Arielle Pardes | From the bedroom to the classroom
The Screwtinizer | Even ‘comprehensive’ sex education misses the big picture
February 21, 2012, 11:50 pm·
Despite learning very dutifully how to wrap a condom onto a banana, I have yet to find a practical use for putting contraceptives on my fruit. If this is a common experience among high schoolers in the United States, then it’s no surprise that American sex education is out of whack.
Perhaps I should be grateful for the sex education I received, considering that abstinence is stressed in more than three quarters of public schools (thanks to the millions of dollars of federal grants made available to states that promote abstinence until marriage).
Still, few programs — whether considered “comprehensive” or not — send the message that sex can be healthy and (dare I say it?) pleasurable.
Al Vernacchio’s class at Friends’ Central High School in Wynnewood, Pa. is different. The course, Sex and Society, stretches the boundaries of sex education far beyond mere biology. Students explore everything from sexual orientation to masturbation, where few questions are off limits and every inquiry is valued.
Vernacchio earned his master’s degree in human sexuality from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 1993 and returned to Penn last night to give a talk entitled: “Have Great Sex: Optimizing Your Sex Life.”
“Because I was trained in human sexuality, which so few sex educators are, I’m able to talk about more than just the plumbing,” he said.
And indeed he does: from sex toys to gender, students in his class learn about the multiplicity of factors that contribute to sexual experiences.
In an age when even “comprehensive” sex education is designed to scare the jeepers out of you (remember Coach Carr’s warning in Mean Girls that if you fool around, you will get chlamydia and die?) Vernacchio’s course is refreshing.
But his approach isn’t commendable simply because he gives his students free reign to talk about blowjobs and their favorite flavored lube. Modern sex education fails us not just because it’s vanilla but because it’s restrictive. When we’re taught that sex means “penis into vagina, ejaculation, done,” we miss out on the big picture implications that surround our sexual experience.
The Guttmacher Institute, a leader in sexual health research, reported this month that 70 percent of teens have had sex by age 19, meaning we have an entire generation of sexually active people who don’t know much beyond putting a condom onto a banana.
But sex amounts to more than just the physical act: our sexual experiences hinge on our perception of our bodies, our relationship to our partner and our understanding of pleasure.
College junior Isabel Friedman, who introduced Vernacchio last night, took his class during her senior year of high school. Friedman believes standard sex education programs focus too much on the anatomy and physiology of sexual experience.
“The truth is that so much of what makes sex complicated are the emotional and value systems at play, and I think that’s really where modern sexual education completely fails us,” she noted.
The most memorable lesson that Friedman learned from Vernacchio’s class was one on sexual values.
“I was taught that the sexual decisions you make are through a value system,” Friedman said, adding that students in Vernacchio’s class were challenged to talk about what sex meant to them personally.
In November, The New York Times Magazine profiled Vernacchio in a cover story, calling him a “consummate sex scholar” and asserting “this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States.”
Perhaps Vernacchio is an anomaly for America but this approach is the norm in nations like Sweden, where schoolchildren are taught about the birds and the bees as early as age six. Classes start by introducing the straight facts and later incorporate sex into subjects like biology, history and literature. The message is that sex is a healthy, normal and an integrated part of everyday life.
If we learned about sex through this model, how might our sex lives be different today? Would your first time have been empowering and fun instead of an awkward tangle of teenage bodies trying to figure out what the hokey pokey was really all about?
A good sex education program need not tell us which positions score the best orgasm or how to engage in your first orgy, but we do need to offer an open dialogue to students. Indeed, learning about sex and all that comes with it may be the most important thing you learn in school.