“This book isn’t about the law. In fact, it began by asking a simple question about books. Why is so much of our literature about seduction?”
In 1848 New York state criminalized seduction. The new law declared seduction a ‘crime against society’ and those men found guilty of it could face five years in prison and a fine of up to $1000. In the decades that followed, these laws proved astonishingly popular. By 1921, 37 states had similar laws. In 1910 the United States congress passed a federal law regulating seduction, the Mann Act, enforced by the FBI. In the process an impassioned national debate began. Early feminists were behind many of these new laws and they justified the need for them by advancing novel arguments about gender and power. On the other side of the debate were a different generation of feminists who argued the laws were patronizing and paternalistic. Along the way, the law took down a number of powerful men like Charlie Chaplin, Chuck Berry, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Errol Flynn whilst writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos built careers on satirising sexual mores. Over a hundred years before #MeToo America was having what feels now like a very modern conversation about sex, consent, and power.
This book isn’t about the law. In fact, it began by asking a simple question about books. Why is so much of our literature about seduction? From Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) to Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) readers have been obsessed with the subject for centuries. Without this fascination our shared culture would be much the poorer. Don Giovanni, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Dracula, Fear of Flying, Portnoy’s Complaint, even James Bond – so much of what we read, watch, and listen to is shaped by this abiding interest in seduction. What’s interesting is that when you pull at the loose end of this thread in our culture a whole fabric unravels. For seduction narratives are not insulated in books but feed back into society in strange and compelling ways. The incredible and problematic history of the legal attempt to police seduction is one aspect of this legacy. But there are many more. In the eighteenth century attitudes towards seduction were institutionalised in establishments like the London Magdalen House for seduced girls – a place straight out of the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the nineteenth and twentieth century they were mobilized by Nazis and nativists to popularise a raft of racist and xenophobic political schemes. Today these narratives underpin the architecture of dating apps like Tinder and OkCupid.
In other words seduction narratives are all around us – but that doesn’t make it straightforward to write a history of seduction. In order to pin down this elusive subject I’ve told this history through a series of seven lives who together take the reader from 1689 to the present day. Among them is the feminist luminary Mary Wollstonecraft (much of whose politics, I argue, were built around questions of sexuality), Mary Shelley whose circle included both the notorious seducer Lord Byron and the crusading feminist legal reformer Caroline Norton, and Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world who was relentlessly persecuted under American seduction law. My hope is that through considering these lives we can find historical perspectives on
very contemporary concerns.
– Clement Knox