by Len Lear and Mary Frances Cavallaro
For some reason, says Germantown educator Al Vernacchio, the metaphors for talking about sex in the U.S. all come from baseball — scoring, getting to first base, hitting a home run, etc. The problem is, this frames sex as a competition, with a winner and a loser. Instead, he suggests a new metaphor, one that’s more about shared pleasure, discussion and agreement, fulfillment and enjoyment. “Let’s talk about … pizza,” he says.
Vernacchio, 49, teaches English and Human Sexuality at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood. He was featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in a cover article titled “Teaching Good Sex” in November, 2011. The 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 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.”
Al is also the author of the book, “For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Young People About Sexuality, Values, and Health,” which will be released Sept. 16 by Harper-Collins. The book provides parents with the tools and insights they need to create a better dialogue with their kids about sexuality and to help teens develop healthy values and safe habits.
According to Don Dyson, PhD, an Associate Dean at Widener University, “Vernacchio has masterfully accomplished what good sexuality educators have attempted for so many years; he has created a work that is both a fun, easy read as well as a thorough and thoughtful guide.”
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.
Vernacchio, who earned his BA in Theology from St. Joseph’s University and his MSEd in Human Sexuality Education from the University of Pennsylvania, says his book is intended to be the iconic guide to sex education for the 21st century. Among other issues he confronts in the book are these:
• How to teach kids what it means to respect their bodies and develop healthy body images.
• How to convey that sexuality is a necessary and normal part of human life.
• How to teach kids about the role of privacy and technology, including texting and social media, as it relates to their intimate lives.
• How to help kids step out of gender stereotypes, both old ones and new ones.
• How to convey the truth about pregnancy, STDs and what can happen when you have sex — without relying on scare tactics.
“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…where they can learn accurate information and talk honestly and openly about their feelings, their opinions and their values.”
Al insists 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 teaching, 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.
For more information about “For Goodness Sex” ($25.99), visit www.harpercollins.com.