This article was originally transcribed from a YouTube video with a Friends Journal editor, Martin Kelley. The interview subject is Al Vernacchio, who teaches at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
FRIENDS JOURNAL: You’ve written an article about
teaching sexual education in the Quaker classroom. How did Liberal
Friends get to be on the forefront of talking about sexuality?
AL VERNACCHIO: Friends have always had very
progressive views of human sexuality, going back to the time of William
Penn. I think it’s because Quakers see the goodness inherent in all
human being, which makes it easy to look at sexuality as a good gift
from a good God, and not a tempting force or a force that tends toward
darkness or leads us to danger and disaster. From that start, it’s easy
to talk about sexuality as a healthy and necessary and normal part of
life. That’s what Friends have always done.
FJ: How do you develop that into a philosophy of teaching sexuality in the classroom?
AV: A lot of what I do is reframe issues to help
adolescents see sexuality in a different way. A lot of what they get
from the media and from the larger society is that sexuality is either
something completely frivolous, or it is about using people or
establishing dominance over them. When we change that paradigm and look
at sexuality as a natural extension of who we are as authentic people,
that changes everything.
We approach sexuality not as a way to conquer
but as a way to share: how do I think of the other person as a full
participant? It’s common today to look as sexuality as selfish and
self-indulgent. I look at it much more as a relationship and community
FJ: I remember writing the anonymous notes to the
teacher in sex ed class back in high school. In a way, that’s a great
educational model, as you find out what the students are actually
thinking. Do you do that, and have the questions changed over time?
AV: I have an anonymous question box in my classroom
that students can use. I also often hand out index cards to students; I
ask a question, they write the answers and I collect them, randomize
them, and read them out loud so we can get a sense of the ideas in the
The questions have definitely changed. The biggest change has been
with technology and social media and how that impacts the development of
healthy sexuality. I get questions like “Is it okay to break up over a
text message?” or “Is it okay to have a relationship that exists largely
Technology can be a great tool for creating healthy
sexuality, but it can also be a tool that distances us from one another
and sort of allows us to escape the hard work of healthy sexuality,
which is face-to-face communication with another person about intimate
and personal and loving things.
Some of the questions remain the same. I always get asked, “What’s
the right time to start being sexually active?” Of course there’s no
magic answer to that one. We talk about what are the conditions that a
person should have ready when they’re ready to begin sexual activity.
The technology has really been the game-changer in the last 15 years that I’ve been teaching.
FJ: The technology could help people get over
nervousness and make a friendship beforehand. But then, there are also
anonymous sites that let you hook up with people for sex. Is the
technology positive, negative, or a bit of both?
AV: It’s a double-edged sword. It can be positive.
It’s certainly been a great tool for lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender young people to find community in places where they’ve felt
very isolated. It’s also helped young people maintain relationships over
distance, like when kids go off to college.
They can maintain not only
friendships but romantic relationships in some way through the
technology. The downside of it is when young people take their cues
about how sex and relationships work from things like internet
pornography. That conveys a very skewed message about what sexuality is
and how it works.
A lot of what sexuality education today is media literacy: how do you
read a website? How do you look at the information it’s presenting and
ask, is there an agenda there? What are they trying to get me to do or
to think, and does that fit with my own core values?
FJ: But in some ways it still comes down to that good gift from a good God idea.
AV: Absolutely. I think we need to look at sexuality
like it’s like nourishment. It’s something that’s necessary for us to
live. It’s something we can get in all kinds of different ways — ways
that are healthy, ways that are less than healthy. But we can’t be who
we are without it. Sexuality has to be seen as an integral and
integrated part of one’s whole human life. That’s the way you can get to
talking about sexuality with younger children; that’s the way you get
to recognize the needs of the elderly in terms of their continuing
We need to see it as a whole life phenomenon and not just something
that’s only important between puberty and middle age. It starts when
we’re born and ends when we die. Looking at that wider view helps us to
see that it’s a much bigger issue than most people think.