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The Sexual Primitivism of "No Sex Please, We're Middle Class"

July 1, 2010

Over the weekend, The New York Times published an op-ed by Camille Paglia, provocatively titled, “No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class” - one that remained on the New York Times ten most email articles for several days and sparked a lively She Party conversation yesterday afternoon. The article frames itself as a response to what appears to be the imminent arrival of a drug that increases women’s sex drive on the market. In doing so, Paglia takes the opportunity to diagnose the onset of a “sexual malaise that appears to have sunk over the country,” one that is a result of the culture of an “anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class.”

Paglia does not explain how she surmises that the emergence of a drug designed to treat what might be construed as a medical problem affecting women can be read as a symptom of a national sexual affliction. As the article progresses, it becomes clear that Paglia sees white middle class culture as one that promotes “androgyny,”a notion promoted by the “ideological view that gender is a social construct.” Consider the following picture she presents of white bourgeois culture:

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure. ... Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women.

If the supposedly androgynous lives of white upper middle-class Americans are the root of a national malady, Paglia sees a cure in the “multiracial lower-middle-class and working-class patrons,” who have a preference for curvaceous “bootylicious” figures and a penchant for buying “racy lingerie.” If, like me, you wondered where she was going with her curious claims about multiracial lower class America’s tastes--and whether it’s really true that white women tend to buy more white cotton underwear than women of color (wait a second, is white cotton underwear inherently unsexy?), Paglia’s subsequent analysis of the nation’s proletariat’s music tastes makes clear what she’s getting at:  “Country music, with its history in the rural South and Southwest, is still filled with blazingly raunchy scenarios, where the sexes remain dynamically polarized in the old-fashioned way” (emphasis mine).

Paglia’s argument can be summed as follows: capitalism has rendered the white middle-class sexless as a result of the “androgynous” or sexually interchangeable cultural environment it fosters, while the racialized lower classes have remained the preserve of healthy sexuality by guarding sexual difference. But what exactly does Paglia mean by the dynamic polarization of the sexes in the “old-fashioned way”? If not for her notorious feminist credentials, one might be tempted to think that she blames women’s entering the white collar workforce for their supposed loss of sexual desire. Indeed, her description of the middle-class domestic arrangement is reminiscent of this sexist Dodge Charger Super Bowl commercial that aired on television earlier this year. Furthermore, her association of sexuality with the rural and racialized classes, not to mention her fetishization of the curvy brown female body, reinforce the stereotype that people of color embody sexual primitivism. In calling for a return to some vague notion of primal sexual difference, Paglia winds up reinforcing age old racial stereotypes. Furthermore, by offhandedly dismissing the idea that gender is a social construct, Paglia strangely treats the objectification of women’s bodies in the media and entertainment industry as desexualizing women. Choosing simply to state her own tastes of what is and is not sexy, she fails to see how the unrelenting promotion of punishing and unrealistic standards of feminine beauty--that is, social constructions of gender--can shape our ideas of female sexuality. More specifically, to say that gender is a social construct is to acknowledge the complex matrix of the biological, psychological, political, social, economic, cultural, legal and religious discourses that shape our understanding of sexual desire, even as it cannot be reduced to a matter of discourse alone. To be sure, capitalist modes of production have contributed to the gradual undoing of traditional gender roles and their relationship to sexual desire ought to be studied, as Paglia purports to do but fails. In the case of the so-called “female Viagra,” she neglects to consider the implications of medicalizing women’s sexuality, especially when the pharmaceutical industrial complex has much profit to gain. Who gets to measure what is too little--or too much--sexual desire? Who decides what sexual desire is supposed to look like? Even if she is adamant that drugs are not the answer, I’m sure pharmaceutical companies are glad that she is promoting the idea that the nation’s middle-class is suffering a “sexual malaise,” for which they can sell a cure.

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