Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love
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"[A] glossy, steam-heated analysis of temptresses and their tactics." —The New York Times
In this road map to restoring feminine sexual power, Betsy Prioleau introduces and analyzes the stories and stratagems of history’s greatest seductresses. These are the women who ravished the world—from such classic figures as Cleopatra and Mae West to such lesser-known women as the infamous Violet Gordon Woodhouse, who lived in a ménage with four men. Smarts, imagination, courage, and killer charm helped these love maestras claim the men of their choice and keep them fascinated for life. Through an exposé of their secrets, Seductress provides an authoritative, empowering guide to erotic sovereignty.
Almost, but not quite. If you scrape off the cultural debris—superstitions, myths, and media cant— you’ll see a woman to be reckoned with. The seductress is one of the most potent female personas in existence. Though long misunderstood and ignored, she’s the paradigmatic liberated woman, empowered with men and empowered in life. She’s a threshold role model who can reinstate feminine sexual sovereignty and holistic happiness and remap the future. And she’s not the least as we—or the Internet— imagine.
I came to the seductress, like most people, through the imagination. Raised in a southern belle culture, with a mother who was the Miss Valentine of Richmond, Virginia, I gravitated as a child to stories of man charmers in fiction and fairy tales. Much later I taught a college course on the topic “The Seductress in Literature” that changed everything. First I discovered the dearth of research—few unbiased or comprehensive studies—and second a ravenous appetite among young people for knowledge. In my class, students of both sexes avidly analyzed fabled sirens and tried to scope out their secrets. Afterward, the women flooded my office. Over and over I heard the same laments: elusive bad boys, soulless hookups, sapped confidence, wrecked pride, and total mystification about how to prevail in love.
As I looked around, I realized my students reflected a larger crisis in society. Across the culture, women seemed to have lost the plot erotically and entered the “plague years.” Despite equal opportunity sex and babe feminism, guys still hold the whip hand: They have numbers on their side (48 percent women to 43 percent men nationwide); they age better and cling like crotch crabs to their historic prerogatives of the initiative, double standard, promiscuity, mate trade-ins, domination, and domestic copouts. The population of single women, especially middle-aged professionals and first wives, has swelled to one in four, with most wanting and failing to “get married.”
In surveys, women en masse report epic demoralization and erotic despair. We say we’re “increasingly loved and left,” prey to low self-esteem, and “really lonely and really afraid.” The orgasm gap—the 15 to 30 percent female success rate during intercourse—continues to widen, as women clamor for a Viagra equivalent and numb themselves with antidepressants. “No one disputes the evidence,” writes a New York Times reporter, “that many women are unhappy with their sex lives” or that we’re engaged “in a frantic search for a role model.”
By the end of the semester I began investigating actual seductresses in hopes of finding role models to pull us out of this funk. I cast my nets wide. I read hundreds of biographies; I pumped friends and colleagues; I followed up leads dropped at parties, here and abroad. The list burgeoned; notebooks bulged until at last I narrowed the field to the top players. I defined the seductress as a powerful fascinator able to get and keep the men of her choice, men who are good for her. Rarely discarded or two-timed, she successfully combines erotic supremacy with personal and vocational achievement. That automatically eliminated a number of pseudoseductresses: the eaten and colonized Marilyn Monroe, the oft-dumped flunky Pamela Harriman, and such gofers to male genius as Alma Mahler.
Still, I was left with more charmeuses than I could handle, some famous like Cleopatra; others obscure and forgotten, like Pauline Viardot, the “strikingly ugly” soprano who seduced the world: Berlioz, Gounod, and most notoriously, Ivan Turgenev (the literary Brad Pitt of his day), who lived with her and her husband in a forty-year ménage à trois.
In the end I had to limit my study to a mere sample, the world-beaters. Throughout, I encountered unexpected findings. The great enchantresses, for starters, exploded all the seductress stereotypes. They weren’t dim blondes, nothing-without-a-man operatives, shark-hearted vamps, sick narcissists, and comely servile guardians of the hearth. They were myth-busting nonbeauties, seniors, intellectuals, creators, politicas, and bravura adventurers. More dramatically, they shared a constellation of qualities. Androgyny, for example, nonconformity, and Abraham Maslow’s criterion of psychological health: supravitality and self-actualization.
Just as strikingly, they followed similar erotic strategies. These, I discovered, mirrored the historic ars amatoria. This art of love tradition, which includes dozens of texts from Plato to the present, comprises a core set of erotic principles that have changed little through the ages. Sexologists warn us to beware of any absolutes in the realm of desire: Preferences are unique; tastes vary too much. But some women are universally bewitching, and some truths about romantic passion are timeless—especially the craft of enchanting and keeping someone (the hard part) enchanted.
Not all men of course are won by the identical means. Yet whatever the recipe, the basic ingredients of seduction remain the same. They constitute a kind of periodic table of eros. They can be custom mixed to taste, with some elements omitted—such as fashion flair—and still do the job. They’re that potent, rooted in sexual turn-ons that go back to the Stone Age.
Prehistory in fact may hold the key to the whole mystery of the megapower of the seductress and her ancient arts. The best scholarly evidence suggests that a cult of the feminine principle probably existed throughout deep history. Seductresses, I theorize, pack such an erotic wallop because they plug into this ancient archetype embedded in the inherited unconscious of the race. They evoke the goddess, mankind’s first love object, and replicate her Seductive Way, the template of the ars amatoria. Men, in their libidinal depths, want a divinity to serve and adore and a replay of the sexual themes that arose through goddess worship where the erotic impulse, as we know it, took root. They want to be sent to paradise— bowled over, transfigured, and reborn.
That was one reason the swanky sirens were so alluring; they echoed the all-in-one deity, the life force of the cosmos. Another reason was the primal hit of their lovecraft. They deployed the two branches of the ars amatoria—the physical and psychological—the archaic magico-religious way, with all the psychopomp of the earliest cave rites to the sex goddess. That meant shoot-the-works drama in dress, ornament, cosmetics, setting, movement, music, and fireworks in the bedroom.
Their chief artillery, though, was cerebral magic. Seduction is 99 percent mental sorcery, a hijack through the labyrinth to a fifth dimension and the conjuration of a constant state of emotion in motion. Without art, love sinks into stasis and ennui. The seductresses, par excellence, maintained the erotic dynamis, the perpetual light show of alternating solace and anxiety, quiescence and ecstasy, intimacy and distance, pleasure and pain. Like the early eagle-clawed love goddesses, they could be cruelles. At the same time, they delivered the balm of nurture and praise and the intoxicants of speech, nonrepression, festivity, and joie de vivre. In short, they restored the life-death ever-whirling Goddess of Everything to men—her Way and the ongoing rapture and transcendence of her cosmic eros. Whether consciously or not, they took their cue from Ovid’s first precept, “Do as the goddesses did.”
Goddess avatars as they were, though, the love queens were far from perfect. Like all ultravital people, they contained flaws and contradictions and often disported above morality. You wouldn’t, for example, want to cross La Belle Otero, who slugged a woman in a hotel lobby, or Ninon de Lenclos, who skewered her enemies with such savage bon mots they became national laughingstocks. Though sometimes great mothers, relatively few excelled at maternity or domestica. They were a fractious, tough lot.
Often the product of dysfunctional homes and early hardship, they had to fight for their lives and place in the sun. In the process they trampled feminine and cultural norms and usually ran afoul of the establishment. Other women included. Despite their outsider status, however, they tried to wise up the sisterhood. Lola Montez lectured for years on erotic artistry; poets, philosophers, journalists, and novelists, and even a comic like Mae West wrote at length about sexual empowerment.
If we anthologized their love wisdom and let them write the preface, what would they tell us today? First they’d marvel at our advantages: financial independence, legal rights, sexual freedom, and cosmetic options. Then they’d fire our courage. It’s no coincidence love and warfare share the same vocabulary; seduction demands spunk and “daimonic assertion.” “Venus favors the bold!” Next they’d urge us to boost our self-esteem and get high, mighty, and magnificent. And, of course, to discover our genitals, our turbo- charged thrill machines that make us the natural sovereigns of the boudoir.
Finally they’d advise us to tune out the pretty-power propaganda and dial up the neglected psychological arts. They’d direct us to libraries instead of (or along with) gyms, to acting classes, to metacharm schools—whatever it takes to invade men’s heads again and hex them into permanent fidelity and fascination. They’d impress on us that this isn’t the work of a day, but a sophisticated, complex art form that requires, besides self-drama, “extreme tact, skill, caution, and care.” Also antennae, a second sense about tools and timing, and a cool head on the rapids.
This may sound like too tall an order in our already overprogrammed world; the seductresses, too exceptional to emulate. But love mastery is democratic and eminently doable. Not that we need it for fulfillment, as the Hillary Clintons and Martha Stewarts attest. For those, though, who’d like eros under their control, beaux at their bidding, and the upper hand in sex, the know-how is there for the taking. If not a quick fix, it’s a kick nonetheless, a route to power paved with valentines, pleasure, and self-development. Rather than a sleazy revenge ride, it actually benefits men. Unless unrequited passion leads them off a tenth-floor ledge, they achieve their fondest dreams in the arms of a seductress, a goddess to venerate who keeps them interested and ignites their inner hero. She leads them to their best self and restores them to true masculinity, their predestined place in the cosmic scheme.
At the same time, she furthers her own cause. Seduction aids and abets individual growth and ambition. Heterosexual love isn’t supposed to be the stuff of confiscated egos, stunted careers, 4:00 a.m. panic attacks, tears, and ice-cream binges. We’re meant to prevail in sexual relations and cash in on our full gender payoff: erotic primacy and combined success in love, work, and life.
Second-wave feminists of the last century, like their foremothers, labeled seduction a “four-letter word” and reviled seductresses as non-PC sellouts, the “slavish little sisters” of society. As a result, they alienated a generation of women and cast them to the wolves of junk guides and normless, predatory sex. This may have been feminism’s dumbest move.
There, beneath their noses, were the first feminists, with men and the world at their feet. Nothing and no one could resist their charm offensive. “Seduction,” notes philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “foils all systems of power.” And seductresses were the archsaboteurs of patriarchy who infiltrated the hierarchy and upset the applecart. Passé women vs. women rivalries have made them unwelcome too long. They belong at the feminist rally, setting the agenda and steeling our nerves with their silver tongues and big Lady Heartbreaker personas.
If we’re amid a nationwide erotic famine at the moment, there are also signs of a recovery. Everywhere, from L.A. to Paris, sexy supremas of all persuasions are love bombing men and getting it together professionally and romantically. Investigators haven’t yet analyzed this emergent cadre of charmeuses, but if they did they’d see the seductress archetype resurrected and in operation again. They’d see her changeless character and art and the plot lines of tomorrow.
In my book, I’ve tried to provide a rough guide to this brave new world that will get us and keep us there. It’s primitive compared to what will follow and carries no guarantees or promises of earthly bliss. Love resists glib formulas and dot-to-dot diagrams. Some men cannot be had, period. Life’s bedbugs will infiltrate the best-designed boudoir: demonic in-laws, infants with issues, illness, fatigue, debt, and death. Seduction won’t wave a wand and transport us to Hallmark Heaven with Herr Perfect and happiness eternal.
But it will improve the odds. It gives us back our swerve and supplies a program—field tested and anchored in myth and history—that’s win-win all the way: personal individuation and achievement, plus absolute sway in love. Seductresses of course were femmes d’exceptions, privileged by genes, drive, and destiny, but those who rise inspire and chart the frontier. If we let them, they can lead us to full liberation, a third sexual revolution (why not?) that recoups the power advantage that belongs to us by biologic and divine decree. Nancy Friday said in Women on Top that most women fantasized about the “Great Seductress.”
The question now is why retreat any longer into fantasy, that weary strategy of oppressed women for aeons? With a little help from real seductresses and their arts, we can come out of the closet in our shimmering allure and mythic swish and realize our wildest dreams. We can stop men in their tracks, rifle their hearts, addle their brains, and keep them in our pockets for life. We’ll get the other good stuff as well: in bed, in the workplace, and in our hearts, souls, minds, and psyches. We’ll just be doing what comes naturally. Now it’s only a matter of planning—how to prance through the closet door, mastermind the coup, pluck the consorts, stage the coronation, and throw the carnival.
Real seductresses, those incandescent unditchable sirens who spellbind and keep the men of their choice, belie every popular myth. Forget beauty, youth, vacuity, servility, and shark-hearted rapacity. Seductresses are in fact the liberated woman incarnate. Feminism’s biggest mistake was kicking them out of the club. They’re futuristic models of female entitlement: independent operators, pleasure claimers, terroristas of traditional femininity, and big, classy divas. They recover women’s natural supremacy and achieve what most eludes us today—erotic control and a positive union of work and love.
It’s time to demystify and rehabilitate this lost tribe of sexy potentates and put them to use. Along with their brains, autonomy, integrity, and high swank, they radiate killer charm and practice the arts of erotic conquest like mahatmas. They can rescue us from the current sexual crisis. They can teach us how to get our groove back, retake the field, and finesse seduction, a forgotten and long-misunderstood art.
These love queens have existed throughout recorded history, although seldom celebrated by the official culture. Social mavericks and mold breakers, many have vanished into semiobscurity or been distorted beyond recognition. For generations they’ve been trivialized, demonized, and persecuted by the establishment. They strike terror into the insecure male heart; under their black magic all hell can break loose. A man can be pitched into testosterone storm, driven from home and country, led into love bondage, and zapped from a mogul into a mouse.
Yet paradoxically seductresses are often the best thing to happen to a man. Contrary to fable, they’re usually femmes vitales who put air in a man’s tank, conferring growth, creativity, happiness, and authentic masculinity. (For starters, their speed dial orgasmic capacity allays male performance and penis size anxieties.) Most of all, though, the great charmeuses are a gold mine for women. They’re a secret sorority, never before studied as a group, with a priceless fund of inspiration and seductive wisdom.
In both personality and erotic technique, seductresses show surprising similarities. Although amorous spells vary from woman to woman, with individual mixes brewed for specific times, people, and places, they follow a modus operandi based on an ancient art of love tradition. Their characters, too, tend to conform to a similar pattern, one that flies in the teeth of siren caricatures.
Far from sellouts to patriarchy, for instance, they subvert and sabotage it. They menace male domination. Since antiquity they’ve roiled the waters and upset the hierarchy, reclaiming women’s natural position in love: on top, in command, with swarms of men at their feet. They’re the stealth heroines of history. The first feminists.
They’re a welcome presence at the new millennium. Despite the sexual bravado and record advances in the workplace, women are stalled out in their love lives. Thirty to 50 percent have difficulty climaxing, a majority rate themselves “below average sexually,” and most say they’ve been humped, dumped, harassed, and “hurt by some guy.” We’ve lost our erotic pride, leverage, and winning edge.
Amid this brownout in female sexual power, men seem to hold all the high cards. Exploiting their social prerogatives in the mating game, they philander with impunity, impose the double standard, preserve the initiative, and cut and run at the drop of a diaper. They grow sexier with age. And given half a chance (as now), they binge out on casual infidelity, wife trade-ins, and hit-and-run sex.
The great appeal of the seductress is that she has always reversed the artificial male advantage and recovered women’s innate erotic primacy. “Seduction,” says philosopher Jean Baudrillard, restores “female sovereignty.” Women are the master sex in sex. Their superiority in love, their absolute sway over men, is hardwired into the human DNA. Unless “subverted by deceit or usurped by force,” writes sociobiologist Mary Batten, the female of the species controls the game. Men peacock and petition for her favor while she coolly surveys the competition and picks a mate on the basis of penises, resources, and beauty.
Or mates. To patriarchal dismay, women’s sexual plumbing wasn’t designed for monogamy and single-family dwellings. Sexier by a mile, they outorgasm, outlast, and outpleasure men and, left to their own devices, gallivant like their nearest cousins the bonobos, stud shopping and sating their eternal-climax machine.
Women’s sexual primacy is also rooted in myth. For twenty-five thousand years before there was a male deity, mankind probably worshiped a goddess. More than merely a swag-bellied fertility idol, she was a cosmic sexpot, the be-all and end-all who created heaven and earth and reigned supreme over human destiny. She gave and took life, revived the dead, raised the tempest, ripened the grain, conferred civilization, and reduced her servant, man, to fear, lust, and sublime rapture. He propitiated her with gifts and prostrated himself before the divine one and her wonder-working womb.
Memory traces of this ancient female cult could well be scored deep in the male libido. As the construction of sexuality evolved over time, acquiring refinements and cultural preferences, its intrinsic themes may have remained the same, embedded in the collective unconscious. If so, men can never rid themselves of their first love object or her Seductive Way. Secretly, primally, they pine for goddess women who rattle their bones, woo them with ancient ur-spells, and take them to paradise. By divine right men belong on their knees, and women (sorry), back on the pedestal.
The seductresses of this book are avatars of the original sex divinity. Like the goddess, they’re alpha plus women, ladies of strut and accomplishment. They have that numinous shazam we call charisma, combined with the steamy sexuality of the prehistorical deity. In one Neolithic figurine the goddess masturbates with her toes turned up, right hand plunged into her labia and left hand behind her head, Mae West style.
Their erotic siegecraft also mirrors the sexual strategies laid down at the beginning of evolutionary history. They rile, thrill, console, mystify men, and rock their hearts. They deliver the erotic everyperson promised by the archaic deity: mother, daughter, mistress, androgyne, and transcendent divinity. “The open palm of desire,” says Paul Simon, “wants everything, everything.” A woman who can tap that buried male hunger and provide even a pale reflection of the great sex goddess and a fraction of her “everything” can name her man.
We hear the folk adages: “The love thoughts of men have always been a perpetual meditation of beauty,” and “Love is the love of the beautiful.” As a result, women knock themselves out cosmetically. Ten times more women than men (more than a million in 2002 alone) have plastic surgery, desperately tucking, lifting, lipoing, and augmenting in hopes of a romantic lotto, a Mr. Right who keels over at the “perfect look” and supplies the Range Rover and suburban dream.
A survey of the tragic love lives of beauty icons and the current singles scene dispels that fiction. In cities everywhere, number ten glamour girls hole up with videos on Saturday nights, sidelined and manless. Many seductresses of course were fabled beauties, but most of the great enchantresses, like the “very ugly” Pauline Viardot or hooknosed Cleopatra, lacked either looks, youth, or both, and often lived in eras more obsessed with beauty than our own.
Contrary to the hag propaganda, however, older women possess some of the most potent erotic weaponry in the book. The goddess in her last phase was an übersiren. For centuries, cognoscenti have recognized and celebrated the huge allure of “old dames.” Anxiety about this amorous megapower in part explains the crone smear campaign. Unface-lifted, unreupholstered, dozens of senior seductresses made conquests that would be the envy of the comeliest nymphet on the man circuit.
Yet the real manslayers were smart cookies with big mouths. The peerless Greek courtesan Aspasia taught Socrates, founded a school of philosophy, and wrote her lover Pericles’s speeches. In fact most seductresses talked brilliantly and knew what they were talking about. Tantric scriptures teach that the highest splendor of the yoni is the flame of “intelligence,” and Neolithic goddess cults attributed all known and unknown wisdom to their sex deity.
Plenty, in fact. Seductresses, if they wished, easily entrained artists and other creators into lifelong passions. But rather than decorative, passive, compliant muses, they wrote their own books and lit their own creative fires. They repudiated the traditional submissive parasitic model and appropriated an older female role, the divine mistress of spells.
A whole genus of seductress wielded this goddess-given thaumaturgic power both to enravish men and build major careers. Often they possessed their own covey of male muses, but with typical reciprocity, they delivered as much inspiration as they received. Primordial magic making worked the same way: The goddess’s mana infected and transfigured her votaries.
Real seductresses, by contrast, were shakers and movers and often wore the pants politically. The Machtweiber (German for “vamp-politicas”), a fifth category of siren, led nations and political factions and exercised equal clout in the throne room and bedroom. Instead of downsexing themselves in office, they played up their erotic allure in order to brew charisma, win consensus, consolidate power, and bespell constituents.
Seduction and politics are natural bedfellows. They potentiate each other and work synergistically. Because men have always known and exploited this, they’ve tried to turf women out through intimidation and slander. With classic calumny, they branded the sixth-century Theodora a “new Delilah” and a “citizen of Hell stung by the devil’s fly.” In reality, she governed Byzantium with finesse while putting “forth irresistible powers of fascination.” The Machtweiber demolish the satanic boss lady stereotypes, winning men and governing with equal proficiency.
Crazy like a fox. The most fabulous charmeuses of history—idolized and adored to the grave and beyond—were rakish adventurers and sex professionals. Descended from the first prehistoric love goddess, Inanna, the out-for-kicks wanderer and prostitute, they buccaneered through life, fortune hunting, daredeviling, and raiding male hearts. They didn’t, it’s true, win Sunday school medals, but they were neither better nor worse than other women and actually liked men and aided their fortunes.
Patriarchy stigmatized siren-adventurers as vile, unmarriageable tramps for a reason. Their escape from domestic captivity was too seditious; their sexuality, too unbounded; and their siren song of the open road, too strong. Men can’t resist them; the urge is rooted deeper than the Madonna, in the first roving, roistering sex goddess.
The secrets of fascination, however, don’t come cheap. They’re an advanced, serious discipline. “It takes a hundred times more skill,” said archtemptress Ninon de Lenclos, “to make love than to command an army.” The art of seduction is a “complex, learned system,” with a consistent set of principles, detailed in dozens of forgotten books. Its precepts go back to prehistoric goddess worship, when the core themes of sexuality were fused into the human libido, and have changed little over time, despite fluctuations in sexual tastes. They’re the real rules, the power book of love.
Deep mystical impulses infuse seduction. In love songs men pray to earth angels and find salvation and seventh heaven in their embraces. That’s because sexuality and the sacred were united for most of human history. Men seek in women what they sought twenty thousand years ago in cave shrines and yearn for the same rituals. Along with heart’s ease, they want awe, mystery, terror, and cosmic extravaganza when they fall in love. They want to be carried away, led on a magical mystery tour through the labyrinth. They want to see stars. Love means never having to say what else is new. Satiety and boredom kill the most ardent passion. After the first fireworks subside, the show must go on. And the show must follow the ancient scenario, the Seductive Way of the goddess and the ars amatoria.
Seductresses dressed for parade, with look-at-me excess and over-the-top opulence. Many plain sirens edged out beautiful competitors through the originality and “emotional assault” of their dress. With time, dress became more erotically sophisticated, telegraphing sexual preferences, subtle power cues, and provocative mixed messages. Madame de Maintenon, for example, intrigued and piqued men with her crossed sartorial signals—deep mourning embellished with coquettish furbelows and yards of expensive lace. When we gird up for love, we do well to heed the Spanish proverb, as good today as in prehistory: “Only God helps the badly dressed.”
Natural body odors, notwithstanding the libidinal kick of pheromones, have never fared well in the history of seduction. Even in eras when bathing was verboten, seductresses kept scrupulously clean. Scent bypasses the thalamus and strikes directly at the oldest stratum of the brain, the rhinecephalon, source of memory and emotion. The goddess’s votaries steeped themselves in costly spices, gums, and aromatic woods and burned incense to their deity. Cleanliness, scents, and unguents have been routine with sirens for millennia, a tribute to the earliest incense offerings to the sex deity.
Prioleau has gathered together history’s sexiest vixens and given them a delicious voice. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
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