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Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism
     

Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism

by Camille Paglia
 

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From the fiery intellectual provocateur— and one of our most fearless advocates of gender equality—a brilliant, urgent essay collection that both celebrates modern feminism and challenges us to build an alliance of strong women and strong men. 

Ever since the release of her seminal first book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has remained

Overview

From the fiery intellectual provocateur— and one of our most fearless advocates of gender equality—a brilliant, urgent essay collection that both celebrates modern feminism and challenges us to build an alliance of strong women and strong men. 

Ever since the release of her seminal first book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has remained one of feminism’s most outspoken, independent, and searingly intelligent voices. Now, for the first time, her best essays on the subject are gathered together in one concise volume. Whether she’s calling for equal opportunity for American women (years before the founding of the National Organization for Women), championing a more discerning standard of beauty that goes beyond plastic surgery’s quest for eternal youth, lauding the liberating force of rock and roll, or demanding free and unfettered speech on university campuses and beyond, Paglia can always be counted on to get to the heart of matters large and small. At once illuminating, witty, and inspiring, these essays are essential reading that affirm the power of men and women and what we can accomplish together.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/06/2017
Feminist and culture critic Paglia is at her feisty, full-throated best in this series of short manifestos that spans her career from her breakthrough 1990 study, Sexual Personae, to the present. Paglia’s remedy for the ills besetting contemporary women is an infusion of her personal brand of “Amazonian feminism,” which combines staunch libertarian principles with 1960s rebellion. She refuses to bow to ideology (“The premier principles of this book are free thought and free speech—open, mobile, and unconstrained by either liberal or conservative ideology”) and is uncompromising in her convictions. Paglia’s sharp tongue and clear vision veer toward forceful assertions and snappy insults as often as practical perspective and common-sense solutions. Her narrative of the major moments of second-wave feminism starts to sound rehearsed by the end, but her stances on date rape, abortion, free speech, sex, art, and the importance of historical perspective are admirably consistent, as is her contempt for university coddling, poststructuralism, women’s studies programs, cults of victimhood, and anything mainstream. Paglia’s adversarial stance and scattered self-applause sometimes obscure the excellence of her prose, which is terse and studded with vivid metaphor. One does not have to agree with her theories about masculinity, femininity, and sex to enjoy Paglia’s bracing intellect and scrappy attitude. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“’One test of un homme sérieux,’ Christopher Hitchens wrote, ‘is that it is possible to learn from him even when one radically disagrees with him.’ By this measure, Camille Paglia is une femme sérieuse indeed. . . . If you’ve forgotten Sexual Personae, or have never read it, Paglia helpfully reprints a few chunks of it in her new essay collection, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism. These chunks are fiercely erudite, freewheeling and sex-drenched. . . . Her exegeses are prickly and acute, the Helen Vendler-meets-Patti Smith grad seminar you wanted but never quite got. . . . Her prose can be electric. . . . [Paglia is] a fearless public intellectual and more necessary than ever.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Paglia is a brilliant thinker on culture and human nature. . . . [She] never fails to provide straightforward and thoughtful dialogue about gender. . . . [Her] new book is inspirational in its tone and its message that freedom belongs to both sexes."
—Helen Smith, The New Criterion

“Topics run the gamut, including an essay praising The Real Housewives; her famous 1990 piece on Madonna in which she deemed her ‘the future of feminism;’ and an astute essay analyzing the cultural, aesthetic, and historical implications of stilettos. An introductory essay offers a compelling glimpse into Paglia’s childhood in the 1950s that led her toward feminism and strong female role models like Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn. . . . Her work is always thought provoking and laid out with an academic’s insight. She is most on point when she analyzes pop culture, design, and art—managing to put an intellectual spin on lowbrow entertainment and turn more obtuse academic topics into something relatable and enthralling.”
—Adrienne Urbanski, BUST 

“Polemical, thought-provoking, enraging, funny, and brave. And today [Paglia’s essays] sound prescient. . . . Before President Donald Trump thrust the nation into debates about liberals forgetting white working class Americans in the Midwest and South, the failures of contemporary feminism, and free speech on college campus . . . Paglia was discussing all these topics. Whether you agree or disagree with Paglia (and many people have made strong arguments in disagreement), she has always understood the country while other experts did not." 
—Mitchell Sunderland, VICE
 
“What this amounts to is a non-stop intellectual barrage. No one with the slightest interest in its issues can afford to overlook Paglia’s treatment of them here, which compels the consideration of her shrillest critic and ardent devotee alike. The wider significance of Free Men, Free Women is the promise, implicit in its approach, to help pave a path forward for those now reeling from the unintended consequences of the continuing culture wars.”
— Nick Goldberg, American Conservative

“[Paglia] is one of the most fascinating (and individualistic) writers on feminism and gender extant.”
—Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

“Feminist and culture critic Paglia is at her feisty, full-throated best in this series of short manifestos that spans her career from her breakthrough 1990 study, Sexual Personae, to the present. Paglia’s remedy for the ills besetting contemporary women is an infusion of her personal brand of ‘Amazonian feminism,’ which combines staunch libertarian principles with 1960s rebellion. She refuses to bow to ideology (‘The premier principles of this book are free thought and free speech—open, mobile, and unconstrained by either liberal or conservative ideology’) and is uncompromising in her convictions. Paglia’s sharp tongue and clear vision veer toward forceful assertions and snappy insults as often as practical perspective and common-sense solutions. . . . Her stances on date rape, abortion, free speech, sex, art, and the importance of historical perspective are admirably consistent, as is her contempt for university coddling, poststructuralism, women’s studies programs, cults of victimhood, and anything mainstream. . . . One does not have to agree with her theories about masculinity, femininity, and sex to enjoy Paglia’s bracing intellect and scrappy attitude.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“Impressive. . . . [Paglia] uses new insight to dissect issues relating to feminism. . . . The author eloquently illustrates the dangers of narrowly defining a feminist according to what issues they support. Instead, she argues for feminism to become an umbrella of people with differing political views, sexual orientations, and religions who seek to strengthen women, without the need to demean men. Intriguing and thought provoking for readers interested in different perspectives of feminism.”
—Stacy Shaw, Library Journal

Library Journal
03/01/2017
Paglia (humanities & media studies, Univ. of the Arts, PA; Sexual Personae) is known for her critical views of culture, and the essays contained in her latest book are no exception. Known as a "dissident feminist," Paglia's views on topics considered sacred to feminism have led to tensions between herself and the current feminist establishment. Here, she uses new insight to dissect issues relating to feminism, such as gender equality and the loaded topic of abortion. What is perhaps most impressive about Paglia's writing, however, is the absence of any vendetta against men. In fact, she notes, "It was always the proper mission of feminism to attack and reconstruct the ossified social practices that had led to wide-ranging discrimination against women. But surely it was and is possible for a progressive reform movement to achieve that without stereotyping, belittling or demonizing men." The author eloquently illustrates the dangers of narrowly defining a feminist according to what issues they support. Instead, she argues for feminism to become an umbrella of people with differing political views, sexual orientations, and religions who seek to strengthen women, without the need to demean men. VERDICT Intriguing and thought provoking for readers interested in different perspectives of feminism. [See Prepub Alert, 9/12/16.]--Stacy Shaw, Orange, CA
Kirkus Reviews
2016-12-26
Essays, reviews, and interviews chronicle the career of a self-described "libertarian feminist."Since Sexual Personae (1990), Paglia (Humanities and Media Studies/Univ. of the Arts, Philadelphia; Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, 2012, etc.) has argued relentlessly against what she sees as puerile and uninformed ideas about sexuality, freedom, and gender. The pieces collected here, all previously published, include three sections from her first wide-ranging book on art, decadence, sex, and nature; various newspaper and magazine articles; and a few lectures, interviews, and book reviews. Unfortunately, to read a few is to read them all, as Paglia repeats views that have contributed to her reputation as "abrasive, strident, and obnoxious." She critiques women's studies programs, for example, as "a comfy, chummy morass of unchallenged groupthink." Bereft of grounding in science, the programs began, she asserts, to bring more female hires into academia, by administrators who did not much care about the intellectual content. "Women's studies is a jumble of vulgarians, bunglers, whiners, French faddists, apparatchiks, doughface party-liners, pie-in-the-sky utopianists, and bullying sanctimonious sermonizers," she wrote in 1991. Paglia softened her assessment somewhat by 2008, when, in an address at Harvard, she proposed reasonable reforms for the programs that included science as "a fundamental component" as well as the "writings of conservative opponents of feminism." Essays that touch on biography reveal elements of the author's childhood and adolescence in the repressive 1950s, when her role models were Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn; and that she imbibed "the essence of the Sixties, which is free thought and free speech." With apparent delight, Paglia skewers some icons of the women's movement, such as Gloria Steinem, Hélène Cixous ("that damp sob sister"), and Carolyn Heilbrun, reserving praise for Madonna ("the true feminist") and Germaine Greer ("witty, learned, stylish, and sexy"). An album of media photographs suggests that Paglia would like to be described in exactly those terms. Controversial views on women's lives and nature that may appeal to Paglia's fans but not win her many more.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375424779
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/14/2017
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
62,519
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.40(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

1

Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art

In the beginning was nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex is the natural in man.

Society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature. Society is a system of inherited forms reducing our humiliating passivity to nature. We may alter these forms, slowly or suddenly, but no change in society will change nature. Human beings are not nature’s favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its force. Nature has a master agenda we can only dimly know.

Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements. To this day, communities are few in regions scorched by heat or shackled by ice. Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake—anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.

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 feminism, like all liberal movements of the past two hundred years, is heir to Rousseau. The Social Contract (1762) begins: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Pitting benign Romantic nature against corrupt society, Rousseau produced the progressivist strain in nineteenth-century culture, for which social reform was the means to achieve paradise on earth. The bubble of these hopes was burst by the catastrophes of two world wars. But Rousseauism was reborn in the postwar generation of the Sixties, from which contemporary feminism developed.

Rousseau rejects original sin, Christianity’s pessimistic view of man born unclean, with a propensity for evil. Rousseau’s idea, derived from Locke, of man’s innate goodness led to social environmentalism, now the dominant ethic of American human services, penal codes, and behaviorist therapies. It assumes that aggression, violence, and crime come from social deprivation—a poor neighborhood, a bad home. Thus feminism blames rape on pornography and, by a smug circularity of reasoning, interprets outbreaks of sadism as a backlash to itself. But rape and sadism have been evident throughout history and, at some moment, in all cultures.

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. Sade’s work is a comprehensive satiric critique of Rousseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rousseauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political paradise but in the hell of the Reign of Terror. Sade follows Hobbes rather than Locke. Aggression comes from nature; it is what Nietzsche is to call the will-to-power. For Sade, getting back to nature (the Romantic imperative that still permeates our culture from sex counseling to cereal commercials) would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth. The rapist is created not by bad social influences but by a failure of social conditioning. Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature. Sex is power. Identity is power. In Western culture, there are no nonexploitative relationships. Everyone has killed in order to live. Nature’s universal law of creation from destruction operates in mind as in matter. As Freud, Nietzsche’s heir, asserts, identity is conflict. Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.

Modern liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts individualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects government to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy. In other words, liberalism defines government as tyrant father but demands it behave as nurturant mother. Feminism has inherited these contradictions. It sees every hierarchy as repressive, a social fiction; every negative about woman is a male lie designed to keep her in her place. Feminism has exceeded its proper mission of seeking political equality for women and has ended by rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate.

Sexual freedom, sexual liberation. A modern delusion. We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first. There are hierarchies in nature and alternate hierarchies in society. In nature, brute force is often the law. In society, there are protections for the weak. Society is our frail barrier against nature. When the prestige of state and religion is low, men are free, but they find freedom intolerable and seek new ways to enslave themselves, through drugs or depression. My theory is that whenever sexual freedom is sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind. Romanticism always turns into decadence. Nature is a hard taskmaster. It is the hammer and the anvil, crushing individuality. Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, water, and fire.

Sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted. Behaviorist sex therapies believe guiltless, no-fault sex is possible. But sex has always been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture. Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges. I called it an intersection. This intersection is the uncanny crossroads of Hecate, where all things return in the night. Eroticism is a realm stalked by ghosts. It is the place beyond the pale, both cursed and enchanted.

This book shows how much in culture goes against our best wishes. Integration of man’s body and mind is a profound problem that is not about to be solved by recreational sex or an expansion of women’s civil rights. Incarnation, the limitation of mind by matter, is an outrage to imagination. Equally outrageous is gender, which we have not chosen but which nature has imposed upon us. Our physicality is torment, our body the tree of nature on which Blake sees us crucified.

Sex is daemonic. This term, current in Romantic studies of the past twenty-five years, derives from the Greek daimon, meaning a spirit of lower divinity than the Olympian gods (hence my pronunciation “daimonic”). The outcast Oedipus becomes a daemon at Colonus. The word came to mean a man’s guardian shadow. Christianity turned the daemonic into the demonic. The Greek daemons were not evil—or rather they were both good and evil, like nature itself, in which they dwelled. Freud’s unconscious is a daemonic realm. In the day we are social creatures, but at night we descend to the dream world where nature reigns, where there is no law but sex, cruelty, and metamorphosis. Day itself is invaded by daemonic night. Moment by moment, night flickers in the imagination, in eroticism, subverting our strivings for virtue and order, giving an uncanny aura to objects and persons, revealed to us through the eyes of the artist.

The ghost-ridden character of sex is implicit in Freud’s brilliant theory of “family romance.” We each have an incestuous constellation of sexual personae that we carry from childhood to the grave and that determines whom and how we love or hate. Every encounter with friend or foe, every clash with or submission to authority bears the perverse traces of family romance. Love is a crowded theater, for as Harold Bloom remarks, “We can never embrace (sexually or otherwise) a single person, but embrace the whole of her or his family romance.”1 We still know next to nothing of the mystery of cathexis, the investment of libido in certain people or things. The element of free will in sex and emotion is slight. As poets know, falling in love is irrational.

Like art, sex is fraught with symbols. Family romance means that adult sex is always representation, ritualistic acting out of vanished realities. A perfectly humane eroticism may be impossible. Somewhere in every family romance is hostility and aggression, the homicidal wishes of the unconscious. Children are monsters of unbridled egotism and will, for they spring directly from nature, hostile intimations of immorality. We carry that daemonic will within us forever. Most people conceal it with acquired ethical precepts and meet it only in their dreams, which they hastily forget upon waking. The will-to-power is innate, but the sexual scripts of family romance are learned. Human beings are the only creatures in whom consciousness is so entangled with animal instinct. In Western culture, there can never be a purely physical or anxiety-free sexual encounter. Every attraction, every pattern of touch, every orgasm is shaped by psychic shadows.

The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure. In sex, compulsion and ancient Necessity rule. The sexual personae of family romance are obliterated by the tidal force of regression, the backwards movement toward primeval dissolution, which Ferenczi identifies with ocean. An orgasm is a domination, a surrender, or a breaking through. Nature is no respecter of human identity. This is why so many men turn away or flee after sex, for they have sensed the annihilation of the daemonic. Western love is a displacement of cosmic realities. It is a defense mechanism rationalizing forces ungoverned and ungovernable. Like early religion, it is a device enabling us to control our primal fear.

Sex cannot be understood because nature cannot be understood. Science is a method of logical analysis of nature’s operations. It has lessened human anxiety about the cosmos by demonstrating the materiality of nature’s forces, and their frequent predictability. But science is always playing catch-up ball. Nature breaks its own rules whenever it wants. Science cannot avert a single thunderbolt. Western science is a product of the Apollonian mind: its hope is that by naming and classification, by the cold light of intellect, archaic night can be pushed back and defeated.

Name and person are part of the West’s quest for form. The West insists on the discrete identity of objects. To name is to know; to know is to control. I will demonstrate that the West’s greatness arises from this delusional certitude. Far Eastern culture has never striven against nature in this way. Compliance, not confrontation is its rule. Buddhist meditation seeks the unity and harmony of reality. Twentieth-century physics, going full circle back to Heracleitus, postulates that all matter is in motion. In other words, there is no thing, only energy. But this perception has not been imaginatively absorbed, for it cancels the West’s intellectual and moral assumptions.

The Westerner knows by seeing. Perceptual relations are at the heart of our culture, and they have produced our titanic contributions to art. Walking in nature, we see, identify, name, recognize. This recognition is our apotropaion, that is, our warding off of fear. Recognition is ritual cognition, a repetition-compulsion. We say that nature is beautiful. But this aesthetic judgment, which not all peoples have shared, is another defense formation, woefully inadequate for encompassing nature’s totality. What is pretty in nature is confined to the thin skin of the globe upon which we huddle. Scratch that skin, and nature’s daemonic ugliness will erupt.

Our focus on the pretty is an Apollonian strategy. The leaves and flowers, the birds, the hills are a patchwork pattern by which we map the known. What the West represses in its view of nature is the chthonian, which means “of the earth”—but earth’s bowels, not its surface. Jane Harrison uses the term for pre-Olympian Greek religion, and I adopt it as a substitute for Dionysian, which has become contaminated with vulgar pleasantries. The Dionysian is no picnic. It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the murk and ooze. It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from consciousness to retain our Apollonian integrity as persons. Western science and aesthetics are attempts to revise this horror into imaginatively palatable form.

The daemonism of chthonian nature is the West’s dirty secret. Modern humanists made the “tragic sense of life” the touchstone of mature understanding. They defined man’s mortality and the transience of time as literature’s supreme subjects. In this I again see evasion and even sentimentality. The tragic sense of life is a partial response to experience. It is a reflex of the West’s resistance to and misapprehension of nature, compounded by the errors of liberalism, which in its Romantic nature-philosophy has followed the Rousseauist Wordsworth rather than the daemonic Coleridge.

Tragedy is the most Western literary genre. It did not appear in Japan until the late nineteenth century. The Western will, setting itself up against nature, dramatized its own inevitable fall as a human universal, which it is not. An irony of literary history is the birth of tragedy in the cult of Dionysus. The protagonist’s destruction recalls the slaughter of animals and, even earlier, of real human beings in archaic ritual. It is no accident that tragedy as we know it dates from the Apollonian fifth century of Athens’s greatness, whose cardinal work is Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a celebration of the defeat of chthonian power. Drama, a Dionysian mode, turned against Dionysus in making the passage from ritual to mimesis, that is, from action to representation. Aristotle’s “pity and fear” is a broken promise, a plea for vision without horror.

Few Greek tragedies fully conform to the humanist commentary on them. Their barbaric residue will not come unglued. Even in the fifth century, as we shall see, a satiric response to Apollonianized theater came in Euripides’s decadent plays. Problems in accurate assessment of Greek tragedy include not only the loss of three-quarters of the original body of work but the lack of survival of any complete satyr-play. This was the finale to the classic trilogy, an obscene comic burlesque. In Greek tragedy, comedy always had the last word. Modern criticism has projected a Victorian and, I feel, Protestant high seriousness upon pagan culture that still blankets teaching of the humanities. Paradoxically, assent to savage chthonian realities leads not to gloom but to humor. Hence Sade’s strange laughter, his wit amid the most fantastic cruelties. For life is not a tragedy but a comedy. Comedy is born of the clash between Apollo and Dionysus. Nature is always pulling the rug out from under our pompous ideals.

Meet the Author

CAMILLE PAGLIA is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. A regular contributor to Salon.com, she is the author of Glittering Images; Break, Blow, Burn; Vamps & Tramps; Sex, Art, and American Culture; and Sexual Personae. 

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