Today we’re delighted to welcome Betsy Prioleau, author of “SWOON: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them.” Betsy, in “SWOON” you reveal that ladies’ men adore women. That they romance them with ardor and style, keep them interested, make them feel cherished, fulfilled, and appreciated. With such intriguing information, let’s get started:
Mentors: In “Seductress,” you examined history’s most powerful sirens, women who used their smarts, charm, and desirability to conquer and fascinate the men of their choosing. What made you want to write about their male counterparts in “SWOON?”
Betsy: In both cases, I was fascinated by the mystery of erotic power—why some people are always lucky in love and enchant everyone around them. This time, I focused on ladies’ men because I was curious to see if they’d been equally misunderstood.
I discovered, sure enough, that they’d been just as distorted and maligned as their female counterparts and had never been studied as a group before. And what a fabulous group!
They explode all the stereotypes and possess a cache of love arts that aren’t found in how-to books. Most importantly, these great lovers answer history’s oldest question: what do women want?
It’s time, I realized, to even the score; reveal the kind of men women crave and the well-guarded secrets of female desire.
Mentors: Can you track any changes in seducers over the centuries? If so, can you spot any constants in the personalities and strategies of these ladykillers?
Betsy: If you look at seducers over time, you can see shifts in preferences. A medieval love hero, for example, was a modest knight who served his lady with brave deeds, courtesy, and abject adoration. Heartthrobs of the Romantic period, on the other hand, were erotic tornados—outsized men of operatic declarations and rash actions. Then there were the pony-tailed minstrels and anarchs of the 1960s.
But amid these fluctuations of erotic tastes, you find a number of constants. All these great lovers radiate sexual charisma, cherish women, and use the same approach to enamor and keep them enamored. They handle love as an art, an imaginative creation, and invest it with drama, passion, and originality, customizing charms for individual women.
Mentors: Who are the ladies’ men today? What are their chief allures and strengths compared to those of the past?
Betsy: Hollywood idols, like Hugh Jackman, Ashton Kutcher, and Ryan Gosling, and the real-life men I interviewed, are ladies’ men with a postmillennial difference. In all the basics, they fit the template: they have that wow factor, love women, and are creative romancers.
But they share qualities unique to twenty-first-century ladykillers. Reflecting the tastes of today’s independent and confident women, they’re less macho, more expressive, and appreciative of feminine strength and ambition. They’re also, in response to the new female gaze, intent on good looks, although one large-scale study found that women like a loved one’s appearance, regardless of stated ideals.
If riches and rank ever mattered, they seem increasingly irrelevant. Only two of the ladies’ men I canvassed were wealthy, and celebrity sweethearts are portrayed as regular guys in sweats rather than plutocrats. Women don’t require providers any longer; they want interesting peers. As women alter so do the men they desire, but in essence, claim experts, their romantic needs “haven’t changed one bit.” Which is why today’s ladies’ men are more similar than different from great lovers of the past.
Mentors: Is it harder to be a ladies’ man in contemporary society? If so, why?
Betsy: For the ordinary guy, it’s definitely harder now to be a ladies’ man. There are no longer courtship rituals or etiquette guides on how to charm. Men get their erotic education, such as it is, from porn, locker rooms, cursory sex-ed classes, the media, and couples’ therapy bromides—none of which address lovecraft.
Then, too, they’re miseducated in seduction by pick-up artists and intimidated by female romantic partners and sexual demands. Without the old need for the male initiative, many men have abandoned the mating effort altogether. The majority, writes sex research Timothy Perper, are “oblivious” about the “art of seduction.”
On the other hand, there’s a select fraternity of ladies’ men today who transcended the culture and are tearing up the track with women. It just requires the right stuff, originality of spirit, and the will to woo.
Mentors: In “SWOON” you use evidence from science, popular culture, fiction, anthropology, history, and interviews with real-life ladies’ men to reveal who these master lovers really are. What findings surprised you most from your research?
Betsy: I approached ladies’ men full of preconceptions, so everything I uncovered was a surprise. First, I was amazed at the way they upended stereotypes. Instead of romantic predators, for example, I found that most are more pursued than pursuing. As Albert Camus wrote in his journal: “I don’t seduce, I surrender.”
I was equally astonished to discover that these men sincerely love women, and are usually without looks, rank, or riches. Their complexity also threw me—their complicated mix of qualities, including positive traits like spirituality, integrity, and moral decency.
But the biggest surprise was their androgyny. Rather than the high-testosterone he-men of popular lore, great lovers tend to have a strong feminine streak. The American icon of manhood Gary Cooper, for instance, was actually sensitive, artistic, and adored for his “ravishing androgyny.”
Mentors: What is it about androgynous men that is so appealing?
Betsy: Gender ambiguity is intensely seductive, especially to women. The attraction is embedded deep in eros. Theorists have long argued that a synthesis of male and female is a universal unconscious wish, and represents the “peak of sensual perfection” in desire. The earliest sex gods, like Shiva and the “Man-Woman” Dionysus, were gender-benders.
For women, this holds a special allure, no one knows quite why. (Perhaps a superior grasp of the feminine psyche factors in.) In studies, women consistently prefer computerized images of feminized male faces and choose more androgynous men in audio interviews. After extensive research, sexual psychologist Meredith Chivers concluded that women share a greater predilection for bisexuality. Counterintuitive as it seems, men in touch with their feminine side have a romantic edge with women.
Mentors: The player or pickup artist persona popularized by Neil Strauss and dozens of online dating gurus is one of the most pervasive stereotypes of the ladies’ man. In “SWOON,” you explain that the PUA (pickup artist), is the furthest thing from a real seducer. Why is this so? And how did Strauss get this so wrong?
Betsy: The player model of the seducer is one of the most misguided, noxious versions of the ladies’ man. It’s the brain child of an assortment of undatables who sold insecure men on the idea that women are won through dominance displays and paramilitary maneuvers. Apprentice PUAs learn to game targets with bravado, sarcastic put-downs, trance words, and strategic touches, and to mask emotions. The goal is modest: to get laid not loved, and the “hits” who fall for these puerile ploys are usually a desperate lot themselves—lost, lonely singletons.
Neil Strauss and his confreres didn’t do their homework. Real ladies’ men who captivate the best women are secure and mature, and court conquests with praise, pleasure, love declarations, and passionate artistry.
Mentors: What does the overwhelming popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and romance novels in general say about today’s sexual culture?
Betsy: Romance novels provide a fabulous read on the female libido. The love heroes in these books reflect women’s fondest erotic dreams. The men are fascinators—ardent suitors, great conversationalists, sack artists, and praisers who halo and deify their girlfriends. They’re also, coincidentally, a lot like actual ladykillers.
The runaway popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is a measure of the female longing for the ladies’ man and what he brings to love. Instead of a yen for S & M, the trilogy is really about women’s unfulfilled romantic desires, the wish to be the center of a man’s universe, to be cherished, satisfied, and noticed, and never bored. It speaks volumes about women’s heightened amorous expectations and the extent to which they aren’t being met today by men, many of whom are at sea romantically.
Mentors: In “SWOON,” you argue that women in contemporary culture need ladies’ men more than ever? Why is this so?
Betsy: Rarely have women needed ladies’ men more than they do today. As trend-trackers remind us, it doesn’t look like a season for romance out there. We have confusion and cynicism, and a climate of “liquid love”—revolving partners, light attachments, and melancholy marriages. A sexual malaise seems to have sunk over the country.
Women, according to studies, want change. They’re weary of the role of aggressor, frustrated sexually (the orgasm gap persists), love-starved, and increasingly peeved with men. Neglect is the most common reason for breakups, and female infidelity is on the rise. They’ve become unhappier since 1972 (in part due to men), and are demoralized—discontented with their looks and unsure of their romantic moves.
This is where ladies’ men come in. They romance women with ardor and style, and sate them sexually and intellectually. They don’t do dull, and make women feel anointed—gorgeous, special, and thoroughly appreciated.
Mentors: After writing this book, what do you think women really want? And are men today really interested in fulfilling these desires?
Betsy: I think women want what we all seek in love: to be chosen from the crowd, fully “known,” and adored by someone who rocks our world. Who pays attention and keeps passion fresh through perpetual courtship.
Men are more interested in fulfilling this desire than we imagine. Beneath the macho bluster, most men, according to recent research, want to please women. They fall in love at first sight more often, prefer romantic over sexual images on tests, yearn equally for long-term unions, and fare worse emotionally after break-ups. “Love,” writes Garrison Keillor of men, “is the mainspring of our lives.”
Mentors: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Betsy: My hope is that readers will come away with a more nuanced view of the ladies’ man, will appreciate his significance in cultural history, and see his potential for a sexier tomorrow. He’s a privileged window onto what women want, now and forever.
He doesn’t have to be taken wholesale; great seducers have their obvious flaws and failings. But we can harvest their love secrets and arts and teach them to ordinary men. As the love philosophers say, “every man should be Don Juan to his wife (or partner) over and over and over again.”
Thank you so much for the entertaining interview, Betsy. Readers, if you want to know about her and “SWOON: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them,” here’s Betsy’s website. And now you have the chance to make comments and ask questions through the “Leave a Reply” section below.