Rocky Mountain Sex and Intimacy Summit: Reflections on Al Vernacchio

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I mentioned in the last post that I went to the Rocky Mountain Sex and Intimacy Summit held in Salt Lake City. I discussed Marty Klein’s talk and analyzed some philosophical features from the talk. In this post, I want to focus on the second talk.

The second talk is from Al Vernacchio. He is a successful sex educator and he has a new notion to help students become better engaged with sexual topics. He’s noticed that students become really bored with sex education because many sex ed classes are too rule-based, sterile, mechanical, and lack of enjoyment. However, the main motivation people have sex is because of enjoyment and pleasure. And so, it is the sex educator’s job to make this appealing. Actually, I’d say the job of any teacher is to make their topic approachable, appealing, and filled with content to get the students to think.

To have a healthy sexuality, one must also have an accurate and positive view of the different aspects of our sexuality and having the ability to interact in the world comfortably with those aspects.

With this, he has three different models of sexuality education, which are basically three different paradigms of how we think about sexuality.

The “Disaster Model.” This model teaches people that sexuality should not be considered or thought about, especially before marriage. But go out and have a healthy sex life after marriage. This model in no way prepares students to view themselves as healthy sexual beings. They are bombarded by messages that sex is to be avoided, filled with shame, and simply immoral, but through marriage, it metaphysically becomes moral. (Don’t ask me how. In fact, many abstinence-only sex educators I’ve talked to have had a difficult time explaining how.) And so when you’re having constant messages that sex is dirty, shameful, unkept, perverted, and wrong, you begin to incorporate these messages and whenever you have sexual thoughts or have sex for the first time, you may feel extreme guilt and ashamed.

The next model is the “Porn Model.” Basically, people try to emulate their sex lives based on pornography and that people assume that this is a healthy sexuality. Indeed, since people are not getting their sexuality information through their parents and schools, children and adolescents are getting their information that is easily accessible and filled with sexual content: pornography. Besides the content, the message behind pornography is that no matter what you’re doing, it always leads to sex and the goal is for the man to finish. Moreover, the sex that people are having is disconnected to the rest of our lives and there’s no integration. To see this played out in the specifics, see this great article by Peggy Orenstein. Her book is also fantastic.

Vernacchio offers a new model which he dubs as the “Nourishment Model.” Before we get to this model, we have to conceive of how our society structures sexuality.  Our default conceptual model of sexuality, even if we don’t even think about it, is baseball. How so?

  • There are teams and they are always competing against each other.
  • It’s male-oriented typically—you’re “playing the field.”
  • There’s a pitcher and a catcher.
  • The sets of rules are made as to what the bases signify. You can’t skip the bases, you have to go in a certain order, and the point of the game—the goal—is to score a home run. If you don’t do that, then you “struck out.” You don’t stay in one base. Indeed, if you can steal a base, all the better.
  • “Batter up” is when someone is up and ready to score.
  • There are no time outs.
  • “Playing for the other team” signifies that one is gay or lesbian.
  • “Switch hitter” signifies that someone is bisexual.
  • You know where you stand and so you have to stay in your rigid place.

Vernacchio wants to change the conceptual model from baseball to pizza. He’s really famous for his pizza metaphor when it comes to thinking about sexuality:

With pizza:

  • You start with your internal desire. “This is what I feel like.”
  • You have a shared experience. “What about you? What are you in the mood for?”
  • The rigidity of binary roles disintegrates. It’d be odd if pepperoni was just a male thing, and olives were just a female thing.
  • Your expectations are not rigid. Sometimes you feel like savoring the pizza, other times you just want the pizza fast, other times you want to share the pizza and have a mutual experience.

From here, you must have a conversation to determine what your preferences, your values, and your satisfaction. The upshot is that is you don’t start with moralizing. “Oh you don’t like anchovies?  What’s wrong with you?” You simply regard them as a preference and leave it at that. The Nutrition Model is a way to get people to think about sexuality that diversifies and legitimizes a plurality of preferences and when it comes to preferences, we typically say that the participants prefer them because they desire them and unless those desires are somehow mitigating their sexual well-being, then those preferences are respected. Indeed, nourishment has many routes. Likewise, you can be sexually nourished too: hugging, kissing, cuddling, showing emotional appreciation, etc. Analogously, we respect a multitude of ways people desire their pizza with their toppings, how they eat it, the type of crust, and if the toppings can be negotiable depending whom you’re with.

My analysis: I really enjoyed Vernacchio’s talk. The Nourishment Model and the pizza metaphor are certainly better motivations to move our sexual health forward and they changes our conceptual model of sexuality for the better. The Nourishment Model would be our baseline, our default of sexuality. With Vernacchio’s view, he’s offering a macrosocial model and to change our current macrosocial structures. Indeed, one of Vernacchio’s last points is that sexuality is connected to social justice. The change, however, is going to be really complex and challenging. You can change people’s minds, but to change the whole structure and challenge the system itself is a beast of its own. How can we change the whole structure? I don’t have an answer for this. It’s such a complex problem where you’ll need multiple solutions. Off the top of my head, there is a top-down approach and a bottom-up one. A top-down approach would be the state making the laws which would filter down to the populace in the hopes that later generations will have these new laws as part of their moral psychology. This would mean that the government or school board would have to have a comprehensive sex education and the schools would adopt it, and then the students would eventually gain this education. A bottom-up approach is a grassroots collection of people who gain mobility and leverage so that enough people begin to see the problems of the current situation and gain enough motivation to change the structure themselves. The bottom-up approach requires a collection of people to constantly challenge the system, which can be difficult. In both cases, it’s a long route, but I think changing social structures are going to be long and generational rather than a swift overall change, especially when those structures are cultural and not just legal.

The Disaster Model is very much in tune with abstinence-only sex education, but I see it in some comprehensive models too, although lightly. In the Disaster Model, sexuality isn’t just a feature that can corrupt you, but it now makes your character tainted. We can especially see this when people contract STIs. When someone contracts one, they are immediately “dirty” and avoidable. We hardly treat other infections like that. In comprehensive sex education, that notion is never challenged. Sure, they help with risk assessment, but they still focus on behavior and don’t get to the core of who the person is. It’s a focus on what they do, or rather what to avoid. But sexuality is much more than just avoiding something.

The Porn Model is fascinating since there are lots of info about young adults and adolescents watching porn to know what it looks like and perhaps gain some tips. Indeed, Peggy Orenstein remarks that many young women watch porn in order to know how to perform oral sex on the guys they’re seeing, but the narrative of porn is that the guy receives oral sex, and the woman performer hardly receives any. This gap is part of the problem because some people consider this as “normal” sexual behavior. It’s the baseline in terms of what is appropriate sexual behavior and apparently, the default is that men are entitled to oral sex; oral sex for women is a privilege. It’s become a problem that some locales are considering porn as a public health crisis. But they’re blaming the symptom. The way out is to increase a better sex education rather than simply blaming porn.

The Nourishment Model provides and excellent alternative. It provides a much better route than the previous models and I think it offers a way to challenge the current models. I’d like to supplement it. With the pizza metaphor, we start with our preferences, desires, and shared experiences. But what if our preferences, desires, and experiences are aligned with either the older models? What if we don’t know what we like? Sometimes, I may be in the mood for pizza, but I’m not sure what type or kind. Or what if we pick a pizza that is not particular to our individual unique taste? Maybe one needs to develop a taste for pizza in order to know what it’s like. I’m not saying one needs to be a connoisseur, but in order to know what you prefer, you’d either have to try things out by taking a stab in the dark.

Or someone has to perhaps nudge you, giving you a direction so that you yourself can answer and figure out what you like. So maybe the starting point isn’t what kind of pizza do you prefer. Rather, it’s what are the conditions for you to realize what sort of pizza preference you have? Applying this to sexuality, we don’t start with “what do you prefer?” because we can fall back into the old models of societal expectations (e.g. the baseball metaphor). Rather, we should help the students figure out what they prefer and get them out of the standard narratives and into their own unique preferences. Maybe the way to do that, then, is getting them engaged and in tune with their body, emotions, boundaries, realistic expectations, and case studies to help them prepare for the real thing. Obviously, talking about pizza isn’t the same as having pizza. Likewise, talking about sexuality isn’t the same as expressing your sexual being or having sex, but at least the conditions can be set up so that one can have a healthier attitude toward their sexuality and have better sexual well-being. Thus, to know your preferences, it seems, is a combination of realizing what your preferences are plus experiences. From there, we get enter into the pizza model and then ask, “so what kind of pizza do you want?” and there you can readily answer.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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