You're doing sex ed wrong: How teaching kids about sex is like teaching toddlers to walk

Sex educator Al Vernacchio on hedonism, the questions teens ask him and why taking a nap can be better than sex

Published September 15, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Cover detail of "For Goodness Sex"           (HarperCollins)
Cover detail of "For Goodness Sex" (HarperCollins)

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?

The data is clear that abstinence-only education does not do what it purports to do. It does not delay the onset of sexual activity. Kids who have been given abstinence-only education don't delay sex any longer and when they do have sex, they often have it in an unprotected and unsafe way. I do think we are moving beyond that as a nation. But I think we haven't yet turned the corner to be sex-positive in our approach. Sex-positive doesn't mean hedonistic. Hedonism is not healthy. But sex-positive means how do we use this sexuality we have to get connection, joy, pleasure, love, intimacy. We just don't talk about those things enough with kids. That's what kids really want to know. They want to know how you know when you're in love and how can you connect with somebody. I think sometimes they have sex because they don't know what else to do. We haven't given kids enough of a toolbox. Taking a nap can be just as intimate and lovely.

I wonder if part of why adults avoid those questions is because they have difficulty answering them themselves. Questions like, "How do you know when you're in love?" Stuff like that can make adults feel like children.

Absolutely. I think that's one of the reason I wrote the book. I really wanted to help parents feel more comfortable and more confident having these conversations. I'm a sexuality educator but parents are the primary sexuality educators. I want to support them in that role, I don't want to take that role away from them. I think it's unfair to ask a parent who's never been able to think about this to just jump in there and do it.

So what can parents do at home? How should they talk to their kids about sex?

I think the idea that parents and their kids have a talk or the talk has never been right. I think what you need are small conversations that happen in the midst of regular communication about everything else. I think you watch TV with your kids and you talk about what's on TV. I think that you engage with kids not in an accusatory way but in a way that is respectful of them. I think that they have to believe that you as a parent believe they can make good choices. So, starting from a place of trust, rather than mistrust, is huge. Starting from a place of, "I'm your parents and I love you, but actually what I really want is for you to have a great experience. My fear is not that you're going to shame me or shame the family, but that you're going to get emotionally hurt or you're going to be in a situation that's not good for you, and I don't want to see you sad." It sounds like common sense but I think we get so scared when it comes to talking about sex that we forget all the things we do know. So part of it is breathing and relaxing. I often tell parents talking about sex with your kids is no different than talking about anything else, no matter how much you want it to be. We want to believe that talking about sex with our kids is this whole different animal and it's not. It's just another conversation.

Obviously there are some things kids know about pregnancy risk and STDs. How do you appropriately educate your kid about the dangers of sex without making that the dominant narrative?

I use "negative consequences" more than dangers. I think sex isn't fundamentally dangerous. I think that the consequences of sex can often be what we don't want. Nobody wants an STD, nobody wants an unintended pregnancy, nobody wants a broken heart, nobody wants an abusive relationship. But those things are not inherent in sex, those are inherent in unhealthy sex. Again, I want to come at this from saying, "OK, of course you don't want to get pregnant, I don't want you to get pregnant. You don't want to get an STD, I don't want you to get an STD. But showing you gross pictures of swollen genitals is not actually going to do that. So what we have to make sure kids know is do they have the basic facts. Also, do they have permission to know their bodies, to become experts on their bodies, doing self-exams, are parents encouraging them to get to know their bodies and know what's pleasurable? I think it's perfectly appropriate for parents to say, "I don't think you're ready to have sex. I'm afraid the other things I've seen in your actions and behaviors don't make me confident that you're going to make great decisions when it comes to sex." But then the conversation turns to, well, what's a good decision and how do you make it?

Do you have kids?

I don't. I'm an uncle, I'm a godfather, I've taught thousands of kids in my time as a teacher. So I am often in a parental role, but I am not a parent.

I'm curious if you've ever come across a situation where you've been talking to a kid about sex and you've encountered the typical fear and uncertainty that parents encounter -- or have you always come to the topic with confidence and calmness?

I think in my younger years as a sexuality educator I certainly had my moments of panic and, "Oh god this kid really asked me that question." But I think that what I've always drawn on is, the fact that this kid came to me means that they have enough trust in me to actually ask me that. And part of your responsibility is not to freak out but to be the best resource I can be. It's not about me. This is the same as when you have a little toddler and they're just learning to walk and the kid falls down. If we start getting upset they get upset. If we say "ta-da!" they're like, "Oh, I'm OK." So I think that's what has to happen when kids come to us with this.

What do you find kids most want to know about sex?

Oh gosh. A lot of the questions are, "How do I know when I'm ready?" Or, "How do you know when you're in love?" Or, "How do you talk to somebody about this?" "How do you ask for what you want?" The mechanics, the kids have that now. Technology has provided all that information. What the Internet can't provide them is the human element of it. The Internet can't provide for the process of thinking through a decision and coming to a conclusion. Those are the things kids want to know.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-Flory

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Vernacchio Editor's Picks For Goodness Sex Love And Sex Parent Sex Sex Education