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
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.
Al 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.