Camille Paglia’s Problematic Op-Ed About Sex Education Misses The Mark On Teens And Sex

Camille Paglia Time Magazine sex ed pieceCamille Paglia‘s Time Magazine sex ed piece is causing some controversy for the writer this weekend. I will admit that it makes some decent points on how sex education might improve if some of the focus was gender-specific, such as including lessons on consent for boys (though I think this is also applicable to young women) and how STDs may effect fertility for girls. But it misses the mark on a lot of major issues. In particular I found this part to be problematic:

“Above all, girls need life-planning advice. Too often, sex education defines pregnancy as a pathology, for which the cure is abortion. Adolescent girls must think deeply about their ultimate aims and desires. If they want both children and a career, they should decide whether to have children early or late. There are pros, cons and trade-offs for each choice.”

Again, not all of this is bad. I think more young women taking the reins when it comes to family and career planning can only be a good thing. But to insinuate that current sex ed programs focus on abortion, when many of them are stifled from even discussing birth control options at all (and are therefore forced to focus on abstinence only), is disingenuous at best and an outright attempt to discredit legitimate sexual education programs at worst.

She does go on to make some valid points about the state of sexual education in America, however:

“Unfortunately, sex education in the U.S. is a crazy quilt of haphazard programs. A national conversation is urgently needed for curricular standardization and public transparency. The present system is too vulnerable to political pressures from both the left and the right–and students are trapped in the middle.”

I couldn’t agree more with Paglia on this point. But she loses me again in the very next paragraph with this gem:

“Sex education has triggered recurrent controversy, partly because it is seen by religious conservatives as an instrument of secular cultural imperialism, undermining moral values. It’s time for liberals to admit that there is some truth to this and that public schools should not promulgate any ideology. 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.”

Yes folks, you read that right. According to Paglia, the remedy for America’s problems when it comes to sexual education is MORE SHAME.

Shaming young women (because it’s really the women they’re shaming here, never the men) does nothing to further the advancement of sexual education. Nothing. Not only that, but abstinence only programs have been proven time and time again to be useless. In fact, states where abstinence only education is mandated have the highest rates of teen pregnancy (I’m looking at you, Mississippi).

I’m not against teaching abstinence in any way. But in addition to abstinence, teens need to be taught the facts about sex and sexual health. No one is advocating porn in the classroom, or “listing the varieties of sexual gratification, from masturbation to oral and anal sex” as Paglia but it. But giving kids the cold, hard facts about pregnancy, STDs,  consent, and choice is absolutely necessary. We don’t need to “put the sex back in sex education,” Ms. Paglia. We need to put the smarts back in sex education.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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  • Valerie

    I sort of see where she’s going with the hedonistic media-saturated environment thing but shame is definitely the wrong word. I think a healthy respect for sexual acts as something you do once you are mature enough to deal with its possible consequences is more the way to go. In no way do I think abstinence-only is the way to educate kids about sex but I do think it should be made clear that the decision to become sexually active should not be taken lightly by either gender and that it’s consequences have the potential to be lifelong and quite serious for both parties involved. I do think that in our society, save for the very religious, we have become a lot more casual in our view of sex acts and I do think this contributes to more teens doing it before they are emotionally ready. That goes for both boys and girls.

    • Kheldarson

      This. I remember a Cracked article that talked about teens (forget the full topic, but I’ll go search for it here in a moment) and how sexual attitudes were impressed on them. And the study it pulled basically said that young adults who waited longer for their first sexual occurrence had a healthier attitude about sex, its consequences, and what they, the individual, enjoyed, than those who started in high school.

    • Meg

      I can totally see this being true. I have never met anyone that regretted waiting til they were older to have sex (myself included). On the flip side, most of those that started having sex around 14-16 wish they had waited because nothing good came of those relationships.

    • Frances Locke

      I get your point. I was almost 18 when I lost my v-card, and it was to my ex-husband who I ended up being with for 8 years. But I know plenty of women who lost theirs between the ages of 14-16 and didn’t regret a thing. I think the key is educating young people about both the emotional and physical aspects of sexual activity (at an age-appropriate level) as early as you can.

    • Katherine Handcock

      I think that it very much depends on the couple involved. There are people in their mid- to late teens who I think are totally ready for a respectful, open, positive sexual relationship — and people in their forties where I’d totally be thinking, “Yeah, this isn’t a good idea…” Maturity and age are such different things!

  • EmmaFromÉire

    Nothing like a healthy dose of shame to sort your problems out.

    • Frances Locke

      Ha ha! If it were up to the Camille Paglias of the world all sexually active teens would wear a scarlet S for slut everywhere they went.

    • EmmaFromÉire

      We’d make a killing selling slutty letters in all kinds of fabric. i mean if you’re gonna be branded might as well do it with lace and silk, amirite?

    • pixie

      And sequins!

    • Eve Vawter

      I don’t think she has ever advocated for this ever. I need to read the Time article but I think it has to do with hard facts for teens about pregnant and STDs. I’ll admit I’ve read all of her books, mainly because she’s so controversial, but unless she has taken some whacky turn into Abstinenceville I don’t think she would promote that.

    • Frances Locke

      Honestly, now that I’ve read up on her a little more (I knew she was a radical feminist, but that means different things to different people), I think she was being a contrarian here.

  • C.J.

    We have a fairly decent sex-ed program at school here but I don’t rely on it. I teach my children everything they need to know myself and hope that if I missed something the school program will cover it. It’s sad that so many kids get no education at home or at school other than just don’t do anything. Teenage pregnancy is not a new thing, not talking to kids has worked so well in the past.

  • Ennis Demeter

    She is, as usual, all over the map.

    • Eve Vawter

      For every brilliant thing she says she says three more that make me go whaaaaat?

  • Katherine Handcock

    The sex education programs I participated in talked about various forms of contraception and STI prevention, but were plenty clear that none of these techniques were 100% foolproof. They also made it clear that abstaining was a surefire way to make sure you didn’t run into pregnancy, and which forms of abstinence ensured you could avoid STIs. It is definitely possible to combine both pieces of information.
    I still love Debra Haffner’s analogy about the question, “Doesn’t teaching them about contraception undermine the abstinence message?” She responds, “We tell teens to drive carefully – and wear a seatbelt so they’re safe in an accident. We tell kids to go outside and play, but wear sunscreen to avoid sunburn/skin cancer.” I think if you’re matter-of-fact about it, and honest about the associated risks, kids are far more likely to respect that.

    • Frances Locke

      When I was in high school here in NYC, we had great sex ed, even in Catholic high school. But in the midwest it was abstinence and nothing else. Even at the time I thought it seemed counter-productive.

  • Eve Vawter

    Ok I read it. I got something so different out of the op-ed then you did. And I agree with her , which shocks me , because I usually don’t. Girls 1000000% need to be told how unprotected sex and STDs can affect their future fertility and they need information about menopause.

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  • koreander

    That’s an interesting point she’s making about the separate sex-ed classes for boys and girls. What I find a bit odd, though, are her choices for boys’ and girls’ topics, especially how she emphasises that consent should be taught primarily to boys. It’s such an important thing to learn about for both genders equally – how to communicate consent, what to do if one doesn’t like something, how to ask consent from one’s partner, legal aspects – and I think it would be irresponsible to reduce it to telling boys not to rape anyone. Similarly, her point about how “girls must learn to distinguish sexual compliance from popularity” clearly applies to male students as well, to the point where boys get bullied and called names if they don’t get sexually active as early as their peers, so I don’t understand why she’s making it a girls’ issue only.

  • SA

    I have never understood the argument that says that sex ed teaches immorality. I never had a sex ed teacher that said “just get an abortion” or “go ahead, HAVE SOME SEX”…all it does is teach the facts – here is what starts a period, here is how you get pregnant, here are symptoms of STDs, here are ways to prevent pregnancy and STDs. These lessons are helpful in the institution of marriage as well, if you don’t want to get pregnant again, if your unfaithful husband brings home an STD, etc.

  • ted3553

    I think because I’ve got 2 teen aged girls at home, I came at her statement about shame from a slightly different angle and I agree with her. I don’t think people ever need to be ashamed about having sex but when I see and hear about what some teenagers are doing around sexuality, I think perhaps some of that should be a little more shameful. I don’t think teens need to be sexting and it’s now almost becoming the norm and accepted. Maybe shame is the wrong word but her message rang true with me.

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