Free Women, Free Men: Sex – Gender – Feminism — Camille Paglia

New Paglia is always worth reading, and Free Women, Free Men is not an exception. That being said, if you’ve read her other books you’ve already read this one. If you’re tired about hearing about Doris Day and “my 1960s generation” or “my baby boom generation” (as I am), you’ll be tired at many points in this book. I wrote that line before I saw Dwight Garner’s NYT review, in which he says, “The problem, for the reader of ‘Free Women, Free Men,’ is that she repeats the same arguments and anecdotes over and over again. Reading this book is like being stranded in a bar where the jukebox has only two songs, both by Pat Benatar.”

Yes. And many of the pieces date poorly. Does anyone care about Madonna’s BDSM-inflected music video from the ’90s? It may have been a vital moment in pop culture, but almost all pop culture is ephemeral, as pop culture itself likes to imply, or remind us. Or how about Anita Hill? That was a name I needed to back-check: my first inclination was, “Anita who?”

That being said, there is much to like in Free Women, Free Men, starting from the first page:

The premier principles of this book are free thought and free speech—open, mobile, and unconstrained by either liberal or conservative ideology. The liberal versus conservative dichotomy, dating from the split between left and right following the French Revolution, is hopelessly outmoded for our far more complex era of expensive technology and global politics.

It is always useful to call for free thought and speech, especially when both seem weirdly under fire, from left and right (later in the introduction, Paglia writes, “The title of this book exalts freedom as an indispensable condition for the incubation and flourishing of individualism”). Despite how tedious reading yet more about Doris Day and Madonna may be, sometimes we look to past predictions to see how they might be right. This Paglia line, originally from 1997, is particularly prescient: “Too much tolerance too fast can produce a puritanical or fascist backlash” (142). Had I read that in August I would’ve laughed. Now I realize that I was wrong and that is fascist backlash is possible. We don’t really learn from history—not collectively, anyhow—and facts don’t change our minds. In some ways the state of knowledge is better than ever before; we can learn almost anything, immediately, but in other ways the state of knowledge is worse: incorrect memes proliferate, and they enable the fascist backlash, though that backlash may be enabled by people who know not what they do.

That line about tolerance and backlash occurs nearly midway through the book and it’s easy to miss. But it’s also emblematic of the way Paglia spouts ideas like water from a Greek fountain. They are ceaseless, and take the eye away for a moment and new ideas take the place of the ones just experienced. In this way she is, or is close to being, an artist.

She also calls for real equality rather than special privileges or hand-holding; she says, for example,

What was distinctive in those emancipated women—and here loom my later problems with second-wave feminism—was that they never indulged in reflex male-bashing: they accepted and admired the enormity of what men had accomplished and were simply demanding a fair chance to prove that women could match or surpass it. Their inspirational record of unapologetic ambition and plucky, resourceful self-reliance was the foundation for my later philosophy of equal opportunity feminism.

That being said, she can also be fond of nitwitisms like, “The sexes are at war.” Nonsense. It’s nonsense now and has been nonsense as often as it’s been said. In that domain we live in a positive-sum world, not a zero-sum world, and in many ways Paglia gets that. Yet she won’t quite admit it.

While I admire parts of Free Women, Free Men, I wish for another book like Sexual Personae. In her conversation with Tyler Cowen, however, Paglia said that what she considered to be Volume II of Sexual Personae she actually published as individual “articles.” A shame. Nothing she’s published since that, however interesting it may be at times, matches it. I will reiterate that new Paglia is worth reading, but be ready to skip the sections that you have in effect already read.

Links: Paglia and feminists, screenshots from developers, it’s not the length but how you use it, and more

* “Donald Trump Really Doesn’t Want Me to Tell You This, But …“, the last piece I hope to post about this odious man.

* “Today’s feminists are so out of touch with how most women live, they might as well be on another planet,” by Julia Hartley-Brewer.

* Screenshots from developers: 2002 vs. 2015.

* “Books are becoming longer.” I wonder if this is true of self-published, ebook-first writers.

* The homeownership rate has plunged more than people realize.

* Camille Paglia Takes on Taylor Swift, Hollywood’s #GirlSquad Culture.

* A distressingly plausible account of why contemporary humanities academia is so bad.

* “ Urban jungle: wooden high-rises change city skylines as builders ditch concrete: Mass timber projects in Portland and New York City offer eco-friendly dwellings, but can ‘plywood on steroids’ actually catch on in the industry?”

* Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’. It’s worse than you think.

* Still more Camille Paglia: “I am continually shocked and dismayed by the nearly Victorian notions promulgated by today’s feminists about the fragility of women and their naïve helplessness in asserting control over their own dating lives.” Among other many interesting things.

* “Why 18th century books looked like smartphone screens;” I’d like to see physically smaller, better-made books. My novels are specifically sized the way they are to make for easier reading.

* Why are there so many mattress stores?

* On Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo.

Movies as Modern Visual Art: Paglia, Stephenson, Cowen

In Glittering Images Camilla Paglia writes of George Lucas’s work:

Lucas says, “My films are basically the graphics”: “Everything is visual.” He views dialogue as merely “a sound effect, a rhythm, a vocal chorus in the overall soundtrack.” In structure, Star Wars unfolds as dynamic action sequences alternating with grand panoramic tableaux, including breathtaking cityscapes stacked with traffic skylanes. Lucas declares, “I’m not really interested in plots.” And elsewhere: “To me, the script is just a sketchbook, just a list of notes.”

Tyler Cowen notes that Transformers 4 may be best seen as an art movie. To accuse a movie like Transformers of being plotless or absurd is pointless because plot is not its point. The utter lack of anything resembling a coherent plot may explain why I thought the first one so stupid; it may also be that I failed to go into it with the proper frame of mind. Expecting something novelistic and getting something like a painting or dance is likely to disappoint. Among novels I tend to prefer ones with plots over ones that are about “consciousness” or similar highbrow topics.

Glittering_ImagesI am not necessarily opposed to movies as dance / art—Gravity (discussed by me at the link) has some Lucasian qualities but is also a plea for us to get off this planet—but there may be other implications.

Neal Stephenson, for example, has noticed the trend in movies towards either the visual (to use a positive term) or incoherence (to use my own feelings): in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” he writes of how the changes in the Star Wars movies from 1977 to today also track changes in American culture, away from writing and dialogue and towards the visual. In the decade since he wrote his piece, it is hard not to see the general trends he describes as accelerating. His novel Anathem could be described in many ways, and one is a commentary on what mind happen if current trends regarding the divergence of the technical / literary / intellectual class (which is a class not defined by income) from everyone else. Paglia has not addressed this directly in a contemporary context as far as I can tell. She has a great deal of deserved scorn for what she calls word-obsessed, French theory laden academics, but in the overall scheme of American culture they’re a very small part of the picture.

Still, even in universities that are supposed to conserve knowledge and promote reading the movie temperament has made headway. In universities English professors are eager to show movies in class and have students write about movies instead of books; while that’s okay, I’m reminded of the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”* There is always an impedance mismatch between writing and the subject of writing that does not exist in writing about other writing; the latter two inform each other in a way that writing about other subjects, including art, does not.

I’m not opposed to watching movies, or movie criticism, or courses about movie criticism or movie making, but the extent to which the people who are supposed to be teaching writing are using movies is another example of the trends Stephenson describes.

When I was a first-year grad student at the University of Arizona I was part of a small teaching group with other first years and one faculty facilitator. A girl and I got into a discussion about why I didn’t show movies in class, and I told her some of the above; watching movies in basic English classes is a waste of time. Reading is an essential part of writing, and people who don’t read can’t be good writers. Period. Most students have plenty of screen time but very little reading time. She said she thought I was wrong about the coevolution of reading and writing, so I sent her some studies demonstrating what is already obvious to every writer. She said didn’t care and was going to keep showing movies anyway. The exchange is symptomatic of deeper issues in academia itself. As Paglia might say, the culture has corrupted it, in ways that it shouldn’t be corrupted, rather than in ways it should be corrupted (which is a subject for another post).


* If so, the criticisms about modern action or blockbuster movies have incoherent plots or dialogue are no more meaningful than saying that dance or architecture have incoherent plots or dialogue. People like me, who like movies that make sense, don’t realize that we’re criticizing the wrong genre.

Links: Prostitution, Gladwell (these are not linked), parenting while poor, selfie-love

* “Study: Decriminalizing prostitution could drastically cut HIV infections,” which is sufficiently obvious that I almost don’t want to include it.

* Malcolm Gladwell:

Running teaches you about the inherent unfairness of the world. Two people can work exactly the same, in fact, one can be infinitely more devoted and train much harder and not do as well. An object lesson in how unfair life is.

The world is unfair but most people are better off treating it as if it is fair.

* A theory of where 50 Shades of Grey came from, with a strong emphasis on the word “theory.” I also think the pejorative connotations from the term “marketing” are going to fade over time, much as “sellout” was used derisively in the 1960s but by the 2000s could no longer be widely seen.

* “Another Challenge of Parenting While Poor: Wealthy Judges;” this sort of point is under-understood.

* “Without You I’m Nothing,” which has Paglian overtones for its intersection of culture and sexuality: “Rock stars are the gods of the last century.”

* “Selfie-Love,” by Clancy Martin of How to Sell fame; a friend from China told me that all Americans are hustlers, although she lives in New York, so her generalization may not be applicable to all ~300 million of us. Also, someone attempted to spit in my taxi the other day.

* The high cost of free parking.

* Little political drama is worth attending to, but this interview between the president and The Economist is interesting throughout. A sample:

The US security presence is always a source of ambivalence everywhere in the world. If we’re not there, people think we’re neglecting them. If we’re there, then they think we’re militarising a region.

The ignorance and ideological blindness in the college sex articles: Kathleen Bogle and Megan McArdle

A spate of mostly dumb articles, like this one by Kathleen Bogle: “The Missing Key to Fighting Sexual Assault on Campus,” have been wending their way through the blagosphere; most argue or seem to argue that universities need to act much more like police.* Bogle writes, for example, that “The key is [for colleges?] to make clear exactly when it is a crime to have sex with a person who is too intoxicated to be capable of giving meaningful consent.” But Bogle also writes, in a more pragmatic vein:

most cases of drunken sex will be—and, probably, should be—beyond the reach of the law. Young women need to know this. They need to know that the law treats sex after drinking as assault only in extreme circumstances.

(Emphasis added.)

Bogle, like most writers on this topic, ignores an obvious contradiction between current criminal law and what changes these writers want to see universities do: drunkenness is not a defense against any criminal act. No matter how drunk you get, if you kill someone you will be eligible to be charged with manslaughter or murder. If you can legally be said to have the mental state necessary to be accountable for the ultimate, irreversible crime, you presumably legally have the mental state necessary to accountable to consent to sex.

Few writers mention this.** More writers—though still too few—point out other questions: what if both parties are blotto drunk? Do they then legally rape each other? Do both get charged? Will they be in the real world? When discussing matters in the abstract these issues might seem like unimportant edge cases but moving from idea to implementation will make them very serious.

There aren’t good, intellectually coherent administrative solutions. Megan McArdle is right: “Rape on Campus Belongs in the Courts.” Courts have centuries of practice in attempting to balance the need for justice with rights for fair trials. If a serious crime has been committed, university administrators are the wrong place to go: they’re supposed to handle academic and administrative matters, not horrific crimes—for which they don’t have the infrastructure or legal authority. If universities do set up kangaroo courts, one will wrongly sanction someone and that someone will sue the university and wins in real court with real rules. Criminal and civil rules are fucked up in various ways, but they are at least reasonably consistent and reasonably public.

Moreover, Bogle and others like her forget their own ideological preconceptions. I would like to make some of mine explicit, as they are stated by Camille Paglia in the first pages of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson:

Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture. 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. Here feminists, like all liberal movements of the past two hundred years, is heir to Rousseau. [. . .]

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature (the Romantic imperative that still permeates our nature culture from sex counseling to cereal commercials) would be to give free reign to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.

Drinking weakens the power of social force, the social contract, and the super-ego—which is why people do it. The dangers are real and well-known. Yet we don’t want to acknowledge the darkness. Slate writer Emily Yoffe emphasized those dangers in 2013, and the current bout of jabber isn’t really moving past that. We as a society should be pointing out the perils of too much drinking. We also shouldn’t kid ourselves about why we like to drink: to turn off our super-egos. To live in the moment instead of the future. To take the risks and do the things we’d like to do sober. We try to banish the knowledge of darkness that lurks in the soul, only to see that darkness reflected and reëmerge in novels, movies, TV, music. Paglia is the rare critic who will name and describe the darkness. For that she is castigated.

The other underlying reality is that women are less inclined to want to have sex with a large number of random strangers than men, for reasons grounded in evolutionary biology. This is not a problem that affects both sexes equally, despite the gender-blind way that modern laws are supposed to be written. Relatively few men appear to be sexually assaulted by drunk women. But a lot of the essay-writing set either knows nothing about evolutionary biology or doesn’t want to acknowledge it, so some of the real mechanisms underlying these articles remain buried, until annoying gadflies like me bring them up.

EDIT 2016: For some historical context, which is largely missing from the discussions that have flared up in the media, see “A Sex Scandal from 1960s Yale Is a Window Into a World With No Internet.” The Internet has made many things better, but certainly not all of them, and it seems to empower some of campus’s loudest, angriest neurotics.


* I wrote about another instance in “If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan).”

** Hypocrisy in the law, however, is not an impediment to instituting it anyway. In Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine writes: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” Teenagers—usually black males—are adults when they commit crimes and “children”—usually white teenagers—when they have sex. This demonstrates more about culture and economics than anything inherent about people in the age range 13 – 17.

Laurie Schaffner makes a similar observation in an essay collection about regulating sexuality, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

The modern art (and photography) problem

In “Modern art: I could have done that… so I did: After years of going to photography exhibitions and thinking he could do better, Julian Baggini gave it a go. But could he convince The Royal West of England Academy with his work?“, Baggini writes:

there are times when we come across something so simple, so unimpressive, and so devoid of technical merit that we just can’t help believing we could have done as well or better ourselves.

He’s right—except that this happens entirely too often and helps explain much of modern art’s bogosity. I’m not the only person to have noticed—in Glittering Images, Camille Paglia writes:

the big draws [for museums] remain Old Master or Impressionist painting, not contemporary art. No galvanizing new style has emerged since Pop Art, which killed the avant-garde by embracing commercial culture. Art makes news today only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price.

She’s right too; many people have noticed this but few apparently have in the art world itself, which seems to have become more interested in marketing than making (a problem afflicting the humanities in academia too). But there are enough people invested in and profiting from propagating bogosity that they can remain indifferent to countervailing indifference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYears ago I was at the Seattle Art Museum and looking various pieces of modern supposed “art” that consisted mostly of a couple lines or splotches and what not, and they made me think: “there’s a hilarious novel in here about a director who surreptitiously hangs her own work—and no one notices.” Unfortunately, now I’ve realized that people have already done this, or things like it, in the real world—and no one cared. It’s barely possible to generate scandal in the art world anymore; conservatives have mostly learned about the Streisand effect and thus don’t react to the latest faux provocation. The artists themselves often lack both anything to say and any coherent way of saying it.

To the extent people respond to art, they respond to the art that people made when it took skill be an artist.

Photography has a somewhat similar problem, except that it’s been created by technology. Up until relatively recent it took a lot of time, money, and patience to become a reasonably skilled photographer. Now it doesn’t take nearly as much of any of those things: last year’s cameras and lenses still work incredibly well; improvements in autofocus, auto-exposure, and related technologies make photos look much better; and it’s possible to take, review, and edit hundreds or thousands of photos at a time, reducing the time necessary to go from “I took a picture” to expert.

The results are obvious for anyone who pays attention. Look through Flickr, or 500px, or any number of other sites and you’ll see thousands of brilliant, beautiful photos. I won’t say “anyone can do it,” but many people can. It’s also possible to take great photos by accident, with the machine doing almost all the work apart from the pointing and clicking. Adding a little bit of knowledge to the process is only likely to increase the keeper rate. Marketing seems to be one of the primary differentiators among professional photographers; tools like Lightroom expand the range of possibility for recovering from error.

One of the all-time top posts on Reddit’s photography section is “I am a professional photographer. I’d like to share some uncomfortable truths about photography,” where the author writes that “It’s more about equipment than we’d like to admit” and “Photography is easier than we’d like to admit.”

The profession is dying, for reasons not identical to painting but adjacent to it. In photography, we’re drowning in quality. In fine art, we’re drowning in bogosity, and few people appear to be interested in rescuing the victim.

%d bloggers like this: