Pizza and the Importance of Sexual Analogy

When sex educator Al Vernaccio talks about pizza, I have to admit, I’m sold. In fact, while reading Laurie Abraham’s portrait of Vernaccio in Sunday’s New York Times, I wondered why I’d never made the analogy myself. “Wouldn’t it be great if our sexual activity started with a real sense of wanting,” Vernaccio tells a group of teenagers, “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.” And the analogy just gets better. Ordering pizza involves talking about what you both/all want, Vernaccio adds, even if it comes down to, “We getting the usual?” He reminds the class that, “square, round, thick, thin, stuffed crust, pepperoni, stromboli, pineapple — none of those are wrong …” and also draws parallels with our cravings for pizza: “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.”

Of course, the pizza analogy is just one tool in Vernaccio’s repertoire. Unlike our society’s “polite,” detached ways of speaking about the boudoir, Vernaccio makes sex sound approachable, and isn’t afraid to compare it to what is familiar and safe. The way he talks is inclusive, and as a result, the teens ask about everything from heartbreak to porn.

One thing’s for sure: analogies and metaphors help us to relate so naturally that they can be helpful when we’re talking about sex — even revealing more than we’d banked on. The other day, for instance, I came across an artist named Tabitha Vevers, who lives in Cambridge and Wellfleet. From sex with a lobster, to flying dreams, her images are striking. In “When We Talk About Rape,” Vevers depicts a mermaid lying on a beach — she is knocked out, or asleep, or maybe even dead, and her tail has been ripped down the middle, through flesh and bone. The brutality of the attack and the damage it has caused are brilliantly, and agonizingly, shown. Yes, I was thinking, as I stared at the painting. That’s what we find so hard to face. But with the Penn State horrors fresh in our minds, and stories of assault all over the media, it’s hard to really feel the agony without fleeing or growing numb. By using metaphor, however, Vevers brings us back to what matters: the cry for help, the pain we must prevent.

Sadly, metaphors can also be harmful. Terms like “conversion therapy” paint sexually destructive brainwashing as holy, and “traditional family values” reject almost anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, despairingly prudish, heterosexual, married parent. While the pizza analogy openly embraces us, other insidious metaphors are pushing us out.

I’d like to see some strong politicians who talk about sex like it’s ours.

Is that too much to ask? Most likely, because I’m still waiting.