Friends Schools and Healthy Sexuality

Photo John De Boer
Photo John De Boer

When I tell people I’m a sexuality educator, some smile, some avert their eyes and slowly back away, and others immediately make a sexual joke (“Well, that must be an exciting job! Get it? Exciting?”). It’s rare that someone will actually engage me in a serious conversation about my work. Our society is awash in images and messages about sexuality, yet is largely ill-equipped to deal with them in any mature, relaxed, or natural way. As one of my dear friends says, “As a culture we are sexually repressed to the point of being sexually obsessed.” We have deep-seated shame and fear of our sexuality, yet we also have an excessive interest in it. While Friends are certainly not immune to this unhealthy orientation towards sexuality, it is also true that they nhave been at the forefront of offering a much healthier, more positive orientation towards human sexuality, and this creates a perfect environment in our schools for comprehensive sexuality education.

My Sexuality and Society class at Friends’ Central is built upon an unshakable belief that our sexuality is a good gift from a good God. As my students explore the many dimensions of human sexuality, that fundamental belief allows them to approach the material with the assurance that they should be studying these things. By removing the shame and silence that so often surround sexuality, my students can see that becoming a sexually healthy individual is one way to manifest the Divine Light within and let our lives speak.

A brief historical overview, going back even to the time of George Fox, shows Friends to be mindful of the goodness of human sexuality. Quakers have always believed that marriage is a manifestation of the Light within. As that spark of the Divine leads two people to come together in a committed, intimate, and sexual relationship, it must follow that our sexual desires are of God, one of many blessings to be used in the service of bettering the world and each other.

Early Quaker writings dealing with sexuality focused on heterosexual marriage as the structure most suitable for manifesting healthy sexuality, but there was still an openness to a more progressive view of sexuality than the larger society offered. As early as 1924, a pamphlet called “Marriage and Parenthood: The Problem of Birth Control” was published by a group of British Friends. It went against the prevailing idea that birth control led to promiscuity and suggested that it could be useful in some circumstances by married couples. In the 1930s and 1940s, the National Marriage Council in Britain and the American Association of Marriage Counselors were founded by Friends (David Mace and Emily Mudd, respectively). Each continued to see sexual relationships in marriage as essentially good and God-given. In the 1960s, continuing revelation led Liberal Quakers to understand that healthy sexuality and sexual expression applied to its lesbian, gay, and bisexual members as well. In 1963, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, published by a group of British Friends, stated, “An act which expresses true affection between two individuals and gives pleasure to them both does not seem to us to be sinful by reason alone of the fact that it is homosexual.” In this same document, sexual sin was defined as “actions that involve the exploitation of another person,” while chastity was defined as “the total absence of exploitation.”

Today, Friends continue to offer a forward thinking and open-hearted view of human sexuality. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice makes clear, “Friends seek to acknowledge and nurture sexuality as a gift from God for celebrating human love with joy and intimacy. In defining healthy sexuality, Friends are led in part by our testimonies: that sexual relations be equal, not exploitative; that sexual behaviors be marked by integrity; and that sex be an act of love, not of aggression.” It further states, “Even with respect to its individual leadings, Quakerism does not sanction license in sexual behavior. Precisely because our sexuality is so powerful, seeking the divine in all things becomes important.”

The understanding of human sexuality as a lifelong divine gift makes Friends schools a most appropriate setting for comprehensive sexuality education. Friends’ commitment to such education also has deep roots in history. While there were, and are, many outstanding sexuality educators among Friends, the work of Mary Calderone, Eric Johnson, and Peggy Brick deserves special note.

Calderone believed that humans are sexual beings from birth to death, and so sexuality education must be lifelong and developmentally appropriate to the age and stage of the learner. As the medical director at Planned Parenthood Federation of America in the 1950s, Dr. Mary Calderone championed the right to birth control, even when it was still illegal in most states, and helped to overturn the American Medical Association’s policy that kept physicians from offering information about birth control to their patients. In 1964, she founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which remains today one of the most important organizations for the promotion of healthy sexuality and sexuality education both inside and outside school settings. SIECUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, now in its third edition, provides a value-based framework for comprehensive sexuality education with developmentally appropriate messages on a variety of topics for children ages 5 through 18. It serves as an inspiring blueprint for creating education that recognizes sexuality as a force for good.

Eric Johnson, a graduate of Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia and longtime faculty member there, and also a former head of school at Friends’ Central in Wynnewood, Pa., devoted his life to Quaker education and made sexuality education an essential part of his work. His first book, Love and Sex in Plain Language, was published in 1965 and revised four times until 1988. It was the standard sexuality education textbook in middle and high schools, including in my own Roman Catholic high school when I was in ninth grade in the late 1970s. In the book’s preface to teachers and parents, Johnson is clear about his fundamental assumptions: “I assume that sex is a part of life—only a part, but a healthy and natural part…I assume that to act responsibly people need all the relevant knowledge they can understand. Mistakes are made, not because of too much knowledge, but because of too little.” In 1990, his Love and Sex and Growing Up became an important resource for children as young as third grade. A work he co-authored with Mary Calderone, The Family Book About Sexuality, empowered families to learn together about healthy sexuality and encouraged parents to engage in honest, factually accurate, and value-guided dialogue with their children.

Peggy Brick, another important sexuality educator in the Quaker community, began her career as a public school teacher in Baltimore and then in New Jersey. She instituted sexuality education into the psychology and sociology courses she taught, basing her lessons around students’ questions, knowing they were crucial in curricula development. In 1979, while serving on the board of Planned Parenthood of Bergen County, New Jersey, she helped to form the Center for Family Life Education, which created and presented workshops and curricula promoting comprehensive sexuality education. Later, as the center’s director, Brick noticed that, “Almost never are curriculum and instruction designed with a positive approach to sexuality: acknowledging pleasure as well as danger; accepting sexuality as a normal part of life; promoting attitudes, values, and behaviors that will be conducive to healthy, happy adult sexual functioning.” She, along with other like-minded sexuality educators, responded by creating sexuality education curricula that are still among the finest ever published, and a must for any sexuality educator’s classroom—or any classroom, for as Brick has said many times, “Every teacher is a sexuality educator.” Today, Peggy Brick is still as vibrant and productive as ever, turning her attention to the newest frontier in sex education, helping senior citizens explore and experience healthy sexuality in the later years of life.

Al Vernaccchio in his classroom at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa.

Inspired by the work of these educators and guided by the Quaker testimonies, I encourage the students in my Sexuality and Society class to communicate about values, sexuality, gender, sexual orientation, attraction and love, intimacy, healthy and unhealthy relationships, setting limits around sexual activity, safer sex, and much more. The course offers students the space and time to consider questions that go unexamined by too many in our society. Whether responding to an academic journal article or using the class’s anonymous “Question Box,” my students have tackled a number of questions: What does it mean to be in a relationship when you’re 17 or 18 years old—and can you be in love at that age? How can we live in a world filled with images of free sexuality and still be expected to put self-imposed limits on our actions? How can we develop a complete life of healthy sexuality—body, mind, emotions and spirit?

The students I teach also become diligent observers of sexuality in the larger society. They bring in articles, report on television commercials and programs they see, send me websites to view, and make connections between our class and the world on a daily basis. When we start with the assumption that sexuality is a force for good in the universe, these topics can be discussed and debated with an eye towards finding that good, while at the same time recognizing the ways where it is obscured by selfishness, exploitation, and prejudices such as sexism and homophobia. Of course we acknowledge the dangers of unhealthy sexuality, as any responsible treatment of human sexuality must do, but because we begin with the assumption that the “default” position is healthy sexuality, it is easier to see unhealthy sexuality as an aberration rather than destiny.

As a school community led by Quaker principles, committed to comprehensive sexuality education, we at Friends’ Central must be willing to think, talk and act to bring about healthy sexuality in all members of the community. We see comprehensive sexuality education as another arm of social justice education. Developing healthy attitudes about sex entails doing the hard work of figuring out both appropriate and inappropriate expressions of sexuality for ourselves and our community. A community that truly respects sexuality doesn’t squander it or abuse it. Its members don’t use sexuality in a coercive way, or make decisions about sexuality while under the influence of drugs, alcohol or raging hormones. They don’t treat other people as objects to be used or toyed with and then discarded. They don’t use sexuality to shock or offend the community. A community interested in healthy sexuality should help each individual

make choices that lead to growth, fulfillment, maturity, and feeling good about oneself and one’s relationships. Developing healthy sexuality also includes a healthy approach towards gender and sexual orientation. A community that respects these issues doesn’t use cookie cutter molds to define men and women, gay and straight. It doesn’t encourage men to express camaraderie with punches and pranks. It doesn’t encourage women to betray themselves or each other to fit in or to be popular. It is a community where concepts of masculinity and femininity are equally respected and are expanded beyond the constricting stereotypes our society offers. It is one that acknowledges the genders of the people involved in a sexual interaction are less important than the values upon which that interaction is based. Healthy sexuality, when thinking about the whole community, means setting limits where it is clear our actions may contribute to unhealthy feelings and behaviors for others. It means thinking about what we say, what we sing, what we do, how we present ourselves to each other, and how we relate to each other.

My work at Friends’ Central has been successful in large part because I can teach without evading who I am and how my experiences have shaped my view of the world. My reality is that I am openly gay, partnered, spiritually-centered, Italian-American, politically left-leaning, and love all things related to Harry Potter. We all struggle to grow into ourselves and then yearn to live and speak out of that reality. I love being a member of the Friends’ Central community because it invites me, and all its faculty, to do this. What better example can we give to our students than a life lived honestly, gifts offered and accepted freely? Surely doing this makes manifest the belief that “there is that of God in everyone.”

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice says, “Our understanding of our own

sexuality is an essential aspect of our journey toward wholeness. Learning to incorporate sexuality in our lives responsibly, joyfully, and with integrity should be a lifelong process beginning in childhood.” Friends schools are in a position to offer this approach to human sexuality to our students, faculty and staff, parents, and alumni community. Establishing comprehensive sexuality education in Quaker schools is simply another way of continuing our fundamental mission. I am proud of Friends’ Central for becoming a school where a healthy view of sexuality is seen as an essential part of a healthy school community. It is my hope that all Friends schools will enter into a discussion of how best to continue on the path of developing healthy sexuality in their own communities.

Al Vernacchio

Al Vernacchio teaches and organizes sexuality-themed programs and assemblies, provides parent education on human sexuality topics, and is one of the faculty advisors for the Gay-Straight Alliance at Friends Central School in Wynnewood, Pa. His work has been featured as a cover story in the New York Times Magazine.

3 thoughts on “Friends Schools and Healthy Sexuality

  1. Thanks for this great article, I think any young person just venturing out into sexuality could gain so much from the clean, positive and gentle attitude towards sexuality that you describe. You describe a sexuality that revolves around feelings and care which reminded me of another article I read recently that you may be interested in for both yourselves and possibly your students,

  2. I agree with Ali. I enjoyed the article and appreciate how you seem to approach the subject with wisdom and gentleness, which I imagine makes it more likely that your message will be well-received by students.

  3. Al – a beautifully written article that affirms the important work we do as sexuality educators. The student, teachers and parents of Friends Central are most fortunate for you and your work!

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