Al Vernacchio’s article, “Friends Schools and Healthy Sexuality” appears in the March 2013 issue of Friends Journal. Al teaches sexuality at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: You’ve written an article about teaching sexual education in the Quaker classroom. How did Liberal Friends get to be on the forefront of talking about sexuality?
AL VERNACCHIO: Friends have always had very progressive views of human sexuality, going back to the time of William Penn. I think it’s because Quakers see the goodness inherent in all human being, which makes it easy to look at sexuality as a good gift from a good God, and not a tempting force or a force that tends toward darkness or leads us to danger and disaster. From that start, it’s easy to talk about sexuality as a healthy and necessary and normal part of life. That’s what Friends have always done.
FJ: How do you develop that into a philosophy of teaching sexuality in the classroom?
AV: A lot of what I do is reframe issues to help adolescents see sexuality in a different way. A lot of what they get from the media and from the larger society is that sexuality is either something completely frivolous, or it is about using people or establishing dominance over them. When we change that paradigm and look at sexuality as a natural extension of who we are as authentic people, that changes everything. We approach sexuality not as a way to conquer but as a way to share: how do I think of the other person as a full participant? It’s common today to look as sexuality as selfish and self-indulgent. I look at it much more as a relationship and community issue.
FJ: I remember writing the anonymous notes to the teacher in sex ed class back in high school. In a way, that’s a great educational model, as you find out what the students are actually thinking. Do you do that, and have the questions changed over time?
AV: I have an anonymous question box in my classroom that students can use. I also often hand out index cards to students; I ask a question, they write the answers and I collect them, randomize them, and read them out loud so we can get a sense of the ideas in the room.
The questions have definitely changed. The biggest change has been with technology and social media and how that impacts the development of healthy sexuality. I get questions like “Is it okay to break up over a text message?” or “Is it okay to have a relationship that exists largely in cyberspace?” Technology can be a great tool for creating healthy sexuality, but it can also be a tool that distances us from one another and sort of allows us to escape the hard work of healthy sexuality, which is face-to-face communication with another person about intimate and personal and loving things.
Some of the questions remain the same. I always get asked, “What’s the right time to start being sexually active?” Of course there’s no magic answer to that one. We talk about what are the conditions that a person should have ready when they’re ready to begin sexual activity.
The technology has really been the game-changer in the last 15 years that I’ve been teaching.
FJ: The technology could help people get over nervousness and make a friendship beforehand. But then, there are also anonymous sites that let you hook up with people for sex. Is the technology positive, negative, or a bit of both?
AV: It’s a double-edged sword. It can be positive. It’s certainly been a great tool for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people to find community in places where they’ve felt very isolated. It’s also helped young people maintain relationships over distance, like when kids go off to college. They can maintain not only friendships but romantic relationships in some way through the technology. The downside of it is when young people take their cues about how sex and relationships work from things like internet pornography. That conveys a very skewed message about what sexuality is and how it works.
A lot of what sexuality education today is media literacy: how do you read a website? How do you look at the information it’s presenting and ask, is there an agenda there? What are they trying to get me to do or to think, and does that fit with my own core values?
FJ: But in some ways it still comes down to that good gift from a good God idea.
AV: Absolutely. I think we need to look at sexuality like it’s like nourishment. It’s something that’s necessary for us to live. It’s something we can get in all kinds of different ways — ways that are healthy, ways that are less than healthy. But we can’t be who we are without it. Sexuality has to be seen as an integral and integrated part of one’s whole human life. That’s the way you can get to talking about sexuality with younger children; that’s the way you get to recognize the needs of the elderly in terms of their continuing sexuality.
We need to see it as a whole life phenomenon and not just something that’s only important between puberty and middle age. It starts when we’re born and ends when we die. Looking at that wider view helps us to see that it’s a much bigger issue than most people think.