscious wealth”.

This trend coalesces in the form of urban members’ clubs hosting gong baths or crystal bowl healings. In mid-March, east London’s Ace Hotel branch is due to hold a £50 “Project Woman: Set Your Body Free” event, promising a canape, drink and some form of movement. Sandra*, a successful author and speaker in her thirties, recalls a recent gong bath she attended at Shoreditch House (she is a member). “We were all crammed in the room, barely stretched out for how many people were there,” she says, deeming it “honestly one of the worst healings I’ve been to” where she “left more stressed than when I arrived”.

But luxury spirituality doesn’t deny modern life or sit awkwardly opposite it. By becoming a recognisable lifestyle, its biggest proponents (brands and people), have not only decided that work and spirituality exist together harmoniously but can enhance each other. Spirituality is a capitalist venture now as everything else is; a personal brand, a business, a luxury lifestyle, a commodity. A late 2018 report by WSGN, on spirituality as consumer habits, states: “Spirituality is the new luxury: as the lines between faith, fitness and wellness blur, consumers seek serenity and an escape from the woes of everyday life.” It’s easiest this way – no one has to shun money, designer clothes, success and plenty of it – and was always an inevitable consequence of a growing interest in everything spiritual.

The current matriarch of this world is, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow. In 2018, the New York Times Magazine cited a “source close to the company” valuing Paltrow’s infamous lifestyle brand Goop at $250 million in vagina eggs, “inner beauty” powders and “psychic vampire repellent” sprays. A quick Google of the experts and retreats used in her recent Netflix series, The Goop Lab, finds that some of the featured experiences cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Seamlessly Paltrow will speak, as other entrepreneurs of this field do, of garden variety “wellness” topics like diets and fasts in the same breath as energy healing and psychics. In just a few episodes, Paltrow’s attractive, successful Goop staff undergo the treatments in the office to exhibit the spiritual-Botox promise: that if you throw enough money at something, you can get closer to enlightenment on your lunch break and come back a healed CEO.

I’m at witch and author, Semra Haksever’s flat in north London to learn about the balance between money (the ego) and spirituality. Her intention with her first book, Everyday Magic, was to make a magic handbook for anyone from any background to use. “Everything for these spells is available in your kitchen, or in Tesco. All the herbs are very cheap, there’s nothing that’s too out there,” she says in a living room full of tarot cards, crystals, and altars. She mentions another of her favourite spells, one that costs nothing at all – drawing up a “sigil”. You write out an intention, condense the letters until it makes a personalised monogram. “I’ll draw it on a pad, I’ll draw it in the sand, I’ll draw it in the steamed-up mirror in the shower, wherever. I know that’s my symbol I pull in – it’s very powerful.” She adds with a straight face: “I got my free holiday from my holiday sigil.”

This bargain approach turns out to be an enjoyable counterpoint to luxury spirituality. I find the ingredients for a self-love spell, as per Haksever’s instructions, for about 20p. Rose for love, lavender for happiness, cinnamon for personal blessing, thyme to connect to inner voice, cloves for courage, and frankincense and myrrh as an offering for your spirit guides. Bit by bit I sprinkle the particles onto a hot coal in my bedroom and watch small fragrant clouds of smoke billow. I don’t know if I’m doing it right but Haksever promises the spell will banish the negative voices inside my head.

Haksever noticed an influx of money and “ego” in the luxury “scene” over the past few years. Part of that is to do with influencer culture and social media (“You go through Instagram stories and healers and spiritual leaders are all on there, filming themselves meditate or taking a photo of their ritual. I understand you’re showing everyone what you’re doing but how into your ritual are you right now?”). She runs some slightly pricier group events with brand involvement but sees clients on a sliding scale basis and does pro bono work. “If you’re a healer and you’re only healing people for £250 a session, you understand you’re only allowing your healing to a certain type of person. So what kind of healer are you? It feels like an exclusive club and it becomes a very white, middle class world very quickly.”

Goop Lab netflix gwyneth paltrow laura lynne jackson

Pyschic medium Laura Lynne Jackson, in The Goop Lab on Netflix. Photo: Adam Rose for Netflix

‘Luxury’ spirituality hinges on repackaging and marketing basic products for a different audience. Sephora felt the brunt of an online backlash to this, when they backtracked on releasing a $42 “Starter Witch Kit” (some crystals, tarot cards and other bits) in 2018. New spiritual wellness brands continue to sell crystals at multiple times the wholesale or Esty/small store price. This doesn’t seem to bother the average person delving into spirituality. As practicing spiritualist Alexandra Clifford says, “I definitely feel like there’s too much middle-class bullshit around the ‘public face’ of spirituality and [religions like] Paganism. Perhaps because there’s little to no organisation with spiritual faiths, it’s easier to commodify.” But ultimately, she says she isn’t forced to buy more expensive products. Haksever, conversely, voices what many say on the internet: “You can buy a crystal for 50p and the same one for 50 quid and they’re both going to do the same ‘thing’. Neither will be any better.”

The followers of luxury spirituality probably understand this, in theory, but the trend’s momentum isn’t slowing down. The Goop website continually adds to its bulging black book of new healers and alternative apothecaries. A wellness backlash that threatened to come in full force last year never materialised, and I doubt it ever will. Because for an overworked, anxious and spiritually undernourished individual there’s some truth in the necessities of breathing, community, and letting someone rub shiny gunk on your face. This trend feels like a modern disease but it’s been a long while coming.

The momentum of luxury spirituality isn’t slowing down, neither is it entirely new. Before Paltrow, there was “wellness It Girl”, Audrey Kitching. Her lifestyle seemed painfully cool to me when she was a Myspace famous model-blogger in the 2000s, and only more so when she rebranded as an energy healer/model influencer in the early 2010s. We were emailing just two months before she was outed for fraudulently claiming she hand-made and sourced the products on her website, when they came for a few dollars from China. In December 2018 she wrote an irony that rings true: “Money is great because it can make your earth life easier in some ways, but you can’t buy inner healing. Even working with spiritual professionals, they can guide you and give you advice, but they can’t do your inner work for you. Only you can heal yourself.”

@hannahrosewens / @lilylambie_kiernan

Continue Reading


Therapy Podcasts Are My Therapy

I’d never thought of myself as a voyeur. Yet there I was with my ear to the door of a couple’s therapy session. A straight couple, they had both cheated in their previous marriages with each other, then left their spouses to be together. The man now cheats on her compulsively. “You like the fact…



Therapy Podcasts Are My Therapy

I’d never thought of myself as a voyeur. Yet there I was with my ear to the door of a couple’s therapy session. A straight couple, they had both cheated in their previous marriages with each other, then left their spouses to be together. The man now cheats on her compulsively.

“You like the fact that she’s kind but in fact you look down upon the fact that she’s kind because you think if she was really strong, powerful, and confident, she would have already have said, ‘Get the fuck out of here’,” said the therapist.

“Yeah,” replied the man.

So this is therapy, I thought.

In reality, I wasn’t crouched down outside a therapist’s door, no, that would be creepy. I was walking to work. Though it felt almost perverse, the couple had consented to letting me, and thousands of others, listen to this therapist read them like a children’s book. So much so that they let the conversation be in a podcast.

Where Should We Begin? is a podcast by the now famous therapist, author, and speaker Esther Perel. In it, Perel places a mic on the table in her couple’s therapy sessions, with short studio-recorded interjections only to help situate the couple’s story. To me, it’s perfect.

I had tried to get into podcasts before, but they either felt too scripted or worse, lacking in any structure at all, leaving me to listen to two strangers banter and laugh at inside jokes for 30 minutes before getting to The Point. No, Where Should We Begin? was different, real—no unbearable podcast nonsense. In fact, I was convinced that listening to it was making me a better person.

Do I look down on the people in my life for being too kind? Am I so quick to forgive that people look down on me? I’ve never been married or divorced, nor have I cheated, and I don’t have a child. But it can’t hurt to ask.

The more I listened, the more I questioned myself about the quandaries facing Perel’s clients. What would I do in their situation? Oh god, I’m not like that, right? The podcast started to feel like a therapy session between the couple, Perel, and me. I’m not the first one to feel like that either. Lifestyle website Man Repeller called the podcast “free therapy.” The New Yorker said it was “excruciatingly intimate.” Perel herself has said that listeners “very quickly realize that you are standing in front of the mirror.”

Like many people, I’ve thought about going to therapy—what it would be like, what I stood to gain from it. Until recently, it was more of a nice thing to imagine than a financial possibility. Even now, though I know I could probably afford it with some budgeting, it’s hard to shake the feeling that therapy is a not-for-me luxury when I think about my student loans, rent, or the cost of doing literally anything in New York. I tell myself I’ll go to therapy eventually. For now, I have podcasts.

I flew through every available season of Where Should We Begin? before desperately searching for podcasts fitting the very specific fly-on-the-wall therapy session formula until I found one called Other People’s Problems.

Other People’s Problems was great because it focused on one-on-one sessions, rather than couple’s therapy. Clients are recurring so you get to follow their progress—and their goss. “Sloane” has a traumatic relationship with her mother that keeps interrupting major milestones in her life. “Maggie” is a stay at home mom trying to figure out why she can’t stop stealing prosciutto.

Without a partner in the room, you can feel people let down another wall, putting a different kind of honesty on display. The questions I asked myself changed in nature too. Instead of posing questions about myself through others— Am I so quick to forgive that people look down on me?—they felt more centered: How do I react when I learn things about myself I don’t like?

Hillary McBride, the host of Other People’s Problems and a therapist specializing in feminist therapy, told me that many people have found the podcast therapeutic. According to her, people often react to the podcast by realizing that they’re going through a similar problem as the client and find that listening can give them options for how to deal with it. “Even without necessarily intending to, what happens when we are in the presence of or even just observing other people’s vulnerability is it tends to invite us into self awareness, self reflection, and vulnerability ourselves,” she said.

So this is what therapy must feel like, I thought after applying McBride’s questions and guidance from each episode to my own life. McBride, however, in the same gentle tone she never breaks from in Other People’s Problems, kindly told me what I’ve figured by now: I’m wrong. No podcast is a replacement for therapy. Her reasoning however, surprised me.

“The most important thing that happens in therapy is not actually the exchange of information,” she explained. “It’s the experience of being felt and held and seen by another person without judgment, even without the need to change in order to feel valuable.”

It’s true that though there were relatable moments, listening to Perel and McBride on their respective podcasts did not exactly make me feel held or seen. Still, it did make me consider things about myself I wouldn’t have on my own. McBride acknowledges that too.

“There’s something that’s kind of mystical and sacred about this process,” she said, “and the vulnerability and the exchange that happens there, which, even if we’re just seeing it voyeuristically from the outside, has the power to transform us. But it will never be the same as someone looking you in your eyes while you tell them something you’re feeling shame about and realizing that they’re not judging you the way you expected them to.”

Continue Reading

Recent Posts