It’s one thing to be contrarian; it’s another to be just plain ignorant. Or, as Nigel Tufnel says in This Is Spinal Tap, “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” Camille Paglia had an op-ed on sex in Sunday’s New York Times. Guess on which side of the line she fell?
Paglia’s pretext for the op-ed is the failure of flibanserin (aka “pink Viagra”) to gain approval from the advisory panel of FDA. Really, though, this is just a platform for her to rant about a supposed “sexual malaise” that’s plaguing the U.S.:
The real culprit, originating in the 19th century, is bourgeois propriety. As respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm. Victorian prudery ended the humorous sexual candor of both men and women during the agrarian era, a ribaldry chronicled from Shakespeare’s plays to the 18th-century novel. The priggish 1950s, which erased the liberated flappers of the Jazz Age from cultural memory, were simply a return to the norm. …
In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.
… The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.
Ahem. For a scholar who wears her erudition so gaudily, Paglia shows an abysmal grasp of the history of gender and sexuality. First, anyone who’s read Foucault’s History of Sexuality realizes that the Victorian era wasn’t only about repression. Discourses of sexuality proliferated, creating new identities (“the homosexual”) and planting lots of naughty ideas in people’s minds.
Those “intriguingly separate worlds”? They were a product of the self-same industrial revolution that made men and women virtually interchangeable in the factory before we made the shift to mind-based work. Separate spheres were only ever achievable for a small minority of middle-class, white men and women, anyway. Within those middle classes, mystery didn’t reign so much as a discourse of shame that demonized both men’s and women’s pleasure, as Richard Jeffrey Newman persuasively shows at Alas! a Blog:
Sexual pleasure undermined a man’s ability to compete in this marketplace of manhood in two ways: First, as Graham, Kellogg [of the crackers and cereal, respectively] and others made clear, such pleasure constituted unadulterated self-indulgence, a characteristic precisely antithetical to the kind of man a self-made man was supposed to be. Second, the expenditure of sperm—and the thinkers of the nineteenth century saw ejaculation quite explicitly as a form of spending—was a waste of energy that a man could have, and should have, been putting to more productive uses elsewhere.
For the working classes circa 1850 or 1900, never mind separate spheres – they were lucky if they could have separate bedrooms. From the children, that is. I don’t know about Prof. Paglia, but I don’t know too many people whose notion of a sexay time includes a bed full of children on the other side of the room. For a real bonus, throw in a boarder or two, no running water, and perhaps a few resident species of rodentia.
Ironically, the most recent apogee of separate spheres was the 1950s, which Paglia denounces for their priggishness. Plenty of couples who steamed up their car windows at the drive-in theater might beg to differ. To the extent people managed to get in on in the back seat, it was in spite of the ostensibly separate spheres of men and women – not because of them.
As for pre-industrial sex? Well, there was oodles of mystery in the “agrarian” world, as long as you perceive a lusty difference between plowing a field (men’s work) and mucking out a stall (usually women’s work, at least in early modern Europe). O ho, that’s what the postmodern American libido lacks: the erotics of cow manure!
The farther back we go, the rosier Paglia’s nostalgia. Shakespeare’s era certainly was ribald, as we know from his plays. We also know from Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process (vol. 1: The History of Manners) that folks were also much more relaxed about bodily hygiene. And by “relaxed,” I mean that Europeans of the 1500s and 1600s would deliberately make their body odor more pungent. Also, pooping anywhere was okay. It was doubtless a super sexy era if coprophilia is your thing.
And then there’s one little detail that changes everything. You don’t need to be a historian to suss it out, either, because its advent falls within Paglia’s lifetime, and mine: women’s prerogative to say no. Paglia must be intentionally obtuse in failing to mention it. Echidne parodies this brilliantly in her take-down of Paglia’s op-ed:
Instead, give me the old Italian countryside, with haystacks and a violent rape of a peasant woman who really does like it after the bruises fade. Because sex is violence and violence is sex and all women like to be at the receiving end of that violence.
Except, of course, Camille Paglia.
(Another post to read in full, srsly.)
Exactly. Paglia can have the chastity belts, crowded beds, and literally shitty hygiene of the past. I’ll take the twenty-first century, which, for all its ills, offers birth control, hot showers, and the chance for a passionate yes – precisely because I’m free to say no.