We’re Going to Talk about What in Church?
Originally Published: May 4, 2007
Revised: August 28, 2012
When I was in eighth grade, my parents told me that the Sunday school program taught at the Unitarian Universalist church that I attended was called OWL or Our Whole Lives. It wasn’t your typical Sunday school program; it was a comprehensive sex ed program. I was confused at first. What was “comprehensive sex ed”? I had no idea what it meant, but I was about to find out.
On Sunday, I walked into the classroom with no idea what to expect. I glanced around and saw about a dozen familiar faces from previous Sunday school classes, as well as some new kids. We exchanged names, and I sat down next to a group of girls I’ve gone to Sunday school with for years. Their nervous and embarrassed expressions mirrored my own. Scanning the room, I noticed an intimidating sign on the door, warning that only OWL students and teachers may enter.
The only adults in the room were the teachers—a man and a woman who seemed nice enough. As they introduced themselves and the curriculum, I was struck by the fact that I was about to start taking sex ed at my church.
Over the following weeks, I began to grasp the meaning of “comprehensive” sexuality education—education that covers every aspect of human sexuality and teaches the life skills students need to make healthy, responsible decisions about sexual health.
We started with the basics of human anatomy. We were sorted into groups. Each group was assigned a view of the internal reproductive organs—male or female, front or side—and told to create a 3-D model to hang on the wall. Our materials were limited to balloons, pipe cleaners, cotton balls, toilet paper tubes and tape.
We were too embarrassed to name the body parts we were creating, so instead, we pointed to the official title of the “thing-a-ma-what-sit,” written on the handout we were given. By the end of the class, each student had an idea of the general location and appearance of the various parts of the male and female sex organs and was comfortable naming them out loud.
Another Sunday, we did some role-playing after a lengthy discussion about the need for mutual respect in healthy relationships. We chose partners’ names out of a hat. One person from each couple was instructed to practice one of the most serious romantic middle-school moves: asking their partner out on a date. The partner was told to practice appropriate positive responses, and then polite negative ones. After one of each, the roles were switched.
Perhaps this activity was particularly memorable for me because my partner happened to be a guy I wouldn’t have minded getting to know better. But I think it was also because I noticed that some of the pairs were two girls or two boys. This is an example of the comprehensiveness of the OWL program. We never assumed that everyone was heterosexual during an activity, and we spent several sessions focusing on sexual orientation.
Another part of OWL that took place every session was a time at the end of class to write down anonymous questions. Everyone had to write something, even if it was just, “I don’t have a question,” to make sure that the process really was anonymous. Then the teachers collected the cards and responded to the questions at the beginning of the next class.
I was struck by how direct and honest the teachers were in answering the questions they received—from “how do girls masturbate?” to “how do I know if my boyfriend loves me?” This provided a much-needed forum for students to ask questions they wouldn’t normally feel comfortable asking and, what’s more important, receive accurate answers from a respected authority figure.
By the end of the school year, most of the kids in my class became close friends, just in time for the graduation party. We had shared embarrassment and worked in groups, and were forced to spend almost two hours a week together. We celebrated our transformation into mature, capable and responsible teenagers in the obvious way, blowing up multicolored condoms into gigantic balloons and playing catch with them, laughing hysterically. Or, in the case of a few classmates, demonstrating a condom’s ability to stretch over a person’s head and creating a new superhero, aptly named, “Condom Man.”
I left that classroom with a packet of handouts from the year, a stack of pamphlets on various contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases, two wrapped condoms and, most importantly, a wealth of resources that enable me to make responsible choices in my life.
The fact that we had sex ed classes in a church may not have made sense to my friends, but that is exactly the kind of activity that doesn’t seem all that out of place in a Unitarian Universalist church. Our spirituality relates to each of us as a whole being, including the sexual part of that being.
Contributor Amelia Schlossberg lives in Vermont.
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