Sexuality Education | Al Vernacchio | TEDxWakeForestU

February 28, 2020 0 By Kody Olson

Translator: Katie Poole
Reviewer: Helene Batt So when it comes to sex, our hearts and minds
aren’t always in a good place. My friend Jean Marie says that we Americans are sexually repressed to the point of being sexually obsessed. (Laughter) Many of us grew up
hearing messages about sex that it was dirty or shameful, that nice people didn’t talk about it and those same nice people
when they did it, they only did it in very serious
and sometimes sacred ways. And we may have suspected
that that wasn’t exactly true and certainly not true all the time, but we didn’t get a lot
of chance to talk about sex or ask questions about it
and certainly not to explore it. So what happened
to all that sexual curiosity and energy and interest? Sometimes it got driven
inside and became anxiety, sometimes people acted on it outwardly and they got branded outcasts and rebels. Advertising figured out
that they could use that to sell us everything
from toothpaste to Tupperware. Television teased us with sexual innuendo or gave us shows about
lifeguards running on the beach in slow motion. And then came easy-access Internet porn and things really got messy. So how do we deal with this? How do we become a people who can look at sex
honestly and confidently, and who can see sex as a way
to make ourselves better people and our world a better place? That’s my job. I teach comprehensive
progressive sexuality education in a little high school
just outside of Philadelphia. And I wanted to share a couple
of ideas with you today that might helps us get our hearts
and minds in a better place when we think about sex and sexuality. Now when I say sexuality, what I mean is the way
that our bodies, our gender, our sexual and romantic orientations
come together and make us who we are, and impact how we put
ourselves in the world, and how the world reacts to us. See, we’re not sexually active
people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That would be exhausting. But we are sexual people. From the moment we’re born
to the moment we die, every minute of every day. Our sexuality is a fundamental
facet of our humanity. We can’t separate ourselves from it. And so we have to learn how to deal with it
in positive and healthy ways. So the place to start
would be to think about what’s our bottom-line belief
when it comes to sex, when push comes to shove
what do you really think about it? What does your gut tell you? Let’s do a little thought experiment. So I’m going to say
a letter of the alphabet, and I want you to think
of the very first sexually related word or phrase that pops into your head, okay? I’m not going to ask you
to share these out loud. (Laughter) Although later they might make
for some great conversation. So just trust your gut,
don’t overthink this, okay. Here we go. A. Okay. (Laughter) Okay, how about this one, how about: J. Okay, okay one more. W. Okay, so if you’re like most people, you probably thought
of a sexual body part or a sexual act. And then, you probably
had an emotional reaction to that thought. Some people might have felt
kind of embarrassed or ashamed. “Oh my God, how did I think of that?” Other people might have felt
kind of excited, like, I’m going to think
about that a little more. (Laughter) Your gut reaction
gives you some real insight into your bottom-line belief about sex. And in my work what I have found is that there’s two
very prevalent bottom-line beliefs about sex in our society. And the first one is called
“the disaster model”. And the best example of this
comes from a sex-ed video that was used in the 80’s and 90’s called “No second chance”. It was an abstinence only video and in it a little high school kid
asked the school nurse who was teaching a sex-ed class, “What if I don’t want to wait
until I’m married to have sex?” And the nurse looked at the kid and said, “Well, I guess you’ll just
have to be prepared to die.” (Laughter) See, the disaster model
sees sex exactly like that. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. That it’s about shame
and guilt and fear and yes, there is some possible way
that sex could be nice and good, but in most cases it’s just
an invitation to an STD and a lifetime of misery. Now the second bottom line
that I see a lot in society, I call “the porn model”. And people who follow the porn model buy into two of the biggest myths
that pornography offers to us. The first is that everything in life leads to sex. So, a plumbing problem, (Laughter) dirty swimming pool, pizza delivery, even a math class is just a prelude
to having sex with somebody. Now, I don’t know if you’ve really
considered the implications of this, but that means
there’s a lot of leaky pipes and cold pizzas and unsolved
math equations in the world. But that’s what you get
if everything’s about sex and everything leads to sex. And then the second myth
that the porn model gives us, it tells us that the sex that we have isn’t really connected
to the rest of our lives. And to get my students
to think about that, I ask them this question, “Have you ever considered
the full human lives of the people that you might see in one of those porn scenes, whether it’s the character they play
or the actor him or herself — what do you imagine those people are doing 20 minutes after the scene is over? Are they grocery shopping? Are they picking up
their kid from daycare? Are they going off to their other job as a research assistant
at a biomedical lab? Or do you imagine
that they just live right there in that bed, or that pool deck, or that warehouse?” (Laughter) The disaster model and the porn model
really get in our way of creating healthy and positive
outlooks to sexuality, and so we need a different model for that. I want to suggest one
and see what you think. What if we actually could think
about sex and sexuality instead of the disaster model,
instead of the porn model as a form of nourishment? Something that we can use
to feed our bodies, our hearts, our minds,
our spirits in positive ways. If we can connect
sexuality and nourishment, it has a few good positive results. Nourishment is something natural
and normal and necessary. I’m not saying
sexual activity is necessary, but we are sexual people
every minute of every day. And that sexuality is
an essential part of who we are and it’s normal and it’s natural. And also, if we think about nourishment
we know that there is some nourishment that’s really good for us
and some that’s not as good for as. We know that there’s some
that’s more to our liking than others, and we know that the more we know
about nourishment and the better we understand it the better choices we can
make about or for ourselves. And maybe we could see
sex in the same way, something that the more we know about it
and the more we understand it, the better we can use it
to make healthy choices for ourselves. The second thing I think we can do to get our hearts and minds
in a better place about sex is to change the way
we think about our genitals. So I wanna ask us to revise
our genital expectations. So when I teach about genitals
in my class I use this story, and I’m going to tell you the story — see if you can put yourself
in the place of the main character. Okay? So it’s a beautiful day
here at Wake Forest, you have woken up on time,
you went to your first class, it was easy, you aced
the quiz that you had. It’s going well. Now it’s lunch time
and you’re very excited so you go into the dining hall, you find the table
where all your friends are and as you go to sit
down at the lunch table, you realize that something is wrong. And you do a quick check, keys,
cell phone, laptop, okay. And then it hits you, your
genitals have fallen off. (Laughter) Somewhere between breakfast
and lunch you just lost them. And you’ve been all over this campus. Now some people would panic
at that moment, but you don’t, you are a smart
and savvy person. You know what to do. You head straight
for the Wake Forest Office of Lost and Missing Genitals. (Laughter) And as you go in there,
there’s that kindly older woman sitting behind the desk
and she’s knitting. And you walk in and mumble
something about having lost your genitals and did
anybody turn anything in? And she looks up at you and she smiles and she chuckles a bit, and she says, “Oh my, yes dear, it’s been
a very big day for lost genitals. If you can just go in the back,
they are all there. You just pick out yours
and you can go home.” So you walk into the back room
and you are greeted with a room full
of industrial steel shelving. And filling those shelves are genitals. (Laughter) Some that have just shown up, some that have been there for weeks. (Laughter) All you have to do is pick out
your own and you’re good to go. So here’s the question: “Could you pick out your own genitals?” Now the boys in my class very often laugh when I tell this story,
and they say something like this, “Duh, I would call his name, he would leap into my arms and we go home.” (Laughter) It’s the rare man or boy who does not have a close
personal relationship with his penis. That’s actually not a bad thing,
it’s really healthy. But it’s the bravado and it’s the swagger that can sometimes come
from owning a penis that becomes a problem. I call that penis arrogance. And a penis arrogance tells men that they are better than women
just because they have a penis. And it puts men in eternal
competition with each other to be more of a man than their friend is. Penis arrogance is something that contributes to sexual assault
and sexual abuse, because it teaches men
to take rather than ask, and to put their own needs
and their own desires ahead of other people. Penis arrogance breeds homophobia, because it tells us that masculinity
and heterosexuality are essentially linked and gay men betray that. So no homo dude. But we know that gay
and bisexual and queer men can also be impacted but penis arrogance. Penis arrogance is so difficult
because what it does is it boxes men into a very tiny restrictive
definition of manhood, where we are willing
to sacrifice our authenticity on the “alter of the man”. Okay, that was heavy, and I don’t want you to misunderstand. As a gay man and a penis
owner for 50 years, I think penises are great. (Laughter) But they are not lightsabers. They are not weapons
or measures of virility, or power indicators, they do not spew forth
the cure for cancer. They do not make one
man better than another and they certainly do not
make men better than women. They are just penises. They’re multi-functional organs
that allow us to pee and reproduce if we want
to and feel pleasure. So penis pride: absolutely. Penis arrogance: no. Okay, so what about
the young women in my class, how do they react to
the missing genitals story? Well there’s a lot less laughter. And it’s more than
nervous kind of laughter than the fun laughter. There’s very little bravado,
there’s a lot of silence. Many young women will tell me that they would have no hope
of picking out their genitals from those shelves. Many say they’ve never
even seen their own vulva. Some of them only
at that moment are learning that their genitals are called the vulva. A vagina, just so we’re
clear is an internal organ. You can’t see a vagina
when you look at a naked woman. How come there’s so little
vulva awareness and vulva pride? Why does our society treat vulvas
with such discouragement and I would say disrespect? I mean, think about the common
things you might hear about vulvas, that they are mysterious,
that they are complicated, that they’re smelly or that they’re ugly. I would even go so far as
to ask why we are afraid of vulvas and vaginas? Why are there stories
about vulvas that trap penises or vaginas with teeth? (Laughter) How do we help women
understand and feel more pride about their own bodies? Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was all about helping women
feel a sense of empowerment and feel permission to love,
appreciate and look at their vulvas. And that’s really good work
that we have to continue. The other thing that happens
if we revise our genital expectations is we make room
for our transgender and intersex, and genderqueer brothers and sisters. And we think about people
who have spinal cord injuries or other medical conditions that affect genital
function and sensation. And we allow for people to live in a world without defining themselves
by what’s between their legs and how they use it. That’s the world I would like to live in. And I think we need to work
to make it happen. And lastly, I think
we need to really redefine the phrase “having sex”. If somebody comes to you
and says they had sex last night, what do you assume they did? The classic assumption is that they had
vaginal intercourse with a penis, unless the person who comes
to you is a gay man, right? Because then it’s a different assumption
that maybe it was anal intercourse. And when it comes to lesbians having sex, a lot of people just get confused. The definition of having sex
is problematic for a couple of ways. One, a definition that needs to change based upon the orientation
of the people involved is a problem. The very fact that we get hung up on
how lesbians have sex shows us that our definition
is pretty penis-centric. It’s a different artifact
of penis arrogance. And lastly, the definition having sex, vaginal intercourse
with the penis is entirely mechanical. Stick that in there. The definition says nothing about consent, or pleasure, or mutuality, or connection. So what if we could redefine having sex? And I’d redefine it this way: having sex means consensual activity designed to bring sexual pleasure
and satisfaction to the people involved. I’ve heard a lot of people
push back against that definition, they have a lot of problems. They say, “But how will
we know what people did?” Why do we need to know what people do? (Laughter) And if we want to know
and they want to tell us, why can’t they just name
the behaviors they engaged in and whether they like them or not? “Oh, but if we have that definition
we have to talk about sex and that’s really awkward.” Well, it’s awkward if we don’t really believe
that sexuality is natural and normal. “Oh, but what about
the definition of virginity?” Isn’t it time we got rid
of a definition of virginity that divides women
into nice girls and sluts, and has very little impact on men at all? The reason why I feel
so strongly about this is that I see sex
as a social justice issue. Our sexuality is a fundamental facet
of who we are as people. And we have a responsibility
to use it to make a world that is more fair,
more equal, more connected, more free and more loving. We have to make a world
where what’s between our legs and the way we use it is not used to create
hierarchies of power and control, but is used to create
connection, and fellowship, and understanding. I hope that’s an enticing vision for you. And I hope you’ll join me
on the journey to help make it happen. Thanks very much. (Applause)