Teaching 'good sex' in the classroom

It's nice to see Rod Dreher blogging away again this fall, especially since he kind of wrote a GetReligion post for us. In a recent post, he argued that the New York Times Magazine is obsessed with sex and sexuality, especially from a progressive/liberation angle. As he points out, here are a few of the sex-related stories they’ve done this year (with links to some GetReligion responses).

Dan Savage on What Gay Open Marriages Can Teach Straight America about the Virtues of Infidelity (June 30). (Cover story). (GetReligion's take)

Nicholson Baker: The Mad Scientist of Smut (sympathetic profile of novelist) (August 4)

My Ex-Gay Friend (June 16) (GetReligion's take)

How Hugh Hefner Got His Groove Back (February 3)

The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy (a sympathetic cover story about people who exercise choice through selective abortion) (Aug 10) (GetReligion's take)

If nothing else, maybe the magazine exists to give GetReligion fodder, or something. The latest piece is a profile of Al Vernacchio, who teaches sex education at a Quaker school in suburban Philadelphia.

In its breadth, depth and frank embrace of sexuality as, what Vernacchio calls, a “force for good” — even for teenagers — this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States. “There is abstinence-only sex education, and there’s abstinence-based sex ed,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.”

To give you a sense of how he teaches, in one class, Vernacchio provided a worksheet with the five senses and asked the students to try to list sexual activities that optimized each. Here are other kinds of materials he draws on in his classroom:

The lessons that tend to raise eyebrows outside the school, according to Vernacchio, are a medical research video he shows of a woman ejaculating — students are allowed to excuse themselves if they prefer not to watch — and a couple of dozen up-close photographs of vulvas and penises. The photos, Vernacchio said, are intended to show his charges the broad range of what’s out there.

On the religion front, we learn about a tiny little detail in the middle of the piece that seems terribly relevant for the rest of the piece to continue.

Vernacchio is aware that his utter lack of self-consciousness in conversing about sexual matters is unusual. “When God was passing out talents,” he likes to say, “I got ease in talking about sex.” But any plan of God’s, whom Vernacchio, a practicing Catholic, often references, was nudged along by two earthly happenings. “As a little kid,” Vernacchio said, “I got pegged as a good public speaker, so I started narrating all the school plays and reading at church; I got over the fear of speaking really early.” Then, around age 12, he started to research sex, having known from kindergarten that he was different in a “way that had to do with boys and girls.” He looked up homosexuality in the family dictionary, then took to going to libraries and planting himself in the sexuality section of the stacks. “I used to have the Dewey-decimal number for homosexuality memorized.” He was entirely on his own. There was no discussion of being gay at Vernacchio’s all-boys school; none from his parish priest, who at the end of sermons offered a prayer for “veterans of foreign wars, people who live near nuclear power plants and homosexuals”; and not from his parents, either, even after he came out to them at 19.

Did you catch it? The mention of Vernacchio as a practicing Catholic was merely in passing, as though it was the color of his hair or the type of jacket he had on. His faith is relevant only in how it didn't prevent him from exploring his own sexuality. That detail made me wonder whether the reporter explored this side, whether Vernacchio sees how he lives or what he teaches as any contradiction of Catholic teaching.

The piece as a whole is worth reading just to see how sides are presented or whether there are any sides. On Dreher's post, commenter Conradg discussed whether this was appropriate journalism.

As for the journalism issue, the job of journalists is to report on what is going on, not to give philosophical, religious, or moral opinions about everything they report. The NYT is simply reporting what is actually going on in some schools with sex education, and the fact this is a Quaker school, and thus with some religious orientation, makes it even more interesting.

The notion that the NYT is supposed to act as some kind of moral police force ferreting out moral degradation in the world confuses newspapers with churches. The are supposed to report what is going on in society, and give some kind of accurate reality-based foundation for discussion of these issues. It’s not their sex ed program, after all.

Part of me wanted to affirm his point, assuming this piece had been one of thoughtful, balanced jouralism. But the piece doesn't really go into the Quaker details, ignoring history or any context that religion might provide. This isn't simply reporting "what is going on," this is creating a rosy profile out of a fairly polarizing way of teaching sex education. The piece makes lots of assumptions about the role of sex, the role of education, the role of morality and the role of ethics with a resounding view of one side. No, the Times won't act as some moral police, but some might consider it its own religion. The writer presents the issues without really examining the potential downsides to this kind of teaching, creating a one-sided puff piece. I don't know if anyone could call this piece "reality-based," since the whole premise is that it's unusual and provocative.

Photo of sex education via Shutterstock.

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