Good Sex Ed, Happier Teens: Why Talking About Real Sex Helps Boost Self Esteem

A radical new approach to sex education admits that bodies are normal and healthy sex is fun. Welcome to the twenty-first century, folks.

This week's New York Times Magazine cover story, "Teaching Good Sex" profiles Al Vernacchio, a high school teacher in Philadelphia's Main Line with a radical approach to sex ed: He thinks it's cool for kids to know that sex is fun. 

The goals of Vernacchio's "Sexuality and Society" class (an elective for upperclassmen), along with the rest of the grass roots push for truly comprehensive sexual education, is to teach teenagers "nitty-gritty information about how to have not just healthy but pleasurable sex," as Amanda Marcotte puts it over on Slate's XXFactor Blog

Okay, simmer down, because it's a little more nuanced than that.

The rationale is: Sex IS fun -- and kids are already getting that message loud and clear from music, movies, and their own bodies, so sex educators lose their audience when they try to force a seemingly contradictory, dour "sex is deadly!" lesson plan on students. And, if kids don't feel like they're getting helpful information from sex ed class, they turn to porn. Porn is very clear about the sex-is-fun part -- from a guy's perspective, anyway. But it also reinforces unhelpful myths regarding female sexual pleasure and does a terrible job of educating kids about health, safety and respect. In contrast, Vernacchio's class offers a balanced take. “As much as I say, ‘This is how orgasms work, and they’re really cool,’ I say there’s a lot of work to being in a relationship and having sex," he told the Times.

Research shows that a comprehensive sex ed model works; contraceptive use goes up and pregnancy rates go down. But the approach also helps kids navigate over some of the biggest body image hurdles faced during the teenage years. Getting information about sex from porn isn't just going to teach you some crazy things about sex. It's also going to teach you some crazy and unrealistic things about what the female body should look like, which is going to make it more difficult to like what you see in the mirror whether your clothes are on or off.

Plus, when girls only see women enjoying sex illicitly (as porn stars) and are otherwise told that sex is dangerous, forbidden and shameful, it's easy for them to think their own sexual desires are shameful. And since your sexual desires are rooted in your body, that brings us right back to feeling bad about your body. 

Like we don't give teenage girls enough reasons to do that. 

In addition to normalizing the idea that sex is fun, Vernacchio shows his students dozens of photographs of real penises and vulvas "so they'll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner's" -- especially when real life genitalia fails to match up to the porn version. He also talks about how body image issues and other self-esteem woes can make it more difficult to speak up for yourself in a relationship. 

Exposing kids to this version of sex teaches them that it's fun, yes, but also that it's real, messy and confusing. More importantly, they learn that their bodies are normal and healthy -- and worthy of love and respect. And that's a lesson you're never too young to learn.  

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