Jan 31 2013

Swoon by Betsy Prioleau

Charlotte Shane

web exclusive


Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them

by Betsy Prioleau

W. W. Norton & Company

$26.95 List Price

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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.

betsy prioleau

January 31, 2013
8:55 pm

This is my first review by a prostitute—and a first book review for this prostitute (to my knowledge). I have no quarrel with prostitutes, as long as they know how to read. But “Nightmare Brunette,” as she calls herself, apparently didn’t read SWOON. I never suggested that ladies’ men are role models; I say off the bat that they happen to have a big secret—what rocks women—which we can harvest and put to positive uses. “Racism, sexism, classism?” What was she smoking? I profile at least five African Americans, celebrate “hot choosers” (ultra-feminists), and boldface the theme of classlessness among ladykillers. And her view of what I say they have in common is a figment of her imagination. I’m frankly shocked that a publication as distinguished as Bookforum would publish such a lowbrow, dishonest, and poorly executed critique. And I welcome smart criticism! Betsy Prioleau, Ph.D.


February 8, 2013
12:10 pm

Betsy Prioleau, Ph.D: 'Lowbrow, dishonest, and poorly executed' applies to your obvious attempts at public shaming. Screeching 'PROSTITUTE' three times in your first two sentences - is that a call for us to gather up stones for throwing? Or are you simply appalled that a sex worker would dare to read and critique your work?


February 8, 2013
5:50 pm

Yes, if she wanted to ensure that I never read this book and in fact furthermore discourage people from buying this book or taking her at all seriously Betsy Prioleau has certainly done her job.


February 8, 2013
6:31 pm

You "welcome smart criticism", apparently, only when the person who gives it meets your specific criteria of worth, and judging by that comment sex workers are valueless in your narrow, diminishing, ignorant point of view. Yep, all those illiterate prostitutes, just slapping away at typewriters until something resembling a review shoots out and gets posted on Bookforum. Criticism, especially negative criticism, is hard to take. I get it. But instead of shooting the messenger (or in this case, insulting her based on her past which you have absolutely no firsthand knowledge of), maybe have the courage to dig into your work and understand her point of view. Or you could do what many writers do: Have some class and let your publisher handle the critics.


February 8, 2013
6:34 pm

Careful Betsy, your narcissism is showing!


February 8, 2013
7:07 pm

Excellent review, Ms. Shane.

I myself am anything but passive with respect to romance. I even proposed to my husband (after thoroughly seducing him). I fear that the instruction in this book just restates and reinforces sad and defective dating norms.

It is also too bad that the author has shown her hand in these comments. I might have given the book a chance just to see for myself, but I think I will avoid it now.


February 8, 2013
9:00 pm

Charlotte pulled out quotations DIRECTLY from the literature. Your book reads more like it was written by Cosmo instead of a supposed respected professional.

The response was COMPLETELY out of line and makes not want anything to do with you or any of your work.

Congratulations on showing your true colors. You are no aid to women. You are part of the problem. I will not buy anything from you ever.


February 9, 2013
2:10 am

Dear Diary,

Today I got really sad when I found out a prostitute was many times more intelligent than me and wrote a really poignant negative review of my terrible, terrible book I threw a comical baby fit and tried to shame her and insult her and the editors who published the review but everybody just kept being mean to ME, instead! You'd've thought I was the dirty prostitute! I just wished someone would turn to me and say, Betsy, you may have written a stinker of a book, you are a philistine and don't really know anything about what you tried to write about, thus offending a whole lot of people who made the mistake of taking your silly book seriously, but YOU HAVE A PHD! And I would say, 'thanks, daddy'

Betsy (I HAVE A PhD, EVERYONE!!!) Prioleau, PhD, PhD


February 9, 2013
3:32 pm

I have a life of experience with sex workers. If you want to experience wrath, question their intelligence. But what does a sex worker know about the secrets and magic that create sincere seduction? If I want to reach a below-the-belt orgasm with a good actress who gets paid by the hour, I hire a sex worker. If I want my brain to pulse in rapturous delight about the vim and verve of Casanova, I'll read a book by Betsy Prioleau.

Has Bookforum gone all trendy on us? Are there no qualifications to review serious nonfiction these days? Is a review by gay pornstar/author Aiden Shaw expected soon?

Would Bookforum assign comparable books like Lisa Appignanesi’s "All About Love," Alain de Botton’s "How to Think More About Sex," or Scott Baring Kaufman’s "Mating Intelligence Unleashed" to a self-proclaimed “prostitute” without major credentials in either writing or relationships? If you want readers to seriously consider a critique of "Swoon," why not enlist an expert? I read and loved "Seductress." I think Betsy Prioleau’s reputation and stature as a writer deserves better.


February 12, 2013
1:32 am

Charlotte Shane is a writer who has been published in notable publications and edits one of the sex workers' rights movement's most respected blogs. The fact that she is a sex worker should neither add nor detract from her credentials unless bigotry is coming into play. The above commenter's assumption that sex workers are only capable of doing sex work says more about him than it does about anything else. It's not "trendy" to enlist a capable reviewer, who is certainly qualified. Argue with the review's content and dispense with the whorephobic ad hominem attacks.


February 12, 2013
1:50 am

Oh, and as a sex worker, I'm impressed by your "lifetime of experience" with us, which obviously allows you to state with finality that none of us could possibly have the expertise to be accomplished writers,or, for that matter, accomplished seductresses outside of our work, seeing as how some of us tolerated you for long enough to take your money a few times.


February 14, 2013
9:56 am

I can't resist.

"a writer who has been published in notable publications"
That's the worst PR line I've ever read, and I work in show business. Those words are meaningless. I'll admit Shane is trying very hard.

"edits one of the sex workers' rights movement's most respected blogs"
Good luck selling that credential in a world where people freely mock a Ph.D., as evidenced on this Bookforum blog.

"The fact that she is a sex worker should neither add nor detract from her credentials"
Good luck with that sales pitch, too. Are you saying that it was a coincidence that Bookforum chose a blogger/prostitute to review SWOON? If so, that's laughable.

Yes, much like "sexism, classism, and racism," internet troll writers know the simple buzz words that get attention. The trouble is, the more you read and see these words being abused, appearing where they shouldn't, the more tired your eye muscles get from your eyes rolling backwards. And then, when those words really do count for something, the brain is too tired for anyone to care. Insightful writing? I don't think so.

"The above commenter's assumption that sex workers are only capable of doing sex work"
This sounds like an angry prostitute longing to be recognized as a writer, because she's tired of being asked for sex advice. Whose assumption is this anyway? Every (good) sex worker I know does the work as an avocation, and longs to be successful doing something else. Let's face it, an orgasm for the sake of orgasm is over-rated, no matter what you spend, and nurses deserve more love, too.

"capable reviewer"
Yeah, right. Everyone has an opinion.

"who is certainly qualified"
The more you say it won't make it true.

Another cheap, angry buzz word. I can't speak for anyone else, but I adore my favorite sex workers. I see nothing wrong with two adults having fun.

"Argue with the review's content"
If I sincerely felt Shane read the same book I read, I would take the time to challenge every word of her bloated, misguided analysis of Prioleau's scholarly research. Now that I've read this so-called "review," it's clear I don't care about Shane's opinion, so why bother?

"to state with finality that none of us could possibly have the expertise to be accomplished writers"
Whoever wrote this is deluded, defensive, and insecure. And much like Shane, lacks reading comprehension skills (or maybe has an agenda). I've met many sex workers who were gifted with talents that had nothing to do with their sex-for-money avocation. I know a fabulous doctor who paid for every minute of her education via sex work, because her family had a tragic history and not a penny to their name. I'm a firm believer in encouraging people to follow their dreams. So much for "state with finality."


February 22, 2013
3:13 am

Dear Rockhard, just because you've experienced fatigue does not validate your opinions. If your eyes get tired from reading another's truth and their precise expression of it. Their articulation of it, you are on the look out for making a splash and causing a stir. That is beneath a serious thinker- humanitarian- or poet philosopher as we at Book Forum expect each other to be. Leaven your cynicism with some Hope and STUDY yourself ^^. Pay attention to yourself when you reveal to yourself that you cannot resist. Cannot resist what? Weighing in with your wisened force upon the unsuspecting masses? Dude, BE NICE.

Are you aware that the sex trafficking industry operates with the copious assistance of military might, at times?

That the hurt your fantasies and the rest of man and woman kind's selfish hunt for cum ACTUALLY and presently help destroy the lives of innocent children, who certainly don't deserve it.

OHHH BOYYY now he's done it. Why go THERE? Well, the simple fact is, prostitution points to an endemic human condition, levered in patriarchy and evidenced every day a woman wears a burkka. All facetious rationales aside. There is a RELIGION on EARTH still propagating different roles for men and women based on a bunch of rules regulations and commentaries made into law and having little to do with extending warmth and compassion where the opportunity presents itself for.

Let's try it again. Just with more NICE, eh? I am humbly asking. Look into your heart, I do mine, don't say it is stupid. Try to reach that part of yourself that still believes in King Arthur, and know when a damsel in distress just needs someone to listen.

ALTERNATELY, if you cannot reconcile hypermodern gender roles within what narrow world view consensus of your peers, hegemonic force, and simple socius admit for... then be silent. Allow others to pass who may strewn flowers and try to understand.

So what Book Forum sensationalisez a bit. So what chick is mad hott and unavailable. Let's US not fall into cooler-than-thous.

One Love Bro


Stanley Gemmell


February 24, 2013
4:01 am

As far as the actual review it seems pretty clear that both Prioleau AND Shane are right but coming from differing perspectives, and the onus of shame falls on Prioleasu for not realizing that a cosmopolitan world view admits for critiques operating from points of specificity. Shane was speaking about Swoon from a "Survivor's" perspective which includes unfathomable depths and problematizes much that Prioleau's less rigorous perspective simply elides. This is common in mass market books and book reviewing. From a critical cultural perspective, at least, it should be blatantly obvious to Prioleau that once the text hits the page it no longer belongs to the author, and that available meanings become the audiences' to make do with as they will. No book can be all things to all people, Prioleau's attempt to domesticate her own text by rigidly enforcing a particular intelligibility is unable to by-pass the continuing work of "reading" life, which offers connections and multi-layered inter-textual dimensions which someone seeking to control would de best to avoid.


March 1, 2013
8:42 pm

I'm sorry, Rockhard, I should have illustrated what I meant with more clarity. Have you been published in Salon.com or in the New Inquiry? Because Charlotte Shane has been.


March 1, 2013
8:51 pm

Also, how the hell does what you wrote not fit into the definition of bigotry when you're judging Shane not on her writing, but on her identity as a sex worker? Ditto your dismissal of my argument by using the glib She's Just A Social Justice warrior defense, or your calling me "an angry prostitute longing to be recognized as a writer, because she's tired of being asked for sex advice."


March 1, 2013
8:56 pm

But perhaps Rockhard's scoffing contempt is better than stanleygemell's epic derailing of the conversation—it's difficult to judge. What about the review, exactly, says "damsel in distress" to you?


March 6, 2013
7:46 pm

Dude, it was pretty epic! ^^ But hey, I would rather err on the side of over earnest when human dignity is at stake! CHEERS -Stan


March 6, 2013
7:55 pm

Damsel in distress is a generic trope for the patriarchal elements still entrenched in society and naught to do with this particular review or book. I took a far-eyed, long-view on the matter. Just to clarify. I see NO damsel in distress here, yet I am REMINDING that there exists such manifest representative socially coded strictures and structures. They abound - in fact... Check it out:

The Onion just reported upon a devoted abuser who decided to stop by his girlfriend's office just to deliver a special threat. NO JOKE!

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