Beyond Goodness Sex

pennA 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

Editors’ Note
After publication, we learned that “Beyond Goodness Sex” (Su Penn, FJ, Nov. 2015) misquotes Al Vernacchio and contains errors about what is and isn’t in For Goodness Sex. While individually these discrepancies are minor, taken together they mischaracterize Vernacchio’s arguments and overlook the rhetorical techniques he uses in the book to circumvent heteronormative and gendered language. Our contributors’ opinions are their own, but as publishers we have a responsibility to fairly represent the subject of a review or article, especially when it is coming under criticism. We regret the errors, which do a disservice both to Penn’s arguments and to Vernacchio and his book. —Eds.

Six people live in our house: me; my partner of two decades; our three children; and our housemate, a student at the college down the street. At least three of us identify as queer, which is to say that we are capable of forming romantic and/or sexual attachments to people whose genders are similar to our own as well as or instead of those whose genders are very different from our own. At least three of us are transgender or gender-nonconforming. At least one of us identifies as “Ace,” or asexual, but not “Aro”—meaning, not aromantic: that is to say, not interested in sexual activity with other people but perfectly capable of falling in love. At least two of us identify as kinky, which is to say practicing forms of sexual expression that include elements of dominance and submission, sensation play including pain play, and restraint. At least two of us identify as poly, which is to say capable of forming romantic and/or sexual attachments to more than one person at a time. At least one of us has attempted suicide; at least one other has seriously contemplated it. All of us have been disowned by close family for reasons having to do with sexuality and gender expression.

fgsAl Vernacchio, who has been a sexuality educator for over 20 years, and who currently teaches the subject at a Friends high school, is a monogamously married gay man. His book, For Goodness Sex, contains an eloquent critique of the most common model of sex education, which he calls a “disaster prevention” approach whose primary message is that sex can kill you or ruin your life.

Vernacchio proposes a different model, in which sexuality is not isolated from the rest of a person’s life; in which even the youngest children can be seen as people with a developing sexuality; in which adults have a responsibility to overcome their discomfort and accept their young people as sexual beings; in which the discussion of particular sexual acts is secondary to developing an understanding of one’s own values and needs. Vernacchio’s stated goal is not to produce young adults who will follow the rules laid down by the adults in their lives. What he wants, instead, is this:

young people who know their values, who believe themselves worthy of love, who feel good about their bodies, who see pleasure as a means to build intimacy and connection with another, and who live their lives not fearing mistakes but using them as lessons to reorient themselves towards success.

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. But he is not at all equipped to deal with me and mine.

Vernacchio is correct, in my experience, that the standard curriculum puts more emphasis on the risks of sex than the pleasures and gifts it brings. It also allocates resources more-or-less in proportion to the population, much like Vernacchio’s book: ten chapters on boys and girls, and relations between them, compared to one chapter that acknowledges same-sex attraction; 150 pages that treat gender as coterminous with biology and only two pages that give a nod to the trans population.

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. When it comes to gender, for instance, the most vulnerable among us are trans and gender-nonconforming kids. In the last couple of months, I’ve been grieving the suicides of trans teenagers Zander Mahaffey, 15; Leelah Alcorn, 17; Taylor Wells, 18; Ash Hafner, 16; Melonie Rose, 19; and Blake Brockington, 18. Brockington made the news in February 2014 for being his high school’s first openly trans homecoming king, and again this year after taking his own life on March 23. Trans and gender-nonconforming youth carry terrible risk of self-harm, homelessness, rape, and both family and stranger violence. The 41 percent of trans youth who have made a suicide attempt deserve better than a paragraph saying that it’s OK to identify as genderqueer. But that’s all Vernacchio gives them. He says, “I am proud to work at a school and live in a community that is open to these discussions.” His pride struck me as offensive and unearned, given the glib superficiality with which he dismissed the topic.

Transgender and gender-variant youth deserve a curriculum that integrates them fully, that places them front and center alongside their cisgender peers. This means learning how to use language that holds open possibilities, to speak, for instance, of “feminine-presenting people” instead of “girls” when discussing how to navigate the attractions and risks of wearing revealing clothing. It means recognizing that biology cannot be inferred from gender, that to say “boy” doesn’t always mean penis-having, and “girl” doesn’t always mean possessing a vulva and vagina. Transgender people aren’t common; we may well spend nearly all our time talking to a roomful of boys with penises and girls with vulvas. But it is our job to make a space for the boy who has a vulva and vagina; to bring him into the room even if he’s not physically present, to hold that space open; and to remind all those cisgender kids, and ourselves, that that boy exists. It is our job, too, to welcome that boy when he is present, whether we know he’s there or not.

It is our job, too, to make the possibility of that boy a reality for the cisgender students in the room. As when we teach active consent, we are not just trying to prevent our students from becoming the victims of sexual or gender-based violence; we are trying to protect them, also, from becoming perpetrators.

This means doing more than tacking on a sentence or paragraph about how minority gender identities are A-OK. It means remembering, always, the possibility that right now, in this room, among this group of young people, are those who need to hear, explicitly, that they are included and welcome. And it means remembering, always, that we know there are young people in the room right now who need to hear us welcome that possibility. Absent explicit inclusion, we risk the whole room hearing instead that trans bodies are deviant and flawed.

I’d like to remind you that my family includes people who are kinky, polyamorous, transgender, and asexual. This allows me to speak with authority when I say that every high school contains young people who are, or will someday discover themselves to be, kinky, polyamorous, transgender, and/or asexual. It may be difficult for some people to accept, but it is a fact. There are young people who by the age of 12, 13, 14, 15—whenever they begin to start thinking consciously about themselves as sexual beings—are already curious about; intrigued by; or experimenting with (alone or with others) these activities, identities, and forms of relationship.

These kids need the same things all kids need as they are learning about their sexuality: role models; trusted advisors they can speak honestly with; information about emotional safety, physical safety, and healthy relationships; guidance in how to set and respect boundaries; and assurances that their sexuality is not shameful.

I’m not suggesting that every sex ed curriculum needs to explicitly include content on kink or navigating multiple relationships, though there are some books and websites that do so. What I am saying is that sexuality educators like Vernacchio need to do a much better job of the following:

  • rigorously examining their own beliefs in order to avoid passing off personal opinion as fact
  • recognizing their own ignorance, and seeking out and deferring to those with experience and expertise when needed
  • erring, when uncertain, on the side of acceptance and inclusion
  • recognizing that personal feelings of discomfort or distaste are not an adequate foundation for passing negative judgments
  • remembering, always, that healthy decisions about sex and love cannot be made in the presence of shame, and therefore avoiding at all costs any language that explicitly or implicitly shames people for their desires, affections, or consensual activities

Vernacchio believes he is doing at least some of these things. He’s wrong. Let me give you an example. At one point, he writes, “one of the best definitions of love I know” is “best friend + sexual desire.” This definition does not reflect the experience of my family. It is our experience that what one feels for a best friend and what one feels when “in love” are not the same, even setting aside the question of sex. It is also our experience that sexual desire is not the defining quality that distinguishes between friendship and romantic love. How could it be, when at least two of us have experiences of being in love that did not include a component of sexual attraction? “Best friend + sexual desire” is a definition that clearly resonates with Vernacchio. But when he endorses this definition of love, he tells his students who are Ace, or will come to understand themselves as Ace, that their lack of sexual interest in other people means they can’t love; he tells his students who are sexual that a person who isn’t sexually attracted to them does not love them. My asexual and sexual friends in cross-orientation relationships with each other would beg to differ.

What is romantic love without sexual attraction? That is a complicated question that doesn’t lend itself to pithy answers—that it exists, though, is indisputable. To claim otherwise is irresponsible. To claim otherwise has the potential to do great harm to vulnerable people.

Similarly, Vernacchio denies the possibility of being in love with more than one person at a time, suggesting attraction, infatuation, and lust as more likely alternatives. He suggests that people who imagine themselves in love without sexual attraction are experiencing admiration, deep caring, or a hero worship so intense that it is not possible to imagine the object of it as a sexual being at all.

He’s wrong. Over and over again, he’s wrong. Is it possible to be in love with more than one person at a time? Yes. Is it possible to be in love without sexual attraction? Yes. Is it OK to like giving or receiving hickeys? Yes, for heaven’s sake, yes it is, although Vernacchio doubts it. He is certainly allowed to not like giving or receiving hickeys. But it is an abuse of power to tell  students what they are allowed to like and not like.

As parents, as educators, as Quakers, we are called to practice humility. It is required of us. It is a duty laid upon us by God. Vernacchio would have done better to admit what he didn’t know and to help his students seek out people with experience of the things they’re curious about. When a student asks whether it’s possible to love more than one person, he might say, “As a monogamously married man, I might not be the best person to answer this. Why don’t we see what people who have been in love with more than one person at a time have to say?” Can you be in love without sexual attraction, another student wonders. “Sexual attraction and romantic love have always gone hand-in-hand for me,” Vernacchio might have replied, “but I know that’s not true for some people. Let’s see if any of them have written about the experience.”

For Goodness Sex is a pretty good progressive liberal book on sexuality education. Like many progressive liberals, Vernacchio believes he is encouraging young people to explore their own values, but he is, instead, carefully steering them toward adopting his own. He privileges a very narrow, surprisingly conservative view of sex and relationships. Perhaps it seems unfair to review his book from a perspective as radical as mine, but our most vulnerable young people don’t need a progressive liberal sexuality education; they need a radical one. Their mental health depends on it. Their emotional and physical health and safety depend on it. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that, sometimes, their lives depend on it.

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16 thoughts on “Beyond Goodness Sex

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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