I mentioned in last month’s spotlight that, several years ago, I volunteered for the Center for Sex Education and got myself a free pass to the National Sex Ed Conference, which was amazing. Well, in addition to crossing paths with Tanya M. Bass, I also attended a session with sexuality educator Al Vernacchio.
Vernacchio was speaking about a framework he uses in which he likens the changes kids go through during puberty to developing superpowers. The room was packed, and I felt lucky to have squeezed my way in at all. Especially after Vernacchio breezed his way into the room in full superhero regalia and proceeded to deliver one of the best, most engaging presentations I’d ever seen.
I interviewed him for the Washington Post shortly after that conference, and have been low-key stalking him ever since. (Sorry, Al! I’m not at all creepy! I swear! ?) Whenever Vernacchio’s name comes up in conversation, the reaction is the same: people clasp their hands to their heart and express how much they love him. So I feel so grateful that he actually agreed to chat with me for the site.
Without further ado:
Could you talk to me about your entire journey to becoming a sexuality educator?
I’ve always known I wanted to be a teacher.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school. My mom was sent to business school after eighth grade so she could become a secretary. My dad started high school but dropped out because of World War II. An interesting thing is that my parents were married for 15 years before they had their first kid. So, the snarky part of me says I became a sex educator because I had to figure out what the hell they were they doing for 15 years.
My actual journey to becoming a sex educator went straight through studying and teaching religion. Because I was raised Catholic, I majored in theology in college. I thought I was going to be a priest, but I didn’t really have any interest in that. I really wanted to find a venue where I could talk about human sexuality, specifically sexual orientation, ’cause I was a gay kid trying to figure that out.
So, my undergraduate degree is in theology and I started teaching right after college at a private Catholic school for boys in Philadelphia and I taught Religion and English. It was ninth grade religion. It was Old Testament. And then they said, for the last two weeks in the year, “You should teach sex ed.” And I said, “Okay.” No idea what I was doing.
The seven years I was at that school, I kept growing the sex ed part of the class and shrinking the religion part. And it sort of turned into this one-semester course in human sexuality that the kids loved, because nobody else was talking to them about it. And I’ve always been able to talk about sexuality without any embarrassment or shame, so it felt very natural to me.
I [approached the principal at one point] and said to him, “You know, kids are asking a lot of questions. We’re a Catholic school. I know where the line is, but kids often need more than where the line allows me to go.”
And he basically said to me, “Look. You know the boys. You know what they need. Do what you think you need to do but, if we get complaints, I won’t be able to back you up.”
I took that as direction and did what I could do. And I was there for seven years.
Then I started a master’s degree in moral theology. I was at Villanova University, but I learned that the University of Penn had a human sexuality graduate program for educators. I thought, You know what? I studied the theology. What I need is the education. So I transferred to Penn and I got my master’s degree in human sexuality education.
When I left that school, there weren’t any teaching jobs around, so I spent four years working for an AIDS service organization in Philadelphia. I was the volunteer coordinator and trainer at a place called Action AIDS, which is now called Action Wellness because they expanded their mission. And I was there at a really interesting time. I started in the early ’90s — I think I was there from ’93-’97 — and so the first part of my time there was in the old days of HIV/AIDS when people were dying in huge numbers. There was very little opportunity for talking about a chronic manageable disease.
And then ’96 happened and protease inhibitors came out and everything changed. And my job went from teaching volunteers to work with people who were going to die to teaching volunteers to work with people who had to manage this illness for the rest of their lives. And so much changed. The agency had to start a back-to-work program because all these people had quit their jobs, thinking they were going to die, and suddenly they weren’t and were like, well, now what do I do? People had cashed in their life insurance; people had done all kinds of things. But I really wanted to get back in the classroom. That was really my pull.
And so, I did some job searching and I found this job, here at Friends’ Central. I came here in 1998. I was hired as a full-time English teacher because that’s the job they had. And I still teach English to this day. But I said, “I have this master’s degree in human sexuality. Do you think I’ll ever be able to use it?” And they said, “Well, why don’t you look around and see what we need and make a proposal?” So I spent two years doing an informal needs assessment and getting used to the school, and then I pitched a course. And over the last 20 years, I’ve built this program little by little, piece by piece.
Currently, as well as teaching English, my job title is Nursery Through 12th Grade Sexuality Education Coordinator. So my job is to think about the scope and sequence of the whole school, nursery through 12th grade, and how we can incorporate lessons about healthy sexuality. I spend most of my time in the high school. That’s where I have my classes in human sexuality. But I teach puberty to the 4th graders. I teach early relationship stuff to 5th graders. I do stuff about online safety and consent and pornography and then, for the little little kids, I read books about diverse families and transgender teddy bears and fun stuff like that.
Do you feel like you have less constraints in this job versus that one where you were sort of straddling that line?
Yeah. This is a Quaker school, and Quakers are famously progressive when it comes to this. Actually, one of the guys who was head of the school, this guy named Eric Johnson who wrote a book called Love and Sex in Plain Language… that was the book I got when I was in high school to tell me about sex. So it’s a pretty progressive place and I really have not had any trouble over the last 20 years with people questioning what I do or thinking we’re going too far or too fast. Partly because I’m savvy about the place and what the place will allow while pushing it a little more. And probably because I made sure I’m not really a radical person.
How do you negotiate that line now and how did you negotiate it in that first teaching job?
Back then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I would basically say to the boys, “Okay, you can ask me any question you want.” So that helped. And they would ask me a question about birth control and I would say, “Okay. Now, here’s the party line. And here’s what I think you really want to know, and I’m going to tell you, but I’m also going to tell you that if you go home and say, ‘Mr. V said this in class,’ I’m going to get fired. So if you want this to keep happening, you know what you have to do.” And they protected me 100 percent.
And now, I incorporate a lot of parent education into what I do so I’m always doing sessions for parents here to help them partner in this journey to help their kids. Because I think parents are the primary sexuality educators of their kids. They deserve to be the ones who set forth values and really send a message they want to send. And my job is to help them figure out what those messages are, and to sort of help them move from leading with their fears to leading with their hopes.
So that’s what I’m trying to do and I’m trying to do that with kids, too, because we have to normalize the fact that we’re sexual people. We have to normalize talking about sexuality in the way we talk about everything else, and we also have to acknowledge the awkwardness involved. The awkwardness of parents talking to kids, the awkwardness of teachers talking to kids, and the awkwardness of having sex with somebody. Because, like, what’s more awkward than having sex with somebody? It’s weird and it’s goofy and fumbly and people fart and people roll on your hair and you get a cramp… like, nobody talks about that. Porn doesn’t tell you that. If nobody ever tells you that, you might think you’re doing something wrong when you’re having a totally normal experience.
I think, in teaching human sexuality, what you’re teaching is authenticity. How can you be your most authentic self, in the body that you have? I think part of the reason we’re so screwed up is that we don’t really lead with authenticity and a lot of our relationships are fabricated and based on fantasy, and then, of course, everyone feels anxious and worried and bad that everyone’s having better sex than they are, and something’s wrong with them. You don’t create a healthy society that way.
Do you find that the fears parents are grappling with when it comes to having these conversations are pretty similar?
Oh, yeah. My experience of parents as a general group and kids as a general group is that we’re all afraid of the same thing. We’re all afraid of not being loved. We’re all afraid of being made fun of. We’re all worried about whether we’re normal or not. And I think that if I do my job well, it’s not that I can magically take all those fears away. But maybe I can interrupt it. Maybe when somebody starts that fear response, there’s a moment where they could say, Well, there is another way I can think about this.
If all we ever do is tell kids no, don’t, danger, beware, be careful, don’t get your heart broken… how do you have a healthy relationship when that’s all you know?
I say to parents, “For every no you give, I want you to think of a yes you can give. So that kids have an alternative.”
What, for you, is the toughest aspect of working within this space?
I have always found it, teaching-wise, really difficult and tricky to teach about sexual violence. Because I think that’s an area where you can end up doing more harm than good. And I want to make sure that when I’m talking about sexual violence with kids, I’m doing it in a way that is trauma-informed and that recognizes that, in my classroom, there can be survivors and perpetrators.
I also find body image to be a tough topic with kids. Partly because of my own struggles with body image throughout my life, but partly because our society has done such a number on young people about their bodies. They’ve been getting messages that their bodies aren’t right for such a long time and it’s a place where a lot of kids’ sadness really comes out. And I’m very empathic, so if kids are sad, I’m sad. And that’s hard to do.
With parents, I think the hardest thing is that I can’t give them what they want, which is for me to say, “This is what I did with my kid and it totally worked.”
So many educators consider you to be one of their sex ed superheroes. Who would you say were some of your sex ed superheroes when you were starting out and who are some of them today?
When I was starting out, I was really positively influenced by Deborah Roffman, who’s been teaching at the Park School in Baltimore forever.
Konnie McCaffree, who was one of my graduate school teachers, taught me how to be an educator.
There was a guy named Ken George who was the director of the graduate program at Penn. Ken taught me how to be proud about being gay, which was so essential to me being able to do this work.
I was enamored with Dr. Ruth and her radio show when I was a kid and I got to meet her, which was totally thrilling. I just loved that she was so gutsy.
Mary Jo Podgurski, who’s been doing this for a bazillion years, whom I love, who is my earth mother… Her optimism pisses me off at times because, like, could you just get mad? Could you just be indignant once in a while? But she’s so loving. She just so leads with love. And it’s inspiring and maddening.
I admire a lot of the young sexuality educators today. I admire a woman named Justine Fonte, who is out of the Dalton School. And she talks about me as her mentor, but I don’t think that’s true. I think…the power was in you all the time, my dear. But she does sex ed from a feminist perspective and it’s awesome. She’s a rock star.
There’s a group called WOCSHN which is the Woman of Color Sexual Health Network, and I have seen… one of the real problems in the field is that it’s very white. And I think we’ve had to really struggle with our own battles of racism, sexism, heterosexism. It’s kind of easy to be a gay guy in sex ed. Like, gay men kind of, for a long time, were a lot of the frontline people doing the work. That was never a struggle. But that also blinded the field in some ways because we thought we had diversity down, because we were cool with the gays. But that didn’t help us with our racism or our sexism. So I admire people who are really tackling that these days, and WOCSHN is a group that’s really doing that.
I think Peggy Orenstein is doing great stuff. Her books — Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex — have been really useful for me.
Jackson Katz is doing work on masculinity that I think every single person should know about.
I think the people I really admire are people who are finding ways to center justice in their work with sex ed.
And that’s something I am also trying to do. And part of that is learning about my own places where I’m weak or don’t see.