As I prepare to write the book I'm working on — about what literature can teach you about love (due out in January 2012, from Free Press!) — I've been rereading Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth, because I'm thinking of discussing it in my own volume. Roth's novel isn't everyone's cup of tea. It's full of characters of questionable morality and unquestionably flawed integrity and descriptions of sex that are often hilarious — but sometimes a little too vivid, too crass, and occasionally quite disgusting. And yet ... the novel is probably on my short list of favorites, not least because of the way Roth manages to, um, arouse my sympathy and empathy for his main character, a 64-year-old suicidal adulterer and asshole. (Roth is also just masterful when it comes to subtly underscoring his themes and creating psychologically complex and captivating characters.)
Let me quit with the literary critique, however, and get to my point.
At a certain moment in the novel, the aforementioned adulterer and asshole thinks, "The core of seduction is persistence.... Eighty percent of women will yield under tremendous pressure if the pressure is persistent."
I thought this throwaway line was somewhat true, and sort of sinisterly funny — given that the main character can be so diabolical. I somewhat innocently posted the quote on my Facebook page, with the note: "I'm curious about people's reactions to this."
When a ton of people started responding, and fast, I decided to take the comment down so I could post about it.
It seems that most women do think persistent pressure is attractive, and they will indeed yield to it. As one reader put it, "I'm not saying that everyone should be a stalker, but sincere persistence is flattering and usually catches my attention eventually." Similarly, my writer friend Diana Spechler said: "Persistence is hot, unless it's creepy. There's a fine line."
I usually don't yield to persistence myself. Instead, I make a quick judgment within one or two dates. (If I feel a spark, I will usually go forward. If I don't, and a man asks me on another date, I will send a polite but cogent thanks-but-no-thanks note. Although I've wondered in the past if deciding so quickly whether or not I'm into someone is necessarily a great idea, I feel like everything I've heard lately seems to indicate there's nothing wrong with it.)
I also have to admit that the one time in recent memory when I "gave in" to a persistent dude, I regretted it. Of course, I felt a huge spark with him from the start — and of course he'd been saying from the get-go that because he was much younger than I am, and because he was going to be leaving town in a year, after finishing grad school, he wasn't looking for a serious relationship. So I don't think it's accurate or fair to say he "manipulated" me, as some of my friends seem to think he did. We went on plenty of dates and I never declined an invitation from him — so it's not like he pursued me in the face of blatant rejection.
And I think what I'd like to discuss here is not men who simply take the lead or play the role of aggressor, as this grad student did, but rather men who pursue in the face of clear declines or rejections.
I have to wonder if men who pursue in a situation like that aren't psychologically screwed up — suffering from low self-esteem, and hoping to "win over" high-caliber women in an effort to boost their egos or have some kind of external affirmation of their worth. Their insecurity often seems to have a touch of masochism in it, so that they chase women mainly for the challenge of winning them over, only to ditch them as soon as they reach a certain (often sexual) goal, like the man who texted my friend's friend to say he didn't want to see her again after screwing her on Date No. 7. I have to wonder if these men don't actually see themselves as powerless in the world in a way that helps to subconsciously justify their behavior.
I think some of these masochists are also functional sociopaths, more than simply insecure dudes who hide it well.
But a male friend of mine argues that it works both ways — that it's only women with low self-esteem who give in to those men. "Women who are insecure take the pursuit of a persistent man as a reflection of their worth. And I find it sad that pressure from certain charismatic men — ones who don't come off as desperate or cloying — works so much of the time."
Whatever the case may be, I don't think anyone is to blame for having low self-esteem — but I think those men who manipulate other human beings in order to feed or assuage their insecurities are pretty reprehensible. (Ignorance of their own foibles is no excuse.)
Now, you might argue that the women are just as much to blame as the men in these persistence-yield equations, and that because women should be responsible for their actions and decisions, the men don't deserve all the blame.
But I think anyone who is trying to influence a person's actions is far more guilty — and bears far more responsibility — than the object of an attempt at seduction, the same way that the mastermind of a crime is more culpable than his accomplices.
What's more, I think plenty of overly persistent men prey on women's insecurities with full awareness of them. They know that certain women will be flattered by their attentions (and who among us has perfect self-confidence?), so they continue to allow the women to believe they are treating them in some special way ... until they get what they want. When they say sayonara. Sometimes via text.
Anyway, I'm curious to hear what you think about all this. Persistent men in the audience: Think I'm being unfair? Make your case! And women: Do you think there are ways to distinguish a "good pursuit" from a bad one?