Friday, February 3, 2012

Teaching Good Sex

As my older son was approaching adolescence, he developed a habit of asking me thought-provoking questions just before his bedtime.  Inevitably, he would be able to stay up an extra 20 or 30 minutes as we discussed things like why I believe in God, why I think capitalism generally works while communism generally doesn't, and why life isn't always fair.  In time, I caught on to his games, and would cut the conversation short, realizing that that all he wanted was to stay up late.

So when he started to ask questions about sex, I was conflicted.  Certainly he knew how things worked technically (he had first asked about the birds and the bees in a crowded elevator when he was about 2 or 3 - not surprisingly everyone got out on the very next floor!), and I knew my husband had already addressed issues of protection from disease and pregnancy with him.  But his queries seemed to offer an opportunity to talk about all the other things -- about intimacy and love, for example -- that can make sex so special.  I'm not sure, though, these conversations were all that effective.  I was embarrassed, of course, and I'm sure he was, too, since all he would do is nod knowingly, hoping to keep the conversation going long enough to stay up for another 15 minutes.  It became almost a contest, to see who would give in first.

I thought about this when I read Laurie Abraham's article Teaching Good Sex in the New York Times.  I wish I had been brave enough to go beyond safety and even healthy relationships to talk about common body and performance anxieties, emotional complexities, and even giving and receiving pleasure.  I also wish I had been brave enough to talk about porn -- not that I want to ban my kids from watching it -- but that I want them to know how unrealistic (and often completely one-sided) it is and that foreplay (which porn generally ignores) should always be part of the experience.

Abraham ends the article by describing a lesson in a wonderfully frank and open sex ed. class:

“So let’s think about pizza,” Vernacchio said to his students after they’d deconstructed baseball. The class for that day was just about over. “Why do you have pizza?”

“You’re hungry,” a cross-country runner said.

“Because you want to,” Vernacchio affirmed. “It starts with desire, an internal sense — not an external ‘I got a game today, I have to do it.’ And wouldn’t it be great if our sexual activity started with a real sense of wanting, whether your desire is for intimacy, pleasure or orgasms. . . . And you can be hungry for pizza and still decide, No thanks, I’m dieting. It’s not the healthiest thing for me now.

“If you’re gonna have pizza with someone else, what do you have to do?” he continued. “You gotta talk about what you want. Even if you’re going to have the same pizza you always have, you say, ‘We getting the usual?’ Just a check in. And square, round, thick, thin, stuffed crust, pepperoni, stromboli, pineapple — none of those are wrong; variety in the pizza model doesn’t come with judgment,” Vernacchio hurried on. “So ideally when the pizza arrives, it smells good, looks good, it’s mouthwatering. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that kind of anticipation before sexual activity, if it stimulated all our senses, not just our genitals but this whole-body experience.” By this time, he was really moving fast; he’d had to cram his pizza metaphor into the last five minutes. “And what’s the goal of eating pizza? To be full, to be satisfied. That might be different for different people; it might be different for you on different occasions. Nobody’s like ‘You failed, you didn’t eat the whole pizza.’

“So again, what if our goal, quote, unquote, wasn’t necessarily to finish the bases?” The students were gathering their papers, preparing to go. “What if it just was, ‘Wow, I feel like I had enough. That was really good.’ ”

Not surprisingly, the comments section related to the article was long and contained opinions on all sides of the spectrum.  Many feel, as I do, that kids lucky enough to attend such classes will be well prepared for dealing with relationships, and that this kind of preparation is as important as learning traditional subjects.  Some blamed religious organizations (specifically the catholic church) and the extreme right for being repressive (e.g. proponents of abstinence only curricula).  Interestingly, the Episcopalian minister who conducted the confirmation class I took in 8th grade made it clear that the Bible doesn't prohibit premarital sex, and the pastor of the Lutheran church I currently attend talks about Martin Luther's teaching that sex was to be enjoyed.  So in my opinion, it is as much as a cultural repression as a religious one that leads to the sorry state of sex ed that exists in most schools today. 

A number of commenters expressed hope that Vernacchio will write a book and/or post his lessons online.  I couldn't agree more.

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