They used to say that only Nixon could go to China. Similarly, perhaps only one with the feminist bona fides of Camille Paglia could pronounce
the sexual revolution a blight on sexual pleasure, all the while calling for the cure of more strictly demarcated gender roles. According to Paglia’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, the “elemental power of sexuality” has waned in the West, not because of religious stricture, but because of recent technocratic and bourgeois proprieties. The sexual revolution never bore the promised fruit because
concrete power resides in America’s careerist technocracy, for which the elite schools, with their ideological view of gender as a social construct, are feeder cells.
In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.
Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium.
Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.
Paglia’s piece is interesting for a several reasons. First it bears out Charles Taylor’s thesis of “mutual fragilization,” which he develops extensively in A Secular Age (recently discussed on this blog here and here)—especially as it touches on sexual ethics. To wit: though secular humanists find many of the disciplines of creedal Christianity (especially its praise of celibacy and its prohibition of contraceptive sex) mutilating and unnaturally severe, humanists themselves are increasingly under attack for trying to repress the opaque, elemental, and Dionysian aspects of sexuality. For Paglia, secular humanists “regulate” sex no less than Christians: the only difference is that humanists regulate according to the libido-chilling criteria of public health and gender equality.
Secular humanists, naturally, cannot go all the way with Paglia. If they agreed with Paglia’s diagnosis that “androgyny” was the real culprit of the sexual malaise, remedying the problem would require the surrender of an even more deeply held principle: the equal access of men and women to all spheres of human endeavor. If Paglia is right, then secular humanists turn out to be embracing and even demanding certain curtailments of sexual fulfillment for the sake of a “higher” good. To the impartial observer, this begins to sound downright monkish.
This brings us to a final irony. As the Catholic Church comes under increasing pressure from secular humanists for her deep-going and role-determining understanding of sexual difference (expressed most obviously in her reservation of ordination to men alone), secular humanists are themselves assailed for having accepted the “ideological view of gender as a social construct.” For Paglia, the inevitable consequence of gender constructivism was to bring together the “intriguingly separate worlds” of men and women and to blend all sexual difference into a lusterless gray. This, more than anything else, has poisoned the wells of sexual pleasure.
Much of what Paglia says is, of course, highly questionable. And her Dionysian sexuality is hardly Christian sexuality. However, if the enemy of an enemy is a friend, then Paglia is a friend (of sorts). And I like to find friends–even partial and unwitting ones–in unexpected quarters.