The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association
September/October 1999

From Liberation to Health:
The New UUA Sexuality Curriculum
By Dan Kennedy

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also related:
“Americans Support Sexuality Education” by Amy Hoffman
“Why Should Churches Do Sex Ed?” by Cynthia Breen

Early one Sunday afternoon, five of us are sitting in a meeting room behind the sanctuary at First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts. 

The morning service at this Unitarian Universalist church got out a little while ago. And we’re doing what 
most definitely does not come naturally: talking about sex.

Two years ago, the First Parish was one of 20 UU churches that field-tested Our Whole Lives, or OWL, a brand-new comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has just become available for general use. About 15 Wayland seventh-graders experienced—and helped evaluate—the first major updating to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s sexuality education program since the early 1970s.

They learned about values. They learned about safer sex and date rape and the acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality and transgenderism. They learned about—for lack of a better term—plumbing. They learned that it’s all right to say no. And they learned that there’s room for sexual experimentation without intercourse. That might not play well with the right-wing family-values crowd. But studies have shown that this kind of frank acknowledgment of reality does far more to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases than the “just say no” approach.

For Brad Keyes, who along with his wife, Susan Keyes, taught the course at the First Parish, Our Whole Lives was them a chance to help kids deal responsibly with a topic that consumes their thoughts but is too often approached in ignorance and haste. “It allowed us to challenge the giggles,” he says. “All of us—teachers and students alike.” Susan Keyes remarks on how strange it is that many parents—by opposing comprehensive sexuality education—condemn their kids to learning about sex from uninformed peers and the commercial media. “They are all human beings. They are all products of sexual intercourse. Barring some tragedy, they are all going to have sexual intercourse of one kind or another,” she says before asking rhetorically: “And the idea is that you’re not supposed to talk about it?”

James Shaw, a ninth grader who took the class two years ago, is as forthcoming as you can expect from an adolescent in the presence of his father, his former teachers, and a visiting reporter. That is, not very. Still, he makes it clear that Our Whole Lives—and especially such specifically Unitarian Universalist touches as the chalice-lighting and reading that would begin each class—was worthwhile. “I think [Our Whole Lives] gave people more confidence,” he says.

Our Whole Lives, developed jointly with the United Church of Christ, replaces About Your Sexuality (AYS), a groundbreaking sexuality education curriculum introduced by the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1971. About a third of the UUA’s 1,000 churches have used AYS; the hope is that at least that many will use Our Whole Lives. Although AYS is widely viewed in Unitarian Universalist circles as retaining much of its usefulness, by the late 1980s it had been patched up and amended so many times that many Unitarian Universalists saw the need for an entirely new curriculum. When AYS was written, feminism was in its early stages, and AIDS was unknown. Supplements on AIDS and HIV, date rape, reproductive rights, and sexual abuse were added to the core curriculum, but they were an awkward fit. In contrast, these topics are an integral part of Our Whole Lives, reducing the possibility that students will receive mixed messages.

Another big difference is that AYS targeted only junior-high-school kids. Our Whole Lives is what’s known as a life span program: there are five separate units, aimed at kindergarten and first grade students; fourth and fifth graders; seventh, eighth, and ninth graders; high school students; and adults. However, the junior high curriculum is OWL’s centerpiece. The material for grades seven through nine, written by the noted sexuality educator Pamela Wilson, was the first to be released. It is also by far the most ambitious, with 54 hours of material spread over a recommended 27 sessions.

“Each age that we’re addressing is important, but there’s something crucial about the early adolescent age group,” explains Judith Frediani, the UUA’s curriculum development director. “By that age they’re receptive, and it’s early enough for them to prepare for the decisions they’ll soon be making about sexuality. OWL will help them prepare in healthy and responsible ways for decisions that most of them haven’t yet had to face.”

There is one other crucial difference between AYS and Our Whole Lives. About Your Sexuality was a product of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when—under the influence of the sexual revolution—autonomy, liberation, and self-actualization were held up as the highest ideals. As religious liberals, UUs continue to believe in those ideals, but three decades after Woodstock, we also better understand the downside of the sexual revolution. Thus Our Whole Lives heavily emphasizes respect. It teaches kids that abstinence is okay, that coercion is unacceptable, that sexually transmitted diseases are real and must be dealt with. As befits a program that emphasizes responsibility and UU values, Our Whole Lives invites parental involvement more explicitly than AYS did. The change reflects a subtle shift in UU cultural yearnings—from the radical individuality of the 1970s to a greater emphasis on connectedness, community, and mutual respect. “The sexuality education program is about wholeness and healing. It is about justice and equity. It is about responsibility to self and to others,” says Frediani. “It’s about enhancing the meaning and value of life itself, and those are all religious pursuits.”

Perhaps the most emblematic change is that the sexually explicit photographs used in AYS—the subject of a tv news magazine report two years ago—have been replaced with tastefully rendered line drawings that are meant for use with a UU supplement to the main curriculum for seventh through ninth graders, so that they are shown only in the context of Unitarian Universalist values. Even then, their use is strictly optional.

“I think we realized that we needed to develop a curriculum that was more responsive to the needs of our current times,” says the Rev. Makanah Morriss, cominister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, Wyoming, who was the UUA’s director of religious education in the early 1990s. She adds that making the use of the drawings optional is important, because they are bound to be controversial, especially in more conservative congregations that shied away from AYS. “OWL can be individually tailored within every congregation. The program has more flexibility, in some ways, than AYS did.”

Frediani puts it this way: “The tone of About Your Sexuality was liberation. The tone of Our Whole Lives is health—physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Each is the best we had to offer in its time and place.

What would eventually become Our Whole Lives began with a casual conversation about a decade ago. The Rev. Eugene Navias, then the UUA’s director of religious education, had gotten to know the Rev. Faith Adams Johnson, minister for family life and human sexuality for the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, the primary mission agency for the United Church of Christ (UCC) in the United States and Puerto Rico. Navias, who had helped develop About Your Sexuality, believed that either a major revision or an outright replacement was needed. The UCC, some of whose congregations had used AYS and which was the only denomination other than the UUA that then ordained openly gay and lesbian ministers, shared many values with UUs. Thus, Navias and Johnson began talking about a collaboration. “We decided that it was worth exploring,” Johnson recalls.
 Those conversations led to the first of two Sexuality Education Task Forces. Convened in 1992, the first panel decided that AYS should be replaced, not updated. The second task force, still in existence, set about drafting the new curriculum; it is chaired by the Rev. Cynthia Breen, the UUA’s current director of religious education, and the Rev. Gordon Svoboda II, the United Church Board’s minister for youth programs and leadership development.

Our Whole Lives is based on a concept known as “comprehensive sexuality education,” which can most easily be defined by explaining what it is not: the abstinence-only education favored by the religious right and frequently chosen by timid elected officials and school administrators. In a comprehensive program, students learn that sexuality is an essential part of every person; they learn the details of contraceptive use and sexually transmitted diseases; they learn about different sexual orientations in a nonjudgmental way; and they learn skills that can help them act responsibly. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a New York City-based educational group, studies show that comprehensive sexuality programs work much better than abstinence-only programs at helping teenagers delay intercourse and avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The same studies show that most parents favor a kind of sexuality education for their children that is more balanced than the right-wingers’ abstinence-only programs.

It was because of political concerns that the Sexuality Education Task Force decided to split OWL into three discrete components. The first—the OWL curriculum itself—is primarily for use in UU and UCC religious education. But because it takes a secular approach, it can also be used in other settings: by agencies like Planned Parenthood that serve sexually active teenagers, in private schools, and even in public schools—although everyone involved with OWL agrees that few if any public schools will be using the curriculum unless the current political climate changes.

The second component, Sexuality and Our Faith, is explicitly religious and supplements the secular curriculum with spiritual values. Separate versions have been written for the noncreedal UUA and the liberal Christian UCC. The UUA version strongly emphasizes four Unitarian Universalist principles: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”; “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations”; “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”; and “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” “We understand the value of the faith-deepening opportunity more than we did with AYS,” says Cynthia Breen. “It’s very carefully tied in with our values and principles.” Significantly, only Sexuality and Our Faith and its UCC counterpart—and not the main curriculum—use the line drawings, which depict anatomy, masturbation, and lovemaking.

The third, and perhaps most intriguing, OWL component is the Advocacy Manual for Sexuality Education, Health, and Justice, subtitled Resources for Communities of Faith. Edited by UU Sarah Gibb, outreach coordinator for the Sexuality Education Task Force, the manual aims at building community support for comprehensive sexuality education. The manual, a resource for OWL instructors and others, shows why people need comprehensive sexuality education and offers advice on working with allies in the religious community and dealing with the media. The manual also includes case studies on, for example, a United Church of Christ congregation in Henderson, Kentucky, that sponsored a women’s health clinic despite religious right opposition, and a successful campaign by religious liberals and moderates in Hemet, California, that replaced an abstinence-only AIDS/HIV curriculum in the public schools with one that offered more complete—and medically accurate—information. Gibb says she hopes her manual will empower people to speak out at public forums like school-board meetings and let the public know that the religious right doesn’t speak for most religious people.

“Some very conservative people of faith . . . have gotten their message out about how they feel about sexuality,” Gibb says. “The advocacy manual is for people of faith who believe in comprehensive programs that celebrate abstinence as a good choice but also give information on how to make healthy decisions on contraception and safer sex.”

As an indicator of the acute need for resources such as the advocacy manual, its development was funded in full by the Ford Foundation. Margaret Hempel, a former deputy director at Ford who is now with the Ms. Foundation for Women, hopes the manual can be used, in a modest way, to help propagate OWL to faith groups beyond the UUA and the UCC, and perhaps even to help public school sexuality educators to articulate their students’ needs and offer ideas on how best to meet them.

For that matter, the advocacy manual could even be useful in introducing OWL to UU and especially UCC churches that haven’t yet offered sexuality education. The UCC’s Gordon Svoboda, for instance, predicts slow going within his faith group. “We are going to start small and build out,” he says. “We don’t have a 30-year history of active sexuality education, as the UUA does. It’s something of sacred history for the UUA, and we are not in the same spot. We have a great deal of tilling the ground to do.

OWL met its first audience in August 1996, when 80 would-be OWL educators—two each from 20 UU churches, and two each from 20 UCC churches—gathered at a Lutheran retreat center in Argyle, Texas, to learn about the curriculum they would be field-testing that fall.

About their Lutheran hosts, Bernie May, a field-tester from the Unitarian Church of All Souls, in New York City, jokes, “Their concept of sex ed is radically different. They don’t talk about the relative merits of Saran wrap versus dental dams.” But he adds that the training sessions themselves were no joke—all day on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and half of Sunday, an overview of the entire 60-hour curriculum for grades seven through nine. “I had not been in any training programs that intense since Peace Corps training in 1965,” he says.

Though the field-testers interviewed for this article spoke enthusiastically about the OWL program, some offered mild critiques of some aspects of the curriculum. Take, for instance, the line drawings. Mitzi Siebert, a field-tester at the South Valley UU Society in Salt Lake City, prefers the drawings to the AYS photos, observing, “They don’t seem quite so in-your-face. They were very tastefully done. That’s a big improvement.” But Bernie May thinks the line drawings still go too far for seventh and eighth graders.  “There’s no question about the quality of the drawings, and the decency of them,” he says. “But the kids—well, one of them summarized it beautifully: ‘Bernie, did we really need to see that?’”

A more common complaint is that the curriculum is simply too long. It’s supposed to take 27 two-hour sessions, an enormous commitment for teachers and students alike. “There was too much curriculum, which is not a terrible sin,” says Linda Frank, May’s teaching partner at All Souls. But overall, she enthuses, “It’s a great program. Every kid in America should go through it. We’d have a much better society if they did.”

One especially valuable feature of OWL (and, before it, AYS): in the face of high rates of suicide among gay and lesbian adolescents, it introduces teenagers to healthy models of all kinds of sexuality. In fact, guest speakers from the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities are a vital part of OWL.

Paul Barron, who was Mitzi Siebert’s field-testing partner at South Valley, puts it this way: “I’m a gay man, and when I first taught the AYS program in the late ’80s, I was scared to death to tell the kids I’m gay.” Since then, however, South Valley has become a Welcoming Congregation, and gay teens, whether they’re out or not, can look to him as an example of a successful gay man. Or take Sue O’Connell, associate publisher of a gay newspaper, co-host of a gay radio show, and one of several gays and lesbians who spoke with the Wayland kids last winter. “You have the feeling you’re just saying stuff that’s not connecting,” says O’Connell. “But you realize that a year later or a month later or whenever the teens need the information, they will have access to it, and then they will connect.”

For Unitarian Universalists, diversity and acceptance are so ingrained that it’s sometimes difficult to step back and see how radical we look to many others in the community. Consider what happened on October 8, 1997, when the CBS news magazine Public Eye (a Bryant Gumbel vehicle since canceled) discovered that the About Your Sexuality program was showing kids photos. In church! Of people having sex! The Rev. Roberta Nelson, now minister of religious education at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, in Bethesda, Maryland, defended UU values in a live interview with Gumbel, who was noticeably agitated by the notion of church-based sex education 
that didn’t merely order kids to say no.

In the Wayland church, Brad and Susan Keyes recently learned how committed they are to diversity. Last spring, an antigay activist named J. Edward Pawlick, who runs a radical-right web publication called the Massachusetts News, sent a mailing to everyone in Wayland and several surrounding communities that denounced homosexuality and sex education and singled out Unitarian Universalists for vilification, accusing us of creating the false public impression that we are Christians and of promoting acceptance of gays and lesbians. (To the latter charge, of course, the defendants plead guilty.) 

“Although most churches are teaching their children about God, the Unitarians are obsessed with sex. This is directly related to homosexuality,” wrote Pawlick, who identifies himself as a former Unitarian. Following a sensational description of UU churches’ showing pictures of  “a male couple having anal and oral sex and a lesbian couple using a dildo,” Pawlick then takes direct aim at OWL: “They are now preparing, ‘A Lifespan Sexuality Education Series,’ which is designed for use in religious and secular settings. It will cover sex for everyone from kindergarten to adults.”

Pawlick’s had little effect in Boston’s liberal suburbs. The Rev. Kimi Riegel, cominister in Wayland, wrote a letter to the local weekly newspaper denouncing Pawlick’s attempt to stir up animosity toward UUs, as did several other Wayland residents. In nearby Newton, which Pawlick also targeted, the local human rights commission sponsored a well-attended public forum where pro-tolerance sentiment prevailed. Still, if one has been the subject of an outburst like Pawlick’s, it’s hard to be blasé. 

Susan Keyes recalls mainly that his actions filled her with fear—and ultimately defiance and a renewed commitment to her Unitarian Universalist principles. “When I started reading [Pawlick’s] comments about sexuality education in the Unitarian church, it scared me,” she says. “It’s frightening to think you might have been targeted. Then I hoped that my mother wasn’t going to get [Pawlick’s mailing]. But you know the truth? It made me feel Unitarian for the first time in my life, and I was brought up in this church. It made me realize that there isn’t one ounce of this curriculum that we shouldn’t be teaching.

For information about the content and history of Our Whole Lives, as well as for resources for parents and religious educators, visit the Our Whole Lives website.

Dan Kennedy is the media critic for the Boston Phoenix and a member of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers, Massachusetts.

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