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“First base, second base, third base, home run,” Al Vernacchio ticked off the classic baseball terms for sex acts. His goal was to prompt the students in Sexuality and Society an elective for seniors at the private Friends’ Central School on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line to examine the assumptions buried in the venerable metaphor. “Give me some more,” urged the fast talking 47 year old, who teaches 9th and 12th grade English as well as human sexuality. Arrayed before Vernacchio was a circle of small desks occupied by 22 teenagers, six male and the rest female a blur of sweatshirts and Ugg boots and form fitting leggings.
“Grand slam,” called out a boy (who’d later tell me with disarming matter of factness that “the one thing Mr. V. talked about that made me feel really good was that penis size doesn’t matter”).
“Now, ‘grand slam’ has a bunch of different meanings,” replied Vernacchio, who has a master’s degree in human sexuality. “Some people say it’s an orgy, some people say grand slam is a one night stand. Other stuff?”
“Grass,” a girl, a cheerleader, offered.
“If there’s grass on the field, play ball, right, right,” Vernacchio agreed, “which is interesting in this rather hair phobic society where a lot of people are shaving their pubic hair ”
Vernacchio explained that sex as baseball implies that it’s a game; that one party is the aggressor (almost always the boy), while the other is defending herself; that there is a strict order of play, and you can’t stop until you finish. “If you’re playing baseball,” he elaborated, “you can’t just say, ‘I’m really happy at second base.’ ”
A boy who was the leader of the Young Conservatives Club asked, “But what if it’s just more pleasure getting to home base?” Although this student is a fan of Vernacchio’s, he likes to challenge him about his tendency to empathize with the female perspective. “There is abstinence only sex education, and there’s abstinence based sex ed,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.”
Across the country, the approach ranges from abstinence until marriage is the only acceptable choice, contraceptives don’t work and premarital sex is physically and emotionally harmful, to abstinence is usually best, but if you must have sex, here are some ways to protect yourself from pregnancy and disease. The latter has been called “disaster prevention” education by sex educators who wish they could teach more; a dramatic example of the former comes in a video called “No Second Chances,” which has been used in abstinence only courses. In it, a student asks a school nurse, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” To which the nurse replies, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.”
In settings outside schools, the constraints typically aren’t as tight. Bill Taverner, director of the Center for Family Life Education for Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, said that his 11 educators are usually given the most freedom with so called high risk youth, those in juvenile detention, or who live in poor neighborhoods with high teen pregnancy rates. “I wish I could say it was for positive reasons,” he said, “but it’s almost as if society has just kind of thrown up their hands and said, ‘Well, these kids are going to have sex anyway, so you might as well not hide anything from them.’ ”
Sex education in America was invented by Progressive Era reformers like Sears, Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, and Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University. Eliot was one of the so called social hygienists who thought that teaching people about the “proper uses of sexuality” would help stamp out venereal disease and the sexual double standard that kept women from achieving full equality. Proper sex meant sex between husband and wife (prostitution was then seen as regrettable but necessary because of men and their “needs”), so educators preached about both the rewards of carnal contact within marriage and the hazards outside of it.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the pill, feminism and generational rebellion smashed the cultural consensus that sex should be confined to marriage. AIDS.” It was around this time that the Unitarian Universalist Association started its famously sex positive curriculum, About Your Sexuality, with details about masturbation and orgasms and slide shows of couples touching one another’s genitals. and the United Church of Christ.)
Back then, even public schools taught what came to be called “comprehensive sex education,” nonjudgmental instruction on bodies, birth control, disease prevention and “healthy relationships” all geared to helping teenagers make responsible choices, one of which might be choosing to become sexually intimate with someone. But by the end of the 1980s, sex ed had taken its place in the basket of wedge issues dividing the right and left. This created the opening for abstinence instruction (the word “abstinence” wasn’t part of the sex ed vernacular until the 1980s) to bulldoze any curriculum that didn’t treat sex as forbidden for teenagers. But Kantor and many others in the field remain “comprehensive sex ed” believers. To them, the license Vernacchio has to roam the sexual landscape is almost unimaginable.
Sitting in the conference room at Friends’, a tall, striking girl told me after class one day last winter that she was on the verge of getting involved with someone she really liked but was hesitating because she knew he had a reputation for juggling multiple girlfriends. The girl, who’d had sex twice in 11th grade with a boy she later discovered was sleeping around, wanted to be monogamous with the new guy but didn’t know how to broach it with him. (She was one of 17 students in Sexuality and Society who spoke to me privately; while Vernacchio is happy to discuss any personal information the kids bring up, he doesn’t seek it.)
Another young woman, who tended to treat her tiny desk in Vernacchio’s class as a lounger, flinging her legs out toward the center of the room, told me that she enjoyed sex for its own sake the way guys do, as she put it. While she could express this with some bravado now, she came into Sexuality and Society in the beginning of the year uneasy about this aspect of herself, she said. A third girl, who called herself a “really anxious person,” still got choked up discussing a false rumor someone wrote on Facebook last fall: that she’d drunkenly offered oral sex to a boy at a party, who, as it happened, also was enrolled in Sexuality and Society. That young man, who didn’t post the lie and was predictably unfazed by it, had fallen for another classmate. That girl was equally besotted, but because they were in “sex class,” the couple always positioned themselves across the room from each other, never side by side; otherwise, they told me, they’d feel like animals in a zoo. Not that the pair weren’t still on display. With the exception of Vernacchio, everyone knew their status and found it impossible not to notice them locking eyes periodically, smiling briefly, before she’d duck her head, push her long, shiny hair behind her ears and turn her gaze back to her teacher.
“Mr. V. takes every question seriously,” another girl, the student council vice president,
told me. “You never feel like it’s the wise sexuality master preaching to the young.” Yet Vernacchio also doesn’t give off the vibe that he wants to be young, or imagines that he still is. His attire every day for the two weeks I attended the class in February was a sweater vest over a button down shirt and tie, except for Valentine’s Day, when he shed the vest for a ruby red shirt and a tie decorated with hearts. That day Vernacchio gave all of his students brightly colored origami hearts he made himself; the members of Sexuality and Society reciprocated by sending him a singing Valentine (a “Glee” worthy rendition of “Everytime We Touch,” by the boys’ barbershop choir).
Vernacchio is nothing so much as a mensch. Gay, with a partner of 17 years, he has ruddy cheeks, a quick smile and a plane of brown hair overhanging his brow, from which he must regularly wipe away sweat during intense discussions.
During a lesson about recognizing your “crumble lines” comments that play to your vulnerability and may make you “act against your values” Vernacchio, a self described “short, round, hairy guy” who struggles with body image issues, revealed his own tendency to fall for anybody who compliments his appearance: “You say you think I’m pretty. I’ll do anything for you.” He was exaggerating a bit for effect, but the poignancy of the self disclosure wasn’t lost on the class.
Friends’ Central, a Quaker prep school that prides itself on both its academic rigor and its ethic of social responsibility, is tucked away in the bucolic hills of suburban Philadelphia. Vernacchio joined the school’s English department in 1998, and when, three years later, he asked to start Sexuality and Society, administrators were delighted. “He teaches at the very highest level,” said David Felsen, who in June retired as headmaster of the school after 23 years. Because Vernacchio was such a gifted instructor, Felsen said, he didn’t worry about parents’ reactions. And in fact, Vernacchio says that no one has ever complained or even voiced reservations about something he discussed in class.
The parents I spoke to ranging from a father who said he loves his son “to pieces” but wishes he knew him better to a mom who gets frequent updates from her daughter now in college seemed grateful for the class. “My daughter is sometimes private,” another mother said, “and I appreciate that there was another place she could go to get good, healthy information.” Early in the year, Vernacchio gives an assignment asking students to interview a parent about how he or she learned about sex, and the father said his son handled it with aplomb: “He was very natural, and I’m the one thinking, This is embarrassing. He was a lot more mature about the conversation than I was.”
Sexuality and Society begins in the fall with a discussion of how to recognize and form your own values, then moves through topics like sexual orientation (occasionally students identify as gay or transgender, Vernacchio said, but in this particular class none did); safer sex; relationships; sexual health; and the emotional and physical terrain of sexual activity.
The lessons that tend to raise eyebrows outside the school, according to Vernacchio, are a medical research video he shows of a woman ejaculating students are allowed to excuse themselves if they prefer not to watch and a couple of dozen up close photographs of vulvas and penises. The photos, Vernacchio said, are intended to show his charges the broad range of what’s out there. “It’s really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s,” he said. What’s interesting, he added, is that both the boys and girls receive the photographs of the penises rather placidly but often insist that the vulvas don’t look “normal.” “They have no point of reference for what a normal, healthy vulva looks like, even their own,” Vernacchio said. The female student council vice president agreed: “When we did the biology unit, I probably would’ve been able to label just as many of the boys’ body parts as the girls’, which is sad. I mean, you should know about the names of your own body.”
Vernacchio is aware that his utter lack of self consciousness in conversing about sexual matters is unusual. “When God was passing out talents,” he likes to say, “I got ease in talking about sex.” But any plan of God’s, whom Vernacchio, a practicing Catholic, often references, was nudged along by two earthly happenings. “As a little kid,” Vernacchio said, “I got pegged as a good public speaker, so I started narrating all the school plays and reading at church; I got over the fear of speaking really early.” Then, around age 12, he started to research sex, having known from kindergarten that he was different in a “way that had to do with boys and girls.” He looked up homosexuality in the family dictionary, then took to going to libraries and planting himself in the sexuality section of the stacks. “I used to have the Dewey decimal number for homosexuality memorized.” He was entirely on his own. There was no discussion of being gay at Vernacchio’s all boys school; none from his parish priest, who at the end of sermons offered a prayer for “veterans of foreign wars, people who live near nuclear power plants and homosexuals”; and not from his parents, either, even after he came out to them at 19. Indeed, one night several years later, his mom was doing dinner dishes at the sink and his dad was plopped on the couch a few feet away in their tiny South Philly house, and Vernacchio mustered the courage to tell them that he was happily dating someone. “My mom never turned around, never reacted in any way, and my dad turned to me, didn’t miss a beat and said, ‘Whatever happened to the metric system?’ ”
It was drummed into him as a human sexuality master’s student, Vernacchio said, to never be explicit merely for the sake of being explicit: have a rationale for every last thing you say. Which occurred to me one day listening to him answer an anonymous question there’s a box on the bookshelf where students can drop them about whether a girl’s urge to urinate during intercourse might be a precursor to female ejaculation. He laid out a plethora of explanations for the feeling, everything from anxiety about having sex to a bladder infection to the possibility that the young woman was getting “some really good G spot stimulation” and in fact verging on ejaculation.
“I just love this class you can ask anything,” a member of the girls’ basketball team told me one day in February. She wears her long blond hair in two braids and shyly divulged that she was in love with her boyfriend of eight months. “You may not be able to get the best information on the Internet, but you can ask Mr. V., and he’ll either know it or ask his sex ed friends,” she said, referring to a sex educators’ e mail list that Vernacchio consults.
Two boys who told me they’d been masturbating to Internet porn since middle school said they found themselves disoriented at the real life encounters they had with girls, but Vernacchio helped them grasp the disjuncture. Pornography “gives boys the impression that the girl is there to do any position you want, or to please you, or to, you know, role play to your liking,” one of them said. “But yesterday, when Mr. V. said there is no romanticism or intimacy in porn, porn is strictly sexual I’d never thought about that.”
One young man in the class told me he had intercourse with 10 girls, but he was a relative outlier. While most of the students had had intercourse 70 percent of teenagers do so by their 19th birthday, according to the Guttmacher Institute only 4 of the 17 I spoke with reported having three or more partners; 10 had had one or two;
the other three were virgins.