The Myth Of Sexual Liberation | By Camille Paglia | Issue 177 | The Sun Magazine

The Myth Of Sexual Liberation

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First it was Camille Paglia [“The Myth of Sexual Liberation,” August 1990], the woman who thinks that date rape is “nonsense” and that “if civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”

Then there was Robert Bly [“From Boys to Men: A Conversation with Robert Bly,” May 1993], who tells about a ritual in a men’s group in which the men are asked to give up their male aggression and their testicles and penis. His response: how would women feel if they were asked to give up their “female attitude toward children” (as if someone else were willing to raise them: consider the $2.5 billion owed for child support. Meanwhile, children take their father’s name while the mother, working in paid employment or not, does the real work of raising them, such as laundry, cooking, getting up at three in the morning to nurse, not to mention actually bringing the child into the world); give up their “female attitude toward beauty” (are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and poor self-esteem about body shape female ideas?); and give up their breasts (does Bly know that breast jobs are the second most-performed cosmetic surgery, right behind liposuction?). Bly, get out of your new-age hallucination and deal with reality. Women aren’t able to give any of these things up because they are taken from us daily.

Now there is Nancy Weber [“Might Have Been,” October 1993], who offers us a short-story version of the “Life-What-A-Beautiful-Choice” commercials paid for by the antiabortion DeMoss Foundation. In one of these guiltertisements, a woman imagines the growing boy her aborted fetus might have been.

I thought of my friend J. and myself when I saw that commercial and again when I read Weber’s story. J. gave up a baby for adoption. I have had two abortions. It is she, not I, who cries for her lost child. This makes sense because she has a child who actually exists.

I have received The Sun for seven years and have always looked forward to reading it. But I do not look forward to finding such antiwoman backlashings as the three I’ve just mentioned. Lately, it seems, your magazine wishes only to abort feminism. If you published Weber’s story to get your readers fired up, it worked. Please cancel my subscription. You’re fired.

Leslie Griffith Snellville, Georgia

Camille Paglia misses the point in “The Myth of Sexual Liberation.” Authentic sexual liberation concerns the transformation of sex into love. I’m eighty years old, and I have lived and am still living that transformation. Human sexual nature is not limited to the horizontal action of bodies; we can also enjoy the vertical process in which these same bodies, playing with image, myth, and metaphor, succeed in transforming sex into love.

Unfortunately, Camille Paglia seems not to have experienced that reality.

Jake Felsenstein Springfield, Oregon

Bravissimo on “The Myth of Sexual Liberation”! Camille Paglia knows how to call a spade a spade! One of the best pieces I’ve read in The Sun, or anywhere, in years.

Jim Guinness Newton, Massachusetts

I read the excerpt from Camille Paglia’s book [“The Myth of Sexual Liberation,” Issue 177] as if it were a work of science fiction, thinking, “What an amazing world. How different from the one I live in.”

Society rises from nature, from the social orders of our animal ancestors, not as “a defense against nature’s power.” And religion didn’t arise from propitiation and spells. I think it arose from the same impulse that makes birds sing in the morning, and the yogic stretching of an animal awakening from its afternoon nap — from a joy in being alive.

Instead of saying “man” this, “woman” that, “nature” thus, I wish Paglia had spoken about her own experience of the world. As a man who cries looking at pictures of babies being born, I cannot see how childbirth is “an affront to beauty and form.” When my penis is soft I have not experienced it as a “flop” but rather as moving through its own changing lunar cycles. (In some cultures, the earth and the moon are considered male, the sun female.) And any man who has discovered his prostate will tell you that a good part of our sexual apparatus is hidden, too.

In saying “nature has won . . . by making disease the price of promiscuous sex,” after speaking of male homosexuals, I assume Ms. Paglia is referring to AIDS. To date, the virus has been transmitted primarily through heterosexual intercourse. Moreover, its transmission isn’t merely a matter of promiscuity. You can get it from a blood transfusion, sharing a needle, or from your first and only sexual encounter with another person.

I don’t understand how Ms. Paglia can talk about the “weary weight of eroticism,” when I think of its delights. To the woman who said, “most men merely grunt, at best,” from the bottom of my heart I wish you better lovers.

Andrew Ramer Brooklyn, New York

Camille Paglia’s essay is brilliant, incisive, poetic. By using academic, Latinized language, she creates an air of truth about what are only assumptions.

If she meant to balance the romanticism of some feminist thinking, she may have a point. Yet who is she to assume that man (a label she consistently and inaccurately uses for the human race) “justifiably fears being devoured by woman”? Is she hanging on to a narrow Freudianism to prove another dubious point? She says that female genitals are “lurid in color and architecturally incoherent.” Let her take responsibility for her own reactions. My scientific survey of one elicited the male response that “female genitalia are gorgeous.”

We are capable of experiencing ourselves in infinite dimensions; it is possible that we co-create with our consciousness. I think Paglia is, indeed, “a crackpot,” but a convincing one. That’s dangerous. Her article is nasty, inaccurate, brilliant. Communication implies a responsibility. The Sun can, and should, shine brighter than that.

Elizabeth Gips Santa Cruz, California

It was with interest that I read “The Myth of Sexual Liberation” by Camille Paglia. I found many of her ideas insightful, logical, and clearly stated. There is one exception that pushes me to respond.

Paglia writes, “. . . the male homosexual is one of the great forgers of absolutist Western identity. But of course nature has won, as she always does, by making disease the price of promiscuous sex.” This statement is as stereotypical and offensive as ones asserting that all blacks are lazy, or all Jews cheap.

I find little that is “absolutist” about the gay population. Like heterosexuals, gays are diverse. Some are rich, some are poor. Some are effeminate and some are macho; some are promiscuous and others monogamous; most fall someplace in between. No doubt there are men who are gay as a result of fighting against the “hideous grimace of a castrating Medusa.” For the majority of gay men, however, their sexual orientation is a given to which they respond with equanimity. Most regard their sexuality as a gift.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are not indigenous or limited to gays. Paglia would do well to review statistics from the Center for Disease Control. STDs have dramatically decreased within the gay population; AIDS is no longer a “gay disease.”

Sexual liberation may or may not be a myth — I do not know. But I do know that Paglia’s oversimplified view of gay men is mythical. My challenge to her is to close her books and develop a friendship with a gay man. As a result, her opinions may prove less absolutist.

Dr. Frederic B. Tate Williamsburg, Virginia

Concerning Camille Paglia’s “The Myth of Sexual Liberation” [Issue 177]: I’ve not read such utter (udder?) drivel since Thomas Aquinas!

You get your wish — Paglia is a crackpot!

Offended? Hell, I’m terrified some idiot will take her seriously! The Vatican will probably canonize her.

Edward Abbey — now there is a real saint.

L.B. Gilmore Parachute, Colorado

Backlash, I fear, is an affliction that will dog you all of your publishing days. I implore you — endure.

I can recall a childlike anticipation in waiting each month for my neighborhood bookseller to receive his two or three copies of The Sun, so I could be certain to arrive in time to purchase one. After three months of worrying about missing the next issue, I subscribed.

That childlike anticipation, however, passed after the first couple of issues arrived at my home, for I sensed a change: a gloom descending. (Gee, this couldn’t have had something to do with global events and our collective consciousness, could it?) I remember feeling betrayed. Now I can see that this speaks more to the illusion I was carrying around — that wishful hoping for constant light. What folly to believe that Spirit, God, the Great resides only in the light. Is faith so feeble that it can only bear “the light of day”?

I, too, wrote one of “those” letters, outraged at the Camille Paglia piece [“The Myth of Sexual Liberation,” Issue 177]. Such verbal abuse I heaped upon you and her! (It didn’t get mailed.) Some of her opinions continue to disturb me. However, having resisted the impulse to discard her piece and the magazine, I reread it (and others) periodically. Investigation of my revulsion to what is written reveals ideas and truths hidden within me that, left unexamined, might surreptitiously inform my judgments and choices.

I value your magazine. I may not agree with, like, or enjoy all of what you offer in each issue. Some of it leaves me cold. (And I’m completely baffled by some of the criticism.) I trust that there’ll be another burst of brilliance that will appeal especially to me — a photograph, a poem, Sunbeams. And then, occasionally, I’ll get lucky and it will be an entire issue — like the August issue I just received. (Eli Bowen’s photographs are awesome.)

Joanne Carpenter Long Beach, California

I am a feminist. While I found little that was shocking or threatening to my perception of gender and society in Camille Paglia’s interesting essay, I do take issue with her assumption that feminism is contrary to her views of history, society, and nature, and therefore, contrary to the truth.

Paglia implies that feminists wish to eradicate gender differences. Late twentieth-century feminism may have manifested a pragmatic desire to compete with men on men’s terms, simply in order to be heard. Even so, it didn’t take feminists long to see that the movement was not about turning women into men, but about choice. Women may have had to adopt the strategies of the power structure in order to be heard, but I know of few women today who do not realize that their feminine presence brings much-needed balance to that same structure. Paglia needs to catch up with feminism’s evolution.

I don’t believe that feminism seeks, as Paglia says, “to drive power relations out of sex,” but rather to drive out the abuse of power. Of course sex is power! Read Susan Brownmiller, read Alice Walker. Read Vivian Gornick, who recently expressed her wish for the day when “everyone is powerful, and everyone is sexy.” Paglia misses the point when she calls modern feminism naive for asserting that “rape is a crime of violence but not of sex.” Of course rape is an act of sex, and so of power! But rape must be categorized with other violent crimes, as a reminder that it is neither an act of eros nor an erotic joke. Paglia fails to understand the language of feminism, indeed of females, in a male-dominated society. What she perceives as the feminist’s desire to sanitize rape may be no more than the expedient use of masculine (or sky-cult) rhetoric women must employ in order to be heard. That feminists understand political expediency doesn’t mean they don’t understand what rape is really about.

Paglia claims that feminism considers rape a symptom of social deprivation. No; that is a liberal assumption. Sexual abuse can happen anywhere. It is the feminist, not the liberal, movement that regards rape as a crime not of class or race, but of gender and power. Women know that men will rape because they can.

Paglia asserts that feminists blame pornography for rape; rather, pornography is another symptom, like rape, that issues from the inherent struggle between the sexes for power and autonomy. She implies that pornography helps protect society, first by showing us what men might do to women in the absence of societal controls, then by providing an outlet for men who otherwise would act out their fantasies upon the female population at large. How, then, do we account for the fact that pornography and rape continue to run side by side and sometimes arm in arm? And what do we do with the fact that pornography itself demands victims? What of that small percentage of the female population, those sacrificial non-virgins whose servitude theoretically makes the world a safer place for the rest of us? Perhaps pornography should be limited to cartoons, drawings, paintings, the written and spoken word, etc. Who knows — a pornography that never utilized in-the-flesh beings might better serve the limitless imagination.

Paglia’s exploration of the “old ‘double standard’ (that) gave men a sexual liberty denied to women” is interesting, but misses the point. The feminist attack on the double standard aims not at establishing women’s right to the fun once reserved for men, but at exposing the lie that is society’s corruption of nature’s double standard. This lie insists that sex is the province of men, that men may be sexually thoughtless, and that women are to be condemned for their sexuality.

By nature and by nurture, woman gives more than man for whom, by nature and nurture, heterosexual communion threatens a loss of masculine identity. Still, there are plenty of men who prefer nesting to spreading their seed like dogs roaming the countryside; hence the usefulness for women of well-considered judgment. These conditions are natural; simply stating the case, even celebrating it if one wishes, is not antifeminist.

Certainly gender counts, and feminists have known it for years. I place a high value on that which is intrinsically, even mythically, female. Paglia’s brand of social Darwinism does not disturb me, because what she says about biology and nature is true. What does disturb me is Paglia’s lack of understanding of feminism, for she implies that feminists seek to deny or destroy that which is essentially female!

Nature will budge very little, if at all. But feminism is a reform movement, not a revolution. In any case, what reform movement doesn’t learn and change as it goes along? The first step is to demand that the power structure accept the struggling group as equals. Once inroads have been made, the differences can be brought to light and cherished. If feminists forgot for a moment that gender counts, we remembered the moment a cigarette company told us we’d “come a long way, baby.” Oh, gender counts. It counts for a lot.

Andrea Wolper New York, New York

I recommend that Camille Paglia read Gary Snyder’s latest collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild, for a view of “nature” that will challenge hers. I can’t help feeling that Ms. Paglia hasn’t spent much time outdoors, in the wild — within that “inhuman round of waste, rot, and carnage” she calls nature. Had she done so, she might not be so contemptuous of nature. She might then admire not the “grand constructions of our culture,” but those cultures which managed to live and die without leaving a trace (and without oppressing women).

Barbara Miles Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts
Camille Paglia responds:

The editors of The Sun made selections from the long introductory chapter of Sexual Personae, which I examined and approved. Some of the objections voiced by the letter writers may arise from the excerpting process, which necessarily collapses and condenses a line of argument. The first chapter, called “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art,” is in turn a synopsis of the conclusions of a 718-page book that examines art and literature from the Old Stone Age to 1900. The book contains the specific examples from which the deductions were carefully developed over a twenty-year period. Volume Two, not yet released, continues the discussion into modern popular culture.

In reply to L.B. Gilmore, I would say it is unlikely the Vatican will “canonize” me, since Sexual Personae argues that Catholicism is at heart a residually pagan cult and that the passion of Christ and the martyrdom of the saints have filled Western art with delicious homoerotic and sadomasochistic pornography. I am surprised and flattered to be compared to Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the major thinkers in the Western tradition. But calling Aquinas “utter drivel” unfortunately exposes the letter writer’s own deficiencies of education and judgment.

To Jake Felsenstein: Sexual Personae discusses the entire romantic tradition of Western culture from Sappho and Catullus to today’s pop songs and finds that what we call “love” is an emotion full of dark complexities and ambivalences that we normally prefer not to recognize. The book particularly analyzes the misuse of the Dionysus myth by my generation of the sixties, which saw Dionysus as pleasure and liberation, when in fact the Greeks (as in Euripides’s Bacchae) knew he was violence and pleasure-pain, our bondage by uncontrollable nature.

Dr. Frederic Tate, at the close of his thoughtful letter, challenges me to “develop a friendship with a gay man.” My thinking and tastes have been heavily influenced by close gay male friends since high school. In fact Sexual Personae is filled with adulation of the gay male imagination, including art illustrations of what I call “the beautiful boy,” from the Greek kouros statues to the Italian Saint Sebastian paintings. This may be the first university-press book to actively defend and endorse man-boy love. My view on AIDS, more fully detailed in Volume Two, is indeed unpopular at the moment, when political pressures (in this case from the left) are starting to discourage free speech. I continue to think, and I believe the epidemiological evidence supports it, that the initial worldwide spread of AIDS had its primary origin in unprotected promiscuous sex.

Thanks to Jim Guinness for saying I call a spade a spade — one of my favorite lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a masterpiece which my book analyzes in unprecedented detail.

Andrea Wolper says I need “to catch up with feminism’s evolution,” but her citation of Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick, two sentimental, unlearned, and long passé New York journalists, suggests that it is she who is a bit behind in her reading. The shelves of feminist bookstores overflow with maudlin, ahistorical gushings about “the Goddess” and her sunny Pollyanna glow. The Women’s Studies college curriculum is crammed with mediocrity and pretension: embarrassingly pedestrian, clumsy, error-filled literary criticism by narrowly trained, middlebrow, kitchen-sink American academics on the one hand and pompous, lugubrious, pseudo-abstract exhibitionism by wildly overpraised fancy-pants French theorists on the other. My aim is to rescue aspiring young feminists from their teacher-enforced enslavement to this boring, tiresome contemporary propaganda, which has injected a hackneyed Rousseauist social-welfare model into every area of art and thought. No one has yet surpassed the great Simone de Beauvoir, whose brilliantly researched The Second Sex (1949) is one of the premier books of the century.

Ms. Wolper, possibly because of the excerpting, oversimplifies or misreads my remarks on rape and pornography, which the book addresses more fully. Just to cite one example: I do not, as she suggests, view pornography as “providing an outlet for men.” That is the moralistic nineteenth-century utilitarian view of art, which I everywhere oppose. Sexual Personae lavishly demonstrates that pornography is not, as many feminists claim, some scumbag back-alley plot against women but rather a fundamental creative principle of high art itself, from Shakespeare and Michelangelo to the supposedly virginal Emily Dickinson, whom I call “Amherst’s Madame de Sade.”

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