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Authors: Betsy Prioleau


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To Philip

The Inspiration and The Man


Great Seducers:


A man without love’s service is no better than a wretched ear of corn.

troubadour song

Almost all women have dreamed of “the great love.”

The Second Sex

embroke, a hamlet once known as Scuffletown (population 2,800), sits in the southeastern flatlands of North Carolina on Highway 711—home to the University of North Carolina Braves, the Lumbee Indians, the Berea Baptist Church, Dollar Tree, Papa Bill’s Ribs, a nearby drag strip with wheelstanding contests, and one of today’s hottest ladies’ men. Jack Harris is a psychology professor at the university in his forties, with a buzz cut, Tidewater slur, and a vocation you don’t see much anymore: women-charming. “As early as I can remember,” he says over a beer, “there have always been women—in the attic, on Trailways, on Amtrak—who come on to me. What is it? Let me think . . . well, I kind of intuit what they need. I love them, I want to please them.”

There are names for a man like Jack: roué, rake, ladykiller, Casanova, Don Juan, seducer, mack, babe magnet, and heartfucker. In French he’s called a
; in Japanese,
; in Russian,
; in Chinese, “color wolf”; in Spanish,
; in Portuguese,
; in German, a
. But he’s a mystery man in any language, enveloped in a pall of myths, prejudices, and armchair theories. Who
this ladies’ man, this sexy devil?

There’s really no good name for him. A man who lights up women, adores them, and love-addles them for life defies all the familiar models: smooth players, hunks with big hoses, money lords, or any of the scientific/therapeutic versions of the alpha romancer. He baffles every ingrained image; he’s the lover nobody knows.

Jack, for instance, fits no paradigm. “I’ve always found myself extremely average,” he tells me. And it’s true. He has a long, El Greco face and dresses in boondocks casual: short-sleeved shirt, no-brand jeans, rigger boots, and a gold crucifix around his neck. He’s without rank, riches, power, resources, or the appeals of security and stability. (He left a tenured job in south Texas on a whim and admits he’s pretty “volatile.”)

As for seduction techniques: “I don’t try to do it. I think it’s instinctive. I’m just very comfortable around women. And,” he drains his beer and crushes the can for emphasis, “I cannot make love to someone unless I have emotional feelings for them; I’m not the type to make a conquest and move on. I mean, the women who have broken my heart . . .”

This is the Mr. Irresistible of such renown? The man women chase down, covet, and can’t forget decades later? Nothing computes. By all rights, Jack shouldn’t be in the running, much less reeling in women right and left and fending off coeds with mash notes in their trembling hands.

For centuries, ladies’ men like Jack have been locked in a stereotype, distorted and stigmatized beyond recognition. But feelings about them are deeply divided; they’re both denounced and admired, censored and secretly cherished. They’re walking projections of the forbidden—an amalgam of envy, suppressed wishes, and stifled passions.

They’ve also been silenced. If we let them have their say, though, we’ll see a different man altogether—a complex, out-of-box charmer who smashes the “seducer” templates and redefines male allure. Despite the concept of an individual “love map,” a unique Jack for every Jill, a few men have garnered the majority of women throughout history. In a 2004 cross-cultural DNA study, Dr. Michael Hammer and his colleagues at the University of Arizona found that certain males passed on the bulk of genes to the next generation. Women, he concluded, seem to have similar tastes; some men are consistently chosen over others—they’re sexier, more fascinating, more
. A recent critic proclaimed that “there’s no more to be said about [Don Juan].” But we’ve just begun.

What, for example, is that
? Where do such men get that voltage, that touch with women? How do they manufacture the magic—the spells to enamor and keep enamored whomever they fancy, whenever, wherever? Who are these enigmatic characters? For starters, we need to scrape off the accumulated layers of cultural debris from the canvas—the inherited superstitions, the mildewed myths and caricatures, the “scientific” biases and iffy theories—and see the real picture.

Ladykillers, be advised, come with a PG warning. They’re not moral guardians, straight arrows, or docile house cats. They take us into X-rated territory and the dark corners of our psyche, and they aren’t always politically correct. But they’re a select fraternity who love women and enchant them. And they have some valuable wisdom; they’re not only insanely attractive, charismatic, and forever lovable, they know one of the most fire-powered secrets: what women
want and how to deliver it.

First, let’s cut through the myths.

The Satanic Seducer

Forbear, foul ravisher! Libidinous swine!


The evil ladykiller is the most familiar face of the seducer. With his sinister leer and lethal charm, he stalks through endless novels, poems, plays, and films, bringing ruin to the female sex. He is the prototype, writes critic Juliet Mitchell, for the most “unspeakable type of masculinity.” A cold, calculating sexual profiteer whose goal is conquest and digits.

He’s John Malkovich with his malefic drawl, the wicked lord who despoils hapless victims in French hotels and disappears into the night. He’s the continental lover named Carlo your mother warned you about, a reptilian smoothie with dark designs and sadistic ploys. He comes in three colors: black, blacker, and blackest.

Historian Denis de Rougemont thinks there is something demonic about the ladies’ man, an idea that goes back millennia. In 2400 BC Sumer, the seducer took the form of “Lilu,” a night hellion who preyed on women in their beds and left them pregnant. He’s the ancestor of the incubus, a nocturnal spirit of Western folklore, fond of sleeping beauties and neglected wives. Dante put the seducer in the eighth circle of hell, and John Milton portrayed him as Satan incarnate in
Paradise Lost
, snaking his way into Eden, ravishing Eve, and damning her to eternity.

The malevolent Don Juan has remained a fixture in the cultural imagination. From Lothario of the eighteenth-century play
The Fair Penitent
, who defiles the pure Calista, to the Romantic “fatal man,” to Jacqueline Susann’s
Love Machine
and television’s Don Draper of
Mad Men
, this scourge of the female sex is everywhere. In Francesca Stanfill’s modern novel
Shadows and Light
, a sophisticated socialite-artist is undone by a roué’s perfidious machinations. Rap star 50 Cent is a recent spawn-of-Satan impersonator: “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love /,” he sings, “ . . . the hoes they wanna fuck / But homie” won’t be held down.

These reprobates pursue their calling for a host of warped purposes: power, domination, thwarted military ambition, lechery, and most of all, sheer misogyny. They loathe their female prey. Lovelace, the dissolute cavalier of Samuel Richardson’s
, takes his hatred of women to the logical extreme and savagely rapes the heroine. Incapable of love, the licentious fiends view their “kills” as ciphers, nonpersons, and interchangeable objects in an endless carousel of partners.

Women don’t stand a chance against the satanic rake. Sucked in by his stealth arts of deceit and trickery, they come to tragic ends. Their psyches shred and they spiral into illness, madness, and catatonia. Usually they go to an untimely grave or wind up, like Anna Karenina, in the path of an advancing train.

The Real Satanic Seducer

Undoubtedly there
heartless philanderers and cold-plotting rogues, but they aren’t real ladies’ men. An authentic woman-charmer doesn’t despise his conquests or seek their destruction. “The professional seducer is an abominable man,” Giacomo Casanova insisted, “a true criminal who if he has the qualities required to seduce, renders himself unworthy of them by abusing them to make a woman wretched.”

He himself is proof against the blackguard stereotype he has come to personify. An eighteenth-century Venetian adventurer and man of accomplishments—author, entrepreneur, violinist, scholar, diplomat, and bon vivant—Casanova was one of the world’s greatest lovers. He admired and respected women and made their happiness his life’s work. He treated them “as if they were his equals,” writes a biographer, “and undress[ed] them as if they were his superiors.”

Eager to please, he specialized in female pleasure, once delivering fourteen orgasms in a single session. Women were usually the aggressors, and none were abandoned and ruined; partings were by mutual consent. Instead of broken and suicidal, his partners were often better off afterward, materially and psychologically. He didn’t keep score, cheat, or rack up huge numbers by today’s standards (approximately 120 lovers over a lifetime), and he remembered his inamoratas with affection.

If anything, he was a fool for love. During the period of his grand amour, he nearly lost his mind and life. At twenty-four, he met the mysterious “Henriette,” a Frenchwoman traveling incognito to escape her family, and fell “helplessly” in love with her. She was a wit, scholar, and accomplished musician, and they spent three idyllic months together without “a moment of ill-humour,” or a “yawn.” When her relatives finally caught up with her, she wrote on the windowpane of their Swiss hotel with the point of a diamond: “You will forget Henriette.” But he could not, even as an old man.

After she left, he fled to a remote inn, refused to eat, and would have died if a stranger hadn’t broken into his room and saved him. Sixteen years later he was near death once more when he next heard from “Henriette.” Traveling through Aix, he became gravely ill. He found a nurse in his room each day for four months, compliments of his old love, now a marquise in a nearby chateau. She still loved him, she wrote, but refused to see him again, due to her changed appearance. She called him the “most honorable man I have known in this world.” A far cry from the brutal rake of historical renown.

Casanova had his vices—gambling, petty cons, and vanity—but on balance he was a man of character and sensibility who was centuries ahead of his time. His mistake was being “born for the [opposite] sex,” being too good at it, and incurring envy at every turn.

Ladykillers aren’t pillars of virtue by any stretch, but they tend to fit the Casanova pattern. Rather than hackneyed, mustache-twirling stage villains, they’re a mixed breed—men like French philosopher Albert Camus—who endear and magnetize women. As Camus noted,
was the pursued: “I don’t seduce,” he wrote in his journal. “I surrender.” Nor do they coldly shuck conquests. They love deeply, can be faithful, and treat mistresses with respect, courtesy, and erotic genius. Rarely are women torn asunder and destroyed; they often come out ahead, and continue to love these ladies’ men. With genuine “seducers,” we’re beyond the stock ravishers-of-women, in uncharted, complicated territory.

The Pathologic Woman-Pleaser

[The ladies’ man represents a] clinical picture of the perverse character.

. R
Psychoanalytic Quarterly

With modernism, the seducer acquired another demonic persona. In this rendition, the ladies’ man is more than just an amoral womanizer and sexual gangster, he is disturbed. Wired or raised wrong or both, he’s fixated on women through an array of mental maladies. Although Freud (oddly enough) had nothing to say about the seducer, his successors wasted no time putting Casanova on the analyst’s couch.

A Spanish doctor in 1927 labeled the ladykiller a male hysteric, while psychiatrist Otto Rank diagnosed him with a “mother complex” on an eternally thwarted quest for maternal possession. A later generation of psychologists targeted his narcissism, an abnormal self-absorption that prevented normal empathy and attachment. Jules Feiffer’s antihero in
Harry, the Rat with Women
is a classic case, a “love monster” who panels his apartment with mirrors and answers a girlfriend’s question, “What are you thinking about?” with “Myself.”

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