"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. Vaginal sex 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-intercourse. 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.
Thank you for the great post on the OWL program. I have been teaching OWL at a Unitarian Universalist church for six years now. I teach k-1, 6 and 8th grade OWL. I sometimes forget how great the program is until I realize how little non-UU kids know about their bodies and sexuality. One OWL facilitator told us that if we taught people to swim the way we teach them about sexuality, we would never let them out of the locker room, only let them hear the splashing and occasionally see someone walk into the locker room wet. THEN we would throw them into the 12-foot-end and yell -- SWIM!!!
I'm really glad you did the training and the right time to teach the course will become apparent to you. (hey you never know -- you may be a UU after all )
You are right -- this information will not kill you and it may literally save a youth's life. I see all kinds of risky behaviors (both physical and emotional) and having a place to teach anatomy, safer sex, outer course, masturbation and that all sex matters is so important for children, youth, teens and adults.
I Teach Sex
I Teach Sex
In the "Our Whole Lives camp"
My tent is pitched next to Annakohl’s in “OWL changed my life” camp. I share her passion for sexuality education that is honest, affirming, unafraid, healing and holistic. As a teenager in the 70s (OK a few years earlier than Annakohl) I sat beside my bed, the door closed and locked, devouring what I was certain was contraband in my house. It was a book called Our Bodies Ourselves. (Ever heard of it?) I bought it without needing to show ID, but felt a need to store it way under the bed- the way the Playboy magazines were stored under a friend’s dad’s bed.
I know my parents wanted to raise kids who would make healthy decisions, but they didn’t learn from their own parents how to talk about sexuality. I think it was hard, for my mother, and near impossible for my father to initiate conversations about sexuality proactively. There were times I remember my mother having “a talk” with me reactively. Some of the direct spoken messages I remember were “If you ever get pregnant, there will be no money for college.” And “Do not get in the back of that (boyfriend’s) van!” My mother has acknowledged in recent years that she wished she had had help with this part of parenting.
OBOS , an awesome source of information and fuel for my questions, didn’t address my interactive learning style. I needed a real live educator to deliver and supplement the facts, and a discussion group. The parents at my church youth group organized a sex ed talk for the teens. It was led by a member of the church- a high school gym teacher. He was clearly uncomfortable- red faced, and stammering. He told us we should read the Bible and, with that as our guide, we would be protected by God. I couldn’t make sense of the Bible as I sat on my bed and tried to read it. I guessed God wouldn’t protect me. I sat back on the floor and slid Our Bodies Ourselves out from it’s hiding place.
I did, like most teenagers, have challenges to face around sexuality. Plenty. I did not always make great decisions. I did not feel I had a trusted adult I could turn to who would not judge, blame or lecture. I had some written information, yes, but I did not have language -with voice- to push me through silence.
I did go to college (WITH my parents financial help). After graduation I worked in a public health clinic. Women, or rather, girls! were having babies at age 14 and 15. Some were as young as 12. I worked in several family planning clinics where I listened with my heart to hundreds of women. I heard their stories offering my hands and supporting them through options counseling, prenatal visits, abortions, protection methods counseling, STD testing and treatment.
I was astounded to learn how very little so many knew about their bodies. “Pee comes out a different hole than my period?” I corrected that anatomical misinformation more than a few times. The myths back in the day were pervasive. “You can wash sperm away by douching”, “Guys can always tell if your not a virgin”, “You can tell if you have an STD”… I decided to go back to graduate school for health education. I’ve been a sexuality educator for over 15 years and taught in schools, community groups, youth lock-up programs, parent programs and teacher trainings. I love the work.
I decided to try a different church experience, as many do, after having children. I didn’t want to “join”- just explore spirituality and find a way to make sense of it for myself and my family. Someone suggested a Unitarian church. There I learned that sexuality education- is not just appropriate in a faith community, it is essential! We minister to or take care of one another. I see Our Whole Lives as my ministry.
To offer comprehensive sexuality education in spiritual communities is to provide a safe, loving place where information can be shared honestly, feelings and values can be discussed, self-worth can be fostered and all are welcome on the journey. It can be a place of healing and a place of CELEBRATING this essential part of being human- our Sexuality.
My journey continues as a sexuality educator, trainer and advocate. I work with youth, parents, teachers and institutions.
I parent teenage boys, who are OWL graduates, and have a partner, who is a strong advocate. My son, at age 12, told me this story: A friend asked what I, his mom does professionally. He told him that his mother was a sexuality educator. The friend said “You mean your mom teaches people how to have sex!?” (I braced myself as my son shared with me his response)… “No! Sexuality education is not just about Sex! It’s about growing up, your body changing, feeling good about yourself and making good choices.”
We are doing life-changing and yes, even life-saving work. Let’s keep at it!
I'm musing about these thoughtful responses. I've both pleased and not suprised to hear these comments from
other OWL educators! I look forward to creating this sex-positive legacy with the children of my future.
I'm teaching the new young adult OWL curricula at a summer camp this August and am looking forward to keeping
the dialogue rolling.
anna k. smith
I am a high school junior and I took OWL through my UU church as a freshman. It was an incredibly valuable experience and gave me a far healthier attitude to sex and sexuality than I ever would have reached on my own. I know more about sexuality (or healthy sexuality, at least) than the majority of my peers even though I am a virgin. I am living proof of the fact that comprehensive sex ed does not make teenagers run off and have sex right away. In fact, if I hadn't had such high quality sex ed, I probably would have had sex by now. Only because information was presented to me in a way that didn't seem like propaganda and by people who wouldn't have disowned me if I did choose to have sex, I realized that I really wasn't ready for it, instead of making an uninformed decision to do so partly just to rebel against everyone telling me not to. OWL also made me feel comfortable using a resource like Scarleteen instead of feeling like I was accessing forbidden information. Scarleteen is like having my OWL teachers available to ask questions whenever I want. And even besides being informative, OWL was super fun! I counted down the days to it every week. It wasn't the type of sex ed that makes you so uncomfortable you dread going to it. Instead, the group grew very close. We even had a couple sleepovers at the church (at which they rightfully trusted us enough to have coed sleeping arrangements!). In short, OWL is amazing! Send your kids! Spread the word! :)