What counts as seduction?
Legendary lover Casanova prepared for an assignation by renting a mirrored room in a casino and ordering an eight-course meal. 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft asked her married crush’s wife if she might live platonically with the couple, out of “the sincere affection which I have for your husband, for I find that I cannot live without the satisfaction of seeing and conversing with him daily.” (The wife said no.) Scandalous 19th-century society beauty Caroline Lamb sent her former lover Lord Byron a locket of her pubic hair, signing the accompanying note, “Your Wild Antelope.” (Lamb, like Wollstonecraft, was unsuccessful in her seductive aims.)
And in 19th-century Georgia, a reverend and schoolteacher named Myron Wood promised to marry his 15-year-old pupil Emma Chivers, who lived in his house on his charity, as soon as his terminally ill wife died. Wood was successful in his pursuit of sex, and Chivers soon had a baby, but Wood denied his earlier promises and refused to marry her. When Chivers sued Wood for breach of promise, a jury found that Chivers, who did not always cover her legs and had been known to hug and kiss local boys, was “not a seducible woman.” Wood, then, had not seduced Chivers. Legally speaking, he owed her nothing.
The Chivers anecdote is the opening of the lively if occasionally confused new book Seduction: A History from the Enlightenment to the Present by Clement Knox, a nonfiction buyer for the British bookstore chain Waterstones. Knox begins his tale in 1740 — with the publication of Pamela, a novel in which a wealthy libertine pursues his virtuous servant girl, ultimately reforms, and marries her — and ends with an afterword addressing our own post-Me Too era. And throughout, he tracks the evolution of sexual ideology across the centuries.
Seduction is fantastic at anecdote. It’s less successful at argument.
While sexual ideologies can span everything from consensual courtship to violent rape, Knox argues that seduction, which “occupies [a] gray zone of agency,” is the most productive lens to use when analyzing shifting sexual mores. Embedded within the idea of seduction, he writes, are two stories: one of passion, in which a villain pursues a victim and degrades away their ability to consent; and one of reason, in which two rational individuals meet on equal ground, unburdened by prudish sexual taboos. By looking at how a given cultural moment talks about and legislates each seduction narrative, Knox is attempting to map out the shifting ways in which we think about and weaponize sex, agency, and consent.
Accordingly, he tracks seduction through the centuries. Knox covers those who, like Pamela author Samuel Richardson, highly value the sexual purity of women and roundly decry as villains those men who might threaten it. He introduces us to the radical Romantics like Byron and Shelley who believe in Free Love — and to the women, including Mary Shelley, who found themselves committed to Free Love in theory but leery of it in practice: “The terms of engagement,” Knox notes, being “wildly skewed in favor of men.”
Then come those who try to legislate seduction. Most compelling is Caroline Norton, a 19th-century poet and intellectual who turned her attention to legal reform after her abusive husband separated her from her sons, while Caroline was unable to divorce him as he seduced woman after woman. It was Caroline, Knox argues, who revolutionized English law when she successfully argued that the courts had a duty to protect not only commercial property rights but also “natural rights,” and hence to identify and protect rights unique to women, such as the right of access to one’s children and the right to divorce one’s husband on grounds of adultery.
Caroline Norton successfully liberalized marriage, but the later legislation Knox outlines was not so progressive. In 1848, New York state named seduction “a crime against society,” making any man found guilty of seducing “by some promise or artifice” any “unmarried female of previous chaste character” liable for up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine. (That works out to about $32,000 today.) By 1921, 36 states had followed suit.
In some ways, we can understand the societal experiment of criminalizing seduction as an attempt to solve the knotty problem of how to prosecute cases of sexual violence in which the perpetrator gets his victim’s ostensible consent through false or coercive means. As I read those chapters of Seduction, I thought again and again of R. Kelly. Kelly was charged with federal sex crimes in 2019, but he appeared invulnerable to arrest for two years after his alleged misconduct became widely known in 2017, for as long as his victims maintained they were living with him of their own free will.
But Knox argues that the seduction laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were highly vulnerable to misuse. In practice, he says, they were often exploited via blackmail scams, or used to persecute black men involved in consensual relationships with white women. Meanwhile, the laws generally failed to protect the women who were most vulnerable to sexual predation, on the grounds that they were not “of previous chaste character” and hence not truly seducible. And in the end, it was feminists who led the charge to get seduction laws off the books in the 1930s, arguing that they were infantilizing to women.
It’s when we reach the present day and the specter of Me Too that Knox’s handling of shifting sexual mores begins to falter. In his final chapters, Knox begins to fall into vacant platitudes, as with his gasp-inducing assertion that the Me Too movement “is surely evidence of a major breakdown in the capacity to empathize, to relate, to feel” on the part of contemporary people compared to those of Georgian England. Bafflingly, he seems to be making the case that the systemic sexual abuse of power that Me Too exposed is a purely modern phenomenon and not a problem that has run continuously throughout history, including in the Chivers case that opens this very book. Elsewhere, he argues that “the trend lines still point to economic equality” of the sexes because women are better educated than men overall, in a frankly stunning dismissal of the best data on the subject.
Knox consistently struggles to integrate contemporary feminism into his analysis. He argues strongly that dating apps are just as exploitative as the now-reviled Pickup Artists of the ’00s, on the grounds that both seek to reduce seduction to algorithms. But that argument fails to reckon with the fact that PUAs targeted unknowing women the way predators do and often encouraged rape, while the algorithms of Tinder and its ilk are aimed at those of both genders who have consensually entered the app. When, at the close of Seduction, Knox sees a man at a bar try to use PUA tactics to pick up a girl, he seems to find it oddly redemptive: At least this man is wooing someone face to face, the old-fashioned way.
Ultimately, Knox concludes that the Me Too movement needs “a return to equilibrium,” to a balance between reason and the passions. This is such an empty conclusion that there is very little to critique in it, so to that I will only say: Sure.
But while Knox’s argument fails to land anywhere in particular, he has a fantastic eye for anecdote. The margins of my copy of Seduction are littered with exclamation points and “omgs” at the stories he’s managed to dig up: the time Percy Shelley went into hysterics after Byron recited from “Christabel” and had to be treated with ether; the women who wrote to Samuel Richardson begging for him to redeem Lovelace, the rapist villain of his novel Clarissa; the Victorian journalist who, after searching unsuccessfully for proof that white slave traders were ravaging London, decided to provide his own by paying a drunken woman £5 for her daughter and then sending the terrified girl to the Salvation Army in France.
And while the answers Knox arrives at are rarely convincing, the question he spends the book exploring is nevertheless compelling. Long after I finished Seduction, I found myself turning it over and over in my head: What does seduction mean? And what counts as seduction? Knox is so skillful at setting up such questions and at making you realize the possibilities are more complex than you think that when he finally gets around to trying to answer them, his conclusions can’t help but be a bit of a letdown.
In a way, Seduction mirrors an archetypal experience: a long, drawn-out lead-up to a tantalizing goal and then, in the end, a sense of abrupt and flattening disappointment. What could be more appropriate for a Valentine’s Day read?