Is Sexuality Education “Religious Education?” or Is It Time To Bury Sunday School pt. 12

I know I”m getting ready to step on another UU sacred cow, but since it came up in the comments I feel like somebody gave me the opening.

Please hear me…I think Our Whole Lives is a good program…I’m really glad that two religious groups got together and worked on a curriculum that does go across the lifespan (but let’s talk truth here, how many UU or UCC churches do any part other than the middle-school section?).

That said…is sexuality education religious education? Yes, you can talk about values and sexuality, but does that make it religious?

And if what we have to offer those who are new to UUism is New UU class, BYOT and OWL, how much are we really giving people? Yes I know about Tapestry…but that really does illustrate my point…look at the adult offerings…how much of it assumes that people can acutally build their own theology without ever having been exposed to the multitudes of theological conversation that is out there? Sorry….going off on a tangent.

To repeat the original question…is sexuality education religious education?


6 thoughts on “Is Sexuality Education “Religious Education?” or Is It Time To Bury Sunday School pt. 12

  1. On OWL, yes, many congregations stick to middle school, but I have known a huge chunk of congregations that have both elementary levels (k-2 and 4-6). Out on the west coast, it seemed that more congregations had those levels than didn’t. Fewer, but still a notable number, offer OWL in high school. And a handful, though not enough if one thinks this is important, do the whole lifespan thing by including young adults and “adults.”

    As a youth, I went through OWL’s predecessor curriculum, “About Your Sexuality.” In my young adult years, it was a big part of what motivated and enabled me to leave a relationship that had slowly become physically abusive as quickly as I did and in just enough time to save my dog’s life, if not my own (which I say based on the things that happened when I first attempted to leave). I had a vision for what mutuality in relationship should look like…I mean, I had these actual visuals stuck in my head partly from watching AYS slides. More than that, I had a sense of my own worth that developed in part because of the experiences I had in AYS.

    Is that something I would only be able to get in church? And is it religious? Upon reflection, I would say this: it isn’t exclusively religious. As in, a good sexuality education would produce a similar result anywhere. But I have a hard time saying it wasn’t religious. In that, by taking sexuality into the context of the church, we were able to look at the subject of sexuality through the religious lens. And I think that was formative for me.

    I also think that knowing my church was behind me on this — knowing the relationship and sexuality values of my faith community — enabled me to do what I did in spite of tremendous fear. I couldn’t have done it without their support. I think it would be very good if more faith communities learned to talk about sexuality in life-affirming ways, and not just in negative contexts. Because certainly churches have been talking about sex and sexuality for a long, long, loooong time…much, much longer than OWL has been around.

    (On that same subject, a friend and colleague of mine lived through the nightmare experience of learning one of the beloved congregant’s of her church, and a volunteer in religious education, was sexually abusing children…though thankfully due to safe congregation practices, they believe that none of the abuse was happening with congregant kids. She said that one of the things the experience taught her was that we *need* to talk about sex. When kids known that sex is one of the many things we can talk about in church, they also come to understand it as a safe place to go for help if they need to disclose that they are being abused.)

    This is not a “sacred cow” issue for me. I believe OWL has value, and I think it is a good thing for congregations to offer, but it is not a hill I would choose to die on, so to speak. Nonetheless, I am with the Sophia Lyon Fahs in the belief that “life is religious whenever we make it so.” I tend to think that the human life experience, in all its manifestations, is fundamentally religious. Thus sexuality education is religious when we make it so…that is, when we don’t filter it through the secular lens, eliminating the spiritual and religious nature of our sexuality.

  2. Have you participated in an “Our Whole Lives” class as a participant or a facilitator?

    If you haven’t done that yet, you may want to withhold judgment until you’ve had that experience.

    My experience with the Adult age-level “Our Whole Lives” program is that is both a great program and greatly under-appreciated.

    Adults think that all they will learn in OWL is health and reproduction facts that they already think they know (and which they may know less than they think they know about this aspect of sexuality).

    Most of adult OWL program deals with ethics, values, culture, and spirituality as they relate to human sexuality. And we examine this topic through a model that goes beyond just the sexual health and reproduction facts and figures to include:

    ** Sensuality (how our bodies respond to physical stimulation, fantasy, our “skin hunger” need to be close to another person)

    ** Intimacy (how we connect emotionally with others)

    ** Sexual Identity (biological sex, gender identity, gender roles, and sexual orientation — with an emphasis on the social justice aspects of these topics)

    ** Sexualization (use and/or abuse of power in sexual settings)

    From my involvement with the “Our Whole Lives” program, I feel that it is a very real example of the salvation that Unitarian Universalism offers to the world. And with the addition of UU theology, it’s a religious education program that one would not find at the local community college or other secular community settings.

  3. I’ll echo Steve’s assessment that OWL for Adults is both under-appreciated and under-utilized. My guess is that too many adults figure: “I’m a grown-up now, I know all I need to.” Uh huh.
    And yes, there is a spiritual side to sexuality. It is one of the ways in which we connect with another person, with how we embody and express joy and love, and experience bliss.
    Sexuality is also a matter of justice, of affirming people’s worth and celebrating diversity. When so many in our society think it’s their right to decide other people’s choice of intimate partners, expression and childbearing, we need to be the voice which asserts our right to do so ourselves. That means giving people the information they need, both to make informed choices themselves, and to speak up for people’s rights with confidence.

  4. Pingback: Believing, defining jihad, and other UU blogger concerns « : The Interdependent Web

  5. I would classify UU sexuality education, at least as I’ve experienced it, as religious education. I and my friends went through the About Your Sexuality program during middle school. We certainly experienced it as religious, and it was educational. I would say it qualifies as being religious on a number of grounds. First, it was presented by our church, at our church, for our church youth. That sort of context matters a lot, especially since we had a large and tight-knit church that functioned as one of our primary forms and markers of community in my hometown. So we knew that the fact that it was taking place at church meant that it was connected to our religious lives, and therefore that sexuality was supposed to be treated as a part of our religious lives. It also seemed religious to us because we could perceive that we were deliberately being given a very liberal and comprehensive education about sexuality, which we knew the kids at more conservative churches would never get. So it enhanced our self-understandings as belonging to the church that trusted its members to use their own consciences as their guides and affirmed the worth of pleasure. We were also easily able to understand that the liberal spirit of the approach to sex ed was an expression of our basic theological affirmation of individuals, personal choice, and internal responsibility (rather than external codes).

    It was certainly educational too, since we learned a lot. I can still recall, more than 20 years later, specific slides (not just the naked ones) and information that I consciously drew upon in my relations with my girlfriends, with women in general, and even now still with my wife. I have no doubt that AYS improved my life and also that of my partners (even ones met years after AYS), so to me it was a good education and a part of my religious instruction in how to live as a UU.

  6. Does the original question – “is OWL religious education” – matter? That is, would it change our behavior or practice? I see OWL as part of mission, not religious education. As part of mission, we would continue to offer it because it is valuable. It probably gets done within the framework of our RE staff because that is where teachning expertise resides, which doesn’t make it RE. The fact that the answer to the question might be No would matter only in terms of asking “are our RE offerings big or broad enough”, and it shouldn’t count into that answer.

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