Betsy Prioleau


VTR Date: January 29, 2004

Betsy Prioleau discusses the post-feminist future.


GUEST: Betsy Prioleau
VTR: 1/29/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And thinking about today’s program I’ve puzzled mightily whether it was the influence of dear Cornelia de Young, the very proper Dutch governess who raised me that has kept me for all the years of this television venture from talking particularly much about sex.

Everyone else seems to do so. And not just about the birds and the bees. Well, I think of all those ads now for the wonders of Viagra that keep popping up on my computer screen, as well as lots of other come-ons for ladies and gentlemen of the night or day.

Even last Sunday’s New York Times devoted more than three full columns of print plus provocative pictures to men learning to seduce sexy young women in bars. Hardly part of all the news that’s fit to print.

Now to be sure Helen Gurley Brown celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her “Sex and Single Girl” on The Open Mind. Dr. Ruth has both giggled and talked straight with me about “good sex”. Dr. William Masters of the famous Masters and Johnson team that wrote “Human Sexual Response” and “Human Sexual Inadequacy” was here.

Twenty years ago Susan Brownmiller spoke about rape as a feminist issue. Thirty years ago Betty Friedan talked about sexual identity. And nearly 50 years ago Cardinal Spellman, then Archbishop of New York threatened to sue for the revocation of our broadcast license when Margaret Mead and Max Lerner appeared on The Open Mind to discuss male and female homosexuality.

But today has to be our sexiest program. With guest Betsy Prioleau, a Duke University Ph.D. in English literature whose new Viking “Seductress: Women Who Ravished The World and Their Lost Art of Love” is described as a stylishly written master plan for full female entitlement that completes the sexual revolution and reveals the path to the post-feminist future. Women in control erotically and professionally with the best men under their spell.” So now I better ask my guest just exactly what that means?

PRIOLEAU: Yes. Well, first of all a seductress is not what you think. I mean we’re not talking about a sultry vamp or one of these dim-witted babes or a thong snapping home wrecker. Instead a seductress is a fully empowered woman in life and love and a person who can get and keep any man she wants. The best men. Men who are good for her.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “empowered?”

PRIOLEAU: Well, I mean empowered … having control. Woman by biologic right have the power of sexual choice. As Mary Batten, one of the socio-biologists says, “unless usurped by force, or subverted by deceit, the woman is the natural chooser.”

And women should have this power. And have lost it, I think, recently. I want women to have basically control of their erotic destiny. That’s really what it’s about. That’s what I mean by “empowered”. It means entitlement, really. Full entitlement.

HEFFNER: Entitlement. Empower. Those words don’t seem to go together for me. Tell me.

PRIOLEAU: Well, what I mean is that a woman should be able to have her love life as she wishes.

HEFFNER: Should a man?

PRIOLEAU: And a man as well. But throughout history this has required art. Love requires art to survive, say the old sages. And this is a lost art, literally. And I think it’s a wonderful time now for women to recoup this so that they can reinstate this power of choice. And really finish the sexual revolution.

HEFFNER: Finish. Tell me.

PRIOLEAU: Well, in the sixties …


PRIOLEAU: … the idea was that women were suddenly free from the old constrictive norms of the past. But what happened was that the feminists discredited all of the old arts and wiles that women had used for centuries. They’d misunderstood them, actually. So they threw out the baby with the bath water. And sold women on a kind of flower child openness and innocence. And basically women went into sexuality and erotic relationships without any skills at all. And as a result they ended up losing the power edge that is there’s by mythic and by biologic right.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, and I keep asking these questions because the book fascinates me so. What do you mean by “mythic”, as well as biological right.

PRIOLEAU: Well in the …

HEFFNER: What do you mean “mythic?”

PRIOLEAU: Well, by “mythic”, I’m talking about the old sex goddesses. The old sex goddesses and, if you believe in the archetypes, the idea that an archetype never vanishes from the human unconscious, then there are memory traces still of these very powerful sex goddesses from ancient history. The ones we know about for sure are Inanna of ancient Sumer … this is 4000 B.C., for example.

This is a woman who was a sexual agent. She was absolutely in charge of her love life. She was able to cruise the cosmos, picking up the hunks she wanted. She was unbound by social laws. But when she found the one that she wanted, Demusie, the handsome shepherd, she was able to win him over through a very complex set of sexual and erotic lures. Aphrodite was the same way. When she wanted a man, she was able to go about it through a very sophisticated technique and all of the sex goddesses had this power of seduction which was complex. And it was quite thoughtful and intellectual.

HEFFNER: When you say “quite thoughtful and intellectual, you mean the appeals that they used.


HEFFNER: But, you know, as I read “Seductress”, whether it was when you were writing about Nietzsche


HEFFNER: … or about any of the other …


HEFFNER: … men, I felt somewhat diminished. I felt that there was no real place here in your chronicle for men. Wrong? Right?

PRIOLEAU: Oh, wrong, wrong. A seductress …

HEFFNER: Except as victims of …

PRIOLEAU: Oh, no, no …

HEFFNER: … objects of …

PRIOLEAU: … no, these were …

HEFFNER: … sex objects.

PRIOLEAU: Oh, no. These women were not femme fatales at all, they were femme vitals. They were the best thing that could happen to a man. I think this is a primal fear that men have. That if women have too much sexual power, they will be diminished, they’ll be put in a servile position.


PRIOLEAU: But historically that turns out not to be the case. If you think about Nietzsche, for example …


PRIOLEAU: … and his relationship with Lou Andreas-Salome. Now it turns out he was not the man for her. But think how he prospered from that relationship. He would never have written Thus Spake Zarathustra. We would have no idea of the “uber-man”, she based that completely on her. He called her his “sibling brain”. He said, “She’s the only person who understands me.” And he was a man who was lonely. And he could really share ideas with her and she encouraged him.

So she was not only a creator in her own right, a brilliant philosopher and thinker, but she was a Muse to him and was actually the making of Rilke. I mean Rilke was writing sentimental third rate poetry until she took him under her command. During their three year love affair, he wrote his best poetry.

HEFFNER: What has been the feminist reaction to “Seductress”?

PRIOLEAU: Well, I would say it has been mixed. Feminism now is in two phases; we have the old “second wave feminists” who will tell me, you know, you’re not supposed to get a man through sexual wiles, we’re supposed to do it on our own steam. And then you have the third wave feminists, I would say “Gen X”. And I’m getting a lot of fist-pumping reactions from them. They’re saying, “This is marvelous, this is wonderful. We want to integrate our lives so that we have love and life mastery.” But I tell the second wave feminists that none of the women in my book used sexual wiles. They did not. I mean when you think of sexual wiles, you think of cleavage baring and you think of people batting their eyes and you think of flattery. And all of these obsolete techniques and …

HEFFNER: “Obsolete”, what a strange word to use.

PRIOLEAU: Well they’re defunct. I mean they’re the product of idiot self-helps and rules primers. But, in fact, it’s just a strategy to keep women servile and in their place. Because the real erotic TNT, the real aphrodisiacs that work are psychological. I mean love is a head-trip. It really is. So, cerebral charms are really where it’s at.

HEFFNER: I remember some years back when Naomi Wolf was here; that she was insisting that women had been trapped by men who put their emphasis upon those wiles.


HEFFNER: Rather than women being able to be the intellectual ….


HEFFNER: … equals …


HEFFNER: … of men. And that’s what you feel too?

PRIOLEAU: No. No. I feel just the reverse.

HEFFNER: All right.

PRIOLEAU: No. I think she misunderstood wiles. Because Simone de Beauvoir for one started all this. In the “Second Sex,” she derided seductresses; she called them the slavish little sisters. And she referred to seduction, or some of her followers did as “a four letter word”. It was servile; it was base. But I think it was a misunderstanding of this traditional art of love, which is quite dignified and elevated.

As one of the scholars of this art says, “It’s a complex, learned discipline that’s been practiced for hundreds of year. It’s just been forgotten.” But it’s consistent with feminine excellence, achievement, ambition and the highest feminist ideals. It’s all about excellence. I mean the higher you climb, the sexier you are, it turns out.

HEFFNER: Tell me about “it turns out” and “history proves that”.


HEFFNER: This is a rather selective book.

PRIOLEAU: Exactly. Well I chose the women throughout history who were able to conquer and put under their spell the very top men; the men of their choice. Men who were good for them. These women have never been studied systematically before. They’ve been buried under a miasma of myth and misunderstanding. And as soon as I started studying them, I was completely surprised. I mean they blew out of the water all of the stereotypes.

I mean here were women who were mostly not beautiful; many of them were older women; they didn’t surrender their autonomy or independence; they didn’t wait on men like oriental slaves. They didn’t shut up and play dumb and they didn’t practice very duplicitous wiles at all. They deployed their intellects; they deployed their characters and money and power even turns out to be a fantastic aphrodisiacs.

HEFFNER: “Deployed”, what an interesting word to use. Is there a war that goes on here?

PRIOLEAU: Well, it’s fascinating that the language of love and the language of war are very similar. Rollo Mays says in one of his books “Love and Will”; he says “love requires demonic assertion”. And love really is an active principle. It requires energy. It requires a sort of rage to … I won’t say “charm” … but a rage …

HEFFNER: To conquer …

PRIOLEAU: A rage …

HEFFNER: … you would seem to be saying. No?

PRIOLEAU: Well, “conquer” in one sense. Power is a way of getting the required results. That’s really all it is. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily dominate anybody.

HEFFNER: But you win.

PRIOLEAU: But you win somebody’s love and adoration. But nobody loses in this war.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

PRIOLEAU: In my book.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

PRIOLEAU: Because the … men throughout my book all seem to have thrived as people. They’ve been restored to authentic masculinity by these powerful seductresses, it seems.

I mean if the love is reciprocated … how I’m not talking about someone like the “Suicide Siren”, La Belle Otero, who’s in my book. Now she didn’t happen to love these men who jumped out of windows. And that’s too bad. But the men that she did love, thrived. And one of them was great Head of State in France. And … so my point is that these women, though they win the love of a man, it’s not power over, which is one of the misunderstandings. It’s a way of leveling the playing field, in a way, so that there is sexual equality.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me to hear you say “leveling the playing field”, when I suspect that most men who read this book …


HEFFNER: … feel as I do, quite the contrary.


HEFFNER: There the seductress is designed to …or her design is to win, to conquer and the poor man is not able to maintain his own position in the face of the … I was going to say “wiles” …


HEFFNER: … in the face of the wisdom, the intellect of the women you chronicle here.

PRIOLEAU: Well, if a man is a beta man, or is a zeta man … that is to say not fully evolved and doesn’t have a strong character, it works the same way that it does with women. If a woman doesn’t have a strong character and she is seduced by a powerful man … yes, her identity can be absorbed by his. She will find herself submitting to that man. But if she has a powerful selfhood and a sense of autonomy, that doesn’t happen; the two enrich each other.

HEFFNER: Could you be writing as easily about alpha men as alpha women?

PRIOLEAU: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: What would you call them … Seducers?

PRIOLEAU: Well, you take a seducer … well, for example … take Voltaire who said it’s not enough to conquer, one must seduce. And you couldn’t find a greater alpha man than that. Here was a person who saw love as an “agon” and an “agon” is the way that the ancients saw it. That is to say it’s a kind of playful struggle, that’s even the wrong word. Struggle isn’t what I want. It’s a creative tension between two people, that’s what keeps it alive.

Love is a live alternating current and the idea is to keep the sparks jumping. And to have a vital relationship you need two equal partners; you need to be well-matched. So for that reason Voltaire picked Emilie du Chatellet his equal in brains and genius. And they charmed each other and had wonderful sparring matches at dinner. But this raised the bar for both of them. It stimulated both of them, they did their best work together for 13 years.

HEFFNER: So your interest is really in superior people, the alphas?

PRIOLEAU: Well, I think this is available to everybody. I picked the superior people because … yes … I could read about them, their books, there’s available literature. But in average life, you can see that if a person takes their own selfhood to the max and becomes excellent at whatever they are and cops a little bit of love-craft, that person … even without being, you know, super excellent, or star of the class … turns outs to be a formidable seductress.

HEFFNER: Or seducer.

PRIOLEAU: Or seducer.


PRIOLEAU: Exactly …

HEFFNER: Now this cops a little …what?

PRIOLEAU: Lovecraft.

HEFFNER: Meaning what.

PRIOLEAU: This is the ancient art of love …

HEFFNER: Physical love.



PRIOLEAU: Oh, on the contrary. No. This is the art of love that Havelock Ellis spent 75 pages in The Psychology of Sex talking about. This is the art of inspiring and sustaining passion. It’s ancient, it goes way back to the Vespasian Path in ancient Greece, if not before that. And there seem to be a core set of principles that really haven’t changed much over the centuries. They fluctuate in importance.

I mean, for example, in the psychological category “dis-inhibition and festivity” is one of the power aphrodisiacs. And it was especially powerful during the 19th century when we have people who were repressed and clutched up. So then you have women who were called the “unbuttoned ones” who made a huge splash with men. So that was emphasized during that period. But these are kind of a periodic table of love; the elements really don’t change over the centuries. They are always part of the mix.

HEFFNER: Dr. Prioleau, you’re a Southerner …


HEFFNER: Does that have anything to do with your interest in the subject?

PRIOLEAU: Oh, by all means.


PRIOLEAU: I grew up in a culture where you really had to seduce for your supper. There weren’t many job opportunities for women and I was surrounded by man charmers. The problem is, that’s all they had. And I wasn’t satisfied with that. And my father who was a New Englander said, “Get a life. Get a career.” But once I went through graduate school and became a feminist, I realized that they had cut sexual power out of the program. And I thought wouldn’t it be great to reconcile sexual power with professional power so that women could have it all. The way the sexual revolution intended it to be and the way the feminists in the revolution intended.

HEFFNER: But you have separated out the original feminists, the original women who consider themselves feminists …


HEFFNER: … and the second wave and the third wave …


HEFFNER: … what do the first wave … what do they have to say about what you write?

PRIOLEAU: Well, that’s very interesting … you mean … I’m talking … you mean the suffragettes, the ones who …

HEFFNER: The ones who … those … all of them throughout our history who consider themselves …


HEFFNER: … feminists.

PRIOLEAU: Right. Well, I consider these women the first feminists, they were the first women really to flaunt feminine “norms”; to sabotage and do an end run around patriarchal domination, to invade the world of male privilege. And to enjoy full entitlement. So that’s why I call them the first feminists.

But, it’s very interesting because somebody like Victoria Woodhull, who came along and was actually the first woman to run for the American Presidency; she was ostracized by mainline feminists because ingrained in feminism is the legacy of Puritanism. And that’s been very, very hard to expunge; it’s … one of the problems with Mrs. Frank Leslie, she was the person responsible for the passage of the 19th Amendment; she left her entire fortune to the suffrage movement. And yet she was too sexy, so she’s not in the pantheon, we don’t read about her.

HEFFNER: And the women today who are connected with the men who seek power? Did you have any feelings when you read back about Eleanor Roosevelt, for instance, and the role she played?

PRIOLEAU: Oh, I think she’s somebody I tremendously admire. And she was actually a mentor for Martha Gelhorn, who is in my book.


PRIOLEAU: But her love life was a sad story and I just wanted to repair that; not repair that … I wanted to find alternative models for women. I wanted women to know that it’s possible to be successful romantically and professionally and personally. And that there were all these women throughout history … some of them little known, and that it would be so much fun to access them. These are very inspirational women.

HEFFNER: But is this why you wrote about Gelhorn, but not about Eleanor Roosevelt.

PRIOLEAU: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: Because you wrote her off in terms of enjoying as well, not just intellectual strength and power, but sexual.

PRIOLEAU: Right. It’s not that I don’t admire her as much. It was that for this particular book, and I think there’s room in the pantheon for lots of women. And I’m not saying everybody has to be a seductress. This is just about expanding choice, really.

HEFFNER: You wouldn’t say that Eleanor was a seductress?

PRIOLEAU: Well, her personal romantic life was not a happy story. So I wanted people who had happy endings; who were able to choose the men that they wanted and to have the sexual fulfillment that they wanted.

HEFFNER: And if I were to say, who won in the battle of the sexes, you’d reject that, wouldn’t you?

PRIOLEAU: That anyone has to win or lose?

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. Which is the point at which I’m getting the “good-bye” signal. And I want to thank you very much for joining me today and talking about “Seductress” and some day we must talk about seducers.

PRIOLEAU: Yes. Yes. Thank you. It’s all win-win. Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: All win-win. We’ll talk about that. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.