Camille Paglia:

Boy, She Sure Does Talk Fast!


by Dan Savage with Christine Wenc


The Stranger of 28 September thru 4 October 1992

If you haven’t read Sexual Personae, please don’t read this. There are too many carnival geeks out there with little brains and big mouths that read interviews with Camille Paglia, decide they hate her, and badmouth her 700-page book without ever having read it. If you’re one of those people, shut yer trap and go read her book.

Read her books, plural, I mean. There’s another one, Sex, Art and American Culture. Read that one too.

We called Camille Paglia’s publicist cuz she was coming to town on a book promotion/lecture tour. And calling her wasn’t even our idea! We stole it! It was this guy Malcolm Lawrence’s idea. He came to us with it and we stabbed him in the back. Sorry, Malcolm!

We pretended we were a big important paper, with receptionists and everything, like at the Seattle Weekly, and arranged for an interview with Camille at the Olympic Four Seasons Hotel. Not the usual digs of Stranger staffers. We got there really, really early, and sort of hung out, but security guards followed us around until we went and hid in the High Ceilings/High Prices Restaurant and Lounge off the lobby. We paid $4 for a muffin and split it and sat there for two hours and read Camille’s press packet and Ecce Queer. The waitress loved us. If she was packing heat, she would’ve blown our brains out. And the bullets probably would’ve appeared on our bill, just like in the old Soviet Union. After writing Kathryn “Faux-Camille” Robinson’s name and phone number in the stalls in the toilets (Real linen hand towels! We stole some, and you should too. Dress up, go to the Four Seasons and stock up on hand towels, man!), we went and asked Barry at the reception desk to ring Camille Paglia for us. Barry didn’t know who she was. Barry was hired for his looks.

Now here’s the fun part. We needed a photo, but we don’t have any staff photographers or anything, so Christine, the editor, had come along and pretended to be a “photographer.” She was really convincing, except she took a bath that day and so didn’t smell like a photographer, you know? We didn’t tell Camille that she was really the editor cuz that would blow our cover. We wanted Camille to think that The Stranger was too important a paper for the editor to leave the office just to visit some visiting scholar! Especially a scholar of her slight stature (she’s only 5’3”). Christine’s like Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (I get to be Rosalind Russell), she’s got rejection form letters to send, clunky pieces to rewrite, interns to terrorize, blotter acid to sell. Stuff like that. And the extra fun part is that cuz Christine is just the photographer and not supposed to be my editor, she can’t say nothing! I’m doing the interview, she shuts up. But eventually Christine “Control Queen” Wenc breaks down and gets her own two cents in while I’m taking a piss. So now like this interview is by me and Christine, not just me like it was supposed to be all cuz I had to go make “an arc of transcendence” in the toilet, where there were not only hand towels, but terry-fucking-cloth bathrobes too!

Anyway, Camille met us in the lobby, made a scene, but was dressed well enough that the security guards didn’t bother with her. You could get away with murder in that lobby if you had the right shoes on. 60 Minutes was coming to interview her after us, and she had to leave something at the desk for Morley. Or is he the one who dropped dead a couple of weeks back? Or was that Wally? Or Harry? Well, one of them died, anyway. (I think Diane Sawyer left that show cuz she couldn’t stand working with all those guys whose names ended with Y. Morley, Wally, Harry. Aren’t those the names of the chipmunks?) Then Camille pulled a fucking knife on the receptionist! Really, it’s true! Some sort of concealed weapon pen knife thing that the King of Siam gave her when she was tutor to his 57 kids during her long academic exile or something. We went up to her simulated hotel suite, not the one she’s actually staying in, but the “interview” suite, and we “interviewed” her. Or we sat on our hands and listened to her go off like a bottle rocket for two intoxicating hours.

Man, can she talk! And how she talks! Like a woman possessed; she bounces around on the couch like Linda Blair in that scene in The Exorcist where all this amazing shit is flying out of her mouth, only in Camille’s case it’s really amazing stuff, poetry practically, and not pea soup. Camille Paglia is a drug, man, the best. We are two of her biggest fans. And she talked so much we couldn’t even fit the whole interview into one issue, even after Christine took out her bloody red pen and chopped out a good half of the text! And that was after we spent about nine hours transcribing! So you’ll get part one this week, when Camille talks about queers and rape. Next week she’ll talk about her books and herself (!) and bash feminists. We can’t wait to read it.

She ordered us room service orange juices, $8, tea, $3.50, and bottles of mineral water, $6. She put them on her own expense account! What a woman! For formality’s sake, she let me ask a few questions while Christine took some blurry pictures (even got one of the toilet), but Camille felt no obligation to actually answer them, as you shall see.


Dan: All my lesbian pals hate your guts. They read “exclusive lesbianism is emotional retardation,” “women become lesbians out of weakness.” They take this stuff personally.

Camille: People who are interested in art, people who are interested in thought don’t have a problem with this. No matter what I say that might be personally offensive to them, they understand… I stimulate them, I expand their minds, okay? The idea that we have this enormous group of people out there who identify themselves totally as lesbians, such that they cannot make any response to a major woman intellectual, a major woman writer living in their own time--they have a problem.

Maybe you have a problem with lesbianism.

It doesn’t matter! I’m saying “What are we?” Who are we primarily? Are we human beings? Thinking human beings, or are we just lesbians? There’s a serious problem today in gay activism that has led people to identify their entire world view with a particular kind of sexual identity, such that their minds cannot respond to a major thinker about art. Art is far greater than anything we are sexually, it is far greater. It’s the history of the human race. It’s the history of human consciousness.

A lot of gay men love your work, I’m one of them.

Because gay men respond to art.

Lesbians don’t respond to art?

That’s absolutely correct! I tried to be a lesbian for decades. It was a disaster, absolutely a disaster. Finally I gave up. Now, I’m, like, a bisexual, that’s how I consider myself. When I started out, at age thirteen, I believed a lot of what current feminism believes. I thought men were terrible, that the sexes were basically the same, that everything was due to an unjust social system, that when that changes, everything will be fine. I believed, I’m attracted to women, I have to be a lesbian. And the end result was I was forced to suppress that I’m also attracted to men. I felt guilty about it!

I’m gay. I have slept with women. I was “bisexual” for about ten minutes. Every once in a while, I see a woman and I go, “Oh, yeah, well, whatever.” But I identify as gay. You tried to be a lesbian twenty years ago—but lesbianism has evolved! Try it again!

I was a lesbian before gay lib. I was openly lesbian in college, I went to college in ’64 to ’68, and the gay lib thing broke out in ’69. At Yale graduate school, I was the only open lesbian from ’68 to ’72. The only one. And I took the career price for that. I shoved my lesbianism down people’s throats when I wasn’t getting any pleasure from it; I couldn’t find anyone to be with! There is the irony, I took all the negatives without any of the positives! I tried. I tried to pick up women, I tried. In 1969 I traveled Europe with the handbook, the gay guide to Europe. I went from place to place, every city, and I thought, “What is the problem here?” All the gay men are finding contacts everywhere! You can’t avoid it! Bus terminals, toilets, diners, everywhere! Finally I had to conclude, after so many decades of frustration, that lesbians are not looking for sex. It’s not about sex. They think it’s about sex. It’s about mommy! It’s about mommy is what it’s about!

You’re not taking the emergence of the radical lesbian sex movement into account.

That’s not true. What I’m saying, though, is sex-positive lesbianism has to lead to bisexuality. There is no sex-positive lesbianism that excludes response to men. I believe women are naturally bisexual. My vision is of a universal bisexuality for women. This lesbian feminism, now twenty years on line, is a disaster. Part of women’s power is their power over men.

It’s much harder for men. Male sexuality is much more complicated. This idea that male homosexuality is inborn is bullshit. This is bullshit!

I was gay when I was five!

Here’s my theory, only a theory, always hypothesizing; It’s not homosexuality that’s inborn in men, it is the artistic impulse that’s inborn. If you’d taught artists as I have for 22 years, you’d know that you can squelch a talent or evoke a talent, but you cannot give someone a talent. You are born with a talent. This is why gay men are associated with art and lesbians are not. I’ll have a boy in my class who’s a dancer, trying to be a male dancer in this culture. He’ll be born into a whole family of jocks, okay? He is more sensitive. The mother and he, right from the start have something in common. They have something in common, because, first of all even her clothes are more beautiful, the textures, the fabrics…

So it’s this artistic impulse that creates the homosexual!?

Yes! Here’s my theory. She feels a bond with him, he feels a bond with her. The father doesn’t like him as much. The brothers think he’s a sissy, okay? The people in the neighborhood say “sissy!” And early on he learns his feelings go towards the mother. And so manhood, masculinity is something out there, it’s something that is not him. And he loves it. And so he’s caught in the middle. Homosexuality is something that develops later than that artistic talent that’s inborn. The overwhelming majority of gay men that I’ve met in my life have an eye. It’s inborn.

Yeah, in the privileged academic circles you travel in. I could take you to the Ramrod, this lame leather bar, and half the guys are geeks who can barely dress themselves, let alone possess an artistic “eye.”

There are maladaptations among gay men as well as among lesbians. Ones who are not getting along. You can’t just look at this group. The same thing, by the way, goes with the sex-positive movement among lesbians.

(Room service comes. Chaos! Camille runs around for a while. Christine takes a picture of the room-service guy, which may or may not make it into the paper. Camille can’t see to sign the bill because she’s not wearing her glasses. How many fingers am I holding up? asks Dan.)

But sex-positive lesbians are rebelling against so much socialization. Women are socialized to be less sexual than men.

That is such bullshit. Women are socialized to be sensory, sexual creatures. Everything from the makeup you put on to the stockings you put on. You’re being trained to be sensual. There are so many clichés in the air. So much garbage in the air, that’s why I’m so valuable, whether you like me or not, I just cut through the crap and say “that’s bullshit!” I’m not saying we should give up lesbianism, I’m saying I want more lesbianism, much more! What I don’t like right now is that straight women are afraid to have sex with another woman because, “Oh, then I’ll be gay.” You’re not gay just because you have sex with another woman! I want to break down the barrier between gay and straight. It’s false! As a historian of sexuality, that’s a false dichotomy, this gay/straight bullshit. That’s not true!

I think it’s very true!

It’s true in your experience right now in this culture! When gay self-expression is forbidden and you are very powerfully drawn in that direction, then you’re forced to define yourself as gay and it is important to be militant at a certain moment.

But that’s not because gays are doing anything wrong, it’s because we are oppressed by straights with their heads up their asses!

I’m saying we have to broaden the argument to make it not just gay versus straight but a libertarian argument for non-conforming sexual behavior. There’s never going to be a world where the straights are going to accept the gays. But we can hope for a world where everyone understands that in fact sexuality is fluid. I want this kind of sophisticated view of sexuality. There’s liberation! That is one in where there will be no fag-bashing. Fag-bashing will persist till the end of recorded time as long as we insist on the duality gay/straight. The more you polarize the more there will be violence!

Gay people by insisting on “gay/straight duality” are perpetuating gay bashing?

Right. Right now, I don’t like what gay activism is doing. It’s like, “If you’re opposed to us, you’re a bigot.” A lot of the tactics of ACT UP are out of control.

You misunderstand ACT UP’s role. ACT UP is the shock troops of the AIDS activist movement. ACT UP creates dialogue by being obnoxious, being strident. Then more mainstream groups come in after ACT UP has opened up an issue, and get the credit for the change that ACT UP created the room for. ACT UP has put AIDS on the national agenda.

But it’s not moving people spiritually. We have to consider whether the political gains are worth the political loss. In other words, you can’t just say, we’re gaining, gaining, gaining when there’s this reaction going in the other direction and people are getting fag-bashed in the street. We have a bad situation now where resentments against gay activists are never allowed to be expressed in the media. The media has capitulated. ACT UP is running rough-shod over the media. Moderate voices criticizing gay tactics are never allowed to speak. What is the result of this? This widespread resentment goes underground and moves to the right and what you get is these horrible people like Patrick Buchanan and David Duke.

So gay people, by being activists, are creating David Dukes?

No, no, what I’m saying is whenever there are buried popular resentments that a liberal establishment will not allow to be expressed, you get these horrible people who are opportunists who are the only ones who dare to express. And what happens? You get this sympathy on the part of ordinary people who are not conservative that finally there’s someone out there who is expressing their views. That is a disaster, it led to the rise of Hitler. Right now we have a silencing. Okay?

How has feminism “placed women in greater danger of being raped?”

First of all there’s this Betty Crocker view that “Rape is a crime of violence, not of sex.” The girl thinks she’s sitting in class next to this nice boy from a very nice home, very mild mannered, of course he’s not a violent person, she can’t imagine that he would be capable of rape. Rape is coming from something animalistic, something very deep. When women finally open their eyes, they’re going to realize that, when you go to a fraternity party, you better be prepared to get yourself out of there.

Look. The transition where boys grow to manhood is incredibly danger-filled, so much of man’s identity is very frail. Men’s egos are extraordinarily frail. They need bolstering day to day to day. Especially heterosexual men!

Part of woman’s power is her power over men sexually. And part of a woman’s full maturity is accepting her sexual power over men. And that lesbian feminism, which for me it was a vision of woman as strong, and subversive, and rebelling against men, and refusing to capitulate to men. That was my vision of lesbian feminism. Over time, as I lived as a lesbian, I found that, far from strength, the end result was of many decades of women living in that world was weakness, sentimentality, whining. And I suddenly realized—the moment a woman becomes a lesbian feminist, she is stuck and stunted in that phase of her development, which is the early adolescent phase of resentment towards men. Men are men. Men have all these kinds of problems, right, but I now see what I didn’t see then. There is a maternal aspect to mature heterosexuality, and that every mature heterosexual woman realizes this. This is what took me years to understand. Men are desperate. Heterosexual men are desperate. And I began to see that women of the world are in conspiracy with each other. To keep men from realizing the full extent of their limitations. That men are pathetic. Women with a maternal love of men are in league with each other to protect men. When women get together, they talk about men in ways that men would absolutely cringe at. The male heterosexual is so simple. He has so many simple buttons. And people have known this throughout history, how simple it is to push their buttons. They have maybe three buttons.

What responsibility does a woman have to protect herself from rape?

She has equal responsibility with the men. I don’t believe anyone has the right to put their hand on you if you haven’t consented. However, there are other forms of communication than words. Feminism right now is word-obsessed. If you are coming on, there’s a way you are dressing, there is a manner, the way you are drinking, you go up to his room…

You’re saying that’s consent?

I’m saying have the sex, go for it, girl! I have a Sixties attitude. Have the sexual adventure, go for it, and stop this thing of like, “Is he going to respect me in the morning?” There are these scenarios the next morning where the girl wakes up, she’s hung over, the guy just leaves, he doesn’t call her, she feels like shit, she thinks, “What would Mommy and Daddy say?” and now she’s being taught by the feminists on campus to interpret that as rape. I’m sorry! Feel like shit the next day.

One of the reasons your position on date rape is so controversial is that you seem to admire men who rape. “We cannot regulate male sexuality.” “Masculinity is aggressive, unstable, combustible.” Regarding domestic violence, you write that a lot of women stay in these relationships because “the sex is hot.” I think your head’s up your butt about that one. “All rape is erotic.” You describe yourself as a rock and roll and a football fan, which could be called a sexism and violence fan. And “Male lust is the energizing factor in culture.” And male lust causes rape…

There are a million other quotes from my work. My rape piece begins “Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.” Feminism is stuck in the Rousseauist mode that believes that we are naturally good and anything that is bad is coming from society, that society has made us evil. I take the Freudian view which says we’re born with a propensity towards aggression and that society teaches us rules of restraint. In my book it says that rape is the result not of society creating the rapist, but of an incomplete socialization. Civilized men do not rape. Ethical men do not murder.

You seem to be in the thrall of male sexual aggression.

No, what I’m saying essentially is: Sex is dangerous. It is an elemental force we can never fully control. A charming man can turn out to be Ted Bundy. It’s not just a matter of rape. I’m saying that the whole feminist view of the world is naïve. Rape is one of many crimes that feminism assumes is the result of social deprivation. You cannot predict, anyone can be an axe murderer. I get letters from parents who’ve read my rape articles and they say “Thank God, the voice of reason. I’ve got three daughters and I’m horrified at the nonsense they’re being fed—they’re just not being told the truth about what’s out there.”


Here we have to stop. Your brain probably could use a little rest anyway—I know mine sure could. But don’t forget to read next week’s Stranger—Camille talks about tray removal, Stalin, Lenin, Steinem, Dworkin, Buddhism, Puget Sound, and time!

If anyone has part two email it to me and I'll post it.

(Editor's note: Imagine my surprise when I picked up that week's issue of The Stranger and read how Dan Savage and Christine Wenc gloated about stabbing me in the back in print.

A few hours later I went to see Camille Paglia give a talk at the University of Washington's Meany Hall.

After the lecture she invited audience members up to meet her and/or sign autographs. Before the lecture I picked up what I thought was a perfectly appropriate postcard for her to sign: Madonna scantily clad in a men's room posed by a urinal.

When it was my turn to meet Camille I explained to her how I was the one who contacted her publicist and had organized an interview with her and then approached The Stranger which at the time was a new publication which I loved and wanted to help out, only to find that a very young and ruthless Dan Savage and Christine Wenc had stabbed me in the back when they decided they'd take all of my work and steal the interview for themselves.

She mentioned how she had just read about my being stabbed in the back when she read The Stranger's interview with her on her way over to the lecture that afternoon. On the back of my postcard she underlined "Madonna - Bog" and wrote next to it "with the arc of transcendence" and then wrote underneath: "For Malcolm -- I'm sorry you were stabbed in the back!!!! Best wishes -- Camille Paglia. Keep on truckin'"

Unfortunately the Stranger's online archives don't go back to 1992 and after years of trying to find it in my files I finally located it. (Of course, when you're not looking for something it always appears).
I thought it was a pity that it was impossible to find the interview with Ms. Paglia online so I decided to transcribe it and make sure it had a place on the web. Click on the graphic at the top of the page and you can see a much larger scan where you can read for yourself the gloating part of the article. Sorry Dan and Christine!)