Friday, November 25, 2011

Porn By Any Other Name

Not all that long ago the New York Times was studying eugenics at the feet of some very high-toned twin-cullers-in-utero, and peddling its horrific findings with the flat, clinical dispassion of a Nazi record-keeper. Now the magazine has sent one of the glut of Joan-Didion-wannabes who weekly scrawl on its creamy pages with “values-neutral” dreariness to a fancy Main-Line Philadelphia Quaker school to investigate the purveying of porn—or, as the editors would have it, “Teaching Good Sex”—to high school students.  

Of course, values-neutrality lies in one direction only at the Times: Liberal orthodoxy, expressed here in the cheerleading author’s flat description of the screening by a sex-ed teacher of  “a medical research video . . . [showing] a woman ejaculating . . . and a couple of dozen up-close photographs of vulvas and penises” for his mixed class of seventeen-year-olds, with the full approbation of their parents, is NEUTRAL (GOOD), because, as he sees it, “It’s really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s.”


Heterodoxy, as in the narrow-minded resistance to the sexualization of students in the classroom, is NON-NEUTRAL (BAD):

It’s axiomatic . . . that parents who support richer sex education don’t make the same ruckus with school officials as those who oppose it. . . . “The campaign for abstinence in the schools and communities may seem trivial, an ideological nuisance,” Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland wrote in a 2006 study in The Harvard Educational Review, “but at its core it is . . . a betrayal of our next generation, which is desperately in need of knowledge, conversation and resources to negotiate the delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality in the 21st century.”


These now genitally desensitized, and apparently unsupervised, children, ready or not, are going to be Just Doing It (but Just Looking at It First) anyway—fraught though the whole thing may be for their not-yet-fully-developed bodies and their extremely vulnerable souls—so isn’t it their right to learn how to get some pleasure out of it?


Thus, Al Vernacchio, the sex-ed teacher in question, who is “nothing so much as a mensch . . . lectures with plainspoken authority while also conveying a deep curiosity about his subject—the consummate sex scholar.”


Vernacchio said that he portrays sex in all its glory and complications. “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. I don’t think I have the power to make sex sound so enticing that kids are going to break through their self-esteem issues or body stuff or parental pressures or whatever to just go do it.” And anyway, Vernacchio went on, “I don’t necessarily see the decision to become sexually active when you’re 17 as an unhealthy one.”


“If kids are starting to use their bodies sexually,” he avers, “they should know about their potentialities.”


Maybe so. But perhaps they should be learning about those potentialities from someone other than a man who’s showing them ejaculation films, telling them how orgasms work, and handing out a worksheet with the five senses printed along the top and ask[ing] the students to try and list sexual activities that optimize each. (There were examples to prod their thinking: under hearing, for instance, was listening to your partner read an erotic story).

As one young man of my acquaintance notes, “A grown man who is talking to kids about sex this way is usually called a pedophile. Hes giving them an induction ceremony, not an education. What would happen to that same group of students if they were caught looking at Mr. Vernacchio’s film on the internet in the school library?” Damn good question.

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