"This Information will Not Kill You" or, How Our Whole Lives Changed My Life
My teenage years were filled with “evangelical sex education.” I remember the heavy use of punctuation in my True Love Waits book and wondering what sex was really like. At the time, I assumed marriage was the future of my sexuality. This was a bit upsetting considering sex felt like an unknown planet where I was unwelcome. In order to change history I started researching sexuality education programs. I was angry about my limited education and felt confident that there must be at least one curriculum in the US with gumption and accurate information for teens. I determined I had one of two options: a) to locate a good one or b) write one myself.
To be fair, I should articulate my motives in this effort. I care to squash the notion that people only have sex for three reasons: to have babies and to please or control someone else. I believe that while people are sexual for many reasons pleasure and fun are often at the top of the list. Second, I seek movement towards a more holistic definition of sexuality in which feelings and ethics are taught next to plumbing. Penetration is simply a piece of the larger puzzle rather than the definition of sex.
In my research there was little to get excited about. Pen in hand, I considered what to do next. I was increasingly overwhelmed with my passionate nerdiness for the subject. I was also grateful for the invention of Google. I had also gone through the whole sexual education section of the public library. I started to think back to college and revisited one program I heard about in my early twenties called Our Whole Lives or OWL. I had several hip male peers were sincerely comfortable discussing sexuality both in what they wanted and how they felt. I deliberately inquired where they got their information. They explained they had taken OWL’s precursor About Your Sexuality at their Unitarian Church in high school.
I’ll admit when I started my research I was doubtful two religious groups could write objective sexuality ed. Church sexuality education tends be sex negative. The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists proved me wrong. OWL is their co-written curriculum that champions the attitude: sexuality-is-more-than-heterosexual-penetration. Far better than this, one of their stated assumptions in is, “Humans are sexual from the time they are born to the time they die.” Also impressive are the program’s clearly given values: justice and inclusivity, sexual health, responsibility, and self-worth. Even though OWL is authored by two churches, it’s written to be used in secular settings and can be used in public schools. “Sexuality and Our Faith” is a separate component facilitators can add use when teaching in a spiritual setting.
I signed up for an OWL teacher training, found a cheap hotel room, and finagled copies of the curriculum from a UU minster friend. I drove to Iowa; the training was for grades 7-9 and 10-12. I was practically salivating when I walked in the Planned Parenthood facility hosting us. Here’s why. Being trained in OWL means being able to teach OWL with legitimacy. It’s required to facilitate the curricula at all. I wanted to learn. It was my first step in the right direction. When we made our introductions it was clear the other participants there was from churches. I met a Mennonite minister and several members of her church interested in bringing OWL to their congregation.
I met several folks from my home state of Kansas who had done OWL for years. I got even more excited. During the training, we discussed identity, contraception, trans issues, and abuse of sexuality, age appropriate information, and how to answer hard questions. I made several observations. First, the curriculum is highly focused on diversity. Participants got used to adjusting language as to not alienate different identities and preferences. Second, sexuality did not equal vaginal intercourse. It was expanded to include identity, sexualization, sensuality, sexual health, and intimacy. We discussed sexual ethics, risk taking, and emotional safety.
Several folks who where there asked me who I intended to facilitate the program for. I did not have a straight answer. Maybe high schoolers for a community in my hometown, maybe middle schoolers in an existing OWL program. Maybe just pure nerdiness. They, quite kindly, asked what church I was from. I did not have an answer. Being an accepting group, they were impressed I had found OWL and had come to learn. That was all that was said.
I have no interest in church. In fact, I had a slight distaste from my earlier days. It's true that from OWL, I observed sharing the belief that sexuality is worth honoring and enjoying with a religious group offered some unexpected healing. It was healing I did not know I needed. I suppose that's the power of real sexuality education.