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Sacred Learning: Faith & Sexuality Education Go Hand in Hand

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By , 18, Staff Writer Originally Published: May 20, 2011 Revised: September 5, 2012

“Sacred.” No one would be shocked to hear this word used to describe a church, synagogue or other place of worship. But what if it described sexuality? In our culture, sexuality is often portrayed as the farthest thing from sacred, so it is hard to imagine that it could be treated with as much respect as stereotypically sacred things are. But places of worship around the country are offering comprehensive sexuality education and sexual ethics programs that cover a wide range of sexual topics. These programs treat sexuality with respect and prove that religious communities can be places where adults talk honestly with teens about sexuality.

The Programs

In 1998, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) teamed up to create Our Whole Lives (OWL), comprehensive sexuality education curricula that start in kindergarten and go through adulthood. Lessons for younger children cover the basics about families, their bodies and boundaries, while lessons for teens and adults cover topics like abstinence, birth control, communication, values, sexual orientation, gender identity and healthy relationships. The curricula have been used in schools and community-based organizations without a faith-based message. But when offered in a religious setting, each session of the curriculum can include a “Sexuality and Our Faith” section tailored for teens who are either members of the UCC or UUA.

Sacred Choices: Adolescent Relationships & Sexual Ethics is a sexual ethics program created by the Union for Reform Judaism. This is not a sexuality education program, but an ethics program designed to help Reform Jewish teens and families be better prepared for relationships and making sexual decisions during adolescence. The curriculum explores a set of essential questions about God’s gift of bodies and sexuality and how to make ethical choices about these gifts. Middle school topics include self-control, peer pressure and setting boundaries, while high school topics include gender stereotypes, sexual identity and making decisions.

Some people learn about sexuality through their health classes, so why teach about sexuality in a church or synagogue?

Why in a Religious Setting?

Some people learn about sexuality through their health classes, so why teach about sexuality in a church or synagogue?

The UCC’s commitment to sexuality education states that sexuality is a God-given gift and “the church, at all levels, ought to be a context for discussion about human sexuality.”

“Having the class in our faith community reinforces our view of justice and respect for all people, and reinforces that it is the moral calling of a faith community to provide information to help their young members navigate the plethora of messages in society about sexuality,” says Amy Johnson, M.S.W, an OWL-certified facilitator and trainer. One thing is for sure: Many involved in OWL agree that the best aspect is holding the program in an environment that is safe, open and receptive.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, the director of Teen Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism, agrees that synagogues are natural places for conversations about sexuality to take place.

“Within the context of the synagogue, our teens find a safe place for sharing and dialogue; they find adult role models who they trust for guidance; they find peers who often times have like minds to their own; and they find a tradition that can teach and guide them in safe, healthy and realistic directions.”

Impact and Response

Eighteen-year-old Kelsey, of Tacoma, WA, who followed the OWL curriculum, says, “This program has influenced me in so many ways. It’s empowered me to get out of unhealthy relationships. It taught me the importance of contraceptives.” Learning so much from OWL, Kelsey was able to make life-changing decisions that were right for her.

Similarly, Rabbi Laura says that many students feel that the lessons are enjoyable and easily applied to their lives. The impact of these programs sometimes even goes beyond assisting in decisions. Johnson explains that some young people “have taken on a more formal role in advocacy, attending national training and helping put on workshops locally for other youth.”

While these programs are based in religious communities, they teach a message everyone can benefit from: that this is your body, your mind and your spirit, and you make the choices that are best for you.

Visit ReligiousInstitute.org and click on “Sexuality Education” to find more information on other sexuality education curricula designed for different religious communities.

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