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“Sexuality education is a form of social justice education”
A conversation with Al Vernacchio
As I work through envisioning what good sex education should look like, I first wanted to see where it already exists. I quickly found out that I’m lucky enough to live in the same city as one of the brightest examples. Al Vernacchio has been destigmatizing sexuality education for over 25 years through his work as a high school teacher, public speaker, writer, and consultant.
Al was profiled in The New York Times Magazine in 2011 for his progressive and inclusive Sexuality and Society class at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. He’s also given some incredible TED talks. His 2014 book For Goodness Sex is getting an updated and expanded edition in the winter of 2023 in paperback and audiobook, but it’s definitely worth reading the original now if you feel as strongly as I do about the need for sex education reform.
What I admire most about Al’s approach to teaching young people about sex is his honesty in the face of complexity. It’s an incredible opportunity in both its pressure and potential, and he brings a much-needed spirit of transparency and approachability to his work. We chatted about his own experiences with sex education as a child, how his approach has changed over the course of his impressive career, and how he meets the needs of current high school students.
While it seems that most of the information about sex that has stayed with you was self-taught thanks to a library card and a curious spirit (you write that you “found the answer” to your sexuality at a young age in the dictionary upon discovering the word “homosexual”), what was your experience with formal sex education growing up? This could be in school, at home, at church—any information you didn’t purposefully seek out yourself. How did it influence your approach to teaching future generations about sex?
I had minimal formal sexuality education, and what I had was heavily filtered through the lens of religion. At home, my parents gave me cursory and confusing information when I hit puberty. My mother talked about "the marriage act" (by which she means intercourse) being something I was probably curious about but that it was reserved only for married couples. My father told me that "mastication" was something boys did but that I shouldn't do it "too much.” (My dad frequently mixed up words or used the wrong word. My favorite was that he called the accelerator pedal in the car the "exhillerator.”) That was about it.
I went to a Catholic high school for boys run by the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests). I remember we had some lessons around sexuality as part of a religion class, but I honestly don't remember the content. I remember we had a chance to ask anonymous questions and I asked if a boy should confess his sin of masturbation directly or use more shrouded language (like "impure acts"). I remember the priest telling us that priests were fully prepared to hear the word masturbation. Interestingly, he never said that masturbation wasn't a sin. I also remember the priest kept taking out his handkerchief and wiping his sweaty palms.
In church I heard all the traditional Catholic teachings about sex—that sex before marriage was a sin, that homosexuality was a sin, that purity was a virtue (more for girls than boys), that birth control was a sin, etc. There was a priest in my parish who always prayed at mass that homosexuals would be healed. He prayed for healing for the same 3 groups every week: veterans, people living near nuclear power plants, and homosexuals.
I didn't have the kinds of friendships where information about sex was shared or talked about. Most of my friends were girls and they certainly weren't talking to me about anything sexual. The boys (who probably were talking about sex) were not my friends—they were the ones who bullied me for being a "fag," so I steered clear of them as much as possible.
These experiences certainly influenced my teaching in that I believe young people have the right to information about sexuality and it should be readily available. I work hard to normalize talking about sexality in my classes so students see a model of what that looks like and can know that there's nothing wrong with their natural curiosity about sex. When I was a kid, there was a dearth of information, even if you were looking for it. Today there's so much information readily available that I need to help kids discern what information is valid and valuable and which needs to be looked at critically.
I really admire your determination to provide young people with the information they need to navigate sex safely and intentionally. It’s my understanding that in your first teaching job, you were hired to teach religious studies, and you turned a tacked-on unit on human sexuality into a required, full-semester course. Then, after your graduate program in Human Sexuality, you were hired by your current school to teach English, and you asked if you might also be able to put your new degree to use. You’ve now been teaching your acclaimed Sexuality and Society course for over 20 years. What changes have you noticed in the needs and attitudes of students in your sex education courses throughout your career? What has stayed the same?
Something that doesn't change over the years—being 13 is being 13 whether in 1982 or in 2022. Humans have pretty consistent needs and go through developmental phases that don't seem to be affected that much by the passage of time. I'm always amazed how my 9th graders have the same questions year after year, and the 4th graders are just as nervous to talk about puberty this year as they were 20 years ago. This is actually good news for educators. We can predict what needs a student has and we get the chance to work at serving those needs more and more successfully as time passes. I'm a much better teacher of 16-year-olds now than I was 20 years ago because I've had 20 years of practice working with 16-year-olds.
One thing that has changed, and you won't be surprised by this answer, is the amount of information that is available to young people today and the easy accessibility of that information. Technology has progressed to the point where the world is truly available at our fingertips. Children and young people's brains aren't well equipped to handle that much information. They need help discerning what information will actually be helpful to them and what will lead them into trouble. My job today contains far more lessons about media literacy, assessing information, and the skill of looking at the sources of information and their biases and purposes. Kids today don't need me to tell them how sperm cells form or what sexual intercourse is, but they do need help figuring out what the best source is for finding that information and determining what information exists for their benefit and what is trying to steer them away from authenticity and truth.
One other thing: when thinking about identity formation, especially around adolescence, young people today have many more options to consider than simply whether they feel like a boy or girl and whether they are gay, straight, or bisexual. Our understanding of both gender identity and sexual/romantic orientation has greatly increased over the last 10–15 years, and we have an ever-increasing list of labels one can use to describe their gender and their attractions. This is a great benefit in that it allows people to find a more precise way to describe their own experiences of themselves. What it has also brought about is greater latitude in experimenting with different identity labels (or different identities themselves). It's not uncommon today for young people to try out different labels, different pronouns, and different relationships in search of their truth. This can be quite jarring for older people who had fewer options and were taught that identity, once established, was unchanging. I talk a lot with parents and caregivers about how it's perfectly normal for pre-teens, teens, and even young adults to shift how they think of and label themselves. Yes, there certainly still are people who establish an identity label early in life and don't shift, but the possibility of shifts and changes (in language or behavior) may happen and shouldn’t be looked at as a sign of confusion or a problem.
You’re very transparent in your writing about your South Philadelphia, Roman Catholic upbringing, and how what you were taught about faith did not necessarily align with your sexuality from a young age. How do you navigate the effects of similar upbringings with your students? Prior to stepping foot in your classroom, many young people may have received a fear-based and/or abstinence-only sex education, but your approach seems to be quite the opposite.
The first unit I cover in the Sexuality and Society class is values. I want students to understand that everything they do, everything they read, everything I say to them is embedded in some set of values. If you understand values, you understand why someone does what they do, or why they say what they say. My job is not to teach a specific set of values, although I do make clear what my values are as an educator, and I don't ever pretend to be "value-free" or "value-neutral" because I don't believe that exists. My job is to invite students to think about the various value sets they've been exposed to and invite them to explore which speak truth to them and which don't.
I also want them to be savvy enough to understand when a value set seems to be saying one thing but is really about something else. For example, and this is a personal example, the reason I had to leave the Roman Catholic Church is that it became obvious to me that while they preach openness and love, the values they truly care about are power and control. That's not what Jesus intended, it's not what Jesus taught, and it's not what Jesus would approve of were he in the world today (in a physical sense). I can't abide any organization that claims to love me only so that it can put its foot on my neck and wrestle me into submission. So I want my students to critically examine the messages they've received about sex and sexuality in their lives and figure out what value set that's based upon. Then they, like every person, have a choice to make. They can affirm those values or they can seek something else.
The worst thing they can do is accept what someone says (and that includes me) blindly and uncritically. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for kids who were raised in a religious household. I actually spend a whole lot of time urging them not to throw out their entire religious sensibility. Faith is a beautiful and transformative thing, not something to be tossed away callously. I may not be a Catholic anymore, but I am still a deeply religious and spiritual man. I value ritual, prayer, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and church. If my experience taught me that those were really the driving forces in catholicism today I might have stayed. Now one of the things that's important is that my students don't have to have those values nor do I teach that those values are somehow "right." They're my values. Students need time and space and guidance to discover their own.
You mentioned that technology is the biggest change you’ve seen over your career and that students often need help distinguishing false information from the truth, especially involving sex. Since it seems unavoidable for the internet to act as a supplemental (or primary) sex educator for young people, how do you work alongside this to help guide them in the right direction?
In class, students frequently raise questions about things they find online and I ask them where they found the information. That opens up a lot of opportunities for conversations about why a source might be trustworthy or not. It is true that the internet acts as the primary means of sexuality education for many kids, but that's in the absence of good, comprehensive sexuality education or trusted adults the kids can talk to. Courses like mine make it less likely that kids will go to any random website to find information.
Are there online sources that you feel teach about sex in a healthy, nuanced way? If so, what are some of them? Do you incorporate online sources in your teaching at all?
I always make a resource list I’ve created available to parents and students K-12. I maintain a class blog where I list websites I recommend students use when they want reliable information about sexuality. I also use a lot of videos and web pages in my classes that I link to our classroom management system so students have easy access to good information. For middle school kids, I think Amaze.org is terrific. For high school students, I love Sexetc, Scarleteen, and Guerilla sex ed. I use many resources when I teach. I'm always looking for YouTube videos, Buzzfeed lists, fun online quizzes, and other material for my classes. If I use something in class, I post the link to it so students can access it outside of class.
I also want to talk about internet porn. You mention in your book that kids see internet porn for the first time, intentionally or not, at around age eleven. Additionally, you discuss amateur porn sites like Pornhub in class, so I’m wondering if OnlyFans has come up in any discussions with students. On the one hand, it is more individualized and seemingly authentic since it’s not directed by a studio, but on the other, it is still presenting sex out of context and in the style of a “performance.” Do you think this proliferation of online porn is influencing students’ relationships with sex?
OnlyFans certainly comes up in my classes (although not every student knows what it is so sometimes I have to explain it). I don't know if things like that or internet porn influence their perception of sex, but it's absolutely influenced their perceptions of privacy. When talking about online porn, I often ask whether students expect that a camera will be involved when they have sex with someone else (or when they have sex alone). While they often say no, the reality is that filming themselves is second nature to this generation, and sites like OnlyFans certainly normalizes filming oneself during sexual encounters. It's also common today that a number of young people have taken nude pictures of themselves (or parts of themselves), and they have received unsolicited (or solicited) nudes from someone else over text or social media. (I don't ask students if they have done this.) I don't know that increased access to online pornography is responsible for this; I think it's more just their phones becoming an extension of themselves. They are, without a doubt, the most photographed generation ever, and so many of those photos are selfies! When I say that students' expectations of privacy are different, I mean that they often consider sexting to be private, meaning that the photos will stay only with their intended recipient, even though they have overwhelming evidence that that is not true. I have not yet found an effective way to address this with students.
I suppose this question should’ve come earlier because it’s a bit more all-encompassing, but what do you think are some key elements of thorough, inclusive sex ed?
I can't decide whether this is the easiest or hardest question you've asked me. Good sexuality education is age-appropriate, medically accurate, value-explicit (the values used in teaching are made explicit), honest, joyful, intersectional, communal, and accessible to all learners. It's a natural extension of the education necessary to be a positive, helpful, member of society.
Sexuality education doesn't exist in a vacuum. It can be taught as a means to reinforce or challenge dominant paradigms. For me, sexuality education is a form of social justice education. I believe that comprehensive, progressive sexuality education should make people (and therefore the world) more free, more loving, more open, and more accepting. Sexuality education is a tool in creating a world where social ills (everything from unplanned/unwanted pregnancies to racism) are reduced. That means that sexuality education has to be intersectional. I mentioned that word in the last paragraph, but I think it's worth emphasizing that when sexuality education is not intersectional it likely only reinforces the power and privilege that already exists in our society. So when talking about body image, for example, it's important to think about how ethnic and racial differences impact how people view their bodies. When talking about abortion, it's essential to talk about the political and cultural barriers that prevent it from being a service available to all people seeking it. When talking about pornography, we also talk about how it fetishizes certain groups of people. Even when talking with young children, we can challenge the idea that gender is necessarily binary, and reinforce the idea that love and caring, not gender, is the essential element to creating a family.
Sexuality education is both intellectual and affective; there is a body of knowledge to be learned, but also time must be spent processing the emotions that may arise in learning this information. Emphasis should be placed on how to make a decision that is in accordance with one's values, and how to handle value conflicts. Ultimately, good sexuality education teaches us who we are most authentically, allows us to form relationships (both sexual and nonsexual) based in that authenticity, and use those relationships to better the larger world.
Tyler Burgese is a Philadelphia-based sociologist who studies the many ways that sexuality and technology intersect, and have recently been thinking about what good, queer sex education looks like. You can follow him on Twitter @tylerburgese and Instagram @tburgese.