An American Oddity: Sex Ed That Actually Talks About Sex
I spent my adolescence terrified about sex, all aspects of which seemed to me to be coated with a film of physical and emotional disease.
This week's New York Times Magazine profiles an American oddity: a high school sex educator who actually talks about sex. Al Vernacchio teaches a series of classes on sexuality at a private Philadelphia high school, where he and his students discuss oral sex double standards, chart their sexual boundaries, and watch videos on female ejaculation. Vernacchio's students are 18 years old, tops. Reading the piece, I was struck by how many of his lessons I could still use at 26.
I was raised on what the piece calls "disaster prevention" sex ed—it was not strictly "abstinence only," but it may as well have been. At the tail end of elementary school, I sat in a darkened gender-segregated classroom and watched a VHS tape of a pretty young everywoman navigating puberty. After discovering blood in her underwear after gym class, she returns to school the next day armed with a backpack full of sanitary pads. Before she manages to transfer them safely to her locker, she bumps into her crush, strewing the pads across the school steps. The boy picks them up and returns them to her with a rakish smile. She is a woman, and he's into it.
That was the most sex-positive my formalized education ever got. When I entered middle school, a humanities teacher—an ancient woman who forced us to write our essays double-spaced in cursive in preparation for the "adult world"—told our suburban classroom spooky stories about split condoms and AIDS. Later, a biology teacher fished a slip of paper out of our anonymous question box and and shook visibly when one student asked her what a "rainbow kiss" was. In a high school physical education class—a space where, conveniently, we all felt terrible about our bodies already—a male friend and I were tasked with staging a skit about the dangers of an STD of our choice. I played a girl who refused to kiss her boyfriend after learning that gonorrhea could be transmitted through the throat.
I was a natural at that role. I spent my adolescence terrified of sex, all aspects of which seemed to be coated with a film of physical and emotional disease. That feeling failed to expire after I started actually having sex, later than most. Even at 26—after writing professionally about sex for about half a decade—there are many aspects of sexuality that I understand empirically but can't seem to square in practice. "For every single question that Vernacchio pulls out of his anonymous question box about female ejaculation," reporter Laurie Abraham writes, "there are 10 like these: How do you handle your insecurities in a relationship? How do you stop worrying about being cheated on? How do you know when it’s time to break up? How do I talk to my partner about wanting to spend more time together without being annoying?"
Abraham dismisses these questions as the trappings of youth—"Watching how closely the students attended to Vernacchio’s often lengthy answers was a moving reminder of how young 17- and 18-year-olds are," she writes. But considering those questions, I felt closer to these kids than I do to the adult sexperts.
Like Vernacchio's students, I have difficulty rationalizing facts ("70 percent of women do not orgasm through vaginal penetration alone") with logistics (One student tells Abraham that "when she and her boyfriend 'do anything, we just end up having sex'”). Like them, I struggle with communicating with men who say they want to make me feel good, but feel "very insecure" if they don't implicitly understand how to do that. Like them, I have struggled to align my feminism with what I actually want in bed. One girl told Abraham that "she doesn’t enjoy cunnilingus, but taking the personal is political to heart, she asked her boyfriend to do it anyway: if she was expected to service him orally, he should have to return the favor." I could have provided Abraham that sound bite, too.
If we miss out on the basics at a young age, when do we evolve into full sexual adults, people who know what we want and how to get it? Proponents of "disaster prevention" sex ed seem to think that if we teach kids about sex at a young age, they'll mature too quickly. I was educated on that assumption, and I'm still waiting to really grow up.