The Seductress Revisited

Posted on in Healthy Living by Betsy Prioleau


The seductress isn’t the first person who comes to mind when we think of a postfeminist role model. But we would be wrong. Seductresses—rightly understood—are inspirational pioneer women whose love lessons and union of work and eros come at a perfect time. These sexy vixens, able to get and keep the men—or women—of their choice, belie every popular myth and recover sexual mastery and holistic happiness.

Women now are in a historic romantic slump, hostage to male mating mores, beauty/ porn propaganda, cultural bogeys, and false ideas of female sexual power. Here’s where the seductress comes in—one of the most potent female personas in existence.

We haven’t heard about her for a reason. Since antiquity, the male establishment has shamed, demonized, and punished women with too much sexual clout for their own good. Hence the noir vamp archetype—the Circes, Jezebels, and shark-hearted homewreckers of Western history. To eradicate this dread specter of female power, men have gone to heroic lengths. They’ve hyped female asexuality, inflicted the double standard, and persecuted seductresses to the limit of the law, mutilating and burning them as witches in cultural panic attacks.

Like subjugated people everywhere, women have internalized the master’s beliefs. Despite 21st-century sexual agency and freedoms, we still assail and typecast the seductress. She’s the tart-with-tits, narcissistic bitch, manipulatrice, mate-poacher, and wanton-of-all-work no one wants at the party—or workplace. Mainstream feminism kicked her out of the club long ago. Just as the patriarchal status quo intended.

Real seductresses, however, explode all the stereotypes. Neglected and little studied, they’re a myth-busting group—high achievers without special beauty or dark wiles who tend to support other women and are neither better nor worse than average. In addition, they share an unusual constellation of qualities, among them androgyny, nonconformity, and strong, evolved personalities.

woman on stone

The 19th-century soprano Pauline Viardot is typical. Deemed “atrociously homely,” she had a receding chin and H-shaped figure, and was often mistaken for a man onstage. But she was irresistible to men and women and achieved the jackpot in life. Multitalented and original, she won professional success, personal happiness, and the adoration of the most distinguished men of her time. Writer Ivan Turgenev lived with her and her husband in a 40-year ménage à trois, and loved her “like an 18-year-old.” And she famously mentored a generation of female singers.

Just as strikingly, seductresses follow similar erotic strategies. These, curiously, derive from a long-lost tradition, which sexologist Havelock Ellis called the “art of love.” The principles, recorded in hundreds of forgotten books, have changed little over the centuries and comprise a cache of seductive wisdom.

Take physical charms. They’ve been overrated in our hyperreal world of surfaces and spin. But seductresses, perhaps intuitively, tune into the age-old wisdom on the subject. Aware that seduction is “ritual dramaturgy,” they punch up dress, ornament, dance, music, and sex with signature me-ness and pageantry. When Josephine Baker entered a room, she walked through the door of expectations; she made sheet lightning with her eyes, danced like the almighty sex goddess, and hauled out in bed, skilled in getting a full return on her hypersexuality.

At the heart of the “art of love,” though, is the belief that seduction is 90% mental sorcery. Desire takes place in the imagination, and to enchant and keep someone enchanted (the hard part), you have to invade their mind. And you have to keep it bubblin’, as the rappers say. Love, in this view, is emotion-in-motion, a continual current of delight and difficulty, elate and sedate. A woman in the business of fascination sinks her best resources into mind spells, alternating praise, nurture, and festivity with the tang of obstruction, caprice, and intrigue.

What seductresses never neglect in the mix is conversation. Though downplayed in our tech-addled age, good talk is a high-strength aphrodisiac. Renaissance courtesans (professionals who chose their lovers) studied bel-parlare, seductive speech, as assiduously as kisses, and reviled “dumb-of-mouth whores.” The 20th-century French author Louise de Vilmorin spellbound her countless conquests, including Orson Wells, André Malraux, and three husbands, through her delicious, amusing conversation. She was nothing to look at, with her equine face and body of an adolescent boy, but she was Europe’s “Empress of Seduction.”

The biggest draw of all, however, is full personhood, a woman who radiates what philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called the ultimate turn-on, “plentitude of being.” Seductresses are dynamic, individuated people who maximize their talents and characters, and remain forever-interesting, unforgettable. They have giant, unladylike egos. The 4-foot, 10-inch chanteuse Edith Piaf, who never met anyone she couldn’t seduce, said, “I had a very high opinion of myself, perhaps with good reason.” The love goddess, Aphrodite, was 8 feet tall.

Seductresses are a plucky, seditious lot—saboteurs of feminine and cultural norms. They defy authority, run with their libidos, and restore women’s rightful position in love—on top, in command. “Unless subverted by deceit or usurped by force,” writes sociologist Mary Batten, the female of the species is in charge and choses mates based on resources, beauty, or personal tastes.

Alpha-selfhood and exceptional abilities, however, aren’t necessary. Every woman can be a seductress; it’s just a matter of copping a little inspiration and love savvy from these charmers. We don’t need to go the extra mile. Seduction on this level can work half-strength, without the full spectrum of spells, and still deliver erotic empowerment.

Seductresses aren’t standard-issue role models. Those paragons have served us well. But there’s room in the pantheon for a new breed of vanguard women. Love mastery is consistent with the highest principles of feminism. It promotes self-development, autonomy, expansion of female options, and maps a path to erotic control. With the seductress in our sights, we can detox, reclaim sexual sovereignty, and have the full happiness payoff with none of the fabled sacrifices. “The master of the universe,” wrote the prophet, bestowed on women “the empire of seduction.”

Betsy Prioleau is the author of Circle of Eros, Seductress, and Swoon. She was a scholar in residence at New York University, where she taught literature and cultural history. She is currently at work on a new book about an American seductress of the Gilded Age.

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