sexual politics

Should There Be a Future for Seduction?

Photo: Derin Thorpe/Getty Images

Not long ago, I was contacted by a married woman — I’ll call her Lily — who wanted me to write the story of her seduction, which had occurred, as things tend to these days, mostly online. There was a guy in a Facebook group (handsome, accomplished); there was messaging, which evolved into flirting and soon many texts a day; then sexting, feelings, and declarations of love. I think we all know how this sort of thing can start to consume your life — you feel wanted, exhilarated, alive. You’re thinking about the person all the time, and hearing from him becomes like a drug you’re miserable without.

Except that at some point Lily figured out that he had the same thing going on with other women in the group, and she didn’t just feel duped — it was like she’d been stabbed and left in the gutter to die. A crime had been committed against her. My job was to make the guy pay for what he did by writing about it and exposing him to the world’s condemnation.

I declined to help Lily exact her revenge, but the conversation got me thinking about the future of seduction. Does it have one? It seems dubious. Coaxing people into things they’re initially reluctant (though might secretly yearn) to do in the realm of sex and romance, though a time-honored ritual of literature, movies, and perhaps a few well-burnished memories, has become rather suspect. HR officers are standing by. Also the internet. Charm itself smells a little rapey: an illegitimate exercise of power.

Should we be saying good riddance, because seduction was always a con and the imprudent sometimes got hurt? Perhaps, in other words, discrediting seduction should be counted among the many unassailable gains of the #MeToo movement. Or should we lament its passing, because imprudence is what make us human, and what’s life without illusions?

Even when things went well, seduction had its perils. To be seduced meant opening yourself up to something you hadn’t anticipated — allowing your will to be penetrated by the will of another, your boundaries to be ignored, if not trampled. Certain realities must be suspended for the duration. You become a little foreign to yourself, which is no doubt why so many classic seduction tales take place in foreign locales. You’re an explorer of unfamiliar landscapes (your own included), but travel is precarious: The language is confusing, you’re scammed by wily locals. Valuables get pilfered.

Classically, seducers have been male and the holdouts female, since women have historically been the sexual gatekeepers, for reasons we can debate for all of eternity. Yet other configurations are certainly possible, given that heterosexuals aren’t the only ones doing the seducing, as well as the heightened gatekeeping demanded of us all these days. “I can’t, I’m your boss” or “I mustn’t, I’m your professor” could provide seduction prospects galore for the sexually intrepid of any gender. A “no” to overcome is the seducer’s raison d’être.

It does, however, bear saying that even in the classic gender arrangement, the seduced wasn’t a passive bystander: Her resistance was critical. Yielding too soon dooms the whole enterprise (as does not yielding at all). From this point of a view, a seduction is a joint project between two people collaborating in the weakening of one’s defenses, watching them melt like chocolate in a double boiler. The structural necessity for demurral is why the wedded or betrothed have always provided such excellent seduction possibilities; think courtly love. To the dedicated seducer, “I can’t, I’m married” is the beginning of a negotiation. So what if it takes a while. Delay is an aphrodisiac, and besides, you’re worth the wait.

Which is exactly why being the object of a seduction campaign could feel so wonderful: Your uniqueness was what put the story in motion. You were the treasure at the end of a quest and thus newly treasured by yourself, most likely.

In Lily’s case, her seducer’s offense wasn’t just failing to be the person she thought he was — this couldn’t have been entirely surprising. No, my hunch is that his true misdeed was robbing Lily of that delicious feeling of singularity she’d come to rely on, her specialness — he’d absconded with what she’d come to think of as hers. Worse, he’d saddled her with a quantity of self-awareness she didn’t wish to have: about the romantic intensity she craved, and how much reality she’d been willing to suspend to get it. Which he’d obviously known. A good seducer knows you better than you know yourself, which is what makes them so damnable.

No doubt it’s retrograde these days to wish to melt like chocolate or be scaled like a fortress. Even writers of romance fiction are having to revise the tropes of the seductive hero. The handsome bastard who knew the heroine’s desires better than she did herself used to be hot, at least in fantasy. Now our fantasies are meant to get with the program, too: The preferred romantic template is the contract, not the tempest. “Enthusiastic consent” has its benefits, but being surprised by your desires probably isn’t among them.

No wonder so many of us are conflicted in our longings lately. Who doesn’t want to be passionately wooed, to be insistently persuaded, against all practical knowledge, that you’re the one, the only one? It’s tough to say no to extravagant expressions of ardor and (seemingly) undivided attention. Then we lash out when things go south. Restitution must be made, lest it be thought the seduced entered these arrangements voluntarily.

Recent example: Aziz Ansari. Here was a particularly unskillful seducer, as the world learned after his date with a woman named “Grace,” who revealed her version of the events online. It was a story that many found fascinating — some because it laid bare the zone in which seduction seeps into coercion, others because it showed how inexplicably difficult it still is for a woman to get up and leave a guy’s apartment when she doesn’t like his vibe.

I was fascinated for another reason. The subtext of the evening, as I read it, wasn’t that Grace was unwilling to be seduced. She just wanted things to go differently, slower, more romantic, less porny. Grace wished to be someone’s rare prize, and Ansari treated her as though she were interchangeable. So unshakable was her script that even being served white wine instead of red felt like an affront — that’s not who she was! He failed to know her better than she knew herself! (Perhaps in his eyes they were treating each other as interchangeable, that to her he was just another celebrity, but he hasn’t said this.)

As we know, Ansari apologized via text for misreading Grace’s cues, but she wasn’t mollified. So she went to the authorities — that is, the internet. Like Lily, she wanted to shame her would-be seducer, and while there were murmurings that this was a case of #MeToo gone too far, for the most part, we jumped into action, doling out the requisite punishment in a national humiliation campaign directed at Ansari.

Personally, if my services are being demanded to disgrace disappointing seducers, I’d like something in return, which is for the claimants to cop to the terms of the transaction. To acknowledge that there was an implicit bargain going in: You were relying on the seducer to supply certain goods and services — intensity, consolation, fantasy — in exchange for your participation. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting such things. How else are we supposed to survive the perpetual letdowns of reality?

The dismal truth is that none of us is particularly unique, but it’s a solace to occasionally be persuaded otherwise, even temporarily. It does, of course, mean that the people we’re best at conning will be ourselves — and never more than in the reassuring fables we tell of preyed-upon innocence and virtue wronged.

*This article appears in the June 11, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Should There Be a Future for Seduction?