Swoon by Betsy Prioleau

Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them BY Betsy Prioleau. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.
The cover of Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them

It’s a sad time to be heterosexual. Men are angry at women, women are angry at men, and nobody’s getting the type of action they want. But here comes a book to solve all that, to clear away confusion, restore male dynamism, and rekindle the spark of chemistry in straight mating. The jacket copy of cultural historian Betsy Prioleau’s Swoon promises to reveal “surprising seductive secrets” of the old masters in the interest of giving the beleaguered modern man a leg up on the nigh impossible task of wooing a modern woman. Subtitled “Great Seducers and Why Women Love” them, the book purports to answer “one of history’s most vexing questions: What do women want?”

Building on its portraits of lady-killers from Casanova to Lord Byron to Julius Caesar, the book claims that most great seducers share common characteristics. These characteristics, the book adds, can still be acquired by contemporary men on the make. Here’s the condensed version of what women want in a man: intelligence, bravery, charisma, a big “hose,” conversational skills, artistic inclinations, rule-breaking, variety, gifts, laughter, cooking ability, “specialness,” ambition, flattery, an eye for interior design, and flaws. No more saying you don’t know, fellas.

To suggest that men need only adopt certain qualities in order to seduce women is a questionable sales hook, with its suggestion that Swoon is a sort of “owner’s manual” type guide for men. Moreover, the whole premise falls apart as the book progresses, because, as even Prioleau admits, ladies’ men defy defining. We’re told that her gallery of lotharios “could be faithful”—very brief spurts of monogamy seem to satisfy this requirement—but few were. Seducers allegedly don’t overindulge in food or drink, yet alcoholics Jackson Pollock and Kingsley Amis did both. Some are handsome, some are ugly, and others average looking. The “therapy heartthrob” is painted as too conscientious and too calm to be sexy, yet elsewhere Prioleau encourages the male adoption of “expressivity, nurturance, and communication.” The only thing seducers truly have in common is that they get laid a lot.

If you feel overwhelmed, it’s understandable. Swoon is packed with contradictions, perpetually undecided about what it wants to say and bogged down by unnecessary quotes and odd cultural references. While Prioleau excels at recounting the escapades of colorful historical figures, she struggles with the attempt to present anecdotal content as educational and intellectual when it is emphatically neither. Was it absolutely necessary to share that Lord Chesterfield told his son women like to be complimented, or to enlist Simone de Beauvoir in the dubious endeavor of arguing that women’s sexuality is “flattery-operated?”

The most challenging element of Swoon isn’t the slippery nature of the ladies’ man but rather Prioleau’s regressive framework for interpreting romance, which tends towards sexism, classism, and even racism. She strikes ugly notes early on when she dismisses today’s pick-up artists as only being able to bed “desperate” and “sad, lonely” women like “strippers” and “ladies with ‘porn star’ skills.” Her lauded seducers, in contrast, win over “premier” and “superior” women, which proves they’re real men, not “boys or sissies.” Women are “particularly susceptible to mind spells” and unusually difficult to understand, which is why it takes “a gay man in a straight man’s body” to be able to figure them out. In one of the few references to a person of color, Prioleau takes 50 Cent to task for rapping that he prefers “having sex” to “making love” (she calls him a “spawn-of-Satan impersonator”). But notorious philanderers like Ben Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty are among her “great seducers,” held up as role models for contemporary men.

The world celebrated here is one of privilege and selective morals, where a woman can guiltlessly leave a dull husband for a man who flies her to Jamaica for dinner and where Casanova is the romantic ideal—in spite of the fact that he asked his own daughter to marry him (just a cute misunderstanding, apparently). Successful seducers of the past are permitted a host of bad behaviors under the assumption that they showed their partners such a good time. Prioleau stresses that these men love women, and therefore never intend to be cruel, but the practical differences between partnering an impulsive womanizer who insists he has a good heart and partnering an unrepentant womanizer who admits he likes variety, are never fully explored. In spite of a chapter on how to keep chemistry alive, Swoon is primarily about conquests rather than durable, every-day relationships.

Accordingly, female passivity is assumed and even championed. The aforementioned excellent women need only be in the right place at the right time to find themselves chosen by a seducer; no effort on their part is required, least of all sexual self-knowledge. Statistics on “female sexual dysfunction” are presented without critique and it’s understood that all a woman needs is the right man in order to achieve life-altering orgasms. (Similarly unquestioned is the use of orgasm as sexual scoring device.)

Call it the “someday my prince will come” approach to sexual satisfaction. “What’s wanted—craved deep in our ganglia”—Prioleau writes, “are men who will restore sensuosity, satisfaction, and primal joy.” In other words, our only job as presumably straight women is to “pick men” who “move the needle” of our “internal pleasure-meter” rather than moving that needle ourselves. If you haven’t yet experienced sexual ecstasy, it’s because you haven’t found the right partner. Pardon me—I mean you haven’t been found by the right man.

Charlotte Shane has written for Salon and the New Inquiry, and reviews regularly for Tits and Sass.