Al Vernacchio is an English and sexuality education teacher at Friends’ Central School in Pennsylvania and author of For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health. A veteran teacher with 17 years of experience, Vernacchio first realized he wanted to learn more about sexuality and teach sexuality education during his first teaching job.
“The human sexuality curriculum was taught at the end of the ninth grade religion class, which was a class I taught,” Vernacchio explains. “Once I started teaching it, I realized I knew a lot about the spiritual side but not so much about the sexual side of things. I wanted to learn more and help people grow in sexually healthy ways.”
Vernacchio went on to get a master’s degree in human sexuality education and, in his words, has “been teaching sexuality education ever since, whether in my sexuality classes or my English classes.”
It’s just this sort of expertise in cross-topic teaching that made us think Vernacchio was the perfect person to interview for our second installment of our series Inter(sex)tions, which explores how sexuality education intersects with core topics taught in schools.
Answer: As a teacher of both English and a course on sexuality at the high school level, how and in what ways do these two subjects overlap?
Vernacchio: Almost any text taught in a high school English classroom can be used to teach a lesson on healthy sexuality. It’s just a matter of whether the teacher is willing to “go there” when teaching the text and whether the school is open to the teacher doing that. Literature is all about the human experience, and at the core of that human experience is our sexuality. We are sexual beings every minute of every day, from birth to death. Everything we do and every interaction we have is influenced by our bodies, our gender identity and expression, and our sexual and romantic attractions. The study of literature becomes so much richer when we understand the characters as fully human, and that means fully sexual.
I talk about sexuality all the time in my English class, because it’s on every page of every text I teach. It’s hard to teach The Catcher in the Rye without recognizing that Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, is a confused, horny, 16-year-old virgin who has a lot of questions about sex and dating and life, and those questions have an impact on his interactions with every other character. The novel also gives students a glimpse into the world of 1950s America and how sexism and homophobia were present there just as they are today.
One of my favorite experiences of talking about sexuality in the context of literature comes in the 11th-grade American Literature class. We read that old chestnut, The Scarlet Letter, followed immediately by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Both texts are about characters scorned by society because of sexual issues. Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter (“A” for adulteress) is mirrored by the Kaposi sarcoma lesions that mark the characters living with AIDS in Angels in America. Both texts talk about the conflict between the American Dream of living one’s life openly and honestly and the prejudice and discrimination that comes from a society that demands conformity and punishes those who stray beyond the boundaries of what’s deemed “acceptable.” Both ask what the price of freedom is and both ultimately give the message that being true to oneself is what is most important.
Answer: When teaching English, what texts do you find foster the most conversations about sexuality or topics related to sex ed?
Vernacchio: There are certainly texts that foster conversations about sexuality more easily than others because their subject matter is directly related to sexuality in some way (think Romeo and Juliet or Their Eyes Were Watching God). But I think what’s much more important is the attitude of the teacher and the community created in the classroom. Is it one that is safe for discussing “real” issues? Are the students encouraged to look at the way gender and sexual orientation may impact what’s happening in a novel or a story? For instance, when reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of course it’s essential to talk about race and the dehumanizing effects of slavery in the United States. But Huck and Jim are also both men (well, a man and a boy), and that also impacts how they relate to one another. It’s also interesting to notice the place of women in that novel; they are oppressed by their gender in similar ways that slaves are oppressed by their race. Twain didn’t set out to write a novel about the place of women in nineteenth-century America, and I hope no teacher would avoid the racial issues in the novel to talk about that instead, but talking about the intersection of race and gender in the novel can enrich the experience and give students a new way of looking at issues of freedom, fairness and oppression.
Answer: For health teachers who are looking to more deeply engage students using content from other classes, what advice do you have?
Vernacchio: Health teachers have the ability to be extraordinarily creative in their classrooms. Teaching from novels and real-world experiences is so much more effective than using an out-of-date health textbook. There are amazing young adult novels, poems and essays that cover topics like navigating puberty, coming out, surviving sexual assault, being transgender, etc. These are easy reads and can open up discussions among students in powerful ways. Beyond fiction, teachers can use things like advertising to teach about gender role inequity. I’ve sent my students out to look at the display of Valentine’s Day cards in a store and count how many cards can be used by people in same-gender relationships. Television commercials can be a great focusing tool for a class and cover every sexuality-related issue imaginable. You-tubers like Laci Green are another valuable resource. Websites like Sexetc.org, Scarleteen and Go Ask Alice allow students to explore topics of their choosing and guarantee them accurate, thorough and up-to-date information.
Answer: What tips do you have for teachers fielding questions about sexuality when sexuality isn’t their area of expertise?
Vernacchio: Whether you know the answer or not isn’t the issue. It’s the way you answer the question or respond to the statement that’s important. If a teacher seems nervous, shocked or disgusted, that’s going to send a powerful message to the student. When we normalize students’ natural curiosity about sexuality, we do them a great service. It would also be great to have resources available in every classroom that answered basic questions about sexuality—pamphlets, books, posters. One thing every great teacher knows is that where to find an answer is just as, if not more, important than knowing the answer. Most of all, though, teachers who model authenticity and show their humanity to their students are teaching a terrific lesson about healthy sexuality.