Yes, Camille Paglia, Let’s Put Sex Back in Sex Ed—But Not Fear, Shame, or Stereotypes

In an editorial in TIME magazine’s Ideas Issue called “Put the Sex Back in Sex Ed,” writer Camille Paglia (a self-described “dissident feminist”) argues for moving toward a model in which young people learn reproductive biology in one class, study sexually transmitted diseases in another, and get a healthy dose of fear, shame, and gender stereotypes in yet another. What students should never get in school, according to Paglia, is “a political endorsement of homosexuality and gay rights causes” or a package of condoms.

Needless to say, as a sexuality educator, I disagree with most of her assertions here. And, not surprisingly, when I checked in with my colleagues in the field, they did too.  

In presenting her argument for separate classes, Paglia notes that sex ed classes are often taught by teachers without enough training and know-how. She writes, “Sex-ed teachers range from certified health educators to volunteers and teenage ‘peer educators’ with minimal training.” I agree that we need better training for those who teach young people about sex—a teacher who knows little more than his or her students will get nothing accomplished, nor will an embarrassed educator who blushes when trying to pronounce the word clitoris. I would argue, however, that peer educators are often the best trained, least embarrassed, and most informed class leaders around. I also question the wisdom of her solution, which seems to be dividing up the subject of sex into its core components, starting with reproductive biology. She writes:

First, anatomy and reproductive biology belong in general biology courses taught in middle school by qualified science teachers. Every aspect of physiology, from puberty to menopause, should be covered. Students deserve a cool, clear, objective voice about the body, rather than the smarmy, feel-good chatter that now infests sex-ed workbooks.

I’ve reviewed a lot of sex education workbooks, as she calls them, and I’m wondering where she is finding all of this feel-good chatter. Personally, I’m more familiar with the ones that fail to draw external female genitalia, never label the clitoris, or describe the vagina as a sperm depository. But we can put that aside for the moment. Letting a biology teacher tackle the inner workings of the body is not unreasonable—some of the best sexuality courses I took in college and graduate school were straightforward biology courses, and I still refer to my notes from one of them some 20 years later. However, waiting until middle school—when biology teachers first appear—will mean the information about puberty is more of a history lesson for some students (the average age of breast buds, for example, is 9.96 for white girls and 8.87 for Black girls).

What Paglia misses are all of the things that we need to learn about our bodies that are not related to how they function, but instead encompass how we live with and in them for the rest of our lives. Sure, puberty education is going to tell young people where to find the vas deferens and how narrow fallopian tubes really are, regardless of whether it’s taught by a sex educator or a biology teacher. But without fail the biggest question young people of all ages have is “Am I normal?” And when they ask this, they are not talking about the plumbing and wiring systems hidden under their skin and between their legs. As Monica Rodriguez, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) told me, “Providing biological information without helping young people figure out their feelings and values related to body image, relationships, gender, and a whole host of other issues is so limited it loses much of its value.”

And yet, that what’s Paglia wants to continue doing when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). She suggests that this portion of a teen’s sex life be taught by the same health educators “who advise children about washing their hands to avoid colds.” We could certainly treat STDs like colds—“This is chlamydia, it’s caused by a bacteria, it can infect the urethra and cervix”—though even this approach would fall short if Paglia has her way, since she says that schools have “no business” listing sexual behaviors like masturbation or oral or anal sex. Just as it would be tough to tell kids how to avoid a cold without mentioning handshakes, so would teaching them to avoid syphilis without discussing intercourse.

More importantly though, STDs are not like colds, and avoiding them is not just about washing one’s hands or even using a condom. Avoiding STDs requires decision making, communication, and negotiation skills, as well as an understanding of trust, and the ability to recognize and sustain healthy relationships. While I have no doubt that many health educators could take this on, that’s clearly not what Paglia has in mind. She’s talking just the facts, ma’am.

Well, just the facts, with a little fear and shame mixed in. She writes:

The liberal response to conservatives’ demand for abstinence-only sex education has been to condemn the imposition of “fear and shame” on young people. But perhaps a bit more self-preserving fear and shame might be helpful in today’s hedonistic, media-saturated environment.

I can almost get behind the idea of a healthy dose of fear. In fact, I credit a healthy dose of fear of herpes—obtained from a first-hand account of a woman living with outbreaks that was published in Cosmopolitan circa 1987—with my lifelong devotion to condoms. And I believe that an honest accounting of STDs does breed a healthy apprehension. What doesn’t work is exaggerating the consequences and suggesting STDs are the inevitable product of premarital sex, which is what most abstinence-only programs do.

I draw a hard line when it comes to shame, however. This is something we should never want our children or young adults to experience in association with their sexuality. Activities that suggest sexually experienced teens are less worthy of our love, trust, or respect—by likening them to a mint that has been passed around the room, a petal-less rose, or a pitcher of spit—run counter to all efforts to promote sexual health. (See reviews of the abstinence-only programs that invented these shame-based activities on SIECUS’s Community Action Kit website.)

As Lucinda Holt, director of communications for Answer, pointed out, “At Answer’s teen website, we have seen over and over again that fear and shame do not serve young people. Fear and shame prevent young people from talking to their partners before they have sex about safer sex, whether they’re even ready for sex, sexual histories, and if they’ve been tested. Fear and shame prevent young people from getting tested for STDs or pregnancy. Fear and shame prevent young people from talking to their parents or other adults in their lives who care about them and want the best for them.”

SIECUS’s Monica Rodriguez adds that “today’s hedonistic, media-saturated environment” of which Paglia writes is exactly why we can’t rely on fear and shame: “I would argue that precisely because young people are growing up in a time where everything is sexualized we need to give them more information, not less and we need to help them practice looking at sexuality and the sexualized messages that they are getting with a critical eye.”

But Paglia does not want young people to be taught to use a critical eye in sexuality education. She seems to believe that there is too much liberal ideology in sex ed today, and some discussions are not appropriate:

The issue of homosexuality is a charged one. In my view, antibullying campaigns, however laudable, should not stray into political endorsement of homosexuality or gay rights causes. While students must be free to create gay-identified groups, the schools themselves should remain neutral and allow society to evolve on its own.

Acknowledging the existing of different sexual orientations is not political, nor is it an endorsement; it is an inarguable truth. Remaining neutral has meant ignoring sexual orientation—operating under the false assumption that all the students in the class, all of their parents, and everyone they know and will ever know are heterosexual. This is a political statement—one that dashes the hopes of some students for a happy, healthy relationship in the future, invalidates families, and perpetuates bullying.

Then there’s Paglia’s discussion of gender differences. Though she starts strong on this topic—suggesting young women should think about their future fertility and career aspirations at a young age—she quickly falls into stereotypes worthy of the most sexist abstinence-only programs. Women, she says, have far more to lose from casual sex and need to be taught that their fertility is fleeting while they are busy being “propelled along a career track devised for men.”

“Boys need lessons in basic ethics and moral reasoning about sex (for example, not taking advantage of intoxicated dates), while girls must learn to distinguish sexual compliance from popularity,” she writes.

“Where do I even begin?” said Monica Rodriguez. “Her attitude is so disrespectful of young people and promotes the very stereotypes that limit both girls and boys as they make their way in the world and in their romantic and sexual relationships. And, I would argue, that this attitude directly contributes to rape culture.”

What’s more, without giving any reason, Paglia suggests that schools should not distribute condoms, leaving that to hospitals and social service agencies. This is the opposite of what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested in a recent policy in which the group argues that all obstacles to condom access for teens should be removed and that schools are a good place for condom availability programs. The AAP came to this conclusion after reviewing a great deal of evidence that suggests condoms prevent both STDs and pregnancy, and making them available to teens does not increase sexual activity but does increase condom use. (Speaking of pregnancy prevention, Paglia derides current liberal sex education programs for defining pregnancy as “a pathology for which abortion is the cure.” Yet her model of sex ed does not seem to make room for teaching about contraception at all.)

All of the sex educators I spoke with agreed with Paglia on one (and only one) point: “A national conversation is urgently needed for curricular standardization and public transparency.”

Sexuality education will never be completely standardized, because local school districts are and will remain in charge of what gets taught, but nonetheless there is a movement to improve programs across the country. As Advocates for Youth President Debra Hauser said, “The National Sexuality Education Standards, published in January of 2012, provide schools with a guide to the minimum essential content and skills young people need at each grade level to take personal responsibility for their sexual health as they mature. Schools across the country have begun using the standards to improve the sexuality education they provide to their students.”

In fact, all of the groups I spoke with for this article—Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS—along with other experts in the field, have worked on these standards for many years.

But my guess is that Paglia is not going to like what they came up with, because the standards certainly don’t follow her guidelines of separating boys and girls, sticking to the facts, adding shame and stereotypes, and withholding information about sexual orientation. Instead, the standards offer a guide to creating a comprehensive sexuality education program that can help young people develop critical thinking skills to help them navigate sexuality throughout their lives.

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  • MsC

    Molly Ivins said it best about Camille Paglia: “What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit. The Norman Podhoretz of our gender. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness. Has no one in the nation’s intellectual capital the background and ability to see through a web of categorical assertions? One fashionable line of response to Paglia is to claim that even though she may be fundamentally off-base, she has ‘flashes of brilliance.’ If so, I missed them in her oceans of swill.”

    • lady_black

      God, I miss Molly Ivins.

      • bitchybitchybitchy

        Molly Ivins is sorely missed.

    • Mindy McIndy

      Molly Ivins was a true gem.

    • A1

      Dear Ms. Ivins, adjectives aren’t an argument. Insults are not signs of intelligence. This is the adult equivalent of a four-year-old saying “You got cooties!”

      • Arekushieru

        Dear Ms/Mr/Miss/Misses A1, context is everything. One quote is not representative of the whole. Besides, anyone who has ever opposed sex-ed is insulting women of all shapes, sizes and colour everywhere, everytime. So, I guess you have yet to show US any signs of intelligence, by your OWN logic?

  • Grandpa Jones

    ” I would argue, however, that peer educators are often the best trained, least embarrassed, and most informed class leaders around. ”

    Really, so it must be the curriculum as to why more than half of kids are born out of wedlock. Every young person I know is completely screwed up, and in vacuous relationships they should be ashamed of, but unfortunately cannot muster the anomie. The boomer generation was a wholesale trainwreck in that regard, and inherited their authority on the virtue of demographics. “Rape culture” is a classic dog-whistle for mainline feminist brainwashing ideology. Fear and shame are going to be experienced by anyone with a shred of self-esteem, and those that believe that they shouldn’t be ashamed for shameful sexual activity aren’t empowered, they’re a danger to themselves and their inevitable progeny, and eventually society as a whole. The only reason we need a professional class of sex educators is because parents aren’t doing their jobs, and the state cannot do it.

    • Arekushieru

      Seriously, are you that ignorant? Babies have been ‘born out of wedlock’ since the beginning of marriage. Besides, marriage is a patriarchal institution and that’s the ONLY reason anyone has a problem with children being ‘born out of wedlock’. To put it another way, there is nothing wrong with children being ‘born out of wedlock’ other than that those who want to control, shame and stigmatize women make it wrong for that reason.

      And your next point shows that this is EXACTLY why you oppose children being ‘born out of wedlock’. Not every woman wants to get married, nowadays. Thinking that all women MUST want to get married and have babies is… wait for it… wait for it… misogynistic and sexist.

      My parents are from the so-called ‘boomer’ generation. Funny, isn’t it, then, that NEITHER my brother NOR I have children. My brother is married, and while he may want children, his wife does not. And he RESPECTS her decision, therefore they both use contraception. He doesn’t see a wife as just a convenient broodmare to bear as many children as he sees fit for her to bear, as YOU obviously do. As for myself, I have never had a boyfriend and I hold the V-Card (hint: the V stands for VIRGIN), and that is PARTLY because of a peculiar hatred for attitudes like yours being imposed on me as if I weren’t a person in order to make me go through all the things that sex ed explained was a result of certain sexual choices. Yet, from reading your screen name one would have to presume that you are a Grandfather. But you oppose sex-ed, saying it creates more children ‘born out of wedlock’. When compared to someone like me who has NO children but supports sex-ed, the fallacy of your claims quickly become hilarious and proven to be the LIES they are (because there are MANY such examples not JUST the one between you and I). Even MORE so, when we see that in States where sex-ed IS taught, teen pregnancies are down. Where it is not, teen pregnancies are higher. Hmmmmmm….

      ‘”Rape culture”‘? Considering that you are not calling yourself GrandMA Jones, this is an even GREATER example of your misogyny. Speaking to women about something he can or never will experience that is primarily said to affect women, is an example of that person’s HEIGHT of misogyny, after all. Calling it ‘mainline feminist brainwashing’ is also code speak not ONLY for misogyny but a man who laments that his ‘right’ to abuse and rape women at his leisure is being denied because he is an ‘oh-so-powerful MAAANNNZZZZ’. Otherwise, you must be claiming that you somehow have magically acquired the knowledge that any woman, anywhere, anytime who has claimed to be raped and failed to get the accused convicted was lying. Yet, for every other type of case that has been brought to court, I’m SURE that you haven’t stated that any that result in acquittal mean that that person didn’t perpetrate the violation. THAT is rape culture. The reason that the disparity COMES ABOUT, IS RAPE CULTURE. Even CLAIMING that you have somehow (magically) acquired this knowledge when you ask us to provide evidence and statistics to back up every claim we ever make is rape culture. OOOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPSSSSSS!

      Anyone who shames anyone for consensual sexual activity while condoning rape (which is what you are doing by denying rape culture) should seek professional help.

      “Inevitable”? I think I’ve proven that’s more likely in a world of YOUR imagining, NOT ours.

      Do you think the reason we need MEDICAL professionals is because parents aren’t doing their jobs? If not, hypocrisy. Sex educators are needed FOR EXACTLY THE SAME REASON that medical professionals are. AW.

      Nope, any curriculum YOU support has been shown to have been done badly. So, you want children to contract STDs and not MAKE it to adulthood, yet you think that being an adult will enable them to recognize what is in their best interest? Um, all I can say is… illogical much?

      Any attempt to thwart the type of behaviour YOU display with rationality is doomed, yes, but I have proven, above, that teaching children to protect themselves when having sex is in NO way similarly ‘doomed’.

      Again, fear and shame has been shown to have the OPPOSITE effect, as I have ALSO demonstrated above.

      Ableist remarks? What a surprise from a BIGOT like yourself. And it seems, from reading the rest of my post, that a LOT of kids, nowadays, have MORE wisdom in their little thumbs, than you have acquired in your entire lifetime. So, no, they’re not the ‘dumb’ ones.

      Finally, kids are not the property of parents, just because they are children and parents are adults. And, LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, no one knows them better than themselves, therefore no one knows their best interests better than themselves, either. Children deserve the same rights as adults, after all. You sound like a fetal idolator who grants a fetus more rights than anyone born while claiming it to be ‘equal rights’ then revokes them upon birth similarly claiming it to be equal rights. SO contradictory but SO typical.


      • Bonnie_

        Our prisons are filled with fatherless boys and our ghettos are filled with husbandless single moms. If you correct for fatherhood, there is no color difference in prison populations at all. Care to tell us again how marriage makes no difference to children? Get back to me when fatherless men stop murdering, raping, and robbing the rest of us.

        • Arekushieru

          That has nothing to do with marriage. Care to tell me, again how stigmatizing, shaming and marginalizing single, poor women, especially those who are black, makes no difference in the lives of children? Of course, I forgot, people like you complain even when the problem YOU created (in this case, marriage being the best thing for women everywhere, and unmarried being the absolute WORST thing ever for anyone in the entire world, but especially for women) doesn’t get you the solution YOU want (which is ACTUALLY, and you people know it JUST as well as WE do, miserable women tied to abusive husbands because of children YOU forced them to have: UGH, I just PUKED writing that)

          And, yes, even IF you correct for fatherhood there are PLENTY of colour differences in the prison populations.

          Sorry, but get back to me when you can PROVE that fatherless men are ACTUALLY the ones raping, murdering and robbing the rest of us.

          Because, last I checked, most of the ones that do commit the crimes are NOT fatherless. OOOOOOPPPPPPSSSS.

        • JKN

          Oh, and I suppose two-parent households always produce successful offspring?

        • Dez

          Wow. As a black woman what you said was extremely racist and offensive. All you are doing is spreading the same tired stereotype of welfare queens and lazy black people. Shame on you.

    • verycold

      Great post. Young women today think they are empowered by having sexual relations with whomever they please. They are in the driver’s seat. I see young men happily sitting back and letting the “ladies” drive. Fewer young men are going to college, and fewer are getting married and fewer yet are sticking by their responsibilities and hence the 41 percent of households now run by a single mom. Camille really got under the skin of this article. I love Camille. She is doing her job pushing those content to keep things are they are even while showing poor results.

      • Arekushieru

        Sorry, but you’re just as ignorant as Camille Paglia. The fact that MEN may no longer be in the driver’s seat probably has more to do with the fact, like I stated below, that men can no longer violate, abuse and control women’s sexuality to their little hearts content any more, but their whining and tantrums get them nowhere, so they resort to childish sulking. Sorry, but how is not getting married a bad thing? Because if they don’t get married, they won’t have a ‘little woman’ under their control? That must be it, because, like Bonnie, you and the rest of your ilk obviously have something against single moms. Finally, I know you are so wrong about everything because you are SO wrong about THIS: Unlike what YOU state, CAMILLE is content to keep things as they are even while showing poor results. Abstinence-only sex ed, the thing that CAMILLE pushes for, is being used by the MAJORITY of schools in most of the states, but shows very LITTLE success in reducing teen pregnancy rates. On the other hand, COMPREHENSIVE sex-ed is used in the LEAST number of schools in the least number of states, yet shows even GREATER success. Oops, did I blow your mind? Probably did, because all you had was irrationality and now even that’s gone. And even MORE so, when I tell ya that was a CANADIAN telling you that. Oopsies?

      • Dez

        I’m a young queer black woman that had numerous sex partners and is married to my husband of 6 years. Thankfully I received advice from my mother about contraceptives and consent. No out of wedlock children for me. My husband definitely appreciates the years of experience I brought to our relationship. The fact that there are more single moms shows that women are the ones being responsible and raising their children instead of running off like a man. You should be lecturing men about not being irresponsible cowards and take care of their children like a woman.

        • verycold

          Not sure what “queer” means here, but women must be the gatekeepers with respect to sex. Having sex with multiple partners, isn’t something I would brag about, but is fashionable these days by young women that don’t have the same mentality about intimacy today. You want to be equal. I know. You can open your own doors. Yup, you don’t need a man and like Kate Winslet, the super left celeb has demonstrated, x husbands aren’t needed to be a parent. We have more single women raising kids by themselves, because they booted their boyfriends and husbands to the curb, and those lazy bums were happy to comply.

          • Dez

            That’s patriarchal religious nonsense that is demeaning to women and men. It portrays men as out of control animals and dismiss the fact that women are sexual beings. In no way is what you said even supported by scientific findings that shows that comprehensive sexual education and not religious abstinence only education works. You are an ancient dinosaur that knows nothing about sexuality. You do not even know what queer is and are trying to lecture about sexuality. I don’t want to be equal, I am. Only you think women are not equal to men. My husband opens doors for and I do too as a polite person. Apparently you lack basic manners if you think only men should open doors. Never did I say I don’t need a man. You come from a generation that forced women to marry men for money and security instead of love and compatibility. It shows in the red states that have your mindset where divorces and teen pregnancies are higher than liberal blue states that respect women as people. It’s clear that assertive women scare you. Good.

    • John H

      “Out of wedlock”? What is this, 1946? Why the supposition that the biological parents of a child will be married in the first place? It’s clearly not based on observation of reality, as you yourself point out.

  • JKN

    I completely agree with Martha Kempner. What right do adults have to tell teens that sexual gratification (masturbation, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc.) is wrong? Hello, it’s basically what created all of us (even in vitro babies). Besides, ignoring homosexuality and pre-marital sex is not being neutral. It’s actually being bigoted and ignorant. The way I see it, it’s promoting an ideology, anachronistic conservatism, that is.