Commentary Sexual Health

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

Martha Kempner

In a recent editorial, Paglia argues for moving toward a sex ed 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. But sexuality educators disagree.

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.

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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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