by Mary Frances Cavallaro
Germantown’s own Al Vernacchio, 49, is an active and highly involved member in the community in teaching his students and audience about human sexuality. He teaches English and Human Sexuality at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood. He was featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in an article titled “Teaching Good Sex” in November, 2011. The cover story discussed his Sexuality and Society class. Laurie Abraham, author of the article, interviewed Vernacchio and his students, beautifully captured how the class works and received an overwhelmingly positive response.
Vernacchio explains, “Sexuality and Society is a course for 12th graders. It meets every day for a full class block all year (so it is scheduled as a ‘regular’ course just like math, English, etc.). It is an elective class, so students are not required to take it. There is heavy competition to get into it, though, and it fills up within the few minutes of course registration each year. Sexuality and Society starts with the premise that sexuality is a fundamental force for good in our lives. The course examines a wide array of topics in human sexuality from a variety of perspectives: biological, psychological, cultural, ethical and historical.”
The second course taught by Vernacchio is called Human Sexuality and is a required course for all ninth graders. It meets once a week for the entire school year and is focused on defining healthy sexuality throughout one’s lifespan and how to “make deliberate, informed decisions as a key to sexual health.”
It’s important to note that Vernacchio teaches human sexuality through the lens of social justice. He considers every aspect of human sexuality to be integrally tied to social justice. “Healthy sexuality makes the world a more equal, loving, open place,” he said. “It empowers individuals to be their authentic selves and to strive to create connections with others that are positive and sustaining.”
It’s comforting to know that students are eager to learn and understand human sexuality. They see that society is not sexually healthy and has a mix of obsessive attraction to and a deep revulsion of anything sexual. “We’re all supposed to be interested in sex all the time,” said Vernacchio, “but we’re not supposed to talk about it or feel good about it, and we fundamentally distrust and fear sexuality as a threatening force. The students need and want help in sorting all this out. They are so appreciative of a space where they can learn accurate information and talk honestly and openly about their feelings, their opinions and their values.”
He assures that he is not against abstinence and that he educates and helps students explore healthy options. “’Abstinence only’ education provides one model for healthy sexuality,” he said, “remaining sexually abstinent until marriage. Comprehensive sexuality education includes teaching that abstinence can be a healthy choice if that fits one’s value system, but that there are many choices that result in healthy sexuality, not just one…Comprehensive sexuality education is not an ‘anything goes’ model, as it is sometimes characterized by its opponents.”
When he is not intriguing young minds, Vernacchio volunteers at ActionAIDS, Philadelphia’s largest AIDS-service organization, for the past 15 years. He speaks about the medical/biological aspects of HIV/AIDS at the volunteer orientations. He worked there as the Coordinator of Training and Volunteers from 1994 to 1998. And if he is not volunteering, he is presenting TED talks. (TED is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.”)
In March 2012, Vernacchio was invited to Long Beach, California, to speak at a TED conference. He was among educators, including Bill Nye the Science Guy! In his eight-minute presentation he commented that many Americans use baseball as a metaphor for sexual activity, which sets up unhealthy, competitive and goal-directed expectations about sex.
This Saturday, April 5, 6:30 p.m., in the Crystal Tea Room, 100 E. Penn Square, Vernacchio will be honored at the 15th Annual Black-Tie GayBINGO, where all funds raised go to HIV/AIDS services in the Greater Philadelphia region. There will be cocktails, a silent auction, six bingo games and entertainment from Bingo Verifying Divas, who dress in glamorous drag.
Additionally, be on the lookout for Vernacchio’s book, “For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens about Sexuality, Values, and Health.” It is being published by HarperWave, a division of Harper-Collins, this coming fall.