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It is midway through a Saturday afternoon relationship seminar at Alexandria’s Cameron Perks Coffeehouse, and dating coach Jae Ellis is preparing to shatter a myth. “I’m going to shatter a myth right now,” he says. “Are you ready?” The crowd—nine men, five women—is ready. “Women,” says Ellis, “like to have sex.”
The students nod. Some take notes.
The revelation is one of many in Ellis’ crash course on hooking up, “Dating and Attraction 101,” offered through full-service dating help organization AskRomeo.com. Ellis, who sports a maroon button-down, a little bit of heft, and a line of facial hair that traces his jaw and continues up the center of his chin, formed AskRomeo in 2006, along with friend Allen Bickoff. Bickoff is also a little hefty and also wears a maroon shirt—though his is slightly less buttoned. When it comes to attracting women, Ellis and Bickoff will tell you that their looks aren’t nearly as important as their male personae.
Through instructive courses, private pickup tutoring, and intensive dating boot camps, Ellis and Bickoff promise to teach how to best embody gender-specific roles. AskRomeo.com’s programming bills itself as co-gendered; while men will learn “how to project a refreshingly bold masculine presence that sweeps a woman off her feet,” women learn “how to project a wonderfully alluring feminine presence that catches the heart of Mr. Right.”
Along the way, some heterosexuals just might have sex—at a cost. Though the group course runs just over a hundred bucks, a three-hour, one-on-one coaching session with an AskRomeo.com instructor goes for $397. A full three-month program, called the AskRomeo academy, runs $3,997 to $7,777. For only $2,996 per week, you can live with Ellis and Bickoff in the Reston apartment that doubles as their office.
Ellis calls AskRomeo.com’s seminars “paradigm-shifting,” but their real appeal lies in an emphasis on convention. The program peppers research from pop-psych books and 18th Street bar-hopping with out-there buzzwords like “vibing,” “high social status,” and “Tuesday-night salsa dancing.” In order to understand women’s sexuality, Ellis recommends Nancy Friday’s 1973 female fantasy book My Secret Garden, a collection so old its introduction centers on a Johnny Unitas sex dream. The “Golden Arm” died nearly five years ago.
Ellis’ arsenal of sources also includes a veritable Netflix queue of dated Hollywood hits. Need tips on how to be charming? Rent Top Gun. Want to understand the attraction between men and women? Check out When Harry Met Sally. Searching for insight into women’s sexuality? Catch any episode of Sex and the City. How about the seminar itself? “This is a little bit like the movie Hitch,” explains Ellis.
These by-the-numbers books and films indicate why AskRomeo.com’s advice can be so comforting to the socially awkward: It deals in stereotypes of difference that can be itemized, memorized, and learned. That Ellis and Bickoff’s recommendations can be sexist—and, perhaps more troubling, obvious—seems only to heighten their appeal to a group of singles struggling to find a fix to their mating troubles. At the seminar, Ellis suggests participants “try on this advice for size, like a suit jacket”:
“Men like to fight our way through all the bad guys to save the princess from the dragon,” he says. “That’s why the firefighter is the No. 1 sexiest occupation.”
For women: “It’s important to be flirtatious,” he says. “Put on some makeup. Do the sexy thing.”
But Ellis and Bickoff haven’t always been so studied in the dating behavior they now describe as a “natural” approach. The pair met as toddlers—Ellis’ mother babysat 1-year-old Bickoff at Ellis’ home in Fairfax—but the two lost touch until their mid-20s. Ellis, who cites a 10-year background in self-help, says he began formulating his dating technique after a broken engagement soured him on the idea of playing the “nice guy.”
Bickoff, who runs an education center for troubled youth in addition to his AskRomeo.com duties, also played—and lost—that game. In the four years he studied sociology and women’s studies at the University of Northern Colorado, “I was only intimate with one woman,” says Bickoff, who attributes his collegiate dry spell to excessive feminist posturing. “I was the ultimate nice guy. You know, ‘women are repressed, all this stuff’s going on, we’ve got to challenge gender differences,’ and everything,” he says.
“I was doing it to meet women,” he explains. It did not work. “I was afraid to be that chauvinist jerk. I was afraid it would be coming on too strong. I was sitting and listening and rejecting that traditional masculine role.”
When Bickoff moved back to the D.C. area and reunited with a heartbroken Ellis, the two attempted to resurrect their dating lives by launching into theories on how to pick up women—and embracing their masculinity. “For about a year,” Bickoff says, “we were getting our hands on all the material we possibly could, all the self-help books and pop psychology, and going out and testing it five nights a week.”
At first, the pair’s professional activities were fairly ad-hoc. “We would trade private coaching for clients to pay our cover charges and buy us dinner,” says Ellis. Now, the operation has expanded to six additional cities. Ellis says that nearly 600 people have attended an AskRomeo.com seminar, and somewhere between 35 and 40 clients have sought one-on-one coaching. Bickoff estimates that while 60 percent of seminar attendees are women, 80 percent of one-on-one clients are men. One man signed up to stay in Ellis and Bickoff’s apartment and lived there for five weeks, eating meals, going out to bars, and listening in on phone conversations with women. Now, the former client works as an instructor in AskRomeo.com’s Raleigh, N.C., branch.
For Bickoff, at least, embracing masculinity has paid off personally as well. Nine months ago, he entered into a relationship based on love and mutual respect with a woman who coaches part-time for AskRomeo.com. This Valentine’s Day, he explains, he treated his significant other to a night filled with flowers, chocolate, candles, and sensual massage oils.
“You can be a feminist professionally, you can be a feminist politically, but you can’t be a feminist in dating,” explains Ellis. “Dating is run by biological processes, not politically correct processes. It has nothing to do with equal work for equal pay. We have different chemistry, and we should act differently.”
Adds Bickoff, “We’re trying to reintroduce the androcentric view into feminist theory and bring in the idea of real gender differences,” he says, adding, “I know that a lot of feminists wouldn’t like this.”
At least one man at the Dating & Attraction 101 seminar, though, likes it. For the slight, shaved-head 25-year-old well-known to his instructors, the advice has changed his life—and his vocabulary. “It’s about having high status and learning how to vibe,” the student explains. Before finding AskRomeo.com, “I didn’t have a lot of luck with women for a very long time.” Although his “about weekly” meetings with the instructors haven’t been cheap, the process has landed him dates, and “it’s given me a lot of insights into women.…Have you read My Secret Garden?” he asks. “You really should.”
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