On Ladies Men and the Ladies Who Love Them: An Interview with Betsy Prioleau

“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”

— Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud’s question is as relevant today as it was when he posed it to Marie Bonaparte almost a century ago. Madame Bonaparte didn’t have an answer, and neither have innumerable confused and frustrated men over the centuries who have pondered the same. As you are reading this, no matter where you live, a coterie of baffled men are comparing fieldnotes in an attempt to get to the bottom of it. The father of psychoanalysis seemed to think it the great unanswerable question; the elusive final frontier of his life’s work. If he had had the opportunity to ask author and cultural historian Betsy Prioleau, he might have gotten closer to an answer.

Prioleau’s Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them represents less an attempt to provide a definitive response to Freud’s query, and instead provides a concise portrait of consistently effective themes and techniques in seduction throughout human history. Men have been trying to charm the pants off the objects of their desire since cavemen began painting on walls; Prioleau’s book traces the cultural and literary history of this process through the ages, in what amounts to an enjoyable and eminently readable portrait of feminine romantic yearning.

Swoon is particularly timely given the proliferation of discussion around “seduction theory” and “pickup” in film, television, and innumerable internet forums in recent years. It seems that ever since the 2007 publication of The Game, author Strauss’ account of his penetration (no pun intended) of the pickup artist community, the crimson arts have gone mainstream: from reality shows to Ryan Gosling movies, discussions around the art of seduction are everywhere in contemporary pop culture. Most notably, hundreds of self-described online pickup “gurus” claim to have unlocked the key to understanding the enigma of feminine desire. For often exorbitant sums of money they sell e-books, deliver seminars, and host “bootcamps” in an attempt to educate and train men in turning on women. These “gurus” capitalize on the mystique that still surrounds feminine desire, and several millennia of male vexation. The popularity of Freud’s question continues to line the pockets of self-described seduction “experts” who offer hope.

Unlike so many pickup guru manifestos, there is no archetypal or model seduction artist described in Swoon. Instead, Prioleau offers an account of a wide range of personal qualities, techniques, and psychological effects that have consistently impacted feminine desire, ranging from musical talent, to intellectual engagement, to conversational ability and more. The author implicitly argues that there is no definitive answer to Freud’s question; there are only signs, hints, and a wide range of interconnected patterns. The closest we may come to an answer is that a woman wants a man who knows what he wants, and is unapologetic and proactive about pursuing the same. Above all, the author argues, a woman wants to love a man who loves women.

If there is one shortcoming in Prioleau’s book, it’s her consistent reliance on fictional characters to illustrate and support her arguments. Many of the literary figures to whom the author refers are inventions of long-dead literary icons, and while this of course does nothing to discredit them as great seducers, they occasionally seem antiquated and irrelevant to seduction and sexuality in the 21st century. Swoon is most compelling when it describes real-world Casanovas who embody the qualities that women crave: the unnamed, “Average Joes” at the local Starbucks who seem to give women what they want almost effortlessly, and drown in more love and affection than they can handle as a result.

Indeed, the heroes of Swoon are not the lotharios described by Strauss and others involved in the pick-up community: they are purpose-driven, intelligent, empathetic and considerate men who love women, and who rely on perpetual courtship and a confident sense of self to intuit the often unconscious yearnings of their love interests. Young male readers of Swoon turned off by The Game and the pickup community more generally may find inspiration in these pages.

Though it’s important to emphasize that “the game” is changing. Many online seduction communities are turning away from the canned techniques, false bravado, and low-level psychological warfare described by Strauss half a decade ago. Instead, many online pick-up communities are beginning to resemble simply men’s support groups; spaces in which men encourage each other to explore and grow into their best selves, and attract women into their orbit as a result, rather than achieve a certain goal. Confidence, not sex, is the primary aspiration of the members of many of these communities, a fact unacknowledged by Prioleau in her book. I was curious about her seemingly wholesale dismissal of the pick-up artist community, and recently had the chance to discuss this and other issues with her via phone.

In Swoon, you contend that there is a serious dearth of modern ladies’ men. Why do you think that is?

I think the reason is because of the sexual revolution. I think it was one of the unintended consequences because all of the rules, and all of the rituals were wiped out in one fell swoop. Women got the sexual initiative which was considered a big plus for women, but what happened was that men lost all of the courtship initiative which they used to take and all the methods of going about enamouring women because women were taking the initiative themselves. I think that’s one of the reasons why men are now at such a loss.

One researcher named Timothy Perper did a study of lots of guys and found that the majority were oblivious about the art of seduction. It’s not their fault, it’s just that in the past thirty or forty years or so all that old knowledge has evaporated. With easy hookup sex and so forth — which satisfies nobody — the old methods of making a woman fall in love have been completely forgotten.

You might disagree, but I see the emergence of the pickup artist community as a response, in part, to the trend that you’re talking about. I was curious as to why you were so dismissive of that community in your book. I see much of what you write about being embraced by the pickup crowd. How might you feel about that?

I see that whole pickup movement as a response to the fact that women have usurped so much power in the workplace, and women’s and men’s egos are frail. Men aren’t sure about how to enamour women, so they’ve regressed back to playground bullying, the way I look at it. They’ve got the mistaken idea from a lot of Darwinian popular thinking that women want to be dominated, so the idea there is to intimidate women. Their goal, I think, is quite modest: all they want to do is get laid, not loved. So I thought that some of their ploys were quite puerile… I think they appeal mostly to younger women, and quite possibly, women who are not really 21st century women. That is to say, women who are autonomous, independent — extremely desirable women, we’ll put it that way.

The paramilitary maneuvers [employed by some modern pickup artists] are, I think, fairly transparent to most women who have very good crap detectors. To “neg” a woman violates almost every rule of romantic courtship throughout history… Love means to enhance the ego of another person, it doesn’t mean to “neg” them, as they say in the pickup world. The [pickup] movement is a response, I think, to the fact that men feel really lost right now, and are feeling quite desperate to dominate women when women are gaining power. This is just a shot in the dark, but that’s my read on it.

I’m not convinced, though. I did interview one of the leaders of the [pickup] movement, and it struck me that he was extremely insecure… I won’t name him [laughs]. But, he was very insecure, and I thought that was transparent, and some of his maneuvers were quite sad, I thought. I don’t believe women want to be dominated, especially women who are mature, and the type of women who a man would want long-term.

I’d like to talk about dominance for a moment. It seems that the idea is worth talking about in a book on seduction, and you don’t really. If you look at the explosion of something like Fifty Shades of Grey… I read that you don’t believe that book to be about dominance, or sadomasochism, and instead about women’s unfulfilled romantic desires. Could you expand on that?

[Fifty Shades of Grey] follows the exact arc of almost every romantic novel — that is, “taming the beast”. Yes, in the beginning [the main male character of the novel, Christian Grey] is an injured man who is involved in sadistic sex and so forth, but if you read the entire trilogy, equality is the main theme. [Christian’s partner in the book, Ana Steele] cures him of his obsessions, and in the end, we have what every woman dreams of — a completely attentive mate who is one hundred percent behind her, and who is a perpetual suitor. In the end, what you have is equality instead of dominance… he surrenders his dominance to her, and they have a partnership that is romantic, exciting, and that fulfils a lot of deep female fantasies, I think.

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring ladies’ men, what would it be?

I would say to resume the mating effort — that would be number one. And included in the mating effort, which most men have dropped, is a real love and appreciation of women. I think men are conditioned, especially in America, to boycott the girls’ club, and bond with other men. But, the ladies men in my book really cherish and like women — they love their company. Women really do yearn for romantic zeal, and as long as the man feels that, and resumes the mating effort instead of being passive, or dominant, or using some of those very infantile strategies to get women to bed, I think they will be successful overnight [laughs].

I think that women are starved for good conversation, starved for companionship, starved for courtship, and men are baffled. I don’t blame men at all for this… I think they’re confused, I think they’re not sure what women want. They think [the techniques of seduction described in Swoon] are nerdy or weird, and they’re not sure if it’s going to work, but historically it has worked. I think that’s all that’s needed — instead of the reactive and defensive postures of the last thirty years, and instead to perpetually excite and seduce women. I think that will re-enchant relationships in the future.

I think that this is not just a female desire. I think that men are closeted romantics, and I think that both genders would love to have romance re-ignited, it’s just that nobody quite knows how to go about it.

I must confess that my curiosity was piqued by your book’s dedication [“To Philip: the inspiration and the man”]. You don’t discuss your husband again in the book, save for a brief acknowledgement at the very end. What made him the inspiration? What makes Philip “the man” in your eyes?

Oh… [laughs]

I imagine that’s a very long story.

Yeah. Philip, intuitively, is a ladies’ man. That is to say that this is a guy who, when I met him, was pursued by many women and that’s because he loves women, and appreciates them at a really deep level. He also has that sort of sexual voltage and charisma that is important too, but above all he has the idea that all ladies men have about perpetual courtship. That is, love is never a done deal, and you always have to keep it fresh, keep it bubbling, and maintain a kind of “sexy flux” of yes and no, calm and rapture, conflict and concord, and all of those things so that it keeps things interesting. It’s the difference between a boxstep and a tango, I would say [laughs]. He has maintained the life in a really long love affair, so in that sense he’s just like all ladies’ men.

But there’s really no formula for ladies’ men; that’s one of the messages in my book. You don’t need every charm in the book… you can flaunt your strengths within a broad spectrum of love charms, and there’s a wide range of ladies’ men, as you probably have seen. Young, old, introverted, extroverted, cab drivers and plutocrats — they really run the gamut. So there are lots of ways to be a ladies man. I’m not saying that my husband would be the perfect man for every woman. It’s obviously something that’s custom tailored to every woman. That’s part of the art of love — men who invest romance with drama, imagination, originality, and creativity, but they also custom tailor their charms to suit each one.