The Truth: The Redemption of The Game Author Neil Strauss

(Originally appeared in GQ, October, 2015)

Ten years ago, the author of The Game was a hero for aspiring Lotharios—and a headache for their moms and would-be conquests. Now he’s back with a new book about… love.

In 2005, Neil Strauss unleashed The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists onto the world, and, like herpes, it seems incapable of ever leaving our system. This was more than a book; this was a dating bible for the 21st century that even reflected a holy book’s design: faux leather cover, with gold gilding on the edges. The Game was a philosophy, a movement, a way of life. It oozed its way into all corners of pop culture, going so far as to be referenced on The Simpsons. It was the one book that frat boys read that year for pleasure. Or any other year. Mothers spoke about it incredulously. It still ranks nineteenth among all of Amazon’s thousands of self-help sex books.

Most importantly, however, The Game finally gave good reason for male virgins to make their way squinting into a bright, new world. These men were no longer losers, but Pick Up Artists (or PUAs), roaming bars with clever patter and “flair” on their clothing and magic tricks up their sleeves. Romance and sex were finally theirs for the taking, and the key to the kingdom was handed to them by a 5’6″ bald, self-described nerd who didn’t lose his own virginity until his early twenties and then ended up with a penis rubbed raw from copious amounts of sex.

But that was ten years ago, and now, here comes the antidote: The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, out this week. Strauss took much heat forThe Game, and now says that it makes him “cringe.” So is this new volume a true act of atonement, or merely an effective marketing scheme that better fits with today’s myriad edicts on how to have a healthy, respectful relationship, long-term or otherwise?

When the book opens, Strauss is torn. This isn’t as easy as he had first thought. Should he continue with the easy hookups? Is it fully out of his system? Or should he pull a 180 and head back on the path toward monogamy? He’s met a beautiful, smart woman named Ingrid, and she could very well be “the one.” We should all have such problems, right?

After some consideration, Strauss (little surprise) chooses to keep going, untethering himself from his (albeit somewhat shaky) monogamous relationship, and into a world of “free-love communities, modern-day harems, scientists, swingers, sex anorexics, priestesses, leather families, former child actors.”

Beyond running into former child actor Corey Feldman at a swingers event (sporting a red bathrobe and wearing a white mask), this proves to be a treacherous landscape. You’re free to travel wherever your fantasies might lead, but you’re also constantly susceptible to potential danger. For example, you can attend a “sex workshop event” at a nudist resort, sure, but you might also have a “pot-bellied” Abraham Lincoln standing above your prone body, asking in a deep voice: “Do you need a partner?” Sure, you can sign up for an orgy—no one’s going to stop you—but you might have to suffer the embarrassment of getting kicked out for eating popcorn too loudly (a first in the history of orgies?).

No one’s going to prevent you from starting a polygamous household with three gorgeous women, either. But you will have to sweat over logistics. In this specific case, which of the three can ride shotgun on the way to the club, and which two will have to sit in the back? “Bringing lovers together can evidently be like introducing cats,” Strauss writes. “Everything must be done with care, thought, and precision, otherwise they’ll never get along.”

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? This is not the sexual fantasy that Strauss, or anyone else, imagined as a horny teen. This is a world filled with unfathomable amounts of sex, but also a lot of bad sex. There’s also a tremendous amount of guilt, which, Strauss finds, could lead to intensive therapy, which might eventually lead to checking into an institution for “sex addiction.” Then there’s the chance that you’ll become addicted to the very therapy that’s supposed to free you from all of your otheraddictions—if you ever had any to begin with.

And let’s not forget the poor, injured penis, which looms large over the proceedings like the pendulum in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Is it red and sore from overuse? Or … for another reason?

In the end, everyone seems flummoxed by human sexual behavior. We are hardwired to want it all. “There are two contradictory evolutionary desires,” Strauss concludes. For variety. For family.

But his epiphany is hard-earned and appears to be genuine: We can’t have it all, but we can have something. Strauss ends up choosing family, exhausted from his vision quest into a shimmering sexual fantasy that was more mirage than reality. Totally spent, he’s back where he started, with Ingrid; they’re now happily married and have a seven-month-old son.

As a reader, one can’t help but admire the chutzpah it took for Strauss to even set out on this journey, let alone complete it—albeit with a “friction-sore dick.” (Admiration is also in order for the saint-like Ingrid, who allowed all this to begin with. How many women would allow a “beautiful bird” to roam free from “his cage” in order to find himself?) That Strauss returned a better, happier, and emotionally healthy man (with no STDs) is even more impressive—he’s lucky to have what he has and he knows it.

“Sex is easy to find—whether through game, money, chance, social proof, or charm,” Strauss writes. “So are affairs, orgies, adventures, and three-month relationships—if you know where to look and are willing to go there. But love is rare.”

The same could be said of a memoir like this one.