This is what good sex education looks like

Mr. Vernacchio’s “Sexuality and Society” class is definitely this sex-positive feminist’s wet dream. The class, taught as an elective at a private Quaker high school in Philadelphia, represents everything that sex education should be–and everything that, sadly, it is decidedly not these days.

At a time when the conservative push for abstinence-only-until-marriage has left most public schools teaching abstinence-only or abstinence-plus programs, Mr. Vernacchio’s course is a rarity in that it acknowledges that sexuality can be a “force for good.” In a country where even some “comprehensive” sex education is based on the fear-based premise that teens shouldn’t be having sex, but since they might be doing it anyway, they should probably know how to protect themselves, so they don’t ruin their lives and die (literally), talking about pleasure in the straightforward, honest way Mr. Vernacchio does is basically unheard of–and so very valuable.

As to whether his class encourages teenagers to have sex — a protest perennially lodged against even basic sex ed (though pretty firmly disproved by research) — Vernacchio said that he portrays sex in all its glory and complications. “As much as I say, ‘This is how orgasms work, and they’re really cool,’ I say there’s a lot of work to being in a relationship and having sex. I don’t think I have the power to make sex sound so enticing that kids are going to break through their self-esteem issues or body stuff or parental pressures or whatever to just go do it.” And anyway, Vernacchio went on, “I don’t necessarily see the decision to become sexually active when you’re 17 as an unhealthy one.” His goal is for young people to know their own minds, be clear about what they do and don’t want and use their self-knowledge to make choices.

As Mr. Vernacchio says, most sex educators see themselves as the “messengers of all the things that can go wrong with sex.” But while the risks of unintended pregnancy and STDs certainly need to be addressed, Vernacchio argues that teens won’t listen if educators don’t speak to their real concerns–the insecurities, complexities, and pressures that make exploring their sexuality so exciting and so scary. He asks, “What if our kids really believed we wanted them to have great sex?” (Well, then we’d probably be living in the Netherlands, Mr. V!)

This is what truly comprehensive sex ed could be. It’s not about teaching kids that sex is awesome (they’ve probably already gathered that) and it’s not about throwing some condoms at them and telling them to be safe–it’s about really speaking to how amazing/terrible/complicated/etc. sex can be and empowering young people to make the decisions that are best for them.

Plus, Vernacchio “rarely misses a chance to ask his students to examine gender bias in their sexual attitudes,” helped one student overcome her shame about enjoying casual sex, and seems to be on a one man mission to teach teen boys how to get women off. So, basically a feminist hero in my book.

Go read the whole profile in the New York Times Magazine. And then maybe demand some better sex ed in your schools.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation