She’s baaacck . . . Salon’s interminable interview with Camille Paglia

You know, as a humble weekend blogger, I sometimes struggle about what in the world I should write about. Weekends are often slow news periods, and frequently I am at a loss. Sometimes I have what I think are good ideas, but some other every-day blogger gets to them before I have a chance to, and I don’t want to repeat something that’s already been done to death. The search for good material can be a challenge — it doesn’t just fall from the sky, people!

All of which explains why I was delighted when I stumbled upon an interminable interview with Camille Paglia that Salon.com saw fit to publish earlier this week. Oh what joy! It arrived like an early Christmas present, and I knew right away that it would be chockfull of enough stupidity, megalomania, and batsh*t crazy to keep me busy for weeks!

And true to form, la Paglia does not disappoint. She apparently is shilling for yet another of her rubbishy books, which explains her re-appearance on the scene. And actually, there is so much bizarre stuff in that interview that I hardly know where to begin. Paglia is in her high Classic Concern Troll mode throughout; she’s a self-described “feminist” who has never, ever had a single good thing to say about feminism, a so-called Democrat who does nothing but viciously attack each and every (living) Democrat, all the while behaving like a lovesick lapdog puppy to every deranged talk radio wingnut who ever came down the pike.

Here’s a modest sampling of some of her more risible comments in the Salon interview: Mitt Romney is “a moderate — like Nelson Rockefeller” and “an affable, successful businessman whose skills seem well-suited to this particular moment of economic crisis.” Obamacare is ” a massive, totalitarian takeover of the American medical system.” Conservatives are all passionate civil libertarians, and “protest against the surveillance state has, with only a few exceptions, been mainly coming from the Right and not from the Left!”

This is all standard Paglia-esque drivel. Indeed, the single biggest shock in the interview is that nowhere does she mention Madonna, whom in the past Paglia would bring up, with OCD-like inevitability, in every single interview she gave or article she wrote, no matter how inappropriate to the context. Nor does she bring up her previous fangurl obsession, Sarah Palin — who, wrote Paglia in 2008, represented:

the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.

You tell ’em, Camille!

As I said, Paglia spews all kinds of of nonsense in this interview, but what I want to single out for particular notice is the single biggest falsehood she utters, which is this: Paglia claims that in 1990, she “invented the now widespread feminist term ‘pro-sex’.” This is risibly, demonstrably false. I had certainly heard the term way before 1990, and I seem to recall that the great Ellen Willis was the first feminist to use the term, or at least popularize it. Indeed, a 1981 Village Voice essay by Willis, “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?” was apparently the first appearance in print of the term “pro-sex feminism,” a fact that Wikipedia confirms. (Btw, Ellen Willis was seriously awesome and I strongly urge to check out her amazing, still-relevant essays as well her fantastic and highly underrated rock criticism.)

This is hardly the first time Paglia has made this claim; for years, she has repeated, ad nauseum, the story of how she “invented” pro-sex feminism. This rewriting of history shows not only her megalomania but her complete ignorance of feminism. Does she not remember the feminist sex wars of the late 70s and early 80s, when anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon squared off against sex radicals like Ellen Willis and Gayle Rubin, and civil libertarians like Nadine Strossen, in debates about porn, sex work, BDSM, sexual identity, and sexual expression (issues like transgendered people and sexual subcultures like butch/femme)? Entire books have been written about this subject; a famously rowdy and deeply controversial 1982 Barnard conference was heralded as ground zero in the feminist sex wars. Throughout the 80s and 90s, many pro-sex feminists enjoyed prominence in the women’s movement. These feminists included Susie Bright, who wrote sex-positive sexual advice columnists; performance artists like Annie Sprinkle; activists like Tristan Taormino; and novelists like Dorothy Allison. Does Paglia not know this?

Moreover, even though the phrase “sex-positive feminism” was not coined until 1981, the concept existed long before that. Feminism is a big tent, and it has included 19th and early 20th century-era “free love” radicals like Victoria Woodhull and Emma Goldman, as well as their more sexually orthodox feminist sisters like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt.The idea that, before Camille Paglia, no feminist ever advocated sexual liberation is patently absurd. (Also, the idea, which Paglia seems to believe, that anyone who critiques porn is somehow “sex-negative” is also highly debatable, but I’ll leave that aside for now).

The topper to all this? In the same interview, Camille Paglia, so-called “sex positive” feminist, attacks Naomi Wolf for . . . wait for it . . . writing about her sex life! Says Paglia about Wolf:

I was shocked at the grotesque sexual exhibitionism here of a woman who is turning 50 this year and who is the mother of two teenagers. Why would anyone do this to herself and her family?

So let me get this straight: Camille Paglia, fearless advocate of “sex-positive feminism,” hysterically clutches her pearls and rushes to the fainting couch because a woman who is 50 years old and has kids is writing about her sex life? In what way is Paglia’s desire to silence 50-year old women, or mothers, from writing about their sex lives “sex positive”? And does Paglia believe that 50-year old men, or men with children, should also be banned from writing about their sex lives? Ah, but to ask that question, is to answer it!

Paglia’s fawning interviewer doesn’t even bother addressing these bizarre inconsistencies, but that’s no surprise, since he didn’t take on her Big Lie about “inventing” sex positive in the first place. (Note to Salon: if you’re going to give Paglia all that bandwidth to spout off about feminism, could you at least bother to pair her with an interviewer who knows anything at all about that subject? Thanks!) And btw, another of the huge whoppers Paglia tells is this: she claims that feminist reviewers of Wolf’s new book:

revealed their own historical ignorance in their failure to call Wolf on her absurd portrayal of ancient vagina-worship — where it was brute procreation and never women’s pleasure that was being honored.

Wrong again! At least two reviews by major feminists do just that! In the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg’s review cites the great scholar of Hinduism, Wendy Doniger, to smack down Wolf’s silly claims about ancient, allegedly female-centric sexual rituals, and in The Nation Katha Pollitt gives a shout-out to Goldberg’s debunking on this point.

Paglia says plenty more mendacious, insane, and deeply idiotic things, but I’ll leave it to those of you interested in a good hate read to seek them out yourselves. I’ll close by asking this: why does Joan Walsh continue to subject us to to this ridiculous woman? I think Joan Walsh is awesome, and Salon is an excellent site that, over the years, has gotten better and better. It’s launched a number of wonderful female writers, like the aforementioned Goldberg, as well as Rebecca Traister, Irin Carmon, and others. I know Paglia is link bait, just as I know I am in fact rising to the bait by writing about her here. But really, Joan Walsh — Paglia is long past her sell date, and it’s well past time Salon cut the cord. You should be ashamed of yourself for allowing Salon to continue to publish Paglia’s malicious, misogynist, wingnutty nonsense.

Update: I meant to post a link this, Molly Ivins’ classic piece about Paglia, which is from 1991. It is definitely one of the greatest takedowns ever by anyone of anything, and it is an unparalleled pleasure to read. Enjoy, and Molly Ivins, you are missed!

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee