What, when, and how should kids learn about sex? There may be as many opinions on this subject as there are parents. Seriously, even people with seamlessly aligned child-rearing philosophies can find themselves at odds on this highly emotional — and anxiety-producing — issue. The root of the problem seems to be the fear that teaching kids about sex will put ideas about sex into their heads. This theory has basically been disproven, at least anecdotally. But that doesn’t stop people from worrying about it.
Mostly, I think people are just not comfortable with the idea of their kids even thinking about sex, never mind doing it. Teaching sex ed in school forces parents to accept that their kids know about it, and maybe even to feel somehow responsible for this knowledge. For most of America, the question is whether or not teenagers should be learning about having sex at all. But at one school in Philadelphia, teens are learning things that would probably make most of America completely freak. Things I can’t write here, because they’d attract the wrong element in Google searches.
The school is Friends Central, outside of Philadelphia. The class is an elective called Sexuality and Society, and it’s taught by a no-nonsense middle aged man named Al Vernacchio. Vernacchio, or Mr. V, as he is known by his students, leads the class in a brutally (or refreshingly, depending on your perspective) frank and graphic discussion of sexual roles and relationships. He also gets into the serious nitty gritty of how sex happens in the real world.
This last part is important. Forget the question of whether information encourages action (in fact, the opposite tends to be true, but that’s another story). The idea an abstinence based Sex Ed class would prevent a teen from getting information about sex is truly preposterous. What it would prevent is that teen getting accurate information. Or information that reflects reality, rather the circumscribed fantasy that is pornography. In fact, porn is so easily accessible that middle schoolers define their ideas about sex from seeing it. A fair amount of what Mr. V sets out to do in his class is to try to get teens to replace these unrealistic, dehumanized ideas about what sex should be with a more respectful, interpersonal model. Porn is not the only model he hopes to undermine: The piece on Vernacchio in Sunday’s New York Times opens with his deconstruction of the classic baseball metaphor. He hates it. For a number of reasons: It sets up a dynamic of offense (usually male) and defense (usually female). And it puts the focus on scoring, instead of where he thinks it belongs: on pleasure.
Pleasure is not part of the curriculum in the average sex-ed class. Neither is the through-line about assessing and monitoring your own values, as well as the vulnerabilities that might make you act against them. I doubt there are many other classrooms nationwide where students could see a portfolio of diverse genitalia. The question is, should there be? In the ten years Vernacchio has been teaching Sexuality and Society, not a single parent has complained about the explicit material… or anything else. When interviewed, most parents said they were grateful for their children’s access to “good, healthy information”. I’d be thrilled if my children could attend a class like this in high school. The idea of my kids having sex doesn’t exactly sit easily with me, but they’re still kids. But eventually, kids grow up, and start having to make more adult choices. I think they should know what those choices entail—emotionally as well as physically.
What do you think? Is school the place for kids or teens to be learning this stuff? And if not school, where?
How I learned about sex: A lesson in what NOT to do