How to Do Sex Education Right

A sign that reads sex.

I know a thing or two about sex education. Sure, I went through the god awful courses in junior high and high school. I gazed at the photos of untreated herpes and found out that sex makes babies. But I also wrote my master’s thesis – around 100 pages of research that no one will ever read but my thesis committee and me – about sex education in America.

So, what did I learn from hours and hours of research, and interviewing a few handfuls of teenaged women about their sex lives and experiences in sex education? They learned nothing about sex from sex ed and wished they knew more about all sex acts, contraception and how to own their own sexuality.

Well, thank freaking goodness there is at least one high school teacher out there who gets that sex education needs to focus on sex-positive subjects rather than sex-negative subjects.

In Al Vernacchio’s classes he covers anatomy and safe sex, but he also discusses orgasms and masturbation. The Philadelphia high school teacher doesn’t even show kids those terrible photos of sexually transmitted diseases and infections gone awry.

So, what does Vernacchio do to ensure that teens get the whole picture – the whole, positive picture – about sex and how awesome sex can be? He teaches the following principles and wants to attain the following goals:

1. “Sexuality is a force for good in the universe”: Sex can lead to awesomely close connections with others. If teens are taught that sex is a happy, positive thing, they will most likely respect the entire act more.

2. Get the parents’ support: Sure, this isn’t always easy, but it’s worth doing. He explains that one of the things he does in order to secure parents’ support is to ask them what they want their kids to get out of their relationships. Most any parent will say they want their child to experience love, pleasure and closeness. But what if a parent thinks sex is morally wrong?:

“If someone believes that sex before marriage is morally wrong, one of the things I want to engage that parent about is, OK, how do we help this young person develop the skills so that, if that is a value that they also share, that they actually can achieve that. How do we teach them negotiation skills? How do we teach them how to have conversations about sex and sexuality with partners? Also, what is an appropriate form of connection, pleasure, closeness that they can engage in? For every no we give a kid, we have to give them a yes.”

3. Get the right teachers and parents in on the education: Sex ed should be taught by people who are trained in sexuality education. Also: Parents are often the best resources for kids when teens want to understand the difficult issues, such as “how do I know if I’m still in love with someone?”

4. Sex isn’t dangerous but there can be negative consequences to having it if you aren’t prepared: Unhealthy sex and not understanding safer sex practices can lead to problems. No one wants to have an unintended pregnancy and no one wants a STD. Give kids the right information about understanding their bodies to help them have safer sex.

5. Kids want to understand the emotional side of sex: Teens already know what sex looks like and the various ways it sounds. (Oh, Internet porn!) But they don’t really know what true love means. Kids need and want to understand the emotional, human elements of sex.

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Image: Stuart Caie

Abbie Stutzer

Writer, editor, and owner of Ginchy!, a freelance writing and editing company, and home funeral hub. Adores smart sex ed, sustainable ag, spooky history, women's health, feminism, horror, wine, and sci-fi.