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Field Guide to the Casanova: The Lady-killer Files

Are players socially skilled hedonists, or self-destructive psychopaths?

Ideally, they met at a lounge near his New York City apartment. "Women feel unheard and want to express themselves," Janka says. So he'd bring up an emotionally charged topic (such as the dating scene itself) and let the woman vent.

Early into the evening he'd touch his date to see how she reacted: Did she flinch, or lean in closer? If he got the feeling that she wasn't likely to go home with him, he would often cut the date short to save time and money. But many times—Janka has slept with more than 100 women—the woman did indeed come back to his place.

Janka perfected this system while he was in his late 20s. He even wrote a 17-page manual, entitled "Getting Laid in NYC: Technology for the Single Man," which is available on the Internet. Now happily settled in a monogamous relationship, Janka recalls his tomcatting days: "The woman had something I wanted, and I had to set the circumstances right so that she would open the kimono. There's nothing like seeing a woman naked for the first time. It's like unwrapping a present. The thrill would be to see how fast I could get to that point."

Casanovas—or players or lotharios—are men who devote a large amount of their energy to bedding as many women as possible. They are charming—they have to be—and often intuitive about women's emotions, knowing which buttons to push to make women feel both flattered and attracted. But the practice can be detrimental, not just to the women they seduce, but also to the men themselves, who say that their single-minded pursuit of women distracts them from their careers and friendships. Plus, the very skills that make someone an accomplished womanizer—such as manipulation—often work against them when they do settle into long-term relationships.

Player Precursors

Janka's parents divorced when he was 5, but he still remembers admiring how his father would look women up and down in the street. "He was quite a gigolo," Janka says.

Serial seducers tend to have grown up with absent fathers, says Jed Diamond, a psychotherapist and author of The Irritable Male. A lack of early connection to a father figure may make men insecure about their acceptability, Diamond says, and luring in women becomes a way to compensate.

Janka also suspects that his womanizing ways were connected to the fact that he was a late bloomer who had braces until he was 17 and didn't lose his virginity until college. "I fumbled many a high-school opportunity," he says. "But, at the end of high school, the braces came off; I got a motorcycle and was tanned from playing beach volleyball. Then the equation started to change."

Neil Strauss, author of the best-selling memoir The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick Up Artists, found that to be typical of the players he met. "The high," says Strauss, "comes from having been a wallflower in high school and walking into a bar or party and a few minutes later being the center of attention."

Hooked on the Hunt

Diamond believes that self-esteem problems are at the core of this desire to seduce as many women as possible. "Even though Casanova types seem like the life of the party, they are very insecure about their lovability," he says.

"When I was single, I drew on the attention and power I got from chasing women," Janka says. "I was an SAT tutor at the time—my creative life was on hold. Now that I feel better about how I'm using my talents, I have less of a need for validation."

The kind of reinforcement that sleeping around offers is particularly addictive because it's intermittent, says psychologist Nando Pelusi. "Even the most successful Casanova doesn't know when the next situation will work out," he says. "Anything intermittent has an addictive quality for humans."

The messages men tell themselves can also contribute to an insatiable need for new partners. "If you believe more is better and seek variety for its own sake, it becomes self-reinforcing," Pelusi says. "It's not sex, per se; they could have just as much—increasingly better—sex in a relationship. But they become inured to sex with the same woman. It feels stale."

The Darker Side of Seduction

Casanovas tend to exhibit some traits associated with psychopathy, says Robert Hare, the author of Without Conscience and a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. "Unless they are Brad Pitt," he says, "they may have to deceive and manipulate to get these women."

Indeed, in his book, Strauss details how he and other pickup artists used unsavory methods such as the "freeze-out": The pickup artist is kissing a woman in his bed. She tries to prevent it from moving further; in response, the pickup artist becomes cold, pulls away, and checks his e-mail on his laptop. "She was feeling good a moment ago, enjoying your attention; now you're taking it all away."

Janka says the only deceptive behavior he ever engaged in was disguising the fact that he doesn't drink. He says he never misled women about his intentions.

Still, Hare says that a compulsion to have sex for sex's sake is consistent with the shallowness of emotions and lack of attachment to others that psychopaths exhibit (although he cautions that just because someone sleeps around does not mean that he or she is a psychopath).

Janka doesn't feel any shame about his player days. But he did have to pick up a whole new set of skills to make his current relationship work. "I used to be kind of an asshole, very unyielding," he says. Learning to accommodate and not just bait a woman has proved rewarding: "The warmth and support and love of my girlfriend easily outweigh the titillation of the hunt."

Are You Too Much of A Tomcat?

Getting hooked on the emotional rush of casual sex could undermine other aspects of your life. Ask yourself whether you are addicted to love, or just having a good time:

  • Do you keep secrets about your romantic life from people who are important to you?
  • Do you make promises to yourself—such as vowing to stop flirting with your friends' wives—that you find you can't keep?
  • Do you sleep with people whom you consider to be inappropriate sexual partners?
  • If you answered yes to any of these, your active sex life might be doing you more harm than good. Psychologist Nando Pelusi suggests trying to shed the compulsion, even though your sex drive is here to stay. You may have to internalize a new message: You don't have to have something just because you can have it. Therapy could help you combat feelings of low self-worth and cravings for validation from women.