November 20, 2020 - 11:00am

In a gone-viral vignette from his newly published memoir, Barack Obama described how his intellectual development was simultaneously a “strategy to pick up girls”. So, he read Marx for the “long-legged socialist” he shared a dorm with; Frantz Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the “smooth-skinned sociology major” and for the “ethereal bisexual” he read up on Foucault and Virginia Woolf.

Reactions have poked fun at how frankly cringe Obama’s attempts to “game” were. But some of the responses online have gone as far to claim that Obama’s actions were “creepy” and “predatory”. Supposedly, Obama was deviously attempting to “trick” the women he fancied into dating him under false pretences.

Read the passage in question and this interpretation becomes puerile. Obama never regrets the fact that his attempted “pick-ups” developed into “affectionate, but chaste friendships”. He doesn’t sound bitter. In fact, he writes with a tinge of embarrassment at the honest but cringe ‘pick-up’ strategy of a slightly unwise young man.

According to our dating customs, the burden so often falls on men to initiate any potential romantic encounter with a woman. The man is the one who has to gain women’s attention and interest, and demonstrate why they should spend their time with him above other potential suitors.

Thus, men will do various things that have the effect of catching a woman’s attention: work out, develop their sense of humour, perfect their fashion sense, have a successful and accomplished career, or, as Obama did, become more learned.

Why? Because, in general, women, among other things, are attracted to men who possess intelligence, culture and can carry a conversation with them. So it makes sense for Obama, at a stage in life where self-discovery and dating are normal, to read the Critique of The Gotha Programme to impress his socialist friend with the slender gams. He sought to ignite a connection between them on common intellectual interests  — and  while a lot of things can be said for Marx’s materialist conception of history, it is not known for being a golden ticket to getting laid.

The truth is that men and women will, at times, try to develop interest in the same things as their crush as a way of breaking the ice with them; to establish the first conversation that perhaps may lead to something more. This isn’t manipulation or trickery. This is one of the awkward ways humans form shared bonds.

Overall, an anonymous yet shrill moralism is becoming louder and louder; one that can only imagine seduction as one-sided male manipulation of helpless female dolls; one that promiscuously conflates the cringe and hamfisted with “creepy” and “predatory” behaviour and almost gets off on it; one that views sexuality, as Foucault himself eerily predicted in 1978, as “a kind of roaming danger, a sort of omnipresent phantom, a phantom that will be played out between men and women.”

It is a good thing that in modern society men and women can freely exercise their liberty, whether for a hook up, a passionate tryst or even an affectionate but chaste friendship. A mentality that demonises healthy and good-natured seduction and courtship not only undermines the sexual autonomy for both sexes, but is fundamentally pessimistic and anti-human.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.