In Which I Masochistically Attempt to Understand Camille Paglia

July 6, 2010 § 8 Comments

QUESTION: What the fuck is this? That was my first thought when I came across Camille Paglia’s recent column, No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class. I looked her up on Wikipedia, which was a mistake. Lady is contro-fucking-versial and also slightly ridiculous.

The piece is — apparently — about a drug to counter low libido in women, for which there is significant demand. An advisory panel to the Food & Drug Administration recently voted against the approval of such a drug, but recommended further research. It seems the that possibility of providing non-hormonal medical help to women with this kind of sexual dysfunction might soon be a reality.

This is excellent! Agreed? Because women deserve an equal share of the power of modern medicine, we deserve a drug industry that responds to our concerns, we deserve good sex. Because men with sexual dysfunction are just regular guys with a bit of bad luck, but women with the same problems are alien cyborgs who should be quiet and shame-ridden. Because Viagra was covered by insurance before some kinds of birth control. (Erections are reimbursable, but preventing the unwanted potential products of said erections? Out of pocket, bitches. ERECTIONS!! We bow down to your almighty power! Or something.)

Unfortunately, Camille Paglia doesn’t agree. At least, I think that this is her position, though it’s difficult to discern why from the apalling above-linked collection of words and “ideas” that bears little resemblance to a coherent argument.

Below, for your reading pleasure, a selection of astoundingly ridiculous (published! And financially compensated!) excerpts from Paglia’s piece. (Real Paglia words in bold, followed by my own alternate, comparably illogical text.)

“A class issue in sexual energy may be suggested by the apparent striking popularity of Victoria’s Secret and its racy lingerie among multiracial lower-middle-class and working-class patrons, even in suburban shopping malls, which otherwise trend toward the white middle class.” “Sometimes I see women of color in my local Victoria’s Secret. Lacy underwear = having sex. Therefore, the aforementioned ladies must be having more sex than white ladies. Therefore, they must never suffer from unpleasant sexual dysfunction, which the aforementioned pharmaceuticals might cure. Conclusion: white ladies are prudes! No lady-Viagra can cure that shit! VICTORIA’S SECRET FOR THE WIN!!!”

“Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.” “FACT: As soon as you get to know someone, it is automatically impossible for you to find them sexy. You’re like, ‘Oh hey, that guy over there is substantially attractive. Shall I go over and introduce myself, maybe acquire his name, maybe acquire his digits of phone?’ Ladies, I am here to say NO! Do NOT talk to the men, do not allow yourself to glimpse them wearing T-shirts, shorts, OR HEAVEN FORBID SNEAKERS, because the sexy will vanish. It will be GONE, and you won’t deserve any lady-Viagra to turn you on again.”

“In the 1980s, commercial music boasted a beguiling host of sexy pop chicks like Deborah Harry, Belinda Carlisle, Pat Benatar, and a charmingly ripe Madonna. Late Madonna, in contrast, went bourgeois and turned scrawny. Madonna’s dance-track acolyte, Lady Gaga, with her compulsive overkill, is a high-concept fabrication without an ounce of genuine eroticism.” “I, Camille Paglia, don’t find Lady Gaga sexually appealing. Since I, Camille Paglia, have recently been crowned The Very Important White Lady Who Is Also The World’s Sole Arbiter Concerning Who Is And Is Not Attractive, the previous statement obviously supports my thesis that white women have an incurable lack of lust, so incurable that not even the most testosterone-packed lady-Viagra can attempt to correct it.”

“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.” “Because of stupid feminism, today’s poor, poor men sometimes work with their minds instead of their muscles, which is of course degrading and ridiculous. I would prefer if men were once more allowed to roam free in the wild, where they might enjoy a life of staring at their biceps, gnawing on beef jerky, never washing their hands, and impregnating women left and right. Men! MEN!!!”

Men must neuter themselves?! I am literally wondering aloud: what the fuck do these words mean? Is she saying that men have to suppress their masculinity, really? Really, they have to control their rapacious manliness in the unabashed boys’ club that is almost every single “white-collar realm” in this nation? Because 30% of female workers report harassment in their workplace, and men are almost always the perpetrators, dontcha know. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of sexual harassment cases go unreported, so that 30% estimate is likely far from accurate.)

And maybe some “ambitious women postpone procreation” not because they don’t like sex, as Paglia implies, but because…their lifetime ambitions simply don’t include children? Or because despite being inundated since birth with cultural messages about how they’d better-become-moms-or-else, many of their jobs offer shamefully stingy maternity leave? Or because they fear workplace discrimination based on pregnancy status?

Look, Paglia: I guess I can concede that I admire your attempt at a historical analysis of women’s sexuality in the United States. I live for that shit! Seriously, I love writing about sex and women. Because it is interesting, and complicated. Also, convoluted. A BRIEF AND REALISTICALLY CONFUSING PARAPHRASE OF WHAT WE TELL WOMEN: Everyone is having sex. Also, having sex is weird. Sex feels good. Also, feeling good is bad. Your sexuality is your only power and worth. Also, if you have sex your power and worth will vanish. You must want and be ready for sex all the time. Also, you can never have sex at any time.

Yes, this is what we do. We repeat over and over that women’s most potent power is sexual — which in some ways, unfortunately, is true, because we don’t hold equitable financial, or corporate, or political power — and then we don’t let women have sex!

So yes, I can agree with Paglia that the topic of women’s sexuality is ripe for analysis, and that a comprehensive understanding of such requires dissecting cultural norms. But what I cannot condone is her condescending dismissal of real womens’ sexual problems. Because female sexual dysfunction? Is not cultural. At least, it’s not any more cultural than breast cancer is cultural or fibromyalgia is cultural or any medical condition is cultural — which is, actually, somewhat (because the way we understand and interact with our bodies differs from culture to culture), but not entirely, as her writing supposes.

Paglia’s piece is a farcical charge against the logical and equitable notion that women, like men, sometimes suffer from sexual dysfunction. She betrays and mocks the 43% of this country’s women who will experience some form of sexual dysfunction in their lifetime. These conditions are real. They are medical. And they are treatable — or will be, if the FDA will approve effective drugs, and if people like Camille Paglia will take seriously the right of women to enjoy fully the pleasure our bodies can provide.

Also see the Harpy Seminar on and Sungold’s takedown of Paglia’s article.

§ 8 Responses to In Which I Masochistically Attempt to Understand Camille Paglia

  • Dava says:

    I love this post. I read that same article a few days ago and had very mixed feelings about it, perhaps similar to yours (but less well articulated). Your commentary had me laughing out loud. Well said.

  • Dana says:

    I like your commentary on Paglia’s column. Though, I have trouble with the medicalization of women’s issues. How many women actually have a sexual dysfunction vs. how many women are told that they have a sexual dysfunction based on a doctor/society telling them that they should want to have more sex, or that they should be having orgasms, or that they should be prepared to have sex at any time? I definitely do not agree with Paglia’s determination that the “de-masculization” of men and the androgyny of women has contributed to the sexual downfall of society.. I don’t even know where to start on that one…

    • mirandanyc says:

      Great point, Dana. I do think that some women are probably manipulated by our culture into believing that their sexuality is abnormal — but not all women. Some women surely have sexual dysfunction, and they deserve treatment.

  • Nell Gwynne says:

    I knew quite a few women at both of my colleges who LOVED Victoria’s Secret, but were not having sex for a variety of reasons (the majority being people that did have sexual desire, but were waiting until marriage). Wearing cute lingerie does not say anything about someone’s sex life.

    I loved how you hit the nail on the head about the gap between insurance coverage for men and women. My birth control perscription is over $200 a month because it isn’t covered by my insurance.

    • mirandanyc says:

      That shit makes me SEETHE WITH RAGE. Yet another manifestation of the utterly bullshit cultural message that sex is a necessity for men, but a luxury for women. The blood. It boils.

  • K says:

    Thank you! My god in heaven, it’s a feminist post that treated FSD with the same respect as any other disability.

    Jesus Christ. I read her post as a distortion of a distilled version of the social construction model of sexual dysfunction, which is itself pretty hard on sexual dysfunction and the women (and men) who have it. I know it’s a distortion but I still see the kernel that her editorial came from.

    It’s real. And it doesn’t just effect white women… some studies I’ve read say white women and women of color report different sex problems with more or less frequently, but, it can happen to anybody. It’s nothing to be further stigmatized.

  • PrettyAmiable says:

    Haha, aww. Camille Paglia is the knock-off version of Phyllis Schlafly: enemies of the feminism that got them every luxury they have in life.

  • […] In Which I Masochistically Attempt to Understand Camille Paglia – a rebuttal to Camille Paglia’s bizzaire anti-filbanserin, anti-FSD in general NYT piece. Surprisingly this rebuttal treats FSD with the same respect as any other disability. […]

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