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Strange Antics by Clement Knox review – a history of seduction | Books

Are we living in an age of sexual liberation or sexual crisis? In contemporary western societies, it is often hard to tell. Sex, seemingly, is everywhere: big screens and small screens, newspapers and novels, T-shirts and tea-cups. Sex before marriage, sex outside marriage, sex with multiple partners, homo-sex, hetero-sex, whatever turns you on. Yet some commentators believe our sexual lives and language have rarely been as dysfunctional or dangerous as they are today. Internet trolls threaten female politicians with gang rape. Employers ban co-workers from dating, or from hugging or even touching in the office. On campus, undergraduates attend workshops on sexual harassment at a time when a male “incel” can target and kill students, armed with guns and knives.

For Clement Knox, author of a dense and capacious new history of seduction, the origins of our current sexual discontents can be located some 300 years ago in Enlightenment-era debates over human nature. “Whether we are moved more by reason or by the passions, whether we are rational agents or creatures vulnerable to error, deceit and suasion” is the question he sees as foundational to any understanding of sexuality now. There are, he contends, two “seduction narratives” whose presence within western thought has proved consequential and enduring. The first frames sexual relations as a game of enticement and exploitation. The seducer, usually male, deceives and prevails, while his victim, invariably female, succumbs and regrets. The second, more optimistic, narrative celebrates seduction as the emancipated pursuit of sexual pleasure. The seducer, male or female, is no villain but a free agent shaking off “the irrational prejudices of custom, religion, and taboo”. What follows is a cultural history that tracks these competing views of human sexuality through the works of writers from Samuel Richardson and Giacomo Casanova to Bram Stoker and Herbert Marcuse.

This eclectic method produces a clutch of vivid biographical portraits and offers a pacey introduction to some canonical texts. Yet I wish Knox had asked plainer questions. What did it mean to be seduced in different times and places? How was seduction differentiated in law, policy and everyday practice from other kinds of sexual encounter, such as rape, adultery and prostitution? Who was seduced, by whom and how often? What of seduction between men, or between women, rather than the exclusively heterosexual couplings that fill Knox’s pages? What were the consequences of seduction, not just for Richardson’s Pamela or a renowned rake such as Lord Byron, but in the ordinary unsung lives of those who did not write novels or philosophical tracts about morality, virtue and the modern self?

Knox touches on these questions elliptically throughout his book, but this is not a work of social or political history. When the story turns away from literary elites, as it does in a chapter framed around the life of African American boxer Jack Johnson, seduction’s wider explanatory power creeps into view. White women were counted among Johnson’s many sexual conquests and in 1909 he had the audacity to marry one, which inflamed racist opinion across the US and eventually landed the heavyweight champion in court. His crime was to violate the Mann Act, which criminalised a gamut of sexual practices, including interracial sex, under the guise of protecting female chastity and public morality.

The book’s commentary on the later 20th century hits many of its targets, exploring how the dynamics of seduction were transformed by the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and the pill. “You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value,” wrote the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick in 1973. Knox points to online dating culture as ultimate proof of how sex has been individuated and monetised in recent times. His outlook shares the bleak perspective of French writer Michel Houellebecq, whose dystopian novel Atomised (1998) is summarised lengthily. The quest for love and human connection, as Knox sees it, has been reduced to a transaction between sellers and consumers in a sexual marketplace devoid of tenderness or sentiment.

Whether this conclusion proves Knox’s general argument about the eternal struggle between passion and reason is not clear. Much of the controversy generated by the #MeToo movement (which Knox briefly references) has centred on questions of power and capacity in a world still run by men. Knox’s book is packed with elite males throwing their money and status around in the pursuit of women’s bodies, sometimes enforcing their will through the use or threat of violence. His first chapter opens with the career of Francis Charteris, nicknamed “Rape-Master-General of Great Britain”, who assaulted dozens of young women – some at pistol point – in the early decades of the 18th century. Charteris was sentenced to hang, but pardoned. It is a dark and revealing note on which to begin a history of seduction.

Strange Antics: A History of Seduction by Clement Knox is published by William Collins (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

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