As a master polemicist, Paglia is a quintessential culture warrior in style. But in the positions she takes, she doesn’t neatly fit into the culture wars paradigm. She’s an atheist, and yet she calls religion “man’s greatest invention.” She labels herself a feminist and is in favor of legal access to many of the things the Christian Right would prohibit, including abortion, pornography, and prostitution. And yet she’s been branded the “bête noire” of feminism. Naomi Wolf describes Paglia as “the nipple-pierced person’s Phyllis Schlafly who poses as a sexual renegade but is in fact the most dutiful of patriarchal daughters.” Gloria Steinem more succinctly remarks that Paglia “calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.” Never averse to using totalitarian dictators as metaphors for feminists, Paglia returns favor by calling Steinem “the Stalin of feminism.”
Paglia’s most important scholarly book is Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a 712-page work of literary criticism published by Yale University Press in 1990. Based on Paglia’s dissertation, Sexual Personae was rejected by seven academic presses, probably because it ran counter to the modes of literary criticism that were conventional in the 1980s. Even though it is a perverse reading of the English-speaking canon—it characterized William Blake as the British Marquis de Sade and described Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson as “self-ruling hermaphrodites who cannot mate”— Sexual Personae is also an ode to the canon and an implicit rejection of French poststructural theory (a rejection that Paglia later made more explicit when she called Foucalt a “bastard”). Sexual Personae became a New York Times bestseller, no doubt based on its provocative thesis that human nature has a Dionysian side to it that is best understood via human sexuality. Paglia argues men created culture and civilization (our Apollonian side) in order to contain Dionysian forces—forces best left to the bedroom, where, according to Paglia, women have all the power.
To get a true sense of Paglia’s polemical side, I recommend two collections of her essays: Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992), which includes essays on Madonna, Robert Mapplethorpe, Clarence Thomas, and academia; and Vamps and Tramps (1994). Paglia’s essays earned her fame as the answer to the “fascist rigidity of political correctness.” “As an ornery outsider of prickly eccentricity and raw populist humor,” Paglia boasts that she is “a parallel phenomenon to businessman-turned-politician Ross Perot and radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.” Modesty is rarely a writerly virtue, but Paglia takes self-confidence to new levels. When she was younger she considered Susan Sontag her idol. But by the time Paglia had gained a measure of renown, she had a different opinion about her erstwhile hero: “I’ve been chasing that bitch for 25 years, and at last I’ve caught her.” Sontag had a witty rejoinder: “We used to think Norman Mailer was bad, but she makes Norman Mailer look like Jane Austen.”
Vamps and Tramps includes several short essays. But it also includes one very long essay, “No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality,” a summary of Paglia’s libertarian theories about sex. “No Law in the Arena” makes clear why feminists consider Paglia a traitor to their cause. It outlines her vision of a countercultural, Dionysian feminism, which is diametrically opposed to the mainstream feminism of NOW and Women’s Studies. In sum, Paglia believes the feminist establishment has replaced the moralists of the 1950s—those whom she and her countercultural comrades had overthrown in the sixties—as the representatives of “bourgeois codes,” as the purveyors of “authoritarian totems.”
Arguably, Paglia’s views on rape are her most controversial. She maintains that “the feminist obsession with rape as a symbol of male-female relations is irrational and delusional.” In short, feminists have, to borrow from Charles Krauthammer (who borrowed from Daniel Patrick Moynihan) “defined rape up” to include acts that might be embarrassing to women but are not technically rape. By embarrassing acts Paglia means pornography. Anti-porn feminists often invoke Robin Morgan’s dictum: “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” Paglia writes: “The fantastic fetishism of rape by mainstream and anti-porn feminists has in the end trivialized rape, impugned women’s credibility, and reduced the sympathy we should feel for legitimate victims of violent sexual assault.”
Paglia grounds her views on pornography in her libertarianism. “My libertarian position,” she explains, “is that, in the absence of sexual violence, sexual conduct cannot and must not be legislated from above, that all intrusion by authority figures into sex is totalitarian.” In other words, Paglia views consensual sex, including sex for money and sex on camera, in the same way that libertarians view a labor contract as an equal and fair exchange.
But beyond her libertarianism, Paglia’s views on rape and other sexual matters are also colored by her stance on nature. Much like controversial evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill (whose fascinating, highly problematic course on human sexuality I took as an undergraduate student) Paglia believes rape is biologically motivated. Men are sexually aggressive by nature (this is the Dionysian side to men); modern society was designed to contain such aggression (via Apollonian means). Thus, whereas many feminists blame modern society for inculcating a culture of rape, Paglia argues that modern society is all that stands between men and their female rape victims. When women go behind closed doors with men, they must recognize that Apollonian protections give way to Dionysian temptations. In other words, date rape is a myth because a woman who doesn’t want to have sex should know better than to put herself in such a situation. “Too much of the date-rape and sexual harassment crisis claimed by white middle-class women is caused partly by their own mixed signals,” Paglia wrote. Could Rush Limbaugh get away with making this argument?
Paglia calls herself a feminist, or to be more precise, a “dissident feminist.” Given her stance on issues like rape, I have a hard time with this label, even though she is pro-choice and pro-gay rights and I think her libertarian views on the sex industry might be preferable to the moral crusading of liberals like Nick Kristoff. Her gender essentialism seems deeply antithetical to what I consider feminism. And yet, in a paradoxical way, her views on sex difference are not far removed from a difference feminist like Carol Gilligan. In her 1982 book, In a Different Voice, Gilligan analyzes how men and women respond to prompts about morality and identity differently. Men tend to be much more individualistic; women tend to be much more empathetic. Psychologists from Freud to Erikson have long used adult male identity as the norm; the degree to which women care more about others is thus judged abnormal. Gilligan does not think these differences are necessarily biological or natural. Although she is not invested in the nature-nurture debate, Gilligan makes clear such differences are often constructed. And yet she does not deny gender difference. Rather, she wants to reverse gender polarity. If cooperation and empathy are female traits, then female traits should be revaluated. Female is better than male.
Gilligan and Paglia have dissimilar prescriptions for the good life. Whereas Gilligan thinks a more feminine-directed world would lead to more cooperation and less exploitation, Paglia thinks people should be free from the compulsions of cooperation, including feminist and moralist efforts to regulate sex. But both Gilligan and Paglia base their views on similar epistemological orientations: they both believe men are from Mars and women are from Venus. What should we make of that?