Every Wednesday The CSPH highlights a Sexuality Professional you should keep your eye on. Their backgrounds are very diverse in order to bring attention to the wide variety of amazing people working in the field. This week we bring you Al Vernacchio!
1. What do you do in the field of sexuality?
I am a sexuality educator who works primarily in high school today, but I have taught graduate level courses in human sexuality in the past. I develop sexuality education curricula, and I also present keynotes, lectures presentations, and workshops about sexuality-related topics throughout the US.
2. Where are you based out of?
I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The school where I work, Friends’ Central School, is in Wynnewood, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.
3. What is your focus? What do you do?
In my role as the Upper School Sexuality Educator at Friends’ Central, I teach a year-long 12th grade course called “Sexuality and Society” which examines a variety of topics in human sexuality through a diverse set of lenses. I also conduct a short-course in human sexuality for all 9th graders, organize special programs and assemblies (such as the annual observance of World AIDS Day), and provide parent education regarding human sexuality. I am also one of the faculty advisors for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
4. What are your particular goals and passions in the field?
My primary focus and passion is helping adolescents develop healthy, deliberate, accurate, and positive views of their own sexuality and sexuality in general.
I want to offer adolescents a vision of sexuality that is different from the “disaster prevention” model that they often get. This is the model that teaches, “Sex will kill you so you have to prepare for the worst.” I also want to counteract the “porn” model that adolescents are being exposed to earlier and earlier. Its messages are that sexual activity either has no connection to the rest of one’s life or is the sum total of one’s life. It also promotes unrealistic body image, relationships of unequal power, and unrealistic ideas of what sexual activity is really like.
I believe if we move to a model of healthy sexuality based on desire and decision: if we can see our desires, pleasure, and our interest in sexuality as healthy rather than problematic, we can then go about making decisions that are more likely to develop healthy sexuality in young people (and older people too).
Ultimately, when it comes to sexuality, I want us to encourage our hopes, not just our fears. Honest discussions about values, about decision making, and about age-appropriate ways to experience intimacy, romance, and pleasure seem to me to be so much more beneficial than seeing sexuality as a dangerous time bomb that needs to be defused.”
5. Why did you choose to work in this field?
I often say that when God was passing out talents to people, I got ease in talking about sex. I’ve never been someone who was afraid to ask questions about and learn about human sexuality. I’m not sure if this is in spite of or because I grew up on a very traditional working-class, Catholic, Italian-American family where we certainly did NOT talk about such things. I also know that navigating my own coming out experience as a young person it was essential to confront big questions about sexuality and be willing to search for answers when no one else was going to provide them for me. My first venue for learning about sexuality was through religion. My undergraduate degree is in Theology. I started out teaching human sexuality as part of a religious studies class during my tenure at a private, Catholic school for boys. My work there was trying to show that sexuality and spirituality were not only compatible but integrally related. I started graduate work in Moral Theology, but soon realized I both wanted and needed training specifically in sexuality education. That led me to transfer to the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education where I got my MSEd in human sexuality education. Since then I’ve been doing sexuality education in both religious and secular settings.
6. Where did you go for school/training?
I earned my MSEd in Human Sexuality Education from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. This same human sexuality education program now is offered out of Widener University.
7. Do you have any literature out (websites, articles)?
Lesson Plan: “You’re Out, Baseball!” A Healthier, More Equitable, Satisfying & Safer Model For Sexual Activity in Teaching Safer Sex, 3rd edition, Volume 1. Published by The Center for Family Life Education, 2012. http://www.sexedstore.com/teachingsafersex
“Hook-ups or Hand-ups: A Primer for Faculty and Advisors in Talking with Students about Healthy Relationships” Independent School: Volume 69, Number 4: Summer, 2010.
“Having ‘The Talks’ Without Fear”: Advocates For Youth website
How To Talk with Kids – at any age – about Healthy Sexuality
Contributor: “Everyone Grows Old: Sexuality Issues for People who are Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual” (lesson plan) in OLDER, WISER, SEXUALLY SMARTER: 30 Sex Ed Lessons for Mid and Later Life - Spring, 2009
“Teaching Good Sex” by Laurie Abraham
The New York Times Magazine, November 20, 2011
“For Goodness Sex: Notes from a Sexuality Educator” (blog)
Let’s talk about sex — and pizza: Al Vernacchio at TED2012
Sex Educator Talks to College Students: Penn alum, Al Vernacchio, came to campus yesterday to talk about “great sex”.
8. What would you recommend to future professionals attempting to get into the field?
The most important thing is to get training that is equally strong in both education and sexuality information. The program at Widener University is absolutely my strongest recommendation for someone who wants to get into the human sexuality field, whether from a clinical or educational angle.
9. What is the most challenging aspect for you working in this career?
There are two aspects that are equally challenging. First are the persistent negative assumptions I encounter about sexuality. Most of my students and most of their parents were not brought up to have a positive attitude about their sexuality and to think about it as a normal part of their lives. (I wasn’t either, by the way.) The stigmas of sin, shame, and self-criticism are so powerful and take serious effort to cut through to be able to look at sexuality as a joyful, healthy, and liberating part of life. The second challenge is the pervasive presence of pornography and the mistaken assumption that it represents what sexual activity is like for most people. Often people don’t even recognize their negative assumptions about sexuality or how porn has shaped their ideas about what healthy sexuality looks like. That’s why I always start a sexuality education class by talking about values. We must examine what our “bottom line” beliefs and attitudes about sexuality are, and how those beliefs guide our actions. Only then will we be able to make significant changes in our attitudes and behaviors if that’s something we want to do.
10. One must read-what would you recommend? Why?
That’s a really tough question! Can your other responders really pick just one?? I have to cheat and list a couple. For my high school students, I love S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna. For college aged students and young adults, it’s got to be The Guide to Getting it On by Paul Joannides. For professionals, Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook is a must as well as a subscription to The American Journal of Sexuality Education.
Photo credit: Jeffrey Stockbridge