ne of the first things Al Vernacchio does in his high school Sexuality and Society class is stand at a podium in a sweater vest and tie surrounded by a wall packed with slogans: RESIST HOMOPHOBIA. FIGHT SEXISM. ENJOY LIFE.
What he doesn’t do: pass around anatomy drawings or hand out safe sex pamphlets, though he makes those available near the door.
Vernacchio has been in the sex education field for more than 20 years, currently teaching ninth- and 12-graders in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. He’s seen the rise of the abstinence movement, the digital revolution and the impact on teens of parents who don’t know how to get the sex conversation started.
“Data shows that when kids enter high school, the vast majority, like 75 percent, have not had sexual intercourse, but that number switches by the time they graduate, when more than half of them have,” Vernacchio said.
Yet many kids, he said in a recent interview, shut down their parents when they start to talk about sex. That’s one reason he’s written “For Goodness Sex,” out in September from HarperCollins.
A conversation with Al Vernacchio:
AP: How has the sex talk changed with the rise of the Internet and social media?
Vernacchio: I think parents get very afraid sometimes of the huge amount of information that kids can access today. We need to help kids figure out what kind of information is useful, what is just, for lack of a better word, propaganda, or what’s marketing or what’s information that doesn’t really have their best interests at heart.
AP: What are today’s pitfalls in talking to kids about sex?
Vernacchio: Parents need to come at those conversations not from an orientation of disaster but rather from the premise that our sexuality is a force for good, a positive force. That changes the conversation. It’s not very helpful for young people to hear long lists of things they shouldn’t do and the dangers they will face.
AP: With technology, have parents been cut out of the equation on how their teens learn about sex, safety and birth control?
Vernacchio: Some data says kids really do want to hear from their parents but don’t want to have to ask. That’s why parents need to be peppering all of their everyday conversations with messages about healthy sexuality and value clarification and things like that.
AP: What are your best tips for parents who are uncomfortable initiating conversations about sex and sexuality?
Vernacchio: Look at what TV they’re watching, what media they’re consuming. That’s often a way to see what they’re interested in. If kids are into watching ‘Game of Thrones,’ for example, there’s a lot going on there about gender and relationships, so one of the ins could be asking them if they think about how men and women relate to each other on the show.
AP: There are lots of parenting books out there. What do you bring to the table?
Vernacchio: My book starts from the premise that if we start the conversations with a fundamental belief that sexuality is a good thing, a force for good, we can actually help our kids achieve and develop healthy sexuality to have successful relationships that they want.
I’ve never yet met a parent who has said to me I never ever ever want my kid to have sex. At some point they do want their kids to be in a sexual relationship – a loving intimate passionate fun sexual relationship. If that’s really part of the end goal, how does that change the way we start the conversation?
You don’t start by saying, ‘Look, this is really dangerous’ and then magically at some point it becomes OK. If all kids hear is, ‘No, don’t, be careful, danger, but go have a healthy relationship,’ they have no clue how to do that.
Start to make clear early on things like the difference between sex for the sake of pleasure, sex for the sake of intimacy, sex for the sake of romance. How are they different? Is there a place in one’s life for sex for the purpose of just pleasure or fun, and if there is, how do we know that? And how is that different than sex when you’re trying to establish a connection with somebody?
I don’t think people are asking parents to have those kinds of conversations.