Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism

Camille Paglia is the most important cultural critic, feminist and essayist of the past thirty years. She is the only person I have ever looked up to as a hero. When she burst onto the scene in the early nineties I was mesmerized by her every word (and there were a lot of words coming out of that mouth of hers). Simply put, I agree with everything this woman says. Everything. It scares me a bit because in admitting this it sounds like a step beyond hero worship and more like goddess worship. This woman saved me by giving me the strength to stand up for what I believe in, not just about feminist or gay theory but anything in my life. I am lucky to have graduated from university when I did, in 1989, because the academic environment in the nineties took such a poisonous downturn that I would surely have been thrown out of class. I have often wiped my brow with relief in that I escaped the censorious nineties in academe. My expression of gay or feminist views was not popular–and coming from the mouth of a man made anything I said about feminism seem as a symptom of the pernicious “patriarchy” [1] that I belonged to. Thus whatever I said was reviled, yet easily dismissed. Yet had I said the same things five years later I would have been turfed from class, no doubt.

Camille Paglia gave me the balls to argue my case. She taught me–even though I was already an academic and a student of French and German language, literature and culture, no less–to read about everything. You think you know stuff? Then read more. When Paglia was 45 years old in 1992 (when I first learned about her) I was in awe of her ability to quote so extensively from the classics and to back up her statements with references to the greatest philosophers, poets and historians. If only I could be as well-read as she was at 45! To this day I read about all subjects in the Dewey nonfiction range, avoiding no area. I could listen to Paglia for hours, and thanks to archived interview clips on YouTube, I often do.

Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism is a 2017 collection of 36 essays that have heretofore appeared in print, either in Paglia’s own books or in other sources. The title of this collection caught my eye in a variety of ways: is Paglia using Free as an adjective, or is she using Free as a verb? Could it apply in both contexts to both women and men? As different parts of speech you have opposing meanings.

As a follower of Paglia I had already read many of these essays, as I own four of her books and whenever I hear of a new article published somewhere else I hunt it down. Thus the contents of this book were not new to me, although there were essays that I had never read before. I was able to breeze through this book and often used Paglia’s voice as my mind’s reader.

In the first essay, “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art”, Paglia peppered her argument with more literary and philosophical references than in any of the essays that followed. It made for jolty reading, in that I often had to look up or otherwise review the connections Paglia was making to her argument since every word she wrote reeked with importance. She followed that with “The Venus of Willendorf”, which was written in shorter alliterative sentences and read with a Kerouac beat:

“It is abdominal, abominable, daemonic.”
“Sex is probings, plumbing, secretions, gushings. Venus is drowsing and dowsing, hearkening to the stirring in her sac of waters.”
“The Venus of Willendorf, slumping, slovenly, sluttish, is in a rut, the womb-tomb of mother nature.”

A collection of essays, while all on different topics, is nonetheless bound to yield a certain degree of repetition. Paglia, having been asked to write a piece or give a lecture will often state the same points word-for-word. You will notice this especially in the conclusions of certain chapters. One recurring theme is that for a woman to exceed in politics at the highest level–in this case, the presidency of the United States–she needs a background in military history, not in women’s studies. The Commander-in-Chief will need to be experienced in military operations, not in gender equality.

This sense of déjà vu will permeate the reading experience but does not detract from it. She has become the pariah of modern feminism for espousing certain views yet remains unequivocal in her defence of them. Where the current wave of feminism resembles blind adherence to dogma rather than nurturing debate, Paglia has always remained open to welcoming opposing ideas into her classroom. She has documented her own history of being silenced by others who, only by hearing her name, are reflexively triggered to tune her out.

For a review of Paglia’s oeuvre, or if you have been living under a rock for the past thirty years and have never heard of her or read her work, then pick up Free Women, Free Men. I would love to be enrolled in one of Paglia’s classes, or at least see her lecture again. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the University of Toronto just after the publication of Vamps and Tramps in 1994. Read her work in her own voice to capture the experience of being lectured by one of the greatest intellectuals of the past thirty years.

The rest of this piece will cease to be a review of Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism and will serve the reader, as much as it will serve myself, as a compilation of some of the most controversial topics that Paglia addresses in her book. No other woman has responded to these issues with as much scientific authority as well as common sense. I focus on some of the highlights of Free Women, Free Men, and some of my own responses to these passages:

“Sex and gender have been redefined by ill-informed academic theorists as superficial, fictive phenomena produced by oppressive social forces, disconnected from biology. This hallucination has sowed confusion among young people and seriously damaged feminism. A gender theory without reference to biology is absurd on its face.” (p. ix).

“I still stand by every word of my date-rape manifesto. Women infantilize themselves when they cede responsibility for sexual encounters to men or to after-the-fact grievance committees, parental proxies unworthy of true feminists. My baby-boom generation demanded and won an end to the in loco parentis parietal rules, and it is tragic indeed how so many of today’s young women seem to long for a return of those hovering paternalistic safeguards. As a career college teacher, I want our coddling, authoritarian universities to end all involvement with or surveillance of students’ social lives and personal interactions, verbal or otherwise. If a real crime is committed, it should be reported to the police. Otherwise, college administrations should mind their own business and focus on facilitating and funding education in the classroom.” (pp. xx-xxi).

“The demarcation of certain groups for special protection, later extended to gender and sexual orientation, split them from the general populace by defining them as permanent victims, burdened by an inescapable past. I strongly oppose the categories of ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crimes’ that arose from that law and others throughout North America and Europe. The laudable attempt to make reparation for past injustice unfortunately created segregated zones of new privilege and drew government into curbing the exercise of free speech.” (p. xxv).

“Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex when they reduce it to a matter of social convention: readjust society, eliminate sexual inequality, purify sex roles, and happiness and harmony will reign.” (p. 4).

“College men are at their hormonal peak. They have just left their mothers and are questing for their male identity. In groups, they are dangerous. A woman going to a fraternity party is walking into Testosterone Flats, full of prickly cacti and blazing guns. If she goes, she should be armed with resolute alertness. She should arrive with girlfriends and leave with them. A girl who lets herself get dead drunk at a fraternity party is a fool. A girl who goes upstairs alone with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot. Feminists call this ‘blaming the victim.’ I call it common sense.” (pp. 53-54).

“In the past fifteen years, some of these administrators, especially Student Life deans and the freshmen orientation staff, have forged a disquieting alliance with women’s studies programs, and we are indoctrinating their charges with the latest politically correct attitudes on dating, sexual preference, and so on. Many of the students, neglected by their prosperous, professional parents, are pathetically grateful for these attentions. Such coddling has led, in my view, to the outrageous speech codes which are designed to shield students from the realities of life. The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be indefinitely postponed.” (p. 82).

“It is foolish to think that substantial change in human psychology or sexual relationships can be achieved through legislation and regulation, that is, through authoritarian intrusion into private life.” (p. 134).

“I have tried to bring the missing term of nature back onto the feminist agenda after a quarter century when the dominant ideology has been social constructionism, which alleges that we are born blank slates and that we become male and female not via biology but through social conditioning or environmental influences. I have argued, in Sexual Personae, that sexuality is ‘the intricate intersection of nature and culture’ and that we need to understand both in order to understand ourselves. Beginning in the 1970s, there was an irrational pressure in feminism to deny any kind of hormonal basis to sex differences, a scientifically illiterate fantasy that still flourishes today in postmodern culture studies.” (p. 135).

“In some ways, contemporary feminism is a house built on sand, because its ideology is so removed from practical reality. One of the signs of current instability in sexual relations is a rise in the incidence of homosexuality. As an open lesbian and libertarian, I feel that every person should be free to express his or her sexuality in private consensual relationships and that the state has no business intruding. But at the same time I reject the simplistic formulas that the gay movement has learned from feminism. First of all, the idea that anyone is born gay is ridiculous. This is a misreading of very sparse and contradictory evidence. Homosexuality is an adaptation to social conditions. The present spread as well as openness of homosexuality is coming from a fatigue or discontent with the failing traditional sex roles. Homosexuality is a rejection of the conflicted state of heterosexual relations, which is also evidenced in the soaring divorce rate of the past 30 years.” (p. 141).

Hallelujah! I rejoiced when I read this (and I heard it with my mind’s ear tuned to Paglia’s voice). I am definitely in the minority, and reviled by fellow gay men when I say this, but we were not born gay. It is entirely, as Paglia says, an adaptation to social conditions. Don’t give me any of this “gay gene” nonsense–I have yet to read a scientific study that hasn’t already come to the a priori conclusion that such a gene exists.

“My final recommendation for reform is a massive rollback of the paternalistic system of grievance committees and other meddlesome bureaucratic contrivances which have turned American college campuses into womb-like customer-service resorts. The feminists of my baby-boom generation fought to tear down the intrusive in loco parentis rules that insultingly confined women in their dormitories at night. College administrators and academic committees have no competence whatever to investigate crimes, including sexual assault. If an offense has been committed, it should be reported to the police, so that the civil liberties of both the accuser and the accused can be protected. This is not to absolve young men from their duty to behave honorably. Hooliganism cannot be tolerated. But we must stop seeing everything in life through the narrow lens of gender. If women expect equal treatment in society, they must stop asking for infantilizing special protections. With freedom comes personal responsibility.” (pp. 181-182).

“It is difficult to understand how a generation raised on the slapdash jumpiness of Twitter and texting will ever develop a logical, coherent, distinctive voice in writing and argumentation. And without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out for lack of continuity and rationale. Hasty, blathering blogging (without taking time for reflection and revision) is also degrading the general quality of prose writing.” (p. 236).

“As a libertarian, I believe that every individual has the right to modify his or her body at will. But I am concerned about the current climate, inflamed by half-baked postmodernist gender theory, which convinces young people who may have other unresolved personal or family issues that sex-reassignment surgery is a golden road to happiness and true identity.” (pp. 237-238).

I agree entirely with the statement above. I lambasted Alex Gino for his thoughtless and extremely self-centred juvenile novel George: Gino is in-your-face soapboxing to his young reader base that if you’re a boy who enjoys dressing up and playing with makeup, you’d be better off with castration and penis-removal surgery.

And this exchange with Ella Whelan, of Spiked Review:

Whelan: “What did you make of Chrissie Hynde’s recent assertion that she was at least partially responsible for her sexual assault at the hands of a biker gang when she was 21? Do you think that contemporary feminism is too quick to turn women into blameless victims?”

Paglia: “I have been a Chrissie Hynde fan since her first albums with the Pretenders, but this scrappy controversy made my admiration for her go stratospheric. I adore her scathing process of self-examination and her bold language of personal responsibility–that is exactly the direction that feminism must take! Hynde (four years younger than me) is demonstrating the tough, no-crap attitude of the rebellious women of my 1960s generation, who were directly inspired by the sexual revolution, created by the brand-new Pill. We took all kinds of risks–I certainly did, with some scary escapes in dark side streets of Paris and Vienna. We wanted the same freedoms as men, and we took charge of our own destinies. We viewed life as a continual experiment, an urgent pressing into the unknown. If we got knocked down, we got up again, nursed our bruises, and learned from our mistakes. Today, in contrast, too many young feminists want their safety, security, and happiness guaranteed in advance, by all-seeing, all-enveloping bureaucracies. It’s a sad, limited, and childish view of life that I find as claustrophobic as a hospital ward.”

[1] The best line I have ever heard skewering feminists’ condemnation of the patriarchy is from Paglia: “Yes, patriarchy. Meaningless word. Big, fat, meaningless word: patriarchy. It only applies to Republican Rome, and that’s it.”

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