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.