New York Times Magazine Spotlights A Comprehensive Sexuality Education Course

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Commentary Sexual Health

New York Times Magazine Spotlights A Comprehensive Sexuality Education Course

Martha Kempner

In a refreshing change from articles on sex education controversies, virginity pledge events, and chastity balls, the New York Times Magazine shows us what sex education can be when a good teacher is given the freedom to address the subject in an open, honest, and comprehensive way. 

In an article entitled, Teaching Good Sex, Laurie Abraham profiles a sex education course at a private school in Philadelphia that—to a sex educator like me —sounds damn near perfect.  Taught by Al Vernacchio, a veteran high school English teacher who also has a master’s degree in human sexuality, the course focuses not on preventing disasters like teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) but on helping young people think critically about their sexuality and their behavior. 

One of Vernacchio’s signature lessons involves having students analyze the ubiquitous metaphor of sex as being like baseball.  Baseball, for example, is a competitive sport that has specific goals (as Vernacchio puts it in the article “you can’t just say, ‘I’m really happy at second base’”). The players have an adversarial relationship to each other where one (in sex it’s typically understood to be the boy) is trying to advance and the other is trying to hold him off. 

After looking at this metaphor, the students in his class work on creating a better one in which sex is more like pizza.

While baseball is played at an appointed date and time, people order pizza because they’re hungry and they want it.  When ordering pizza with others, people often talk about what they want whether it’s the typical toppings like sausage and pepperoni or the odder ones like pineapple.  “…None of these are wrong; variety in the pizza model doesn’t come with judgment.”  More importantly, though, the goal of eating pizza isn’t to win, it’s just to be satisfied:  “That might be different for different people; it might be different for you on different occasions. Nobody’s like ‘You failed, you didn’t eat the whole pizza.’” 

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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I was at a meeting a number of years ago where Vernacchio conducted this lesson with a room full of sexuality educators and I instantly loved it.  It does exactly what I think sex education should do for young people, it makes them think, re-examine their ideas, develop new ones, and talk about it with one another. This is what Vernacchio’s class, Sexuality and Society, is designed to do. According to the article, “His goal is for young people to know their own minds, be clear about what they want and don’t want and use their self-knowledge to make choices.” 

And as the article shows, in interviews with the students, the class is working.  It helped one girl figure out how to approach her partner about whether or not he was seeing anyone else because she was considering getting more serious but only if they were exclusive. In starting the conversation, she relied on Vernacchio’s distinction between nagging and asking for what you want. It helped two boys who masturbated to pornography but “found themselves disoriented at real-life encounters with girls,” understand how that could happen.  One explained, “Pornography gives boys the impression that the girl is there to do any position you want, or to please you….But yesterday, when Mr. V. said there is no romanticism or intimacy in porn, porn is strictly sexual—I’d never thought about that.”  And, it helped one girl who really liked sex shed the feeling that she was doing something wrong. 

I think the instant love for the pizza lesson was unanimous at the meeting I was at.  We all felt like it was an ingenious way to challenge society’s assumptions about sex and engage young people.  But something else was unanimous as well—the feeling that Vernacchio was unusually lucky to be able to teach such a lesson without worrying that parents would be outraged, administrators would balk, and he might ultimately lose his job. 

In most schools, particularly public schools, classes simply can’t be as comprehensive or open as this one.  In some cases this is because there is an actual policy on the state or local level that limits what can be discussed in sexuality education courses.  A number of states, for example, say that classes must focus exclusively, or at least primarily, on abstinence or forbid classes from discussing homosexuality.  In other cases, teachers censor themselves out of completely justifiable fears.  Too often we have seen communities erupt when a teacher discusses a “controversial topic” (think homosexuality, abortion, or masturbation), parents complain to administrators or the school board, and suddenly the teacher finds herself facing the threat of being fired. 

These are also the stories that most often appear in the press.  Sex sells and controversy sells, and most often when sex education is in the news it’s because someone is unhappy about what was said in the classroom.  In some ways this makes sense.  After all, if everything is fine and no one is complaining, it’s not exactly news.  Moreover, however, as Abraham points out, it can be hard to find good sex educators who feel comfortable and supported enough to be featured in the press. There is a definite sense that it’s safer to keep quiet than to draw any attention to those classes and teachers that are providing high quality sex ed. 

I’m glad that Abraham sought to spotlight good sex education and that Vernacchio and his students were in a position to tell their stories without fear.  Maybe if parents read what can go on when good teachers are given the freedom to address this subject in a comprehensive way, more teachers will get the okay to start courses like this one. 

Hey, a sex educator can dream right?