Beyond Goodness Sex

A Response to Al Vernacchio’s Book “Start from trust, lean into honesty, and believe that sexuality is a force for good.” —Al Vernacchio, sexuality educator and author, in For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health
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Su Penn ([email protected]) previously spoke to Quakers about sex in a 2014 FGC Gathering plenary. Like Walt Whitman, she believes that nothing is profane which can be spoken of with love in the presence of God. Invite her to visit your meeting; you will probably like her and learn something.


Also by Su Penn:


Posted in: Features, November 2015 Books, November 2015: Books and Pop Culture

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16 Responses to Beyond Goodness Sex

  1. Bill Taverner November 6, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    City & State
    Easton, Pa
    The author of this review raises some important considerations regarding inclusivity and the marginalization of transgender and genderqueer individuals. However, these important insights are clouded by the reviewer’s gratuitous personal attack on Al Vernacchio himself, and his qualifications to author “For Goodness Sex”. The review contains a number of unfortunate, inaccurate, and even maligning assumptions about Vernacchio.

    The author intimates that Vernacchio has not rigorously examined his own beliefs, and does not recognize his own ignorance. The author further suggests that Vernacchio has feelings of discomfort or distastes that lead him to pass negative judgments.

    These are personal, unwarranted attacks that go well beyond a critical examination of the book, and seek to explore the psyche of the author. As a journal editor myself, I am surprised that the editor of “Friends Journal” allowed this review to be published. It should have been stripped first of its negative tone and unsubstantiated assumptions about Vernacchio. Then, the reader could examine some serious and important questions that the review author raised, such as whether or not conventional terms like “boys” and “girls” should be abandoned for terms like “people with penises,” and “people with vulvas”. It is a tricky question that has vexed a lot of authors and sex ed curriculum writers, including myself. For what it is worth, as someone who often travels in the same professional circles as Vernacchio, I have seen him use this more inclusive language in his keynotes. In fact, one moment that sticks with me in particular is seeing him use inclusive terms repeatedly at a teen conference, and then be admonished by a transgender student for the one time he failed to do so in his hour‐long talk. Vernacchio thanked the student graciously, recognizing the courage it took to stand up and criticize the speaker, and to out oneself in the process. This moment is but one example in the professional life of a man who does not deserve to be characterized as ignorant, having discomforts, distastes, etc.

    Again, the author has raised some important observations, and stripped of its negative tone and personal attacks, this review provides some food for thought.

    • Stephen Lester November 11, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

      City & State
      San Diego, CA
      My thoughts exactly. I’m not a sex educator, but I definitely noticed a hateful tone in this “review.” Far from being a “compliment sandwich,” the text says “well, it’s okay” before launching in to a dozen paragraph harsh critique before ending with trying to guilt the reader if he or she does not think the radical point of view should be taught — trans lives are on the line if you disagree.

      Thank you for putting my own thoughts into a well‐written comment.

  2. Eric McMorris November 6, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

    City & State
    Washington, D.C.
    I was one of Al Vernacchio’s students a number of years back. I was in the GSA on‐and‐off for all of high school (yes, its name was an ongoing source of debate), and I took his Sexuality and Society class after which this book is modeled. I am a queer, kinky, monogamish (though not currently) trans man, and came out as trans my junior year — I was the first student to come out as trans while still attending the school, but there have been other transfolks who moved through the institution before and since.

    I’ve read Vernacchio’s book, and reading this article I have to question whether Penn is seeking to critique the book or the man. I agree that when it comes to kink, non‐monogamy, and gender fluidity, For Goodness Sex is not as comprehensive as I would like it to be. However, this article feels like an attempt at tearing down Al Vernacchio, the educator, more than what he writes in his book. To that end, here is my experience:

    Al was my greatest advocate when I was coming out to myself, my family, and my entire school. He was there every step of the way, giving me resources and support and affirming and reaffirming that I was loved and valued. He went to bat for me with the faculty, the administration, and then the students. Even before I was out to him, he was very vocal about his support of trans folks in our GSA and the school at large, and brought in trans alumni to speak to various subsets of the student body numerous times. His Sexuality and Society curriculum is chock‐full of affirmation of gender fluidity, and seeks to challenge the gender and biological sex binary at every turn. To be clear, this is not just my recollection; I still have the course materials. He also brought in poly alumni to talk with us about their experiences, since he openly admitted that he was not qualified to speak on the subject himself — exactly as Penn suggests here. He did not touch on kink much, though he was always affirming of any sexual activity that is mutually enjoyed by consenting individuals. I attribute his lack of explicit mention of kink to the fact that he’s walking a fine line already by teaching a very radical sexuality education class for high schoolers.

    I am not unfamiliar with this type of critique; the intellectual atmosphere at my alma mater cultivates exactly the same type of take‐down based on somebody or something being “well‐intentioned but not radical enough.” While I got sucked into it while at college, I have to question what this sort of approach accomplishes. Is Vernacchio’s book perfect? Absolutely not. But taking into the account the position it occupies in our current sexuality education landscape, its intended audience, and the very real challenges of publishing radical work for wide distribution, I believe For Goodness Sex is a great resource. So let’s critique the book’s gaps and figure out how to fill them, absolutely. But tearing down a fantastic educator as a person, with unfounded and incorrect attacks on his message, feels like destroying a potential alliance. Instead, and in the face of such adversity as gender and sexual minorities, shouldn’t we be calling each other in and building each other up?

    • Neil Fullagar November 9, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

      City & State
      Several commenters refer to Penn’s “personal attack” on Vernacchio. I can’t find it.

      To quote from the review: “Vernacchio is big‐hearted, thoughtful, well‐intentioned, and full of genuine love and respect for his students. His approach to sex education is refreshing compared to most.”

      To say, even to say repeatedly as Penn does, that someone is wrong is not a personal attack. Nor does saying that someone should do something better is not an assertion that they do not do it at all.

      Some years ago a Friends Journal journal article by my (and Penn’s) friend John Calvi listed several important, healing sayings and recommended frequent use of them. “That’s not good enough” was one of those, and that’s how I read Penn’s response.

    • Joan Garrity November 20, 2015 at 11:36 pm #

      City & State
      White Marsh, MD
      Thank you for your post, Eric. Your teacher, Mr. V., is a friend and colleague of mine, and the man you describe is the man I know. I only hope that he is as supported by your words as he deserves to be.

  3. Cindy Pierce November 8, 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    City & State
    The frustration with how education (including sexuality education) isn’t adequately including, supporting and protecting kids on the full spectrum of sexual and gender identities is well founded. The rates of suicides and attempted suicides are staggering among nonconforming teenagers. We have been at a crisis point for some time, however, Penn’s harsh and personal criticism of Al Vernacchio is misplaced.

    Without Al’s work, including his brilliant book, the content of sexuality education in schools would have stayed as limited as their titles convey: “Puberty Education,” “Health,” or “Knowing Our Bodies.” Most sexuality education programs barely address sex much less discuss gender and sexual identities the way Al regularly does in his classroom. He inspires the boldest teachers to take it to the next level, and inspired many parents like me to be more open and direct with our kids.

    In the world of public and private schools, Al is personally responsible for thousands of teachers revamping the sexuality education curriculum to be significantly more inclusive and comprehensive. These teachers know we need to keep stretching and do so despite being pummeled with threats and questions from parents, department heads, community members, and Boards of Trustees who think sexuality education programs are far too radical. It is a battle to reach kids with the messages they need as well as provide the support and protection of the most vulnerable. We will work to improve and reach higher, but personal bashing people like Al will divide us and set progress back.

    Al is in fact quite equipped as an inclusive educator because he recruits experts and support to broaden his students’ as well as his own understanding and perspective. He genuinely welcomes people to question his opinions, findings and work. He stands above most educators in his ability to encourage students to form their values rather than “steering them toward adopting his own” as Penn suggests. I have had the honor of witnessing this first hand in his classroom.

    It would be interesting to hear what motivated the Friends Journal chose to run this harsh personal attack disguised as a review. Su Penn’s article is brimming with anger and resentment directed toward Al himself. It is hard to appreciate the call for more radical and inclusive education when the agenda seems more about stepping on one of the most progressive sexuality educators out there rather than inviting him into a conversation.

  4. Marguerite Sexton November 8, 2015 at 9:41 pm #

    City & State
    As a 72‐year old cisgender woman (I admit to this being a new word in my vocabulary.) I take strong exception to the tone of Su Penn in her criticism of Al Vernacchio’s book “For Goodness Sex.” I personally purchased many copies of the book and have given them as gifts to friends and family members. I understand certain points that Penn seeks to make, but I am not sure that she has an understanding of the difficulty that people of my generation have in learning new language and new ways of approaching issues of sex and sexuality. When I’ve gifted the book, I’ve told people that it will help all of us at every age to speak more openly to one another about these important issues. (I’ve even said that I thought that marketing it to younger parents was very clever, because it’s for everyone to develop greater ease with regard to issues of sex.) I’ve given it to my own children, nieces and nephews, new parents and newly married people just so they can develop a new way of looking at sex language. I am so disappointed in the Friends Journal for publishing this article that has such a negative tone with regard to such a groundbreaking book as this. Certainly there is more to be written and more will be written but I feel like Penn insulted my intelligence. That this book doesn’t present every conceivable gendered type person does not diminish the fine research and writing. Furthermore, safety that students feel in Vernacchio’s classroom (as some writers here have stated) is quite unprecedented. Finally, a critique of the book is one thing, but the personal attack on the writer seemed inappropriate at best and un‐Quakerly at worst. Surely Friends Journal can do better.

  5. Linda Robinson, CNM November 9, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    City & State
    Bar Harbor, Maine
    I am a nurse midwife, specializing in Women’s Health, and care for women throughout the life span. I’ve cared for many teenagers struggling with their sexuality. I have thoroughly read Al Vernacchio’s book and have recommended it to many people. He has been a speaker in our community in several venues and has been amazingly well received.

    I find this “Response” to his book offensive and off‐putting to say the least. I’m actually shocked that it would be published in a journal such as this. While I feel that Su Penn is certainly entitled to her own opinion, she is not entitled to deny Al his. When she quotes his opinion about what he considers the best definition of love, she vehemently states he is wrong. In no way does Al ever imply that everyone has to agree with him. His book is about changing the dialog, examining our own values and beliefs, and being sensitive to those of others. While I am sensitive to the discrimination and isolation that Su’s family experiences, her own dialog is disrespectful and insensitive to the man who has devoted his life to advocating for the people she identifies.

    Su lists what sexual educators need to do a better job. The list is appropriate and I couldn’t agree more. But then she states, “Vernacchio believes he is doing at least some of these things. He’s wrong.” This comment alone makes me want to dismiss her entirely. I have heard Al’s presentations and TED talks; I’ve observed him teach his classes and present to parents. In my experience, he personifies everything on that list!

    I had to chuckle when I read the bio line that states, “you will probably like her.” From reading her shortsighted, offensive prose, that is a bit of a stretch. Interesting that someone would have to include that in their bio.

    Linda Robinson, CNM
    author of: Sunday Morning Shamwana, A Midwife’s Letters from the Field; Being Pregnant, A Woman’s Answer Book; and Women’s Sexual Health

  6. Virginia Herrick November 9, 2015 at 11:36 am #

    City & State
    Bellingham, WA
    Dear Friends,

    Our culture is shifting rapidly, and at least in some places, in the direction of more inclusivity and better understanding of gender differences, more acceptance of a range of sexual identities and ways of expressing oneself in the world. A cisgender woman, I have many friends and some family members who are genderqueer, bi, gay, poly or otherwise gender nonconforming. I probably always did. But I have only discovered this joyful and amazing and sometimes‐confusing reality in the last five to ten years. I am so grateful to have this change in my life. I don’t know exactly how to express things properly all the time, and I accidentally misgender friends and family members sometimes. I, like everyone on this thread, am learning and opening to new understandings of these very tender, very important aspects of our shared humanity.

    I do not know Al or Su personally, but I think I would like both of them. I know, as Friends, we can love them both. My guess is that if they met, they’d find much to talk about, and would do so with as much love and courage as they both could muster. My guess is that they both have known the pain of being excluded and judged for their sexual identities, and that commonality would give them a deep well of compassion on which to draw.

    What I’d like to ask for, in this discussion, is a moment of silence, to hold Al, Su, and all of us working for better mutual understanding and clearness, in the Light.

  7. Cressa November 9, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

    City & State
    Eugene, OR
    If we are to truly “call in” one another, I see it worth noting that the author of this review is part of a community of trans* folks and their families, and they clearly feel that this book utilizes exclusive and harmful rhetoric and definitions. Yes, the review of a book that is supposed to speak to your community but instead excludes it will not read as a traditional academic book review. Unfortunately, speaking against the tacit violence of exclusion often reads as identity politics — either un‐academic or hyper‐academic. So, I hope that whatever stylistic or rhetorical critiques readers have of Su Penn’s review do pale in comparison to its serious consideration.

    What Penn gets at here to me is important: some types of rhetoric are simply unwelcome in a trans‐inclusive/‐affirming space in this day and age. Speaking personally, the type of language and rhetoric Penn advocates for is, according to the queer communities I roll with, really standard. Penn has made their primary concern clear: that Vernacchio’s definitions have “the potential to do great harm to vulnerable people.” And Penn is clear about what they’d prefer to happen: to “apportion our resources…based on how we can best protect the most vulnerable among us.” Personally I’m not super into language like “protect,” but before going into a whole other rabbit hole I’ll say that the central placement of those types of values resonates with me personally, which is perhaps neither here nor there, but I do feel that a new sex ed without those values front and center is not different enough than the old one. I am super glad to hear that another commenter had an important and positive experience with the author in regards to trans identity, but if Penn’s right that that type of affirmation didn’t make its way into the book then…that’s bad.

    Lastly I’d like to express my curiosity in regards to how the author treats issues of sexual violence, which are another huge theme of today’s sexual awareness. Personally, I’ve found that most books about sexuality assume a non‐traumatized reader, which is also frequently inaccurate.

  8. Maggi Boyer November 9, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    City & State
    Doylestown, PA
    I am dismayed by Su Penn’s “Response,” because of the tone of personal, unjustified attacks on Al’s personal and professional life. In the interest of clarity, Al is a colleague and friend and I find his work to be sterling, thoughtful, insightful and inclusive. I have deep respect for his integrity, his care for his students and his professionalism. Can one book be all things to all people — no. Does Su Penn raise interesting points, which could have encouraged lively and useful conversations about how to move forward with increased inclusivity and more sensitivity? Yes. However, the tone of the article is so confrontational that for me, it obscures some of Su Penn’s thought provoking comments and insights.

    I wish that this article had “held space” for dialog or respectful exchange. Unfortunately, I don’t feel it did. It is unfortunate not that this article appeared in Friends Journal, but that the tone, inaccuracies and incorrect assumptions were not addressed before publication.

  9. Bradley Laird November 9, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

    City & State
    South Bend, Indiana
    While I often feel the sting of hostile critiques in my work, I find that I want to ask some of the commenters to consider lightening up on the tone checking of Su Penn’s remarks. I ask this for two reasons. First, if your experience and those of your family have been left out of an analysis, and your experience is of chronic social hostilitiy to something very core to whom one experiences oneself to be, then anger is really an appropriate response. Second, I know we Friends will often look to calm the situation down, get still, so we can either talk about it, or, too often, not talk about it (or not talk about it enough). I have found much help in Walter Brueggemann’s study of the Psalms wherein he notes at least three ways to read the Psalms: as a devotional, in a historical‐critical context, or in a study of the literary‐functional parts. Many Psalms have shocking anger as a first part, an initial orientatin, a necessary part to working through into disorientation before a new orientation is acheived. Anger is necessary to start some conversations, and the more marginalized one is, the more necessary anger is as a functional part of that conversation.

    I think it is important to hear Su’s anger, mild though I think it is, to undersatnd that a person doing sex education better than most can still miss some really important stuff that has life and death consequences for some. and that he has an opportunity to grow. I think the conversation is being engaged. That is my prayer.

    In dealing in race and class matters, I get anger all the time from freinds and acquantences who are black and/or working class or economically poorer, me being a white, mostly cisgendered, middle class male. Let us move to stillness and less energized conversation only after we permit, even require, some heat. Su Penn has given some heat, but it is really pretty mild to what I experience from many marginalized peoole. Let this spark more conversation. It is worth it.

  10. Stasa November 14, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

    City & State
    US & UK
    When I first read Su Penn’s article, I was struck by the author’s ability to speak a painful and brutal truth with matter‐of‐fact honesty, while saying nothing negative at all about Al Vernacchio’s intent or about him personally.

    I came here to leave a comment and found many people… attacking Su Penn personally for saying bluntly that Vernacchio’s book *doesn’t meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable people.*

    Think about that for a moment. Attacking someone personally for standing up for our most vulnerable community members.

    I came here to find many people equating saying “This not only doesn’t work for me, it’s harmful to me and people I love” with a personal attack on Vernacchio. Sort of the equivalent of saying, “You’re standing on my foot!” is the same as beating someone up. Equating just anger at life‐threatening oppression and the perpetuation of life‐threatening oppression with a personal attack. To find many people attacking Penn in response… for disagreeing about the usefulness of Vernacchio’s approach in ways in which she has much more direct experience than Vernacchio or many of his defenders.

    This is not ally behavior, Friends.

    As allies, it’s our job to listen to the people we’re trying to ally with. It is not ally behavior to tell minorities they’re “too angry” or to try to get them to “tone it down.” It is not ally behavior to try to shut them up when they tell us we didn’t do a good enough job, or that our attempts to help left them out or actively hurt them. *The only way we learn to be better allies is by listening*, not by defending ourselves, including and especially when we mess it up. Our ally work is *not about us*. It’s not about our pride (not even our well‐earned professional pride, which I’ll come back to in a moment). Our ally work is about the people we’re trying to ally with. This can be really hard for people who are members of dominant majority groups to learn — and even harder for people who are minorities in some ways, but members of a dominant majority in others.

    This is also not the kind of behavior we aspire to as Friends. But I note that many of the commenters so far are not Quakers.

    I understand Penn’s review may have hurt Vernacchio’s professional pride. This is clearly reflected in who’s defending him: of the 11 comments already posted on this article when I wrote this, there are 7 staunchly defending Vernacchio and attacking Penn — 1 from someone who has posted before on the Friends Journal website attacking minority Friends, and 6 from people who are personally or professionally associated with Vernacchio.

    And all of these people are saying that if their experience is different from Penn’s, then Penn’s is not real or legitimate.

    I invite Friends to think about this.

    A lot of those comments are also from people who are sexuality educators. I find that fact particularly disturbing: sexuality educators attacking a member of gender and sexual minority groups for clearly stating those groups’ needs, and pushing back against oppression.

    Life‐threatening oppression.

    Vernacchio’s pride may be on the line, but our lives are on the line.

    If you really care about our lives, then stop defending Vernacchio, and listen to us.

  11. David Policar November 15, 2015 at 12:10 am #

    City & State
    Caveat — I haven’t read the book, and I don’t know the author.

    After reading the review my primary impression was that the book was focused on the sexual lives and identities of the majority, was probably valuable for that community, but was unlikely to be very helpful to those outside of it (such as polyamorous, transgender, genderfluid, asexual, and other romantic and sexual minorities) and that the reviewer didn’t approve of that choice of focus. My pull quote elsewhere was “I would like to see us apportion our resources not based on how many individuals of any given population we expect to be in the room, but based on how we can best protect the most vulnerable among us.”

    After reading all of these comments defending the book’s author, I haven’t actually seen anything to change my mind about any of that. There’s a lot of unhappiness about the tone of the review, and a strong desire to support and defend Vernacchio as a person who is supportive of romantic and sexual minorities (the book itself notwithstanding), and in a few cases what seems like disagreement with the resource‐apportioning preference in the first place, but little of it seems to engage with the actual content of the book being reviewed.

    I’m sure Vernacchio is a good guy. To be honest, I got that impression from the initial review, despite the repeated assertion that it was some kind of hatchet job or personal attack. And that’s important.

    But whether the book is actually helpful or harmful to members of romantic and sexual minorities is important, too.

  12. Ray November 17, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    City & State
    Mullica Hill
    I simply can’t believe this was actually a book review. It’s notably narcissistic. It’s insensitive.
    It even denies the writer to his opinion, claims his opinion is wrong‐ in his own book. That is sad at best, and disappointingly disrespectful of the writers’ inward experience, at worst.

    While it is not important that we all have similar beliefs. As Quakers and participants in the Friends community, I would hope it’s important to respect and protect differing views without a sense of moral superiority and lack of respect that Penn demonstrates.

    It’s sort of a shame too as many have pointed out, since there were some valid points to consider as society works to protect legally and morally everyone as they follow their own journey.

    I would also be interested to hear what motivated the Friends Journal to run such a judgmental attack disguised as a book review.

  13. Reenie November 29, 2015 at 9:32 am #

    City & State
    I’d like to hold FJ editors responsible for ignoring the attack‐blame tone of Su Penn’s article, masquerading as a book review. There are many creative ways that FJ could have worked with Penn and with Penn and Vernacchio together to provide its readers with a respectful, educational dialogue stimulated by the book, by the topic, and by all of Vernacchio’s cutting‐edge work. Penn’s article would have been much more provocative and valuable with the attentive editing/coaching that we have come to expect from the “new” FJ. How did this one slip through the cracks?

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