Simone de Beauvoir and the Ethics of Seduction

Seduction is more than sexual, and far from morally neutral.

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Desire is aroused in us from all directions. We are seduced by more than just potential partners. We are seduced by politicians, advertisers, cult leaders… and this seduction holds moral weight. Sarah LaChance Adams argues for the rules of engagement of a more ethical seduction.

 

The word seduction originates from the Latin meaning to “lead astray.” Dictionaries say seduction involves trickery or deception, that to seduce involves convincing someone to do something they would not otherwise, especially sexual activity.

In short, seduction is far from moral neutrality.

But could seduction be consensual, mutual, even ethical? To answer this question adequately, I rethink the narrow definition it has been given. I describe seduction as when one tries to create a desire in another for greater proximity to oneself.

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In contemporary life, desire is aroused in us from all directions. I walk past a café and smell coffee. I see a beautiful body. I hear a song that fills me with longing.

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In contemporary life, desire is aroused in us from all directions. I walk past a café and smell coffee. I see a beautiful body. I hear a song that fills me with longing. Marketers, cult leaders, politicians, pick-up artists, and others exploit our tendency to be called hither. These seducers deliberately want to render us passive, nullify our agency, and thus, take away our ability to meaningfully consent. They have clear objectives in mind; they want our money, our allegiance, our votes, and our sexual submission.

An added complication is that our culture has tremendous influence on what we find alluring in the first place; and culture is not unbiased either. Because erotic desires are experienced so viscerally, it is easy to ignore culture’s role in their formation. While they can seem natural, instinctive and, even justified, our conditioning comes from all angles: family, religion, media, and friends. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, we can be trained to respond (salivate) to a conditioned stimulus (the ringing of a bell) that has been repeatedly associated with meeting a physiological need (the satisfaction of hunger). In contemporary culture, many people’s erotic responses are conditioned by the repeated pairing of escalating violence with intensifying romance, sexual stimulation, and climax. This happens in racist, heteronormative, misogynistic pornography. However, the trope also abounds in horror films, situation comedies, advertising, music videos, Disney movies, and more. It works even when one’s own demographic is the object of exploitation.

Does this mean that seduction inevitably summons our perverse programming? It does seem wise to be suspicious of desires that contribute to oppression. Feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky proposes that women resist enjoyment of their objectification, refraining from masochistic fantasies. Similarly, Alison Jagger suggests that we embrace our counter-hegemonic “outlaw emotions.” They believe that we can cultivate the desires that are conducive to our flourishing. I agree that we can at least be informed about their origins and consequences, recognizing that to reinterpret and revalue them could be liberating. Rather than understanding them as natural and inevitable, we might find that if they were created, then they can be recreated. This revaluation of values (to borrow Nietzsche’s notion) is a nascent opportunity within consensual, ethical seduction.

To understand how, we return to ethical seduction as the attempt to create desire in another for greater proximity to oneself. Notice that the telos of seduction is vague. Telos is a word philosophers use to describe the final purpose of something. A telos is a goal or end product; but perhaps more importantly, it is what motivates current actions, like when an acorn grows into an oak tree. The acorn’s purpose is to become an oak tree. All of its activity—releasing roots, seeking nutrients—is driven toward that end. Ethical seduction is propelled by the desire for proximity but to an unforeseen end. And this uncertainty is the key to its benefits. If one presupposes the goal of seduction, that its outcome should be a date, sex, or marriage, then the other person becomes either the object of, or an obstacle to, one’s plans.

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We can critique them as Martin Heidegger does the modern tendency to instrumentalize everything, to utilize it toward some outside purpose, to deny that it has intrinsic worth.

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Consider the infamous pick-up artists. They have a clear purpose: sex with as many conventionally attractive women as possible. To achieve their end, PUAs advise remaining in complete control of the significance of an encounter. They use pre-planned routines to alternately mimic boldness, chivalry, indifference, emotional withdrawal, spirituality, feminist ideas, transgression, and adventure. They use calculated costuming, gestures, flattery, absences, emotional manipulation, and isolation. They seek to exercise command over both women and themselves. We can critique them as Martin Heidegger does the modern tendency to instrumentalize everything, to utilize it toward some outside purpose, to deny that it has intrinsic worth. The reduction of women to their “targets,” similarly dehumanizes themselves. In the same sense as the truism “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” when all potential partners are there to be banged, all you are is a club.

Tools are useful, used up, then dumped. The things they make are similarly consumed. They are not natural, alive, and free. In ethical seduction, the other person is an active and creative participant, there to co-determine the ultimate purpose of the relationship. The truths that they can reveal—new insights about oneself, how another approaches the world, new possible futures—can only show themselves if we have the self-restraint and humility to know that we don’t know what everything means in advance. Ethical seduction involves curiosity about the world as it is presented by someone else. It means risking your established worldview and self-understanding. This vulnerability is an invitation to rediscover our identity and sexual agency, to become attracted and attractive in new ways.

We can see these themes emerge in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir, The Prime of Life, in which she describes the early days of her romance with Jean Paul Sartre. As young philosophers, they debated metaphysics and politics. They invented comedies, parodies, fables, and jokes. They compared, caricatured, and named each other’s bad moods. They discussed how their unique style of intimacy would support each other’s growing independence. They thrilled at the anticipation of a future together in which their life’s ambitions would intertwine.

“We walked the streets of Paris, still talking—about ourselves and our relationship, our future life, our yet unwritten books... As I have said elsewhere, Sartre lived for his writing. He felt that he had a mission to hold forth on any subject, tackling it as best suited him in the light of circumstance. He had exhorted me to open my eyes to the manifold glories of life; I too must write, in order to snatch that vision from obliteration by time.”

 

While the ultimate morality of their relationship has been debated, Beauvoir captures what I take to be a key experience of mutual ethical seduction—optimism. I borrow queer theorist Lauren Berlant’s definition. Optimism is “the force that moves you out of yourself and into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept or scene.” We can see in Beauvoir’s account how she and Sartre draw each other out and develop increasing mutual self-understanding. Sartre does not just encourage her to write, he exhorts her to preserve her unique vision of the world. As the memoir progresses, Beauvoir depicts an ongoing curiosity about each other’s perspectives as they navigate the horrors of World War II and imagine its possible outcomes. They continue to grow together as they share, critique, and edit each other’s works and lives in progress.   

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The changes one undergoes, the new futures one creates, may not be positive. Often the promises of a relationship turn out to be false.

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Seduction entreats that there are new pleasures to discover. Ethical seduction suggests that they come from genuine engagement with another’s worldview, recognition of their vision, following the beam of their attention, and seeking to be worthy of their regard. Nevertheless, it does not guarantee a happily ever after, or even a successful beginning. We still risk rejection, dependency, heartache, grief, and even moral failure. There are always additional ethical concerns to consider, such as other relationships and responsibilities. The bonds that are formed can still do damage. The changes one undergoes, the new futures one creates, may not be positive. Often the promises of a relationship turn out to be false. Berlant argues that our optimism can be cruel. Cruel optimism is when something we desire is an obstacle to our flourishing. Indeed, we are often very wrong about what is good for us. 

In the typical understanding of seduction, the seducer is in control. To be seduced is to lose one’s agency. Seduction’s romantic form is to be carried away, to be swept off your feet, to fall in love. In contrast, the ethical seducer calls forth the agency of the desired other, soliciting their perspective, insights, and worldview. They do not begin from a place of knowledge or power. They do not know who they are to this person or who this person will be to them. They court the trace of a “satisfying something.” In attempting to incite a desire for proximity to oneself, the ethical seducer optimistically presents themself for examination. Ethical seduction is self-exposure. It is to voluntarily risk being led astray. Herein lies the thrill, the danger, and the generative potential. For better or worse, ethical seduction risks creating something entirely new.

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