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Authors: Alfred Vernacchio

For Goodness Sex

BOOK: For Goodness Sex
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Dedication

To my students past and present, who bring meaning, purpose, and joy to my work, and to Michael, who brings meaning, purpose, and joy to my life.

Contents

Dedication

 

Introduction: Sexuality as a Force for Good

Chapter 1 - Teaching Healthy Sex

Chapter 2 - Creating a Family Philosophy of Sex: What We Believe, What We Say, and How We Say It

Chapter 3 - Baseball, You’re Out! Sexual Activity Without the Bases

Chapter 4 - Love and Relationships: Becoming Your Authentic Self

Chapter 5 - Gender Myths: Helping Kids Step Outside New and Old Gender Stereotypes

Chapter 6 - Sexual Orientation: Whom We Love

Chapter 7 - OK, So I Have a Body. How Do I Like It and What Do I Do with It?

Chapter 8 - #iloveyou: Teens, Sex, and Technology

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Index

 

About the Author

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

Introduction:
Sexuality as a Force for Good

P
eople often ask me, “What do you think of the state of sex in America today?” I always quote my friend Jeanmarie, who says that we’re “sexually repressed to the point of being sexually obsessed.” Let that sink in a bit because it’s the best description I have for how we treat sexuality in this country. We are a nation founded by people who saw sex as something sinful, and this sex-negative view has followed us all the way to the twenty-first century. It’s made us into a society that’s incredibly uptight and uncomfortable when it comes to talking openly about sex. Yet when we flip through
Vogue
and come across a racy Dolce & Gabbana ad or find ourselves engrossed in the bestselling book
Fifty Shades of Grey
, we’re as titillated by our interest as we are disgusted by it.

Sexuality education today typically falls into one of two categories. “There is abstinence-only sex education, and there’s abstinence-based sex ed,” Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, recently told the
New York Times
. “There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.” When the HIV/AIDS epidemic broke out in the early eighties, there was a steady stream of funding for programs teaching safer sex. But most of that funding went to “abstinence education,” which aimed to keep teenagers from having any sexual activity at all, largely by limiting information to the most basic biological facts and relying on fear-based tactics that highlighted the dangers of sex. Some of you probably remember an abstinence-education video that was often shown in classrooms in the 1980s and ’90s called
No Second Chances
. In the film, a teenager asks a school nurse, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” The nurse responds, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.”

In 2011, President Obama gutted the budget for abstinence-only education, in part because there’s no evidence that it stops kids from engaging in sexual intercourse. According to a government report, prepared by Representative Henry A. Waxman, many abstinence-only programs also taught scientific inaccuracies about sex.
The Waxman Report
notes that one federally funded program passed out materials that said that HIV/AIDS could pass through a condom because the latex is so porous, which experts say isn’t true.
1
Sexuality educators today can be so stifled by school boards that, according to the
New York Times Magazine
, some are asked in job interviews if they can teach sex ed without saying the word
sex
. Both abstinence-based and abstinence-only approaches rely on “disaster prevention,” meaning that educators are presenting sex and its consequences as dangerous, potentially catastrophic events. Sex can kill you or ruin your life.

Is that really what sex is to us? It’s not what it is to me, and I doubt that’s what sex is to you. But how can we possibly expect young people to go from those scary, sex-negative messages to establishing relationships based on trust, intimacy, and pleasure? How
can
you have a good sexual relationship when no one ever tells you how to do that? There’s plenty of talk about what
not
to do, but that doesn’t automatically provide a road map for creating a happy and successful sexual life.

It’s the silence from the trusted adults in their lives that leads so many kids to go to the Internet for answers. If you Google “what is oral sex,” “fingering,” or “falling in love,” you get millions of hits, and many of them are from sources you
wouldn’t
want your kids to trust. It’s likely your child will click from one pornographic site to the next in search of an explanation that could have been provided by you in a few sentences. The types of images they see online are bound to give them an unhealthy view of gender and sexual activity. Unfortunately, we’re living in a world where Internet pornography is the basic template that many kids use to define what sex is like, what they’re expected to do physically in a relationship, and how they’re supposed to look when they’re doing it.

Chances are that if you’re not talking to your kids about sex, their sexual education is more like a junk food diet; they’re picking up whatever they can from movies, commercials, TV, video games, and online porn. That’s why I strive so hard in my classes to help kids see themselves accurately—as sexual beings who have values and choices to make, as authentic individuals with a set of likes and dislikes, as real people who aren’t
supposed
to look like models on billboards or porn stars in movies. I teach them not to make sexual decisions based on how attractive or unattractive they think they are. I ask them to examine their gender identity and sexual orientation and understand the impact they have on their sexual activity.

I can’t imagine standing up in front of a class of twenty seniors—young fresh-faced kids getting ready to go off to college—and telling them that having sex is going to ruin their lives. How does that help them develop a healthy sexuality? What kind of message would I be sending about intimacy, love, and relationships? Instead, what if we equipped our children to know and love their bodies, to see their partners as unique individuals rather than sex toys, and to make decisions based on accurate information and their own values? What if we sent kids off into the world with a clear view of the role that sexuality plays in their lives, now and for years to come?

Rather than just telling them what’s
not
OK, what if we worked at telling them what
is
OK? Notice I haven’t talked penetration. I haven’t mentioned semen. I won’t go there in my class until we get to a place where we’re all ready. Teaching kids about sexuality is about giving them the skills, the framework, for putting themselves out there in the world with confidence. It’s about valuing healthy bodies and healthy minds. It’s about giving young people the tools to make healthy choices.

Here’s what you need to know about me: I’m an educator. I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was five years old (except for a brief stint in fourth grade when I wanted to be the pope). I’m not a therapist or a clinician. I’m not a parent, although as a teacher for over twenty years, I’ve certainly acted in a parental role to countless kids. I’m also not just some creepy old guy who likes to talk about sex. I have a master’s degree in human sexuality education from the University of Pennsylvania. I was drawn to my work, in part, because I’ve always been able to talk openly and easily about sex. I always quip that when God was passing out talents, I got ease in talking about sex. So let’s get to it.

Chapter 1
Teaching Healthy Sex

O
n the first day of my Sexuality and Society class, I don’t pass around anatomy drawings. I don’t hand out pamphlets about safer sex, although those are stacked on a table near the door. Instead, the first thing I do is establish ground rules. I do this while standing at my podium at the front of the class in my sweater vest and tie, a wall of buttons and pins behind me. Some of my favorites say:
RESIST HOMOPHOBIA, FIGHT SEXISM, ENJOY LIFE. THIS IS NOT A DRESS REHEARSAL,
and
TEACH, DON

T BULLY
! I’m all about context. Talking about sexuality, intimacy, relationships, and pleasure can’t be done in a vacuum. So we establish guidelines: people should speak for themselves, laughter is OK, we won’t ask “personal history” questions, and we’ll work to create a community of peers who care about and respect one another. Only then can we get to work.

One of the early activities in class involves handing out blank index cards to the students and asking them to write down the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word
sexuality
. I tell them that I’m going to collect the cards, shuffle them, and read their responses aloud. This affords them safety to say what they really think and to hear their peers’ responses anonymously.

Many of the cards say things like, “sex,” “having sex,” or “being straight, gay, or bi.” Some of the cards say “relationships” or “hooking up.” Some are blank, while others say, “I really don’t know; nobody’s ever asked me that before.”

They’re not bad definitions, and they already reveal a certain amount of vulnerability, which will grow as the course continues. “Those are all good answers,” I tell them. “But isn’t sexuality more personal than that? Isn’t it about knowing yourself as much as it is about engaging in anything physical?” At the beginning of the year, I’m always reminded of how young teenagers are, despite how old they try to act, and how little they actually know about sexuality, even their own bodies.

I like to challenge kids to think about sexuality as a philosophy, not an act. Over the course of my yearlong term with them, I’ll focus on the positive role that healthy sexuality can play in their lives.

I decided a long time ago that my role as a sexuality educator isn’t to get teenagers to have or not to have sex—that’s something they’ll decide as they grow to know themselves and their values more clearly. But I do see it as my job to get kids to think more thoughtfully about sexuality, to learn what it means to respect their bodies, and to offer them a positive and realistic framework from which to make sexual decisions. I do this by staging dialogues about love and relationships, gender roles in high school and in society, how we choose personal morals and values, and sexual orientation. I give them a chance to ask questions, even taboo ones, by slipping a piece of paper into the class Question Box. I take one out at a time and answer for everybody to hear. I’ve gotten questions that range from “How do you know you’re in love?” to “Are you a semi-virgin if you’ve had oral sex but not intercourse?” to “How can I love my body more?” to “Do people from different races make different colored sperm?”

As we start to talk about what sexuality is, I hand out a worksheet that asks students to rate how they feel about different aspects of themselves—their bodies, their emotional selves, their gender, their spiritual selves. They can choose from ratings like “love it,” “feel okay about it,” and “don’t like it.” A girl in skinny jeans and a high ponytail marks “love it” for her mind, “don’t like it” for her body. When the students are finished, I call them back to attention.

“So, there’s a lot more to this than just sex, isn’t there,” I say. “Sexuality is the way our gender and sexual orientation influence how we act in the world and the way the world reacts to us. Healthy sexuality means having an accurate and positive view of ourselves, and using that as a basis for our relationships and our life choices.”

They look . . . confused, so I continue. “We’re not just walking genitals, right?” They laugh, and I laugh along with them. “We’re whole people with bodies, brains, emotions, and spirits. All of those things are part of our sexuality. When we look at the world, we do it as a man, a woman, or however we define our gender. We also look at the world through the lens of our sexual orientation—whom we are attracted to and whom we fall in love with. All of those things are involved as we make decisions about what to do with our genitals, aren’t they?”

The boy in the corner wearing sweatpants and a hoodie says, “I guess, but how?”

“Well, take me, for example,” I say. “I’m a short, fat, hairy, Italian American man. I’m gay, and have been with my husband for twenty years. I’m a person who laughs a lot and leads with my heart rather than my head. Spirituality and religious faith are essential parts of my life. Do you think all those things affect how I behave in the world? Do you think they influence how the world sees me and reacts to me?”

“Aww, Mr. V,” a girl pipes up and gives me a big smile. “You’re not fat.”

“Fat, plump, round, fleshy—call it whatever you want,” I say, smiling back at her. “I’m still sexy as hell.”

The class erupts into hoots and hollers.

“But, go back to my question, do you think my gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, temperament—all those things I just listed about myself—have an impact on my actions and the world’s reactions to me?”

BOOK: For Goodness Sex
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