Media analysis organisation Fairness & Accuracy In Media published an article heralding the arrival of conservative cultural critic Pamela Paul as The New York Times’ newest opinion columnist. Paul had ascended from her former post as head of the ‘Paper of Record’s’ book review efforts only recently. True to her literary legacy, Paul is selecting topics for her editorials which are sure to polarize, leading to more clicks and attention. Federov & Krichevsky described this as a “confounding choice to jump head first into the fractious culture wars.” Paul “struggled” to get out of marketing, which is where she laboured before releasing the cultural writings that would gain her fame. The period working in marketing was vital to her current cultivation of outrage, as Sanchez writes in an Amazon review for her 2005 work, Pornified:
“Paul is less journalistic author than marketing savant - as editor of American Demographics magazine, she has given talks about targeting and marketing to specific demographic groups, and clearly that's what she's done here… Is that what passes for journalism now(?) - finding a market niche and kissing up to it by telling them what they want to hear?”
During this second career, she has repeatedly created rather-basic critiques of elements of American society, (Gawker described her as a “dull culture warrior”) particularly those that are divisive to conservatives and older people. One may assume that this lines up with those expected to subscribe to The New York Times, but according to a blog on the website WorkUp, this assumption (which I also shared) is incorrect.
Maria Pengue cites the Pew Research Center that New York Times readers are 63% “under the age of 50.” One would expect that Pamela Paul’s conservative positions on adult film, the internet, and transgender people would not be particularly popular with readers of these ages.
Perhaps that is the point. Pamela Paul is most widely known for her 2005 screed against adult film, Pornified, known as the “Reefer Madness of sexuality books.” Still, it has received more online attention and reaction since she started writing critical editorials in the Times.
One merely has to type her name into an internet browser to find take-downs from outlets large-and-small. One, from a re-born latter-day Gawker, is titled “PAMELA PAUL IS THE NEW WORST COLUMNIST AT THE NEW YORK TIMES.” The author of the Gawker piece, current Editor-In-Chief Leah Finnegan, writes:
“In 2014, I wrote for this website that technology writer Nick Bilton was the new worst columnist at the New York Times. Pamela Paul, however, makes me cry out in the night for Nick Bilton. She has me rereading his column on how he couldn’t find a pen and saying “damn, this guy is a genius.” She has me longing for the paradisal days of him waxing over whether to delete his Facebook account. She has me enthusiastically writing him a recommendation letter for a Guggenheim…Usually it takes a columnist a few years to get to a certain level of asininity; Paul, who started at the opinion desk in April, has summited the highest peak on column five.”
While she doesn’t tweet anymore, Paul has remarked that she was surprised and shocked that her limpid writings about divisive issues caused outraged ‘social justice warriors’ to attack her on Twitter. She also “seems weirdly surprised to discover that so many religious types—clergy members and conservative Christians—have sex-addiction issues. Pamela: Meet Jimmy Swaggart.” But Paul doesn’t fool. She has written at least two books that were, in whole or in part, about internet culture.
She is not naive about how to provoke outrage and ultimately profit from this. Alan Cranford, writing an Amazon review of Pornified “couldn't figure out what set Pamela Paul on the warpath,” but this writer has a theory. Pamela Paul is one of many public personalities that harness this basic human reaction, outrage, to bolster their pocket-book and psychological need for attention.
One of Paul’s newer columns has raised a particular furor online with the ‘social justice’ crowd, as well as from journalists. FAIR writes of this column:
“The New York Times for many years had a transgender contributing opinion writer, Jennifer Finney Boylan…But in April, a seismic shift quietly occurred in that opinion section: Boylan departed, and just two weeks later, the paper debuted Pamela Paul as a new columnist.
In what by my count is now her fifth column to vilify trans people or the trans movement, subtly or directly, Paul (12/4/22) took the 50th anniversary of the popular ’70s album/book, Free to Be…You and Me, as an opportunity to argue that the movement toward letting people define their own gender is in fact eroding the progress on gender equality that album promised and symbolized.”
Whether or not the replacement of a transgender columnist with that of Paul signalled an ideological shift at the Times is indeterminate. Even if it was unrelated, the fact that Paul has written five columns already critical of trans people in her short tenure as an opinion columnist will inevitably be read by some as related to their sacking of Boylan.
It is also interesting that Paul’s 2005 book Pornified was criticised in the very outlet she was later to head for many years, The New York Times Book Review. At the time, ‘“Sex columnist Amy Sohn…cared less for the book and argued in the New York Times Book Review that ‘Paul never gives credence to the many women who enjoy consuming porn, alone or with partners.’
Paul self-identifies as a liberal, and I don’t think we have evidence necessarily at this time that she necessarily is against people being trans (in isolation and in the abstract sense.) She may very well be broadly pro-trans behind closed doors. However, as a prime opportunist, she is more than happy to capitalise on the current ‘trans panic’, taking place on mostly conservative and reactionary media outlets. Why shouldn’t the New York Times harvest some of that fear and loathing for itself? The same Pew Research information cited earlier also states that the economics of the New York Times are not exactly thriving in the New Millenium. The last statistic cited in the Word Up article is from the pandemic era, when The New York Times’ Trump-centric marketing efforts started to lose relevance in inducing members of the Democratic Party to subscribe.
The political economy of for-profit publications, such as the Times, must constantly be held in-front of any analysis. Paul’s ability to create firestorms online, to get hate-clicks from those that explode in apoplexy on Twitter, share her column with their friends, and write their own screeds all make her existence in today’s media landscape both fertile (for her) and dangerous (for her, and for those she criticizes, such as trans people.) All of this benefits Paul and The New York Times, especially the clicks and the shares. For a publication that has haemorrhaged 55.7% of its print subscribers since the turn-of-the-millennium, the ability to engage people on the internet, especially in volatile and social environments like Twitter, may be a vital source of relevance and revenue.
Conversely, there are those among The New York Times readerships that are trending right-ward, as the pace of cultural change has increased in rapidity, especially on the topics of race, sexuality, and gender, and some are uncomfortable with these changes.
Articles like Paul’s columns are targeted at exploiting anxieties over cultural change and the visibility of sexual minorities. The current ‘trans panic’ needs extended analysis by itself, but Pamela Paul and others no doubt are aware of the phenomenon and intend to cash-in, albeit in a less outright vitriolic way than, for example, conservative talk radio programmes. FAIR believes this financially-driven decision could have dark implications:
One of Paul’s key claims in her op-ed Free To Be You & Me. Or Not (December 4 2022) is that the transgender movement has actually reified gender stereotypes. To prove this point, she naively portrays the 1970s and 1980s in unrealistic and idyllic language:
“In lieu of liberating children from gender, some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels…to affix to themselves from a young age…Some go so far as to suggest that not only is gender “assigned” to people at birth but that sex in humans is a spectrum…(even though accepted science holds that sex in humans is fundamentally binary, with a tiny number of people having intersex traits). The effect of all this is that today we are defining people—especially children—by gender more than ever before, rather than trying to free both sexes from gender stereotypes. (In the 1970’s it) didn’t matter whether you were a boy or a girl because neither could limit your choices.”
In the 1970s, calling for “liberation” from gender and proscribed roles was extremely progressive. It still is today. Respecting those who wish to transition to a different gender role in society is also a progressive idea.
These ideas do not have to be in opposition. Those who don’t really believe in gender roles don’t have to condemn those that do find that they want to inhabit a “traditional” gender role, especially when they are breaking prescribed roles by transitioning in the first place. Tolerance and respect for everyone’s choices as fellow humans should be the basis for a progressive view of gender and sexuality.
Instead of respecting the synthesis of progressive ideas of the 1970s and today, Pamela Paul positions these attitudes as in-opposition to one another. FAIR also notes that Paul minimises people with the intersex condition, “a “tiny” 1 out of every 50 people.” FAIR concludes:
“Where Free to Be helped break open gender roles and stereotypes that constricted people 50 years ago, the transgender movement is helping to break open a biological determinism that constricts people to this day.”
The work that originally propelled our columnist into fame was 2005’s Pornified. While Paul doesn’t market herself as a religious fundamentalist, it was this audience that the book found most bruck with.
Her strategy of cultivating and manipulating outrage was apparent at this early stage. In an almost-recognition (through disavowal of the strategy itself), the publisher made sure to put the review quote that Pornified “Strips porn of its culture-war claptrap . . . (It) may stand as a Kinsey Report for our time,” on the limply-lurid cover.
Putting aside the highly-offensive and outrageous comparison to the scientific and ground-breaking reports from the Institute For Sex Research, Paul and her publisher probably knew that they were engaging in the very “culture-war claptrap” that was an elemental factor in the 2004 presidential elections in the US or, at least, was said to have been by mainstream media. Mass-agonising over sexuality, and particularly minority sexualities, was said to be one of the primary concerns among voters, leading to the victory of the Republican Party in that year’s election.
In this highly-charged environment, Paul brought this scary book into being. She admitted that she was basically uninterested in pornography and found no problem with it. But, once “reading the room,” so to speak, she found her opportunity. This led to a career in other liberal publications, such as “The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, and Vogue,” and then onto the “paper of record,” where she once again creates text criticising others’ choices regarding their sexuality.
With Pornified, Paul “sets out to scare readers about the effects of pornography on American society, and she succeeds mightily.” Perusing the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon is a generally good, though not perfect, way of gaining insight into how readers view the works, and in this case, even those reviewers who are positive about the book reveal its deficiencies. A reader named Isaac G. writes that Pornified is “not an academic work,” which is one of its prime deficiencies because Pornified makes scientific and statistical claims without an academic methodology. It vacillates between a tight-focus journalistic feature and a broader cultural critique of men and the ways in which they consume erotica.
Alan points out that Paul does not define pornography in her work. Fran said she threw the book away. Mid Fimbulwinter celebrated, “This was an awful book, and I am very glad to be done reading it.” Charles Harpole wrote that “Porn deserves real scientific study, not pop psychology and trendy fluff”
Readers also took the bleak portrayal of sexual relations between men and women, and the deficiencies of the current crop of men to heart, including Natalie, writing in Goodreads:
“I'm almost twenty-eight years old, and according to Pamela Paul's research, I can expect the men in my age group to be addicted to porn to such a degree that it will ruin both relationships and mens' expectations of my looks and behavior, and not to mention ruin their idea of me as a human being and an equal.”
Paul presents Pornified as informed by statistics and the testimony of many men with whom she conducted interviews. Many of them seem to suffer from what is known clinically as Compulsive Sexual Behaviour, but Paul doesn’t distinguish these men from “normal” men in their age group. Goodreads reviewer Mid Fimbulwinter describes it as such:
Laura Kipnis also remarked on the strident claims Paul makes in the book: "I’m no historian, but I’m under the impression that all these behaviors and predispositions long preceded the rise of porn. Men treat women like sex objects? Not exactly new.”
A high estimate suggests 6% of the population are experiencing Compulsive Sexual Behaviours at any one time. Presenting the experience of 6% of the population as “normal” is fundamentally dishonest and points to further problems of methodology and honesty in Paul’s work.
And the men interviewed by Paul in Pornified are not a sympathetic lot, as the book “manages to be insulting to both feminists and men.” If this is what men are in the new millennium, the picture is not pretty:
“one guy said that he would never bring home a porn star to meet his family, another said that if his daughter were to consider posing for photos, he would advise against it because the men who would look at her wouldn't see her as a real person. and another man said that women who are involved in porn are usually damaged emotionally or psychologically and that not a lot of doors are open to them…”
Laura Kipnis, writing for Slate, remarks that Pornified, and another similar book from around the time, Female Chauvinist Pig are:
As compartmentalized and shallow as the sex lives of her subjects. She has her nose pressed so firmly against porn culture that she’s utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it’s as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.) Many of the men Paul interviewed say that if faced with a choice between their girlfriends and porn, they’d have to give up the girlfriends. Yet Paul seems convinced that minus porn, somehow these guys would be fulfilling all the intimacy needs of their partners.
Cranford, reviewing Pornified for Amazon, writes that “Crusades are dangerous enough with clear-cut goals.” Still, Paul’s only goal seems to be to latch onto relevant topics, throwing not a missile but perhaps a flash grenade, enough to startle those already predisposed to jumpiness. After a couple of minutes, everyone else would just go back to what they were doing.
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