At a time when anything beyond abstinence-only education feels like a hard-won progressive victory, it’s remarkable to come across a teacher going far beyond just talk of birth control and STDs. Philadelphia high school teacher Al Vernacchio covers the basics of anatomy and safe sex, but he also teaches students about pleasure. As in orgasms. As in, masturbation. As in, sex offers more than just the specter of a giant cauliflower growth on your genitals! Oh, and by the way, the sex ed staple of those terrifying images of genital warts in their most extreme manifestations? He doesn’t show those. That’s because Vernacchio spurns what he calls the “disaster model.” He calls his brand of teaching “sex positive education.”
Maybe you’re already familiar with Vernacchio. Nearly three years ago, he gained national notoriety in a New York Times Magazine cover story about his unusual approach to this subject. The response to the coverage was not what you might expect for such contentious territory. “In fact, I did not get one email or phone call that was critical,” he tells me. “Quite the contrary. The week after the article ran I got a delivery of flowers from parents at my school.” They weren’t even from parents with children in his classes; they just wanted to thank him for being part of their community. The Times piece led to a TED Talk, which now has over a million views. That led to his new book, “For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health,” which comes out tomorrow.
I spoke to Vernacchio by phone about conservative parents, fears about teen sex, and why he thinks the U.S. is slowly moving beyond abstinence-only education.
How are we getting sex education wrong in this country?
The major way we get sex education wrong is we start from a place of sex as a problem. I call it the disaster model. We start by saying, “Here are all the terrible things that can happen if you have sex. Now go have a healthy relationship.” We just can’t do it that way. So I start from the premise that sexuality is a force for good in the universe and that we can use it all kinds of ways to create close connection and equity and even justice in the world. If that was the way we started sex ed, I think we’d be much more successful.
How can we convince parents who are coming from a place of fear about their kids and sex that your approach is appropriate?
What I try to do when I speak to parents is to ask them to envision what they would most hope for their kids in terms of a relationship. When I do that, most parents imagine their kids in a successful, fond, loving, healthy, sexy relationship. Then I simply ask them, starting from where your kid is today, how do you get there? It’s pretty clear that you don’t get there by scare tactics. That the only way you develop a healthy relationship is you give people accurate information and you teach them skills that help them achieve that. I think for parents you have to actually start from the end — where do you want to get to?
What about parents who feel that sex before marriage is morally wrong?
First of all, I really believe that my job is not to change people’s fundamental values. So if someone believes that sex before marriage is morally wrong, one of the things I want to engage that parent about is, OK, how do we help this young person develop the skills so that, if that is a value that they also share, that they actually can achieve that. How do we teach them negotiation skills? How do we teach them how to have conversations about sex and sexuality with partners. Also, what is an appropriate form of connection, pleasure, closeness that they can engage in? For every no we give a kid, we have to give them a yes. I’m not going to say to a parent: That approach is completely unrealistic and wrong. I don’t think that’s respectful, but if that’s really the goal, same thing, how are you going to get there? You’re not going to get there by just telling them to say no.
The way that we actually approach sex education in this country seems so far from what you’re saying is ideal. So how do we change that?
One of the things that I think would really help is if we actually had people who were trained in sexuality education teaching sex ed.
What a thought!
Yeah. So often the people who are teaching sex ed are very well-meaning and very good in their chosen field, but that field is often health and phys ed. I think one of the reasons I can do the work I do is I actually have a degree in human sexuality education. I wish more schools would be interested enough in sex ed to say, “Let’s get an expert.” We want the most qualified people to teach our kids, and yet for this most important subject we say, “Well, yes, this person can do it.” That’s one of the really big steps we need to think about.
Have we made progress or are we still mired in debates over abstinence-only education?