The Joy of Paglian Sex

Lesbian feminists with a penchant for Nietzsche, Freud, and DeSade are not typically my type.  Nevertheless, I fell in love with one in 1993 and have never quite recovered. I was then (as now) a happily married man and nothing untoward actually happened.  But when I purchased a copy of Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of her journalism, I knew that this was to be more than a passing infatuation.  Here was my ideal woman: Tough, thoughtful, well-read, and clearly somebody who could handle herself in a bar-room brawl.  Feisty is surely too small a word.

In the years since I have learned much from the delectable Ms. P.  She modeled for me both a scholarship and a journalism which engaged high culture and pop culture, moving seamlessly from Aeschylus and Freud to the Rolling Stones and Madonna.  She showed me that learning and writing could be fun and iconoclastic and constructive all at the same time.  Her rejection of the histrionics of victim-feminism, her refusal to follow the orthodoxy on date rape, and her demand that individuals take responsibility for themselves forced me to think.  Her contempt for the tone police, those self-righteous enforcers of the status quo, was evident on every page.

Of all her writings, though, the one I love the most – and the one I return to most frequently -- is the essay ‘The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,’ originally published in The New Republic but reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture.   The article does not, as I had hoped when I first glimpsed the title, offer some technical tips for romantically inept Calvinists; Rather it is a devastating critique of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.’s 1991 report on human sexuality. Nothing I have read since has ever done such a successful job of demolishing the pious pabulum which vitiates so much Christian discourse on sex and which has (as Paglia predicted) eviscerated the faith of its distinctive vitality. If ever there was an essay which cut through sentimental bombast that surrounds liberal Christian pieties and cuts straight to the real heart of the matter, it is this.   And in an era marked by a tedious and increasingly intense combination of political correctness and squeamishness about clear communication, it is still a breath of fresh air.

The key paragraph — vintage Paglia — is this: 

The [PCUSA’s} committee’s prescription for an enlightened Christianity is “learning from the marginalized.” This new liberal cliché is repeated so often that I began to misread it as “margarinized.” We are told that “those of us with varying degrees of social power and status must now move away from the center, so that other, more marginalized voices... may be heard.” But the report picks and chooses its marginalized outcasts as snobbishly as Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes. We can move tender, safe, clean, hand-holding gays and lesbians to the center—but not, of course, pederasts, prostitutes, strippers, pornographers, or sadomasochists. And if we’re e going to learn from the marginalized, what about drug dealers   moonshiners, Elvis impersonators, string  collectors, Mafiosi, foot fetishists, serial murderers, cannibals, Satanists, and the Ku Klu Klan?  I’m sure they’ll all have a lot to say. The committee gets real prudish real fast when it has to deal with sexuality outside its feminist frame of reference: “Incest is abhorrent and abhorred,” it flatly declares. I wrote in the margin, “No lobbyists, I guess!”

This is admittedly a little dated, at least in its lists of the marginalized.  Sadomasochism, pornography, and prostitution are being mainstreamed, and it seems quite possible that pederasty and incest will not be far behind.   String collectors, foot fetishists, Elvis impersonators, and Imperial Wizards may perhaps have to wait a little longer.  But even so Paglia’s basic point stands and liberal Christians will no doubt join the sadomasochism and pederasty bandwagons if ever they become part of the Mainstream Margarinized.  Why would they not?  Their ethics are merely the tastes of the world around in the imperative voice.  And that means their moral standards are ultimately formed not by the Bible or Christian tradition but by powerful interest groups in the popular media, by clichéd post-structuralist pieties, and by legislators on Capitol Hill whose political culture is little more than a function of the public relations industry

Yet there is another aspect to the essay, and that is Paglia’s barely concealed contempt for the attempts of liberal Christianity and of the gay lobby itself to make homosexuality respectable. For Paglia, sex is powerful and deviant sex reflects that power precisely because it is transgressive, because it breaks the rules.  For her, sex is an erotic, Dionysian force that threatens to shatter civilization as we know it.  Drawing on the later Freud, with distinct tones of Nietzsche, she understands the destructive power of sex and rejoices in it.  To tame it, to domesticate it, to make it respectable, to turn it into merely one more form of pleasurable recreation is to destroy both its substance and significance.

Her basic thesis is that liberal Christianity cannot cope with sex as it really is.  Instead it has to make into something anodyne and inoffensive as defined by the aesthetics of the wider world.   Cultural tastes trump biblical teaching and historic Christian ethics.  This is the problem of liberal Christianity in microcosm.  Make Christian doctrine merely an expression of religious psychology and, as sophisticated as that might seem, it leads in only one direction: the assimilation of Christianity to the world.   

Ironically, Paglia here is more Christian than the liberal Protestants she lambasts so mercilessly.  Traditional Christianity, with it various sexual taboos, its physical discipline of celibacy for those who are not married, its view of marriage as lifelong and sexually monogamous, and its refusal to make sexuality and sexual behavior a matter of bland personal preference, acknowledges sex as precisely the dangerous, atavistic force that she too sees it to be.   Paglia and orthodox Christianity are two sides of the same sexual coin.

But here is where Paglia differs with the sexual attitudes of the permissive society.  When (almost) everything is permitted and when all social and legal prohibitions and restraints on sexual behavior have been stripped away, society has made sex safe. Too safe. In enfranchising the deviant, it eliminates deviation.  And when nothing is forbidden, sex actually loses its meaning and becomes just one more bland form of entertainment, pleasant but of no social significance, rather like consuming a vanilla ice cream. 

So why do Christians capitulate to such nonsense so easily?   Here Paglia and I are on the same page: Because the Christian church is too often not satisfied with being the Christian church, with all of its austere dogma and demands, but prefers to be merely an insipid and derivative mouthpiece for modern emotivism.  Liberal churches do what they always do: In an effort to remain credible they dutifully turn up to baptize whatever sentimental mush the world wants to promote on the trendy topic of the moment.  Of course, it always does this a day or two late, but that’s what happens when your ethics are simply a response to norms which the world has already embraced.   No longer is it ‘Thus saith the Lord!’ so much as ‘Now, now, poor dear, you just do what feels right for you.  Oh, and please, whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about it.’

Given her polemic against the therapeutic drivel and middle class mores of modern sexual liberalism, could it be that Camille Paglia has a better grasp of Christian teaching than the pope? Even as it has sought to make sex the central component of human identity, sexual liberalism has evacuated it of any real significance through its ruthless destruction of taboos.  In Paglia-speak, liberals, secular and religious, have turned Eros and Dionysius from volcanic deities into quiet suburbanites with a mini-van, a mortgage, and a bottle of hand sanitizer on every surface.   In traditional Christian language, they have turned sex from the mysterious, powerful, terrifying and procreative source of life into just one more pleasurable hobby, like stamp collecting but with more orgasms.

Liberal Christians seem to have a compulsive need to overthrow the traditional teachings of Christianity, and sexuality and human identity now provide the present battleground for this Oedipal struggle. Tendencies that Paglia observed in 1991 are much, much worse today, but such continue to perplex those of us — believers and atheists — who have no problem with historic Christianity being historic Christianity.  As Paglia declares towards the end of the essay:

As a lapsed Catholic of wavering sexual orientation, I have never understood the pressure for ordination of gay clergy or even the creation of gay Catholic groups. They seem to me to indicate a need for parental approval, an inability to take personal responsibility for one’s own identity. The institutional religions, Catholic and Protestant, carry with them the majesty of history. Their theology is impressive and coherent. Efforts to revise or dilute that theology for present convenience seem to me misguided.

It is a shame that more Christians do not think that way.   We do not need to listen to the panjandrums of the wider world.  We need that Paglian attitude: Christian sex should be transgressive and thumb its nose at respectable pieties.  You know – exclusively heterosexual, within the bonds of marriage, with single people remaining celibate.  That breaks all the modern taboos and threatens the comfy orthodoxies that now dominate sexual mores.  Sex is simply too important to leave it to the lobby groups of sexual liberation. Plus, as Paglia knows, breaking the rules makes it more fun too.

And, as I write this and reflect upon the lovely Ms. P, I think that I might be falling in love all over again.