Suzanne van Geuns, The History of Seduction from the Enlightenment to #MeToo [2020 C4eJ 6] (Book Review)

Knox, Clement. Seduction: A History from the Enlightenment to the Present. New York: Pegasus Books, 2020. Published in the United Kingdom as Strange Antics: A History of Seduction.

Suzanne van Geuns*

A book-length cultural history of seduction is long overdue, both for academics interested in sexual mores and for a broader public eager to think about romance and its shifting cultural norms.[1] Clement Knox’s take on the topic spans roughly 300 years, beginning with 16th-century libertines and ending with Harvey Weinstein. Seduction offers a lively account of how literary and legal domains conceived of sexuality and rapprochement between men and women. While there is much to be surprised by, marvel at, and learn about in its pages, the underlying analytical framework that Knox uses to interpret historical texts elides more than it reveals.

In Knox’s analysis, seduction is principally an Enlightenment category, expressing the conflict between reason and passion. This conflict is central to the two types of seduction narratives Knox identifies. In the first seduction narrative, seduction hinges on women’s passions being aroused, usually through deception (i.e. the promise of marriage or love) at the hand of a villainous seducer. In the second, the seducer is a hero whose reasoning and decision-making skills open up a world of enjoyment. The first narrative, which renders women as especially prone to passions, leads to the ever-increasing imposition of rational legal constraints on seduction, while the second uses the presence of reason to legitimize the pursuit of passionate pleasure. This dichotomous framework – reason versus passion, seducer-as-hero versus seducer-as-villain – structures Knox’ historical analysis over the course of the book’s 500+ pages.

Seduction locates the two types of seduction narrative in the life and work of various canonical authors from the Enlightenment to the present. Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela and Clarissa, for example, tell stories of vulnerable women mistreated by men who exploit their passions. Knox offers lively discussions of sexual libertinism in 16th-century London, showing how London’s ‘rakes’ provided the blueprint for the cold-hearted, lying villains in Richardson’s writing. Casanova, whose contemporaneous writings detail his illustrious pursuits as a con man and seducer in Venice, provides the archetype for the second seduction narrative. A bon vivant rather than a villain, Casanova’s reason-based skills lead him to exciting and pleasurable encounters with women across Enlightenment Europe. Knox’ engaging readings of the famous texts written by these men highlight the contrast in focus between them, but Casanova and Richardson effectively illuminate two sides of the same coin: Richardson’s women, besieged by their passions, fall prey to men like Casanova, who rationally pursue pleasure for themselves. The main difference between the seduction narratives put forward by Richardson and Casanova, then, seems to be not so much what men do. Rather, the narratives seem to diverge in how they think of women in seduction: as victims of men’s lust or as active agents of sexual passion.

Who seduces and who is seduced?

Seduction never engages the question of role-division directly in its discussion of seduction narratives.

This evasion of gendered role divisions is only possible because Knox brings in examples of women who take on the seducer role, occupying the active position of the rational pleasure-seeker. The Italian cicisbeo arrangement, in which a married noblewoman took a lover who serves her exclusively and on demand, often leading to great emotional distress on the part of these men, is a fascinating example of Enlightenment women’s sexual agency. Turning to early modern literature, Knox focuses on Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley. Both authors were involved in the ‘free love’ movement, which argued that the state should not be involved in partnerships between people under the guise of protecting vulnerable women. Their defence of themselves as rational beings in the pursuit of pleasure and romantic love allows Knox to cast them in the seducer-as-hero narrative. It is certainly true that Wollstonecraft’s resistance to the ‘cult of sensibility’, in which women’s supposed vulnerability to passion also made them more moral, counterbalances the thrust of Richardson’s novels. But the parallelism this suggests – that the reason versus passion dynamic was not gendered, i.e. that women and men were equally able to take on the active role of the seducer or the passive role of its victim – is ultimately misleading.

In one of the book’s most incisive discussions of fiction, Knox reads Shelley’s Frankenstein as exposing inequality in seduction. Frankenstein presents seduction as a form of reckless creation: the monster is the bastard child, and while its father is able to flee responsibility for it immediately, the women in the novel cannot. Shelley’s work – and arguably, Wollstonecraft’s life – reveals just how punishing the rational pursuit of pleasure often turns out for women. Casanova was able to abandon his many ‘love children,’ but no matter how sexually agentive they may have been in their encounter, his partners were not able to do the same. While Knox recognizes the constraints placed on Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s sexual agency, the question of gendered difference ultimately remains tangential to his analytical framework. That is a striking choice, because the seduction narratives Knox brings in and compares overwhelmingly narrativize a particular kind of inequality between persons: one partner is agentive, rational, and self-fulfilling while the other is passive, emotionally attached, or vulnerable to exploitation.

Had gender factored more substantially in Seduction’s underlying framework, Knox might have described the conflict between reason and passion as an expression of proper gender relations rather than a conflict between different qualities of the self.

As it stands, Knox’ descriptive writing unwittingly repeats the gendered tropes of the period: Casanova is a ‘stiff old man in a brown wig’ at sixty-two (the first time we learn anything his looks), while Shelley is ‘striking if not conventionally beautiful,’ with a ‘delicate face’ and an ‘unobtrusive mouth’ at eighteen (148, 210). A sharp reader, Knox misses the chance to rise above – and critically reflect on – the gendered conditions to which his historical texts speak.

This hesitance to engage questions of power more deeply – as an integral part of seduction itself, rather than as an unfortunate side-effect in the lives of the people whose works Seduction discusses – shows up throughout the book. In the chapters on the late 19th and early 20th century, Knox discusses boxer Jack Johnson (in the United States) and author Bram Stoker (in the European context) in order to show how sexual fears mixed with concerns over racial purity during this period. In the United States, the 19th century saw the development of an elaborate and sophisticated legal apparatus around seduction. Faced with the threat of women proclaiming to rationally and consciously choose to be with men supposed to be their racial inferiors, as exemplified in Jack Johnson’s romantic life, the cultural response was to render women as victims of passions aroused by dangerous men. While the European response to this racialized discourse of passionate vulnerability was less wide-ranging in the legal context than in the United States, the tropes were similar. Knox offers rich and thought-provoking readings of legal history and literature alike, but hews too close to the texts to gain critical traction. For example, his lengthy description of Johnson – whose ‘enormously veined forearms’ and ‘gleefully neotenous features’ receive ample attention (281) – actually repeats cultural tropes that would have circulated at the time. Johnson was a central character in the period’s public discourse on the linkages between race, sexual prowess, and human evolution – from ‘child’ to ‘man’ (Bederman 1995; Kasson 2001). Seduction uses Johnson’s life to show what the seducer-as-villain narrative, and the corresponding legal efforts to ‘protect’ women, looked like at this time. But Johnson’s supposed villainy was so deeply racialized that it begs for a more substantial account of how structural power relations inform seduction narratives.

Seduction’s treatment of the sexual revolution similarly lacks the critical distance needed to think about power as integral to seduction. If the 19th– and early 20th century saw the establishment of elaborate legal structures to protect overly passionate women, the sexual revolution swung the pendulum toward seduction as a reasonable means for enjoyment, Knox writes. In a liberated world of endless sexual choice, the seducer is no longer a villain, but a hero – someone who thrives in conditions of endless choice, hierarchical ranking, and competition for sex. Seduction articulates the downsides of this neoliberalized economy of sex via Houellebecq, whose novels lament the position of men who cannot become ‘winners,’ or seducer-heroes.

But Knox still reproduces this framing of sex as a matter of calculus in his own analysis, most notably in a meandering discussion of how the sexual revolution was itself instigated by economic developments.

He cites ‘ground-breaking’ work arguing that the lowered ‘price’ of women’s sexuality increased its circulation and availability, attributing this to ‘economists’ Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (409). Baumeister and Vohls are evolutionary psychologists, however, adopting a framework of economic competition to explain the changing sexual norms that their field studies. At this point, Knox’ argument for the causal relationship between economic situations and the sexual revolution is fully circular.

Seduction’s own analytical framing of sex as money is most troubling, however, when Knox uses the Gini Coefficient (an economic instrument for measuring inequality across countries) to measure men’s experience on dating apps (428). The unequal distribution of interest and responsiveness on dating apps is very real, and Knox’s points about how this economy of attention becomes entangled with real money through paid subscriptions are well-taken. The analogy between global poverty and men who cannot find dates on these platforms, however, rings hollow – all the more so because the Gini coefficient in the economic context rightly raises the question of redistribution. Taking over the economic frame invites a tension into Knox’ discussion of the sexual revolution that is most marked in his discussion of ‘incels,’ the self-identified losers of the sexual marketplace. On the one hand, Knox attributes incels’ murderous rage to mental health problems, misogyny, and lack of social skills rather than sexual deprivation (419). On the other hand, he also grants that ‘periodic rage’ is a ‘by-product of sexual liberation’ and immediately segues into a pick-up artist’s assertion that seduction coaches like him make the world ‘a safer place’ by teaching men to do better in sexual competition (419).

Whose liberation invites whose rage?

Whose sexual availability guarantees safety in this model? Here, too, Seduction sidesteps the more complex questions of gendered power imbalances and sexual ‘scarcity’ that Knox’ sources themselves seem to raise, in favor of fitting them onto a conflict between reason and passion, or heroes and villains.[2]

The typology of seduction Knox uses is especially ill-fitting in his discussion of #metoo. As in the rest of the book, he brackets questions of consent altogether: if it is non-consensual, it is not seduction. That is a distinction that works better in theory than in practice. When Knox describes the sexual climate of 18th-century London, he includes graphic descriptions of rapes committed by libertines. In literature and in life, non-consensual sexual encounters are not always easily separated from their voluntary counterparts. Reckoning with the distribution of power helps illuminate the fault lines between them, but Knox’ definition of seduction does not allow for that. Defined as the expression of a conflict between reason and passion, the category of seduction is neither meaningfully different from or similar to romance more generally, nor does it clearly exclude violence and coercion on the part of the seducer. But if non-consent is understood to be outside the realm of seduction proper, the claim that #metoo – which is at its core a conversation about consent and the situations in which it can be given – exemplifies seduction today is certainly counterintuitive.

Knox brings in #metoo to articulate a tension between those who see ‘seduction’ in the workplace as exploitation of the vulnerable and those who see both partners in such exchanges as rational agents in a sexual marketplace. Knox understands #metoo as a legalistic impulse, a drive to bureaucratize and regulate sexual contact, analogous to Victorian attempts to protect women, prone to deception and passionate overheating, from seduction’s harms. In the book’s closing pages, Knox cites Wollstonecraft in order to express his support of ‘freedom’ from #metoo’s ‘brute legislative and bureaucratic force,’ expressing confidence in people’s ability to balance and rebalance reason and passion (452-453). This conclusion puts Seduction’s lack of attention to power in sharp relief.

A key example of the restrictive sexual bureaucracy Knox identifies is Title IX legislation on college campuses. Seduction defines this legislation as a ‘a wide-ranging attempt to police sexual activity,’ and calls this effort ironic in multiple ways: not only is Title IX legislation on sexual assault more strict than legal statutes, it is students who ask for such policing, even though their predecessors had asked for loosened rules during the sexual revolution (446). Why this is ironic never quite becomes clear. Knox himself cites feminist authors who argue that the sexual revolution liberated men more than women because it stopped short of actually dismantling gendered power relations in sex (419, 423-425). He also notes that criminal courts rarely lead to justice for women (445), a reality that feminist philosopher Kate Manne has extensively shown to be caused by the legal system’s inability to account for gendered violence (Manne 2019). It is important to note here that Title IX legislation is not merely legislation addressing sexual assault, but that it is an extension of Civil Rights law: it addresses the gendered inequality in how universities address women’s experiences. In a time where more women are present on college campuses than during the sexual revolution, in the wake of a liberation that ultimately did not free them and in the face of a legal system that does not account for them, is it really so ironic that these students would demand equality in how universities accommodate their experiences? The ironies Knox identifies disappear when the critiques of gendered power differences that Seduction itself brings in are taken seriously.

More insidiously, reading #metoo as a ‘brute’ legislative impulse misses the dimension of storytelling that is so central to the movement. Seduction offers intelligent and insightful readings of a range of materials. This engagement might well have extended itself to women’s writing of experiences that, once in the open, could be grouped under one hashtag. Knox misses the demand that underpins the hashtag: not so much a request to be protected from certain experiences (although that has certainly been part of the response to the movement) as an urgent demand for those experiences to be heard at all. The book’s framing of #metoo as a reiteration of the seducer-as-villain trope immediately bypasses women’s stories – unlike Richardson’s Clarissa, here it actually was women speaking for themselves – in favor of concerns over the legal and regulative consequences of those stories being told in public.

Seduction offers an impressively rich and entertaining tour of legal activism and literary history over the span of three centuries.

The dichotomy that organizes this wealth of materials – from the seducer-as-villain (who cruelly incites women’s passions) to the seducer-as-hero (who rationally and skillfully pursues sex for enjoyment) – renders the history of seduction as a history outside power.

Seduction declines to engage with the fact that both types of seduction narratives tell stories of powerlessness, even those written by women who present themselves as rational agents. One partner in the interaction that is central to seduction narratives lacks information, agency, escape, and so on – and it is usually the woman. In Knox’ framework, that is circumstantial, rather than integral to what seduction is. This is a missed opportunity especially because accounting for power imbalances could help situate the category of seduction in relation to romantic love more broadly and in relation to sexual violence. Even when his sources do raise questions of power, Knox does not gain enough critical distance from Enlightenment tropes about reason, passion, and the freedom to balance them to see their unequal distribution as a feature rather than a bug. An ambitious and engrossing account of the varied cultural terrains populated by the category of seduction over time, the interpretative framework organizing the book ultimately forecloses much-needed reflection on power differences and their resonance in amorous encounters.

* Suzanne van Geuns is a PhD Candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion and a Graduate Fellow at the Ethics of AI Lab, Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto. Her doctoral project investigates instructions for how to properly be a man or woman, focusing on conservative Christian women’s blogs and forums focused on dating, men’s rights, and male self-improvement. She can be found online here and here. Suzanne discusses her research in a recent episode of the Let’s Get Ethical podcast.

[1] One scholarly discussion of seduction as a concept with a cultural history, not cited in Seduction, is Kray 2018, but Seduction is the first book-length analysis.

[2] See Srinivasan 2018 for an example of what substantial critical engagement with categories of sexual desire and structural inequality might look like.

Works cited

Bederman, Gail. 1995. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kasson, John. 2001. Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kray, Thorn-R. 2018. “By Means of Seduction: Pickup-Artists and the Cultural History of Erotic Persuasion.” NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies 13 (1): 41–58.

Manne, Kate. 2019. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Srinivasan, Amia. 2018. “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” London Review of Books, March 22, 2018.