The sexes are at war...Men become masculine only when other men say they are. Having sex with a woman is one way a boy becomes a man...For a decade, feminists have drilled their disciples to say, "Rape is a crime of violence but not of sex." This sugar-coated Shirley Temple nonsense has exposed young women to disaster. Misled by feminism, they do not expect rape from the nice boys from good homes who sit next to them in class.

- Camille Paglia, "Rape and Modern Sex War"


Camille Paglia, the decidedly edgy intellectual feminist, wrote a provocative essay in 1991 entitled Rape and Modern Sex War. Originally published in New York Newsday, the title alone (Sex wars? SEX wars?) was enough to touch off a firestorm of debate on college campuses across the nation. The content of the essay proved to be nothing less than a box of TNT that exploded in the face of mainstream feminist ideology.


No four-letter-word, however taboo or crass, has power to polarize debate more efficiently than this single syllable. It is packed with connotations and accusations. It has the power to make men flinch and women blanch. And date rape? Somehow that's even worse. It implies an assault of the most wounding variety perpetrated not by some wild-eyed random stranger but by an actual acquaintance, perhaps even a former lover, on a helpless woman.

Camille Paglia had the audacity, the nerve, the sheer brass balls to take the concept of rape and blast it all to hell.

Listen up, women: if you get raped on a date, guess what? It is very likely your fault. Plain and simple.

This is the Gospel According to Paglia.

So I'm bored the other night, tired of the internet, hungry for actual paper and ink. I go to my bookshelf and there, sandwiched between and dwarfed by my old college lit crit texts, is Paglia's Sex, Art, and American Culture, her 1992 collection of essays and interviews. I haven't so much as glanced at Paglia's stuff since it was standard coffeehouse reading material, circa 1994. I settle down with a cup of Earl Grey and a plate of shortbread, ready for a bedtime story.

Stupid me. Looking to Paglia for light reading is like watching a Holocaust documentary for the entertainment value. Very quickly I realize that I did too much coffee-drinking and not enough reading in 1994.

I'm two paragraphs into this essay and I'm choking on my shortbread. I'm livid, I'm seething, I want to spam her email box with feminist vitriol. Barring that, I want to put rancid Spam (the pink-stuff-in-a-can kind) in her mailbox. I mean, COME ON. She's advocating something very dangerous, right? She's saying that maybe, just maybe, all the things we were told about what Nice People Do might perhaps be a bit, well, wrong.

It's a very short essay, consisting of only nineteen paragraphs. Four-and-a-half pages. Tiny in those terms.

But then, so is an atom. Split it, and you'll damn sure remember the day you did.

This little essay had approximately the impact of a tactical nuclear stike on feminist thinking in the early Nineties. You hate the sociological straitjacket of political correctness now? The political climate of 2003 is Wrigley Field on a Sunday compared to the minefield that was the late Eighties/early Nineties. With any big ideological shift, particularly when it's a corrective measure, there is an alarming pan-societal tendency to overcompensate. The ludicrous standards of enforced political correctness to which Americans, particularly men, were subjected is an egregious example of poisonous fallout from good intentions. 1991 was a good time to bring a little sanity into the increasingly hysterical political correctness movement.

But this?

Aggression and eroticism are deeply intertwined. Hunt, pursuit, and capture are biologically programmed into male sexuality. Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded away from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness. Society is not the enemy, as feminism ignorantly claims. Society is woman's protection against rape. Feminism, with its solemn Carry Nation repressiveness, does not see what is for men the eroticism or fun element in rape, especially the wild, infectious delirium of gang rape. Women who do not understand rape cannot defend themselves against it.
This was blasphemy.

For well over a decade, the prevailing theory about rape was that it was a crime of violence, not sex. It had been drilled into the consciousness of a generation of women. It was Truth As We Know It. And here comes this woman saying No, no, it's all a lie, violence and eroticism are inextricably linked, they come from the same dark place in all men and they are unleashable, uncontrollable forces of nature.

So here I am on my couch. It's 2003, and I'm a relatively well-educated, free-thinking post-feminist woman. I'm up on the latest theories about biological determinism. I'm pretty unflappable.

Problem is, I'm also a woman who was raped.

I was a teenager, it was a boyfriend, old story, you've heard it a million times. I can tell you very plainly that it was not erotic. It was terrifying and brutal and ugly. The point is that this is a sensitive topic for me.

The problem is that when a topic is sensitive, it can cause a major blind spot in even the most critical intellect.

So I force myself to read on, even though I want to throw the damn book through the front window. And damned if this sucker punch of an essay doesn't make me see stars, right in my blind spot.

The crux of Paglia's argument is this: Masculine energy, specifically sexual energy, is
...aggressive, unstable, combustible. It is also the most creative cultural force in history. Women must learn to reorient themselves toward the elemental powers of sex, which can strengthen or destroy.

This reorientation, according to Paglia, consists primarly of women respecting the sheer power of the male sexual impulse and protecting themselves. How?

"There never was and never will be sexual harmony," Paglia bluntly states.

Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality, which is nature's red flame. She must be prudent and cautious about where she goes and with whom. When she makes a mistake, she must accept the consequences and, through self-criticism, resolve never to make that mistake again. Running to Mommy and Daddy on the campus grievance committee is unworthy of strong women.
The hue and cry of moral outrage was deafening. Included in Sex, Art, and American Culture is a transcript of a televised interview with Paglia. The interviewer, Sonya Friedman, is incredulous. An excerpt from the interview:

Friedman: Okay, let's get this out of the way. A woman wants to wear a see-through blouse, a very short skirt, walk out on the streets at any time of the day and night. She says, "I have a right to feel free to do this. I can dress or undress any way I choose, and a man doesn't have a right to touch me unless I tell him that he has that right." What's your position on this?

Paglia: Let me make a parallel, Sonya. We have the right to leave our purse on a park bench in Central park and go play twenty-five feet away and hope the purse is going to be there when we return, okay? Now, this is just simply stupid behavior. If someone steals the purse, we pursue the thief, we put him in jail. We also say to you, "That was really stupid!" Now, the same thing here. You may have the right to leave your purse there, you may have the right to dress in that way, but you are running a risk!

The phone lines are jammed; a woman calls in from Massachusetts and says that Paglia's attitude condones rape. Paglia is indignant:

Paglia: Certainly NOT! It's like going to Atlantic City and gambling, okay? Every date is a gamble. Now, when you lose, you cannot go whining to Mommy and Daddy. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. I am a sexual adventuress. I am a member of the Sixties generation. I believe in going out and taking those risks! But you have to realize you are risking injury and even death when you go home with a stranger and get into the car of someone you don't know and go into the apartment of someone you don't know. And until women wake up and face the reality of this, there are going to be more such rapes. There have been naive and stupid women from the beginning of recorded time - we have chronicles of this going back. This is not something new. The tunnel vision about this, the focusing in on this date-rape thing in the last ten years, is an absolute madness. It's part of the parochialism and provincialism, naivite, and sex phobia of American feminism!

Needless to say, Paglia did not win any friends in the feminist establishment with that little diatribe.

Eventually the hype died down, as hype tends to. Political correctness lost many of its staunchest adherents in the late Nineties once people began to see the ridiculous extremes to which the movement had fallen prey. Paglia's landmark essay, however, still retains uncanny power to startle, to outrage.

And, shockingly, to persuade.

So I'm reading, and I suddenly realize that I'm not mad anymore. In fact - what the hell? I'm...crying? Yes, I am, I'm actually crying.

I'm crying because when I was thirteen years old and learning to put on makeup, to make myself sexually alluring, no one told me these things. No one told me Ashley, be careful. Ashley, there are proms and dinners and movies and Good Things ahead of you but there are treacherous waters also, deep waters, waters that conceal very old and very hungry things. Desire is a good thing, Ashley, but it is connected to other darker things, things like lust and sometimes even violence. Ashley, keep a clear head; when we tell you not to drink it isn't because alcohol is a Bad Thing but because it can cloud the judgement that keeps you safe. Ashley, we want you to trust and have fun but you must recognize that you must take responsibility for your sexuality. Yes, I know it's embarassing to talk about but there it is, it's SEX, and it's on the table as soon as you say "Yes I will go to the movies with you, Yes I will let you kiss me, Yes I will let you touch me there, Yes I will get in the backseat with you." And by the time you are in the backseat something very powerful and not at all tame may have slipped its leash and you may not even know it. Ashley, I love you enough to embarass you by making you aware of these things, dammit.

But then, they probably didn't know. No one my parents' age thought that fifteen-year-old girls were sexual, that seventeen-year-old boys could be dangerous. Not back then.

And I can't say that Paglia's essay changed my mind completely. When, if ever, is one's mind completely changed about deeply held beliefs? I still believe that men are capable of and should be held to standards of behavior that are moral and non-violent. Of course I do. "Boys will be boys" is not, nor should it ever be, an excuse to hurt anyone else. I'm not sure Paglia would agree with me on that. Her lack of compassion left a dry and salty taste in my mouth, and an argument as difficult as hers necessitates a liberal seasoning of kindness. But there is a hard and ugly kernel of truth at the core of it all, and I found it inescapable.

I wonder about the little girls. I wonder about all the little girls who, unlike my generation, were weaned on MTV and overt sexuality and the unqualified belief that Sex Sells, that sex is the only true currency a girl has in this world. I wonder who's taking responsibility for their sexuality. Not Madison Avenue, or Britney Spears, or absentee parents. Certainly not their equally confused teenaged boyfriends, who, as Paglia rightly notes, are at their hormonal peak. Who is telling them in a firm (but loving) tone that sex is risky and primal and unbelievably complicated?

If I had a daughter I wouldn't tell her to live in fear, but I would try to teach her wisdom. And wisdom dictates caution in matters as volatile, as primal, as urgent and as potentially dangerous as sex. But the bottom line is this: it's not a moral issue, it's a safety issue. And we cannot afford to be so reckless in our willful ignorance.

"The only solution to date rape is female self-awareness and self-control."

Paglia, I'm not convinced. But I am persuaded.

Please do not reply to this writeup, at least not here. You may message me if you feel you must, but remember that this is my subjective experience, and not much you say will change my reality, so very sorry.
All quotations are from "Sex, Art, and American Culture", a collection of essays by Camille Paglia. Copyright 1992, published by Vintage Books.