Melissa Febos: How I Learned the Art of Seduction

From a New York Times guest essay by Melissa Febos headlined “How I Learned the Art of Seduction”:

Recently, a friend of mine who is newly divorced and dating for the first time asked me to help her work on her flirtation skills.

“First, you have to get the gaze right,” I told her. “Not stalker-heavy, but enough so they notice.”

“Like this?” She glowered at me, and I tried to stifle a laugh.

“More like this,” I said, demonstrating.

When I was a kid, my mother taught me how to soften my gaze when watching birds so they wouldn’t feel the weight of my attention. This kind of look is just the opposite — a concentrated gaze that lands like a finger, tapping, casting the line of desire until it catches and tugs.

I looked at her, and something activated in me, responding to a set of clues telling me how she wants to be seen. “Look intently,” I told her, “but not for too long, just graze them with it.”

“Whoa,” she said, “careful where you point that!” She looked at me in wonder, and I felt both proud and embarrassed. “Where did you learn to do that?”

I think of myself as someone who has always known how to do this — an intuitive seducer — but my friend’s question invited me to reconsider the origins of the impulse.

Where I did I first learn it?

There is, of course, the mere fact of my being a woman, which means I have been consuming lessons in seduction my whole life from movies and TV. But my friend is also a woman, and she can’t emit the smoldering atmosphere to reel someone in. Whereas I can do it on command, as if it were my job. As we watch our meals arrive I ponder this, and something clicks. For many years — sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly — seducing people was my job.

Both my parents grew up working-class, sometimes working-poor, and I was raised with an ethos of scarcity — we wasted nothing, ate down to the rind of everything and tried not to buy anything on credit. Though my family was solidly middle-class, my classmates often assumed I was poor because I wore discount shoes and generic brand clothes all through grade school, until I switched to thrift stores as a teen.

My parents weren’t cheap, exactly, but they didn’t locate status in commodities — my mother once told me that driving a luxury car was like giving the finger to all the poor people in the world — and they believed in work. The week I turned 14, the legal employment age in Massachusetts, my dad took me to city hall to get a work permit.

That year, I started working as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant. Dressed most days in a pair of faded overalls and Doc Martens, I would peer out at the front of the house and watch the wait staff — mostly 20-somethings who held the glamour of low-level celebrities to me.

Tidy in their identical aprons and T-shirts bearing the restaurant logo, they all seemed kind of hot to me in an ineffable way that had little to do with their looks. The source of this attractiveness, I eventually realized, was the skill with which they deployed charisma.

They were practiced seducers, flitting around the dining room, calibrating their affect to suit each diner. The ones with the tallest stacks of bills at the end of a shift cultivated a flirtation with their tables that hit exactly the right note to release money. As if every diner were a slot machine played less by chance than by skill.

At 14, I already had a keen sense that I ought to appeal to people, men especially, but “succeeding” at this had mixed results. Early sexual development had left me vulnerable to early sexual experience — I didn’t really learn how to say no until adulthood — and mostly it had left me feeling powerless and numb. Using my drive to be liked in a context whose endpoint wasn’t sex, and which promised material reward for success, seemed a much safer forum. The idea felt empowering, even, as it gave me control over the encounter.

My first job waiting tables was at Café Algiers, a landmark Middle Eastern restaurant in Harvard Square in Cambridge that catered to professors and graduate students. I was 17 and happily living in a squalid apartment with four friends in Somerville. Amid the wobbly octagonal tables, I balanced silver pots of mint tea and plates of hummus and practiced my approach.

I learned that if my gaze was too intense, the men (and occasionally women) asked sotto voce what time my shift ended; if it was too subtle, they ignored me and left disappointing tips.

The trick was to kindle the right feeling in myself — I have something they want and I want to give it to them, but not yet — to render the plates of food a symbol for something else, to exude an air of slight withholding. I learned what all good salespeople understand: If you suggest that a person wants something with enough confidence, there’s a good chance they’ll believe you.

Every shift was an exercise in the art of seduction, and each one ended with a tally of tips that amounted to a kind of grade — numeric feedback on the degree of my success.

I honed my skills quickly. After just a few weeks, I could balance five entrees on one tray, instantly calculate a bill in my head, and just as instantly read the customers. I could tell if a diner wanted me to tease them, treat them with mild disgust (rare, but they did exist) or welcome them like a long-lost family member. My scatterbrained nature, which made me clumsy in my everyday life, was focused by the stream of social cues. I intuitively understood the rhythm of it, like a dancer catching a beat. When I was working, I didn’t think and I didn’t make errors — which was good, because my livelihood depended on it: In 1996, the minimum wage for tipped employees was $2.13 per hour.

My second job as a server was at the Greenhouse, another storied Cambridge institution. The overpriced diner had an iconic green sign and a dining room that was perpetually fogged with cigarette smoke. The female professors generally tipped big and wanted a dry little flirt, sprinkled with irony, as if we were in on the same joke. The blue-collar guys who ate at the counter liked to trade endearments, to be teased a little. A natural mimic, I sometimes dropped my Rs when talking with them. You want that on mahble rye?

After the Greenhouse, there were eight or 10 more restaurant jobs — the Jewish deli where families came for brunch, the bakery frequented by moneyed lesbians, the Mexican restaurant that hosted a lot of tourists and bachelorette parties. Whatever their differences, every restaurant was a microcosm of larger social hierarchies. I once worked a brunch shift in Belmont with a guy I was dating. He often got high before work and was terrible at his job. He never thought about what the customer wanted, never read their faces for subtle cues, never seduced anyone. He didn’t have to. He could get orders wrong, mix up tables, spill water on a customer, and still end the shift with a tall stack of tips. Meanwhile, my earnings dropped if I smiled too little or too much.

I came to learn that this was a rule in restaurants: No matter the quality of their service, male waiters got bigger tips. They also rarely had to put up with the kind of abuse that we did.

I remember one table I had during my stint at the Mexican restaurant. It was a big family, replete with a preening patriarch who emanated insecurity that he expressed by treating every woman in sight like garbage. I smiled through it, even when he patted my ass in full view of his wife, who then glared at me.

A knot of shame and fury tightened in me. I ignored it and imagined the tip this kind of treatment inevitably led to — a ten, maybe a twenty, even. I smiled at that vision and then directed it at the table. But in this instance, after they’d left as I cleared their oily dishes, I realized the man had stiffed me. I seethed for days. It stoked a fire in me that felt elemental. More than 20 years later, I can feel its heat. It wasn’t so much the money as the humiliation

Over time, exposure inured me to the humiliations of the job. A person can get used to almost anything given enough time — personality will grow around adversity the way tree roots will grow around a rock, shaping itself in response to the immovable.

Plus, I needed the money. I was a teenager for most of the years I worked in restaurants. I didn’t have a degree, or even a high school diploma (unless you count the G.E.D.). Even though I was occasionally stiffed, it was the highest-paying job I was qualified for, by a long shot.

The humiliations inherent in waiting tables were also made tolerable also by the satisfaction of being good at my job. While I held less power than the diners in many ways — I was there to literally serve them — I also had a subtle control over them, one they couldn’t see and which grew stronger the longer I exercised it. I worked them, like a salesperson or a petty con artist, and they were my chumps, my suckers, my johns.

A skilled seducer can invert a power dynamic to their advantage. The knowledge of how to do this was, I realized, a valuable skill and one I later employed to much more lucrative ends.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was harder to get restaurant work. Upscale Manhattan places wanted a résumé, and my experience was decidedly downscale. I worked for a few months at a diner in the West Village, serving eggs and fetching jam and ketchup, but not long after that I got into sex work, which paid a lot better.

As a professional dominatrix, I applied all the skills I’d hewed waiting tables — reading people, intuiting their desires, performing interest and indifference. And the beauty of it was that the subtext became text. Before I worked with any client, we had a consultation in which he told me exactly what he wanted, and I agreed to it or didn’t. Of course, my demeanor in these meetings was calibrated according to my instinct for what the clients wanted. (They wanted to be treated with disgust far more frequently than restaurant diners had, which I enjoyed.)

During the sessions themselves, I relied upon my honed instinct for timing and intensity — even when they had a script, there was still a lot to improvise. The work was primarily that of seduction: the assessment of desire and how to draw it out, grow it, leave it wanting a little. The main difference — and it was not small — is that I was paid well no matter how the session went.

During my second year of grad school, I started adjunct teaching, which paid worse than either sex work or waiting tables. Some semesters, I taught six classes at three different schools, for which I traveled across four boroughs. I got used to writing on commuter trains and slowly built a very different wardrobe than that I had needed for any previous job.

Teaching was also a performance, but like sex work, I got paid whether it was good or not. Mostly I performed well, and not having to flirt with anyone to do so was a revelation, however meager the pay.The principal difference between teaching and my previous jobs was that in the classroom the role I played was not predicated on a lie. I acted a persona derived from true parts of me, perhaps the truest parts of me.

A good teacher seduces, but not with the aim of bedding students. A good teacher deploys their charisma with the goal of making the audience fall in love with the subject they teach. My goal was never to extract money, or even esteem, from my students but instead to infect them with the love I felt for the writers I taught. After teaching I was tired, but not drained the way I used to be after a restaurant shift, with my spirit as spent as my body. I arrived home from class electrified by my own love for the books I taught and for the craft of making art out of life.

After I finished grad school and before I sold my first book, I went back to food service. I got a job at a small restaurant that was named after a spice in my rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. It was a much nicer joint than any I had worked in before. There were candles on the tables and a new menu was printed every night.

It had been a few years, and as I dug out my waist aprons for my first shift, I thrilled a little at the prospect of returning to the familiar rhythm of service.

An hour or so in, however, my confidence began to waver. I still knew how to do the job, but a woodenness came over me when it was time to smile and wink and mold myself around the unspoken desires of strangers. Over the evening’s course, my body’s unwillingness to comply dismayed me. What was wrong? Had I lost my touch?

At the end of the night, I made a small error, and the chef shouted at me from behind the line: “What are you, stupid?”

Chefs had shouted many worse things at me in the past; verbal abuse from chefs was a given in many restaurants and rated a pretty minor offense overall. But I was no longer used to it.

I had just spent two years at the front of college classrooms in which, however underpaid, I was never called stupid. I was treated with respect, even deference. I had ascended to a different realm of employment where, while the option was still available to me, I didn’t need to use my sexuality to make money. Nor was I required to suffer these kinds of overt humiliations.When I cashed out, I was left with more than I had ever reaped from a single shift waiting tables. I zipped the wad of bills into my coat pocket and told the house manager that I wouldn’t be back the following night, or any thereafter. I never worked the floor of a restaurant again.

Sometimes I miss it, but I am always grateful I had the privilege to quit that life.

Now I teach full time, and when I walk into a classroom on the first day of the semester, I scan the room of faces and feel their expectations swell like waves toward me.

There is a thrilling power in holding someone’s attention, in intuiting their interests and igniting their curiosity — all seducers know it. I first learned that feeling not in the dungeon, but in the dining rooms of restaurants, the clatter of dishes wafting with the smell of garlic from the kitchen, clashing with the low music of the front of the house.

It’s impossible to fully account for the ways that education influenced not only my relationship to work, but to every person I encounter. Spending years thinking of people as slot machines to win by extracting their favor, knowing the security of my life depended on it, did not set me up for healthy relationships.

I’ve outgrown a lot of skills that once served my survival, and learned that holding on to them does its own damage. There is grace in letting go of what no longer serves me or those whose paths I cross. I’m grateful, also, for the occasional opportunity to repurpose them. I like to think my years of seduction have made me a more empathic teacher, that the skill of eliciting desire has become one for sharing love.

Melissa Febos is the author of “Girlhood,” “Whip Smart,” “Abandon Me” and “Body Work.” She teaches in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa.

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