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The Paradox of Seduction

In scenes of seduction, can you really be sure who's seducing whom?

amoklv/123RF free image
Source: amoklv/123RF free image

"A man chases a girl until she catches him." –Irving Berlin

Seduction, and the so-called “Art of Seduction,” is laden with ambiguities and apparent contradictions. So much so that it can almost be viewed as a paradoxical phenomenon. Similar to rape, to which it’s frequently compared, it’s undeniably manipulative. Yet while its various stratagems may at times overlap with those of rape, it’s essentially about process and persuasion versus threats, physical force, and violence.

More important, still, the artifice and machinations characterizing seduction aren’t entirely one-sided. Its implementation typically involves one person (traditionally the male) in the role of subjugator and the other (generally the woman) reacting submissively as the subdued—whereas in rape there’s clearly a perpetrator and victim. But by its very definition, seduction implies a certain mutuality, connoting at least some degree of consent. (And I should add here that this is true whether the seducer is male or female, though for simplicity’s sake this post will refer to the male as seducer—as opposed, that is, to the woman as seductress).

Except in sexual fantasiesengendered by the libido- or ego-inspired wish to be irresistibly desired—it can safely be asserted that no one ever chooses to be raped. But there are many individuals (and not just heterosexual women) who secretly yearn for the excitement, the thrill, the peculiarly “illicit intimacy,” of being the coveted object of another’s lust. Which is to say that there are times when the seducee, however unconsciously, can actually be seen as paradoxically complicit with the seducer. In addition, and also paradoxically, if the seducee is still a virgin, her very innocence—artless, untainted, and ingenuous—can carry its own powerful seductive allure. I think few men would disagree that a young woman not yet “deflowered” can project a vastly more appealing, and tempting, eroticism than any hard-core, provocatively dressed prostitute.

Moreover, though at its worst, seduction can be seen as shamefully exploitive, it really can’t be described as demanding, threatening, or coercive. Rather, it’s captivating, luring, enticing. And while it never starts out as consensual, ultimately it ends up that way. In a sense, it’s like “surrendering” to a delectable piece of chocolate. No one aimed a gun at you and aggressively forced you to eat it. But there it was—right in front of you and just so enticing that eventually it simply overwhelmed your will to resist.

It could be said that seduction appeals not to the seducee’s higher, more principled self but to their more impulsive, romantic, sensuous self. And this may be why the emotion following their seduction may be regret. The more positive aspects of their ambivalence now affirmed, the negative parts may well regain prominence.

And this would be likely if, subsequent to the encounter, the seducee comes to regard their submission as reflecting personal weakness—as their having wimpishly caved to the other’s desire. Additionally, they may come to recognize that their being passionately made love to didn’t at all mean that they were loved or cared about: Only that they’d been conveniently used to gratify the seducer’s indiscriminate sex drive, or need to assert sexual dominance over them.

But the emotional outcome of being seduced may also contrast sharply to a seducee’s experience of being taken advantage of. For some women, particularly those whose virginity was still in tact at the time, may actually feel freer—or sexually liberated—by this singularly arousing experience of letting themselves be “taken” by another. And the ever-popular romance novel, written especially to cater to women’s tastes, commonly centers on the fleshy eroticism intrinsic to such intimate encounters.

Or perhaps the seducee had been troubled earlier by religious, societal, irrational or overblown fears of sexually yielding themselves to another. Yet what they experienced in their capitulation, and in permitting themselves an unprecedented expression of their sensuality, might have felt like a delightful relief—especially if the seducer demonstrated genuine interest in their (i.e., not just his own) pleasure. And, ideally, also showed some non-sexual interest in them. Moreover, they might have experienced a joyful sense of power in their feminine seductiveness, one that perhaps they’d never before realized, or appreciated.

Again, all this suggests the curious paradoxes—or layers of presumably incompatible meaning—that may characterize an experience capable of affecting people in so many different ways. One might claim that “seduction is seduction” and always understandable in terms of one person’s exploiting another. But given the manifold complexities of human nature, that deduction seems oversimplified. For it should by now be obvious that at some level the seducee consented to be seduced, that she had a certain “positive investment” in the experience (otherwise, of course, it would be rape).

All the quite possibly positive reactions to seduction make any black-and-white (i.e., non-paradoxical) interpretation off the mark. It’s certainly significant that the original, Latin-derived meaning of seduce is “to lead astray, as from duty, rectitude, or the like; corrupt.” And this ethically-focused definition helps account for the connotations of the term—though becoming more mixed, ambiguous, or “nuanced” over the ages—still remaining largely unfavorable.

Yet, however aware of it they may be, many individuals (and from both sexes) want to be seduced. They relish the attention it would afford; or its charming, “appetizing” appeal to their senses; or the gratification of viewing themselves as erotically enticing; or, especially, the satisfaction of the other person’s so much desiring—or better, craving—physical intimacy with them. As Madame de Stael famously asserted some two centuries ago: “The desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.” And this often repeated (though somewhat overstated) quotation speaks volumes as relates to the “inherent seducibility” of women—as well as the powerful seductive propensities of testosterone-driven males. Moreover, it’s hardly a coincidence that flirtatious acts have been linked quite as much to women as they have to men, and subtly teasing behaviors even more so. (And in this respect, readers might wish to look at an earlier post of mine entitled “Flirt vs. Tease: What’s the Difference?”)

In the vast repertoire of human experiences, intense sexual arousal is certainly among the most exciting—at times, even electrifying. This is the reason that so many seek it (and which also explains why internet pornography is so popular and can so easily become addictive). In itself, seduction is neither good nor bad, virtuous nor vicious. Depending on its underlying motives and outcome, it can be decidedly negative and, at its extreme, result in reduced self-esteem, body image problems, sexual anxieties, or depression. But it can also be exceptionally satisfying—and not just for the seducer. Both parties might find it psychologically, as well as erotically, fulfilling—providing a “high” capable of lasting considerably beyond the actual encounter.

In the end, it might be said that sexual seduction is best seen paradoxically. In fact, at its best, it can culminate in a romantic relationship, which eventually develops into a long-term committed one. And in such instances, it might be hypothesized that maybe what really occurred was a kind of mutual seduction—which would suggest that, well, maybe it wasn’t really seduction at all.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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