This past academic course I have gone through a quite peculiar experience in tutoring. One of our MA students, a young man from Hong Kong, asked me to supervise a dissertation on the topic of why James Bond is a low-quality seducer. He intended to take at least one film which each of the main actors playing this major British icon (Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig), examine each seduction process, and dismantle Bond’s reputation as a proficient seducer. The originality of the proposal is that this student wanted to measure Bond against the tenets of the seduction industry but not really attack the very concept of seduction using pro-feminist arguments.
If you have never heard of the seduction industry, then what I am narrating here might not be shocking to you. But it was to me. Basically, there is a whole world-wide network of heterosexual men training other heterosexual men on how to seduce women (I mean online but also in face-to-face seminars). This does not sound so negative until you realize that mainly the coaches bolster their tutorees’ sense of sexual entitlement by teaching them to gain access to women’s bodies quite aggressively. The idea is to cancel out the women’s capacity to choose, and to consent, using what often borders on coercion. The student asking for my help, however, did not seem to be that kind of man and so I asked him to explain himself. To my astonishment he said that I was the first woman to show a willingness to listen to him. Well, I told myself, I’m a Gender Studies specialist and I must study anything connected with gender, even if it raises difficult issues for me.
My new tutoree, for I soon accepted being his tutor, clarified that he had been attracted to the seduction industry for romantic reasons, as he was in love with a young woman who did not reciprocate. The advice received, he claims, allowed him to interest this girl and the happy result is that they are about to marry. I have seen them together and they make a lovely couple, believe me. As I learned about the seduction industry from my student, then, I taught him how to curb down any sexism that might surface in his investigation of James Bond. This was not at all difficult, since I found no sexism in his approach. We agreed that the aim of seduction should be mutual satisfaction (whether sexual or romantic) based on good intercommunication, always founded on consent. He wrote thus a doubly inspiring dissertation, for it has the rare merit of being pro-feminist while being extremely candid about the seduction techniques marketed by professional pick-up artists (or PUAs) to other men.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of the whole process of tutoring this dissertation was my having to reassure my student’s examiners (two British male scholars) that he was acting in good faith, being properly critical, and not defending at all a misogynistic argumentation. I warned my student that his examiners might read his dissertation as a covert political attack against Britain, since he is, as I have noted, from Hong Kong and the current political protests there started shortly before he submitted his text. It might seem, I pointed out, that by destroying Bond he was tearing down British power and implicitly denouncing Britain’s decision to leave Hong Kong in China’s hands, with the negative results now becoming visible. He strongly denied this was his intention, and his examiners did not raise the issue at all. As the gentlemen they are, both examiners were aghast at the seduction industry’s cold, exploitative approach to women but also amazed that my student defended the need for heterosexual men to be somehow trained to approach women successfully, in romantic terms. It had worked for him, he insisted.
I eventually suggested to my student that he read Jean Baudrillard’s classic Seduction (1979, translated into English in 1990). He did so but told me that its arguments did not apply to his own research. I realize that he is right. Baudrillard’s appallingly sexist monograph is a call for French women not to cease seducing men as feminism demanded at the time (or so he claims). He writes that feminist women are “ashamed of seduction, as implying an artificial presentation of the body, or a life of vassalage and prostitution. They do not understand that seduction represents mastery over the symbolic universe, while power represents only mastery of the real universe. The sovereignty of seduction is incommensurable with the possession of political or sexual power” (8). This is more or less in line with the letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and a long list of French women, at the start of the #MeToo movement, to demand that seduction and flirtation be maintained intact, as they are part of how heterosexual men and women connect, and not abusive displays of power as American women claimed.
Before I turn to the current use of the word seduction in English, allow me to stress that a major problem is how seduction connects with coercion–not now, but along its troubled history. Baudrillard and Deneuve apparently defend a very Gallic view of seduction with no victims, in which even when you know that you’re being manipulated the ensuing sexual encounter can be great fun. And I mean in both cases, either when the woman or when the man is the seducer. I don’t know anything about Giacomo Casanova, but I know a little about English Literature, in which the seducer is always in essence a rapist. Samuel Johnson’s pioneering 18th century novels, Pamela and Clarissa, are horrid tales of abuse in which, respectively, the virtuous heroine marries her potential rapist and she is raped and then dies of shame. Clarissa’s abuser, Lovelace, is the epitome of the seducer in English culture. Next comes Byron (author of the epic Don Juan) who, most biographers agree today, was a misogynist who preferred men’s company. This is not surprising, as the whole point of donjuanesque seduction is being able to tell the tale to other men, and thus validate one’s patriarchal, predatory masculinity.
The whole point of coercive seduction (not of the playful kind no one discusses anymore) is that it victimizes women. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham’s fundamental wickedness is exposed when Elizabeth is told how he tried to seduce Darcy’s teen sister, Georgiana. Austen’s readers understood very well how this worked: unlike the straightforward rapist, the seducer convinces his victim with his sleek performance of romance to collaborate in her own abuse. As happens in rape, too, the victim of seduction feels ashamed that she could not defend herself (thus are women doubly victimized), though in seduction she feels, besides, mortified for having been gullible enough to believe that the parody of romance was true. Wickham, it must be noted, does not intend to seduce and abandon Georgiana but to seduce and marry her, the solution often preferred in these cases, once the woman was ruined. In contrast, his own seduction by Elizabeth’s flighty fifteen-year-old sister Lydia does not ruin him. Austen, of course, punishes Wickham by having Darcy orchestrate his marriage to Lydia, which can only be a very unhappy one, but his reputation is not damaged. Mr. Bennet even considers Wickham his favourite son-in-law.
Seduction, in the sense that my student used it, is a new post-1990s concept studied in depth by Rachel O’Neill in her recent volume Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy (Cambridge: Polity, 2018). I have only come across it a few weeks ago, which is how things work: you only find what you need for research after the fact. O’Neill uses an ethnographic approach to describe the seduction industry from the inside, though this is often hindered by the sexist way in which she is treated by coaches and students. Her postscript describing her troubles is both illuminating and depressing. “The programmatic logics of seduction” O’Neill writes, “preclude genuine dialogue and enable men to bypass all but the most nominal considerations of consent”. In fact, she argues, the seduction industry is not focused on the women but on how to sell its mainly middle-class, professional clients (the fees are quite high) the skills required to “achieve greater control in his relationships with women” mainly to enter a supportive fraternity based on the lie that it is not based on money. The male clients, O’Neill writes, believe that they are being validated by their friendly coaches without realizing that they are being exploited following the tenets of neoliberal culture, for which intimacy is just the object of business. The clients, however, become complicit because their coaches promise “access to so-called high-value women –whose worth is calculated using aesthetic criteria that are deeply classed and racialised”. Whereas truly wealthy men have no problem accessing these trophy women as mistresses or wives, less fortunate men (in riches or looks) need the support of the seduction industry to be able to claim that they had sex with many highly desirable women. This, O’Neill writes, has nothing to do with desire and intimacy but with patriarchal validation.
‘To be against seduction’, O’Neill writes in her conclusions ‘is to be against the kinds of sexual encounters in which the perspectives and experiences of our partners are valued only insofar as they enable us to more readily manipulate others to comply with our own wishes’. The women are oddly absent from her book, as O’Neill claims that they have been researched by others, but the main problem is that the coaches and clients she interviews end up standing for all the men in the contemporary world (or at least in the UK). O’Neill cannot, besides, be an impartial researcher for, like me, she is a feminist and, thus, bound to find in the seduction industry the misogynistic horrors which any woman (and most men) can anticipate when first coming across its description. She tries hard to keep her balance, but her book is ultimately highly offensive against those in the seduction industry and cannot build any bridges with it.
What I am saying is that if one stops to listen, as I did (sorry to brag), the success of the seduction industry turns out to be based on a much wider need to re-connect with women. Reading O’Neill, I realize that the coaches are doing the work that feminist women should be doing. O’Neill very rightly suggests that the clients are being seduced by exploitative men who do not see their male students as fellow human beings but as business opportunities. I know that what I’ll say sounds ridiculous, but the problem is that the men eager to be in relationships with women have no feminist coaches to teach them new ways of approaching mutually satisfactory seduction. And so, they all fall prey to the seduction industry. Reading Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful millennial novel Normal People, it is obvious to me that neither men nor women know how to approach each other, even when they are in (heterosexual) relationships. At one point, befuddled by how his girlfriend Marianne is behaving, Connell tells himself that he had no idea where men learn intimacy. As for Marianne, it seems she has learned it from Fifty Shades of Grey…
Would anyone like to become my business partner and found a new-style school for seduction…? Just kidding–or maybe not.
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