How did you first learn about sex? I can’t remember not knowing. My dad had a collection of porno mags I discovered at around age four. As soon as I could read a year later, (I read early and prodigiously), I got hooked on Penthouse’s “Forum”, though I also read Xaviera Hollander’s Column “Call Me Madam.” For the uninitiated, “Forum” is the collection of (alleged) readers’ letters about their own pornographic experiences. In other words, the pieces describe the kind of sex that happens fast, is usually casual, and features an insatiable, horny female eager to please. “Madam” is more an advice column, so the “good parts” aren’t framed as narrative, and it’s more tedious going. From what I read and saw, I deduced that sex was about women turning on men, and that’s what has subsequently turned me on as an adult.
I’m sure my early experience with pornography has affected my sexuality as an adult in many additional ways, and now there is a book that goes into it: Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers-An American Tale of Sex and Wonder by Mike Edison. The book studies the pioneers of porn: Flynt, Hefner, Guccione and Goldstein (Screw), and finds them all misogynistic. He especially excoriates Hefner for treating women interchangeably in his personal life. According to Edison, these guys’ idiosyncratic hang-ups about women have given today’s porn a particularly sexist slant.
That may be true, but I’ve always found it difficult to characterize porn in politically correct terms like “sexist” or “feminist” because porn has one purpose: to turn the viewer on, and in that paradigm other considerations don’t matter as much, unless they’re egregious. I still enjoy porn, as, statistics show, does everyone, but sometimes it is depressing when the girl seems unhappy. Perhaps, had Flynt et al attended the Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia, however, they would be less jaded.
At Friends’, Al Vernacchio teaches a Sex-Ed course that addresses students’ questions about everything from cunnilingus technique to relationship problems to anatomy variation. Kids are encouraged to think about how to navigate their own sex lives, and it’s assumed they will have one. Unlike the Abstinence Movement, or classes that focus just on the mechanics and biology of sex, Vernacchio boasts that students in his class can ask about anything. Mostly, they ask for real world advice about their own sex-lives.
Vernacchio insists that exploring sex openly ultimately makes for more equitable and successful intercourse. Several guys in the class have admitted they never really thought about pleasing a woman before. Vernacchio explains that sex-drive is not gender determined, and encourages the students to embrace their own predilections be they monogamous or polygamous. Teen girls learn it’s okay to have sexual desires – and it’s also okay to stay a virgin.
Somehow, parents, the preternatural buzz-killers, have allowed the class to continue. When I was in high school, sex-ed meant first the sperm and egg meeting to form the zygote; later, sex-ed became a series of terrifying cautionary tales about deception and disease. I remember when I first started having sex, being incredibly surprised that I wasn’t getting pregnant or contracting an STD. Vernacchio’s class sounds like a breath of fresh air. And in fact, he’s become a respected resource that parents and children alike feel they can trust. While it’s too late for me, I hope this kind of sex-ed replaces the weird coupling of porn and biology class that I had. Maybe my kids can learn something about navigating and maintaining happy, healthy sex lives while they learn Calculus. I know what I’d use more.