The Guide Interviews Camille Paglia
Has the gay movement turned down the wrong path?
Bill Andriette talks with Paglia about sex, violence, gay bashing, and liberation.
The Guide, January 1999
She says "Contemporary gays who try to distance themselves from this issue of boy-love are in effect committing cultural suicide. They're cutting themselves from all the highest achievements of gay men..... Because I am a woman, and therefore I cannot be charged with man-boy love, I felt I had a moral obligation - and I don't recognize morality in most areas of life - a moral obligation to speak out against this kind of persecution in puritan Protestant culture, this persecution of a sensibility that as far as I can see has been intertwined with the highest achievements of art and intellect since the period of classical Athens."
The Guide Interviews Camille Paglia Has the gay movement turned down the wrong path? Bill Andriette talks with Pagliaabout sex, violence, gaybashing, and liberation
By Bill Andriette
The weekend of OutWrite '95, the gay and lesbian writers' conference last March, the Boston media were in a frenzy. A proposal under discussion in the Massachusetts legislature to require sex offenders to register with the state for the rest of their lives. One TV debate featured a "liberal," who praised the bill, and a "conservative" who said the real outrage was that these monsters were ever let out of prison in the first place. The Boston Sunday Herald published a list of names, photos, and addresses of men who it said should be forced to sign onto a public registry of sex deviants.
Anyone who knows about the lives and loves of many of the great homoerotic writers André Gide, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Paul Goodman, to name a few would know that if these men were living today in the U.S., they would fall easily under the steamroller of such laws, now being drafted everywhere in North America. There is no more lurid connection between sex and a discourse of hatred than this hysteria, nothing so effective at dissolving civil liberties and civility.
At OutWrite there was fine talk about lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered diversity, there were paeans to solidarity and the fight against oppression, and incessant calls from the podium for a really politically engaged writing. Yet the lurid expositions of hatred in Boston's media that week end, and their implications for those who have given literary voice to homoerotic experience, were simply not part of the conference's landscape.
Indeed, the welcoming speech at the conference was given by Urvashi Vaid, ex-head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Vaid recently scored a $218,000 contract for a book due out this fall on the state of gay liberation. In recent years, she has called frequently for the expulsion of undesirables from the lesbian and gay movement. The group she led hailed last year's federal crime bill, which mandated that states pass these registration laws, as a great victory for gay rights.
The irony of a welcoming speech from such a calculating political opportunist (one so ripe for criticism partly because she seemed once to have a deeper grasp of justice) was lost on the cheering crowd. This was a gathering of writers supposedly devoted to the integrity of words and meaning. But it was completely overlooked that the opening remarks at this conference were from a politico whose statements and silences over the years would mean the imprisonment of many of the past century's major homosexual writers. While the bond between words and meanings may have been sundered at OutWrite, another bond was very much in evidence: that between words and power.
Camille Paglia will get her invitation to address OutWrite the year hell freezes over. She is the author of three best-selling books, is one of the most prominent queers in America, and has broken into pop culture. She is also one of the most hated figures in lesbian/gaydom. Yes, she's often rude, bullying, and prone to pointless scrapes of name-calling and worse. She casually offends allies, and cuts down enemies with schoolyard taunts. It's all part of the media spectacle that is Camille Paglia, and she soaks it up and wallows in it like a pig in mud.
But it's her ideas, not her mudslinging, that makes Paglia persona non grata at places like OutWrite. And those ideas go to the heart of the problems the obliviousness to history, the moral cowardice masked in bold rhetoric, and the shallow political posturing evident in so much gay and lesbian politics and culture.
Paglia is a radical traditionalist. An art historian by profession, she teaches at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. Her ambit is the underlying themes and ideas driving art and culture in the West, from Socrates to the Rolling Stones. For Paglia, there is a definite story to tell, deeply rooted continuities and concerns that don't change with artistic fashions or the passing of successive cutting edges. In her 1990 book that propelled her to fame, Sexual Personae, Paglia laid them out for us.
For Paglia, sex is one of the basic organizing principles of culture. Culture, she says, is an achievement made more in opposition to nature than in concert with it. Nature is not the pretty innocence of Greenpeace agitprop or Bambi. In the animal world, if a mother gets evolutionary advantage from eating her neighbor's young, or her own, she will. Culture requires overcoming nature, creating a human realm apart from the natural, that provides a context and the hubris to paint, write novels or songs, fall in love, die for one's beliefs. Paglia contends that men, lacking women's awesome power to create life, are driven to create culture. Male homosexuality is emblematic of this whole turn toward culture. Paglia shows a connection between periods where male homosexuality is celebrated and cultural flourishing ancient Greece or the Renaissance with its flowering of homoerotic art.
But culture's attempt to evade nature never fully succeeds. It's doomed to fail. Worms eat us in the end. But while it lasts, culture balances between opposites: one Paglia identifies with the Greek god Apollo the urge to order, reason, self-control. The other is symbolized by Dionysus the impulse to give in to nature's hold over us in wild abandon, orgiastic sex, drinking, killing, and death. Out of this irreconcilable opposition, culture happens.
So what's new here? Isn't this all just one part Freud and two parts Western Civ. Basically. But the radical part of Paglia's traditionalism is that she sides with the disruptive strands in Western culture. She endorses Dionysian abandon, pagan celebration, rock music, orgiastic sex, and drugs, claims them as crucial to culture and as dangerous as your parents warned.
The other radical element in Paglia is that she fully embraces the modern world, with its possibilities and freedom. Man may embody Culture, and woman Nature, but in affluent, modern industrial society, sex is not destiny. Paglia sides with feminism in its demand for legal and social equality, but argues the realization of those goals now is an achievement of basically male-driven cultural and technological development.
Ivory tower critics
The opposition to Paglia is largely academic, but influential among progressives. This rival approach starts from the discontinuities of modern life our lives are less connected to our grand parents' than any generation in history and enshrines discontinuity as the first principle for under standing culture. The first objection raised is to Paglia's assertion that there can be any coherent narrative or common thread in Western culture at all, instead of an array of disjointed historical phenomena.
One thesis of this anti-Paglia view is that sex roles, the codes of femininity and masculinity, are arbitrary cultural impositions by patriarchal societies, not expressions of something intrinsic to the human condition. It is only with access to new theories about the construction of gender, proponents claim, that we can now see the way out of gender's tyranny. The task now is to "deconstruct" gender using our new theoretical tools and to create ourselves into whatever we want to be, without constraints from nature or history.
Another claim from this school says that ancient Greek homosexuality, with its focus on man-boy love, has no connection whatsoever with homosexuality today. It was a completely different phenomenon that says nothing to gay people now except point out how totally different we are. Greek love may have been invoked by homosexuals in the West from the Middle Ages on, but they simply didn't understand what it was.
These assertions of discontinuity may seem highly academic, but they are the breeding ground of opportunism and fraud. If we are whatever we say we are What I am is a physically challenged gay Jewish incest survivor! if our freedom consists in constructing an identity all our own, if there is no larger historical continuity, then it is tempting to define ourselves to serve only our immediate interests. Thus gay and lesbian writers and activists define as a non-problem the fact that Walt Whitman et al would today be pilloried as "pedophile sex-offenders," that they would find it less possible to live in our "liberated" society than their own "benighted" era. Certainly it pays to scrupulously avoid this subject in a book on gay history, because otherwise you won't get a contract with a mainstream publisher, you won't get reviewed, and your book won't get purchased for high school libraries. But for neutering the radical message of homoerotic culture, you will be amply rewarded.
Much of the gay movement is indeed retreating into preserves of identity-politic consensus. Mainstream society is not oblivious to the accompanying dishonesties and special pleading; that is part of what fuels the right-wing. One of the few vigorous, comprehensive responses to this mess has been from Camille Paglia.
Bill Andriette: The gay movement's political rhetoric rests today on saying that being gay doesn't really mean anything, or that it is biologically based, but denying it any cultural meaning or significance. "We're just like you, we're just another market segment, another demographic; any differences are accidental, superficial." Part of this normalizing rhetoric is a denial that pederasty has anything to do with homosexuality. It's the anti-gay right wing, ironically, that asserts that there's something meaningful and significant about homosexuality.
Camille Paglia: Let me say right now, I have constantly lamented the way the gay male culture following Stonewall suddenly went off track, more toward politics and away from the great aesthetic tradition that gay men always stood for. There has been a kind of trivialization of gay sensibility as a consequence. When I look around and I see the kind of act up style, with the short shorts and the combat boots and a kind of skinhead look, I think, first of all, how childish, and secondly, how desexualized, no matter what people say, how utterly neutered.
That is the end result of this turn away from aesthetics in the gay male community. With that turn away has been a loss of feeling for the beauty of this archetype of the boy, which was seen everywhere in late nineteenth century photography, in poetry, and going back all the way to these beautiful dreamy statues of the high classic Greek period. Contemporary gays who try to distance themselves from this issue of boy-love are in effect committing cultural suicide. They're cutting themselves from all the highest achievements of gay men.
My interest in man-boy love comes from my early passion for classical archeology as a child. I was interested in studying Egypt and classical Greece and Rome. My sense of the centrality of the beauty of young boys to ancient culture comes from way before I was even hitting puberty. I've always had that consciousness. I'm coming out of a visual-arts consciousness here. The church that I was baptized in, St. Anthony of Padua, that I attended weekly until we moved away from Endicott, New York, when I was in first grade, had right near the altar this pretty-boy statue of St. Sebastian posing in an extremely voluptuous way, with a little loincloth around his hips and arrows in his body, bleeding. I've often spoken about the impact this statue had on my mind right from the start. As a Mediterranean Catholic, I understood the intermingling of my culturally rooted history with that kind of imagery of boys' beauty. It's built right into the iconography of the Mediterranean Catholic countries.
As I'm moving along in life, I began to notice the hysteria that is aroused in the West by the subject of man-boy love. I always felt the discrepancy between these beautiful images and the ranting, obsessive witch hunts and lynching mentality that I would hear from very moralistic people, often people who have no particular knowledge of the visual arts. It seems to come more from the Protestant tradition rather than the Catholic tradition. I think Mediterranean culture in general to be far more tolerant of certain kinds of sexual expression than northern Europe is. This issue of man -boy love is not just peripheral in my thinking. To me it symbolizes the kinds of thought processes I was going through until I came to the largest thesis of my career, which is that Western civilization, as is generally acknowledged, is a fusion of two quite different strands: the Judeo-Christian with the Greco-Roman. The Greco-Roman side, the pagan side, is equally part of our heritage, and therefore I have put all my weight behind trying to dramatize this.
One of the most scandalous things in Sexual Personae was the way I argued that Donatello's David , one of the great classics in the history of art, is in fact a work of kiddie porn, and today would get Donatello arrested and taken away and imprisoned. And I stress that this work is absolutely central. It begins the whole tradition, or rather reawakens the Greco-Roman tradition of the beautiful nude, that had been dormant since the fall of Rome. And furthermore, it also is the first appearance of the completely freestanding sculpture, after the long tradition of the medieval period, where sculpture is imagined as being in a kind of niche, as part of an architectural facade. And so again, it's a return to Greco-Roman individualism.
All art history classes which stress that work, which they must, if you know anything about the history of Western art, are in fact engaging in a kind of cultivation of juvenile eroticism, and that the Western scholarly tradition of the last 400 years has been hypocritical about it. I'm coming out of a tradition of Winckelmann I mean my god, classical scholarship burst out in full glory in the eighteenth century right from a homoerotic imagination, that of Winckelmann, and I claim proud descent from him and from his admirers, Oscar Wilde and others.
Because I am a woman, and therefore I cannot be charged with man-boy love, I felt I had a moral obligation and I don't recognize morality in most areas of life a moral obligation to speak out against this kind of persecution in puritan Protestant culture, this persecution of a sensibility that as far as I can see has been intertwined with the highest achievements of art and intellect since the period of classical Athens.
BA: But you need a gay political movement. ACT UP was a response to a crisis for gay men. There are basic issues of fairness and justice involved in fighting discrimination, sodomy laws.
CP: I'm totally behind the Stonewall revolution. I am behind the gay liberation movement, as I am behind feminism. What I dislike is the way both the feminist movement, which reawakened in the late sixties, and the new gay movement, got derailed and moved away from art.
I am a sixties social activist. Where there is social injustice I think we have to take strong action to remedy it. But politics should not become a god to us. To me, art transcends all politics. I don't believe in God, I'm an atheist but matters of spirit and of the mind transcend all political affiliations. I would like a balance between art and politics. Everyone who knows anything about me knows that the minute there is a problem, I am out there and I am in people's faces, and I have kicked and punched people, and I was fired from a college my first job for getting in a fist fight.
What I'm saying does not mean that political action is invalidated. But the point is that we cannot allow politics to take over, to become obsessive, and that's what I think has happened. There are the fanatical excesses of ACT UP, for example: that storming into the cathedral in Philadelphia when the archbishop was celebrating a mass for the AIDS dead. They threw condoms at his chest., they bounced off the chest of the archbishop on the altar, they threw condoms in the aisle. At St. Patrick's cathedral in New York, ACT UP threw the host on the ground. I would rather have the far right in charge of our culture to have such fanatics, people so irreverent of sacred spaces, and of the beauty of a cathedral. I think it is appalling, and symptomatic of the kind of errors that were made by gay activists that have led to the backlash.
As a worldwide movement, both feminism and gay activism are necessary, but I'm concerned that the worldwide movement not make the errors that were made in the U.S. You don't want a situation where you antagonize the people. A truly progressive politics should be about speaking to the mass of the people. It should not be a middle-class, elitist posturing with its paternalistic attitude toward the working class, saying, oh, you're so benighted, so ignorant. We are the educated one, and your homophobia comes out of the deepest, darkest ignorance. I hate that. That has been the tactic of gay activists in America, and it has backfired. It is condescending, it is outrageous, and I hope that the worldwide gay movement does not make that mistake.
I've constantly been saying that if you do not watch what you are doing, if you commit acts that are so excessive that they alienate the people, then all you're doing is creating a backlash for yourself. Thus this far-right victory, which I have been predicting for years, and it's gay men who will pay the price for this on the streets.
BA: You've been attacked for saying gay bashing is understandable, part of the nature of things.
CP: Gay bashing when it actually occurs just random gay bashing is of course outrageous. But I have to say that as long as gay men are interested in stranger sex which I applaud, it's a pagan form of self-expression as long as they are interested in cruising, as long as they are on the streets and in the parks, there will always be the danger of gay bashing. It's not lesbians who find themselves in this position, but gay men. It may be perhaps inextricable from the kinds of outlaw sexuality that I applaud.
This idea that there can be a world in which there is no gay bashing I don't see how that is possible given the combustible state of masculinity. I believe that masculinity and that passage from boyhood to manhood is a very dangerous one, and that gay men will always be at risk from skinheads and other kinds of things. So again, how do you stop gay bashing, aside from bringing Hitler or Mussolini in, and a curfew of ten o'clock at night? All the protesting in the world is not going to stop gay bashing, until gay men understand what the roots of gay bashing are. It's not just homophobia it's the very nature of masculinity itself, and how imperiled masculinity is in a world that, I have constantly argued, is ruled by women.
There are real and legitimate reasons for most men's anxiety about homosexual expression. What I have been trying to do in my work is take the tack of trying to stop the false polarity between gay and straight. I think that that is a trap the gay movement fell into. Stonewall should have been about liberating all sexuality. The argument in my work is to try to convince heterosexuals that they have in them potential homosexual impulses that are pleasure-giving, and that there is absolutely nothing to fear from now and then expressing them. I would think that this would be in the interest of gay people to think that the whole world is open for homosexual expression.
But gay activism, by insisting on this sharp polarity, has insured its own defeat, has insured that the world will hate it. There will always be a liberal minority that will tolerate homosexuality, the art world and so on. But the majority of people now and forever in the future will always be attracted to the opposite sex. So the more you insist on the separation of gay versus straight, the genetically innate separation, the more you insure the defeat of gay objectives.
I think the only way true tolerance will come is for people to be convinced that bisexual responsiveness is a perfectly achievable ideal. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to convince people that, "So you had sex with another man, oh, big deal." You don't want a situation where [taunting voice], "Oh you had sex with another man? You're really gay! And the fact that you're with a woman now, oh, you're secretly homophobic. You're suppressing you're real instincts." That kind of talk coming from gay activism is shallow, stupid, and self-defeating.
I've been very disappointed with the direction of gay thinking after Stonewall. I would have thought that gay writers would take a much more liberal posture, a kind of "let's try this, let's try that." To me what has happened is very symptomatic of a fanatical mind-set. There's the idea that [mocking tone] "Oh, you can't change homosexuality, it's innate, how dare you [suggest otherwise]! You're homophobic." Please! If there are gay men who want to develop their ability to respond to women, why not let them? What we should be arguing is the fluidity of sexual response, not its harnessing in these false, opposed categories.
BA: As a result of this isolation of homosexuality as a distinct, visible thing we've lost many of the ways homoeroticism was once incorporated into the fabric of communities. People on some level knew that, say, Boy Scouts was a den of homoeroticism, or people would know that if you went to this bathroom you could meet guys. These things were known but unspoken. Homosexuality remains this way in most of the non-Western world.
There can be bad aspects to this hiddenness people who don't have the courage to explore the demimonde lose out. Nothing is laid out explicitly for them. But making homosexuality totally visible has had costs, too. Boy Scouts is now hyper about stamping out gay sex, making sure Scout masters aren't gay. Today we have crippled communities, and it takes communities to sustain these kinds of partly visible scenes. In their absence, there is more scope for panics, as over child abuse. And that's going to be a bigger problem as community decays more, as that sort of working-class sensibility which was rooted in neighborhood falls more and more to television and mass media and mass society.
CP: I totally agree with that. To me the biggest fact is the transition from the agricultural period into the industrial revolution. Many of the things feminists are complaining about the culture and blaming on men are in fact a product of that huge transition and the collapse downward from that extended family into the nuclear family.
You know, it wasn't that long ago before central heating. A hundred years ago in many parts of America, people just piled all into one bed in one room. Everyone was on top of each other for body warmth. And there was a kind of sensual, tactile, whole-body touching, a mingling of every body that has been completely lost. You would always have a large family, and you would have like eight children of ages ranging from three to like sixteen, and everyone, of both sexes, totally inter twined with each other.
The problem is this evolution in our culture toward increasing isolation as the great extended family shrinks down to the nuclear family of two parents and two children. Not only that, but when you are living on the land, you're living out among the operations of nature, and you see the sexuality of animals going on around you. You're part of taking horses to stud, and all kinds of things. Now we have this increasing puritanism and increasing sanitization and increasing hysteria about touch. There's every kind of over-regulation now about these things, that they are automatically "sexual harassment."
There are still remnants of the old physicality in the Mediterranean world. When people go to Italy they are often struck by the way that men, heterosexual men, walk on the street hand in hand. They're very physical with each other: men give flowers to men, there's a lot of kissing, a lot of touching. But in America, we have unfortunately the northern European heritage, with its pudency about touching. There were a lot of tactile satisfactions in all kinds of physical contact that were completely legitimate in the pre-industrial period.
In her book Sex and Destiny, Germaine Greer says that the standards for adult-child contact in the non-Western world are very, very free. She says that adults take pleasure in physical contact with children, take pleasure in their bodies, in ways that are considered absolutely criminal here. Now this was an utterly explosive and momentous thesis. I totally agree with it, and I think that an authentic queer studies, one based on scholarship and not propaganda, would be pursuing this issue.
Unfortunately, everything in queer studies right now is driven by ideology. I don't trust a single thing that comes out of those people; it is all shot through with garbage, even the major books that are widely praised. They have not been trained in rigorous intellectual history.
Instead what you get is these Foucault-influenced books, these boring repetitions again and again. I would encourage responsible young gay scholars to prepare themselves for this kind of anthropological study. I want to see a major work that explores this question of adult-child contact and the standards of touching and the rituals of body contact through history. Start from the nomadic period and move into the first settlements, where people, as in the North American Indian teepees, are living essentially huddled around a house-fire. How does this particular theme play itself out in different cultures? How does it express the ideas of sexuality and the village ethics in a particular culture? We need information, and it has to be research that is so rigorous that it's beyond any kind of challenge based on the partisanship of the writer. I think that's the only way out of the present impasse we're in right now with this increasing hysteria.
Why just now, on a radio talk show, I heard something going on in Boston right now. Some orthopedic orderly at a hospital is looking up eight-year-old girls' numbers in the hospital records and was harassing them at home. And I was thinking, oh great, that's the only thing you ever hear are these lurid scenes. Of course this paints a picture of the pedophile that is absolutely atrocious.
I have constantly written and said that one of my worst experiences in the media was on the Jane Wallace show here in Philadelphia four years ago when I was nearly lynched by an angry audience when Jane Wallace brought up my defense of man-boy love in Sexual Personae. Her audience went crazy, absolutely crazy. Usually audiences love me. I have never felt such hatred in my life. People stood up and were screaming at me that I'm sick. I was utterly outraged. They were just out of control, the irrational emotions welling to the surface. It was an appalling experience, and I threatened to walk off the show at one point. It was unbelievable to have such hatred focused against one. But that emboldened me even further, because I knew that if you have that kind of irrationality coming out of the unconscious lives of an entire audience like that, that this issue cuts very, very deep, and it needs more exploration, not more avoidance.
BA: It's ironic that Freudian theory, which is one of the givens in our culture, couldn't be more explicit about the sexuality of children.
CP: Now you see this goes to the heart of the whole modern definition of childhood. It was romanticism that really invented these borderlines between childhood and adulthood, and the whole sort of sanctification of childhood, the Rousseauian, Wordsworthian view of the purity, the perfection, the saintliness of the child. Freud, 100 years ago now, postulated his theory of infantile sexuality, contending that the infant is an erotic being from the moment it is born. That theory is still so hot, so explosive, that it has never been fully absorbed by Western culture after a hundred years.
I believe that Freud was more correct that Rousseau's or Wordsworth's view. Most people who study artistic creativity understand that it's an ability to return to the childlike state, to the naive state of innocence and look at things in a fresh way. Part of the reason for the hysteria is that people are still laboring under the Rousseauian and Wordsworthian view. They have this tired scenario of the adult molester who comes to pollute and contaminate the perfection and saintliness of this child.
Parents find it absolutely impossible to imagine that their children are in fact fully sexual beings. They cannot imagine it. Because if they were to fully process that consciously, it would activate the incest taboo. That's one thing that has to be suppressed in the modern nuclear family, which is trapped in these prison cells of houses, completely divorced from the old extended family. A process of repression is at work, a process of denial of children's potential sexuality. As a consequence, hatred and persecution are directed against anyone who would raise the issue.
The child abuse hysteria is coming directly from the deepest unconscious layer of the modern bourgeois mind, and every possible tactic must be exploited to attack that, from every direction. Normally I loathe Foucault, I think he's a fraud. But Foucault did speak out on this issue. All his followers in the academy suppress a lot of this, they suppress the boy-love part, they suppress the part where Foucault said that he was against rape laws. He thought that the law should never concern itself with sexuality. And I agree with him on that. I believe that the law should only concern itself with ideas of assault, and there should be no sexualized laws of any kind, so violence and brutality and coercion can be forbidden. But to sexualize a law, to fine-tune it in a sexual direction, is already an intrusion into real freedom. But of course, these issue of Foucault are always suppressed.
All of these posturing academics, the queer studies people and so on, have been completely cowardly. They pretend they're so bold, oh so bold, taking stands against the far right. But on this issue they have been almost completely silent. I don't know if now and then there might be one who has expressed himself or herself on the issue of man-boy love. I'm not aware of it at this point. I know that outside of academe it's more likely that you will get figures who will speak out.
Certainly Allen Ginsberg, my great hero, has spoken out on this. He has been in the revolutionary forefront from the start. His kind of sexuality, by the way, is a wonderful model. I've constantly held that out as a better model for gays than the sexuality of Foucault. Because Ginsberg was boldly talking about the sensuality of homosexuality from the beginning, and he was able to ground it in a kind of whole -body response. He has a kind of Whitman-like feeling for the processes of nature. He's interested in Hinduism and so on. This Foucault thing is all so social constructionsist and is completely devoid of any kind of sensuality or play or wit or the pleasure principle. But Ginsberg can just sit down on the floor and play. That seems to me the right way to look at sexuality. Sexuality should be something experimental where you try things out. This is a way that one can remove the stigma, it seems to me, or to attempt to start to remove the stigma from man-boy contacts.
Because what is wrong with some mild sex play? What is the big deal? You know I can see forbidding, or being concerned about, situations where a larger man is convincing a small boy to let him have anal intercourse with him. I can see why people might start to be concerned about this, because does this young child I'm talking about a really young child, say, eight years old is he really cognizant about what is going on here, what anal intercourse is. But just sex play? What is wrong?
I feel I have a radical sixties libertarian position on this question. I fail to see what is wrong with erotic fondling with any age. That's the direction I would go right now. I mean the anal inter course thing, that's going to be a hard sell for a thousand years probably. But I would really want to push the issue of what is wrong with anything which gives pleasure? What is wrong with it, even if it does involve fondling of genitals. I would like to force that issue right into the front of the cultural agenda. Oh it haunts them, [they'll say]. How does it haunt them? Where is the harm to the children if they are getting polymorphous perverse pleasure from it, except in the harm as society forces secrecy on everyone and makes everyone neurotic? More damage comes from the enforced secrecy and covertness than probably comes from these mild physical liberties. What's the big deal?
BA: A lot of the problems we have with the family and relationships stems I think from the loss of the material connections and dependencies among people in a place that are the basis of community. The relationships that people had with each other used to be so dependent on just the facts of what it takes to reproduce life in, say, a village growing food, tending animals, cooking.
In modern society, these connections have gone by the wayside. We're all dependent on one big, vast, interconnected economic system that we can plug into, or fail to, from anywhere. Substituting for concrete ties of place, we have this ideology of romantic love: the notion that what gives happiness is finding that special someone who magically connects with you. Of course in real life romance fails; it lasts a couple of months or years, and then it's gone, and at best something like friendship remains, but even that is well served by actual shared purpose. So the building block of how we imagine people relate is fraudulent and ungrounded.
CP: Yeah, I think this is really true. It wasn't that long ago when the tribal paradigm still existed. Like in my family, which came from Italy, it's only one generation ago that you have a large family and a lot of people living together in a house. Everyone's jammed together at tables, everyone's eating together. The physical intimacies that are part of that world are completely lost to us. We can't even imagine them.
I see lot of contemporary homosexuality as being a search for something that was simply part of a larger, more cohesive fabric of life earlier, up to about 100 years ago. To me it's not simply, "Oh, homosexuality was oppressed before and now it's free to express itself." I don't see that.
What sprang to mind as you were talking just now is how one of the great images from ancient times was Father Tiber, a reclining, burly, middle-aged man with a big beard and so on, but totally nude, and he is aswarm with infants, infants are all over him. It's supposed to be an allegorical picture of the great river that flows through Rome, and these babies swimming all over him are symbols of fertility or abundance. I think that really expresses something about Italian culture. There's a kind of physical pleasure in all this crawling and baby flesh all over this man.
Working-class families with large numbers of children crammed into small places still have this much more than the bourgeois families with their two-point-five children in their larger houses. I see this when I walk to work in Philadelphia these little groups of working class black kids with their mothers. They're sitting on the stoop, everyone is on top of each other, and there's this wonderful exuberance and vitality, there's pushing and shoving and playing.
As you move into the middle class this is simply one of the rules of history body language becomes much more repressed, people become much more isolated, there are new rules for physical contact, both for aggression and for love and sex. There's this whole process of withdrawal into the self. You don't impinge on anyone else's personal space. The laying on of hands is completely forbidden, you scale down your gestures, your body language has to become smaller in order to fit into that office world. So I see a major, major crisis in the West. A lot of our sexual problems, I am continually arguing, are not coming from patriarchy; they're coming from this collapse down ward into the nuclear family.
So again, man-boy love is of interest to me for this reason. Isn't it a kind of search for some thing? Isn't it a kind of missing link? It's not just something like, "Oh! The moralists of the culture must turn the spotlight and eradicate this pernicious cancer on the body politic, man-boy love!" Instead I say, "Hmm, isn't man-boy love responding to something authentic and missing in the current constellation of things our culture?" That's my attitude toward it. That it's expressing some need. The craving in man-boy love is a legitimate one. It's a real one. The culture has fragmented, people have become isolated, there has been a breakdown of community, exactly what you're saying.
BA: Do you see that even with overt gay culture and identity breaking out all over the place, the covert thread still remains in popular culture?
CP: Look at sports. It's the reason why we prefer to look at male group sports. We like to look at women as in tennis only when they are highly individualistic personalities in competition with each other. As a world culture, we have very little interest in groups of women competing with each other. I have often felt that the root of this pleasure is the contemplation of men fighting with each other, rolling over each other, showing off their bodies, pushing and shoving, putting their arms all around each other. There is something here that is very satisfying to us.
I wouldn't take the queer theory attitude, "Oh it's all suppressed homosexuality." That's stupid. But rather, that homoerotic impulses are naturally part of heterosexuality. It's natural for men to have that kind of relationship with one another, the kind of intimacies that go on in the battlefield, among men at work, men in crews. The loss of that is another thing that contemporary homosexuality is trying to remedy. Boys used to spend the whole day with their fathers and brothers and so on. And now the father goes to work, and the boys are in school. There are these huge, huge gaps in the culture.
It also seems to me that rock and roll, right from the start, has had a cult in it of the pretty boy, the boy who is at blurry borderline between childhood and puberty. There are periods where this fashion of the pretty boy is stronger than others. The David Cassidy and Peter Frampton period, which my gay friends adore, was the same period where Death in Venice came out as a movie with that angelic-looking, long-haired youth. I think there's an element of it in Mick Jagger, going all the way back to my period, when I was in junior high school. And Ricky Nelson, my god, what an incredibly pretty, airbrushed pictured we would have of him in the teen magazines. As I said in Sexual Personae, quoting from Freud, all very beautiful people have an element of the childlike within them. That is what charisma is. True charisma, true magnetism, is when you see the childhood glow inside the adult face in some way.
I think that the modern Western attitude toward childhood is completely dishonest. It infantilizes children and does not acknowledge that they are thinking beings on their own. And furthermore I've argued in Sexual Personae that our bourgeois demands for job readiness have crippled our attitudes toward children. That is, we say, [ ironic tone] "Oh yes, the child's body is physically ready to procreate, but mentally they're not ready yet, they're not adults yet." Romeo and Juliet were thirteen and fourteen when they were engaged to each other. That was natural in the old days. You'd get married early, as soon as you were ready, as soon as you hit puberty. I don't want to badmouth capitalism, because it's my favorite system, but since the industrial revolution what you hear is, "Oh no, you're not ready to take a job yet; you need all kinds of job training. You got to go to college, you got to go to grad school, you got to have those early years in your career, and so forth." So now there's this ridiculous gap between the flowering of young people's sexuality and when society officially, paternalistically declares them adults. It is that period which is the most sup pressed.
So you have the stupidity of someone like Joey Buttafuoco being prosecuted for statutory rape, sex with a minor, and Amy Fisher was like a few weeks short of her seventeenth birthday. Amy Fisher, one of the most powerful young women on the face of the American continent, who I've described as "the Long Island barracuda," is being defined as a child. She twisted Joey Buttafuoco around her finger; it's like ridiculous. But attempting to publicly discuss these issues usually produces absolute hysteria.
I think the situation is better now, actually. There was this period about eight years ago when I was so appalled. You had the hysteria of the charges against the daycare centers employees, those hysterical charges, and the media was completely credulous. Every type of injustice was committed. That girl from New Jersey, for example, Kelly Michaels, was imprisoned for a completely insane, false charge. How could that happen? It happened because [after therapists worked over the children] people said, "Well of course, children are so pure and innocent that they never could have conceived such fantasies on their own. These must be realistic pictures of what actually happened."
My attitude has always been that children have demonic imaginations, and that this is why children love fairy tales of all kinds with all kinds of horrors in them. Children's literature written in the last thirty years is unbelievably inane and banal, and has nothing to do with the reality of what children actually like. Children love violence, they love the Power Rangers. The more violent and lurid and horrific it is the better, because it's a mirror image of their own lurid imaginations, which society paternalistically refuse to acknowledge.
BA: You argued in Vamps and Tramps that the real problem with kiddie porn is that it violates child labor laws. Isn't that evading the real issues?
CP: Well I have argued that. People say to me that, "Well, what about child pornography?" and my attitude is, "kids having sex with each other? I don't think is any problem at all, except in so far as you're making kids do labor, work." So I raise that issue as some kind of dark satire, to say that the only law it's offending is against child labor, and certainly not the sexuality that's involved. Just the other day there was a segment on a news show about child labor going on in the manufacture of surgical scissors somewhere in Pakistan. There is forced child labor going on in various parts of the world, so I would say about kiddie porn once again, why not look at it in economic terms, rather than that it's a moral failing.
But oh god, if we're going to start going over images and censoring, how about Valentine's day? Let's go through entire greeting card stores and find all the uses of nice plump baby bodies, cupids, in a romantic context. Censor that next. In other words, there has always been an erotic subtext to the cushiness of infants' and children's bodies, the smoothness of them. Pagan antiquity seemed to be able to deal with this issue, and our Protestant culture can't. **
Editor's Note: From The Guide, August 1995
Author Profile: Bill Andriette Bill Andriette is features editor of The Guide Email: email@example.com
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