I was out of the country during most of Camille Paglia’s rise as a commentator on sex and culture. I encountered her writing directly for the first time only this summer, in a New York Times opinion piece about erotic malaise in the American bourgeoisie (“No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class,” June 27). Because I’m also an inquirer into the foundations of modern Western sexuality — in the strictures of Paul of Tarsus — I was fascinated. Since then, reading works by and about Paglia, I found that the Times op-ed was a typical provocation. She is that rare thing, an intellectual force of nature: Nothing stands in the way of her revealing the truth of her own experience and perception.
And, in the case of this New York Times article, there was an impressive amount standing in the way. In the highly respected 1994 University of Chicago study “Sex in America,” faithful married partners — solid majorities of both men and women — reported the most and the best sex. And if two prolonged wars and economic hard times have made those throngs of the satisfied less satisfied, Camille Paglia wouldn’t know about it. She cannot bear to look at any evidence of sex quietly integrated into life, as in marriage. Sex, she has long argued, properly strives to be itself (whatever that might be), free from social and even biological tyranny. (“For a fetus is a benign tumor, a vampire who steals in order to live.”)
A daughter of a working-class Italian family who fought her way to fame and punditry, Paglia seems to be, above all, eminently American. Her distaste for French theory, her plain and readable language on learned topics, and her passion for self-definition and self-determination link her clear back to the colonials’ drive to prosper on their own terms, to assert themselves and lay claim to the world’s best opportunities.
Like Paglia, Americans have always been sexual pioneers and rebels. Though the complaining (and I’ve done some myself) about the anti-erotic strain of Puritanism may never end, that strain really came to America only to die, succumbing to women’s relative independence in places where every hand and brain was needed, and to general optimism and openness. We can in any case usefully look at our degree of historical sexual victimization, as at our present sexual condition, in a world context: Most other cultures (including those of Europe) authorized parents to bind their teenage children to a lifelong sexual union. With no provisions for free courtship, the parties to a marriage could not exercise any right of consent they might have on paper. Puritans, in contrast, were scrupulous in allowing their children informed choice, and their laws provided for divorce. A strong rival sect of the time, Quakerism (which I need to disclose as mine), placed choice and equality in marriage at the center of its social ethics.
The sexual revolution was rooted in the same soil as the American Revolution. The freedom to choose for or against marriage, to choose among potential partners, and to leave an unbearable relationship readily invited consideration of other choices. But while we can organically and fruitfully vindicate well-defined political rights in public, contesting sex in public eventually involves a certain amount of clownishness and brutality. Near the end of the line (which seems to be about now), militating against people you claim are out to oppress you in your most intimate individuality forces you to demand more elaborate accommodation for this intimate individuality than an egalitarian, civil-rights society can give. Once the fuel of privacy and responsible self-determination is used up, arguments and campaigns run on the fumes of solecism and burn themselves out, as when South African gay activists demanded the right to donate blood after reporting behavior that (according to every study ever done) put them at higher risk of AIDS.
Paglia in fact complains about this problem where other people are concerned, especially in her protests about anti-date-rape militancy on campuses. It is silly for very sheltered young women new to a very permissive environment to demand the best of both worlds, and for authorities to cater to them, insisting that substance abuse at parties or other reckless behavior absolves women of 100 percent of responsibility for things’ getting out of control. To be sexual grown-ups, women must own their potential for “male” faults: lewdness, stupidity, exploitiveness.
But Paglia displays an equally great lack of realism in making her own college experience of the early Sixties the template for her cultural critique. She was a sexual revolutionary, fighting for her freedom against curfews and double standards. For my undergraduate generation of the Eighties, the sexual-revolutionary government was firmly in power, and in hindsight it looks more like the “freedom fighters” still ensconced in Zimbabwe than like the U.S. Constitutional Convention. What if I, as a teacher, alumna, and writer, wanted to advise young people according to my own experience?
Paglia’s oeuvre illustrates the basic problem with avant-garde sexuality: the inability to see other people’s point of view. But maybe sexuality is inherently too fluid, inward, and emotional even for the full articulation of its demands. Are we talking, to start with, about the right to have a certain sexual disposition, or the right to make it known, or the right to have it celebrated? Paglia, in her enthrallment to aggression, sometimes seems to verge on the last one — which is, in our polity, nonsense.
She insists — against anthropologists, sociologists, and sexologists — that it is only “danger” and “risk” that create eroticism. She herself works hard to maintain the persona of an overreaching bisexual, addicted to intrusive remarks like a demented relative at a wedding. The cover of her Vamps and Tramps (Vintage, 1994) shows her heavily made up, with short, metallically sculpted hair and a tight, dark outfit including a black leather belt and heavy-soled black shoes. She strikes a sort of predatory dance pose, as if shimmying up to pull a wallflower reader onto the floor.
In her scholarly work, she concentrates on sex-itself (sex per se) in literature and art. But the problem is that, as in life, there is no such thing as sex-itself in literature and art. Sexual acts, whether explicit or implied (and, as a translator of Aristophanes, Petronius, and the Homeric Hymns, I know examples of both down to the letter), are just like other natural functions that are shown in art. The successful depiction of sex — just like the successful depiction of eating, child-rearing, violence, disease, or death — is completely in thrall to talent, taste, and intellect; if it isn’t, the art is bad, beneath any serious consideration. Even Paglia, for all of her professed delight in pornography, does not parody herself (that I know of) by exploring the particulars of a stag film. (This leaves wide open the most delectable opportunity I can think of for some academic humorist.)
To sustain her arguments, she generally has to treat works in a superficial and dogmatically selective way — because entering them in detail, and on their own terms, would drag her into the creators’ concerns, among which sex is usually way down on the list. Her magnum opus, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale, 1990), is a collector’s catalogue of sex (“The greatness [of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’] resides in the seductive vampirism of Geraldine”), and as such is probably the biggest missing of the point in the history of Western criticism.
Paglia’s social analysis extends her sexual emphasis into bizarre realms. In the June 27 Times article, hers isn’t a complaint about restriction, or even disapproval, of sex: It’s a complaint about the failure of society to stimulate her sexually. The only convincing items in her indictment are that our society is sexually less exuberant than it was a couple of generations ago, and that she doesn’t like this. But the hard news, that this is the way most individuals want it (that they are tired, or afraid, or damaged by their misadventures, or just wish to concentrate on other things — or, on reaching emotional maturity, are calmly happy with their partners), sputters under a wave of Paglia’s impressionism. Delayed childbearing; the unisex, harassment-wary office environment; super-Momism; men’s casual clothes; recent Hollywood trends; the fitness craze; the new rock music — all deaden sexuality in the middle class, whereas Victoria’s Secret and country music keep it alive in the working class. According to . . . ? Well, her. And if it’s all true, it’s bad because . . . she says so. Which makes one suspect that the real reason she protested the date-rape rules was never concern for either young women’s or young men’s welfare, or a longing for honesty or clear rules as a principle, but a failure of drama: The players were no longer performing uninhibitedly; this was getting boring.
In her political forays, such as a speech reprinted in The Race to the White House (Key Porter, 2008), Paglia also runs aground on an island of personal assertion. Dianne Feinstein is her hero, because of her commanding demeanor after Harvey Milk’s assassination. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is just a goody-two-shoes, repressed, complaisant wife: She was scowling as Barbra Streisand — who, Paglia thinks, may have had an affair with Bill — sang at Bill’s first inauguration gala, and that was such bad manners, such a failure to show a “persona of graciousness” (quite a criticism, coming from Paglia); it was the scowl that was a failure, not any affair, or any rubbing of Hillary’s nose in it at the world’s most important party. (Stop for a moment and consider how many levels of Paglia’s imagination we would have to traverse to understand this criticism fully.) And Paglia stuck by her annoyance, through all the national and international ravages of the president’s caddish behavior, because Hillary hadn’t looked the way she should have, at a specific moment, at a specific gathering, years before.
The instinct to try to super-prioritize sex-itself (that most private thing in the world) is too strong — a displacement of the mating instinct, perhaps, in those who have forsworn permanent relationships in favor of more complete freedom. Another grisly example: the idiotically named Human Rights Campaign, which seeks gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights, but only in America; not in the Middle East, where “homosexuality” (however a regime chooses to define it) can be a capital offense, or in places such as Namibia, where useless governments try to organize distracting pogroms.
Kevin Roose, a Brown undergraduate, undertook an exercise that Paglia and others on the cutting edge of politicized sexuality would benefit from imitating, mutatis mutandis. He spent a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, finding out what the religious Right was about — why it didn’t approve of the Ivy League dorm lifestyle, for example. Everything he learned (and outlined in his 2009 book The Unlikely Disciple), no matter how disagreeable or even threatening, opened his mind and sharpened his discernment.
Sexual politics of the Paglia kind doesn’t know — its imagination is limited to its physical desires. It can’t see why even some of the most sympathetic people in the mainstream would be repelled at a lament about the absence of the “great writer and philosopher” the Marquis de Sade from university curricula. It can’t hear some of its genuine allies, who have legitimate political grievances, muttering, “With publicists like these . . .” It should take a nice long walk and look at the scenery, where the tall trees are just trees and the lush valleys just valleys.
— Sarah Ruden, a poet and translator, is the author of Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 18, 2010, issue of National Review.