By Theresa Parrish, appeared in Sept/Oct 2017 issue of The Beacon
Unitarian Universalists take pride in our open minds and open hearts. We welcome difference and diversity. We lean into controversy and educate ourselves on issues. Recent events in Charlottesville, repeated attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion access, and threatened cuts to healthcare and social programs have caused many of us to feel anxious about the future of our country and about the immediate health and safety of our loved ones.
What does all this have to do with Our Whole Lives – the evidence-informed, lifespan sexuality education curriculum co-authored by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ? Everything!
Imagine Madison, who is much taller and heavier than their peers. After years of teasing and bullying, Madison believes there is something deeply wrong with them. They become depressed and suicidal.
And there is Adrian, whose friend pressures them to engage in sexual activity until they reluctantly give in. Adrian learns to associate sexuality with shame.
Or Jaden, who feels attracted to a friend of the same sex and who was told by their conservative religious grandparent that homosexuality is sinful and disgusting.
And Angela, who wanted to talk to her boyfriend about birth control, but didn’t know where to start. Now she finds herself pregnant, worries that her parents will be enraged, and wonders if she will be able to finish school.
It’s not hard to imagine a bully who relentlessly calls a classmate “faggot,” “fairy,” and other derogatory names. The bully tries to persuade others to join in tormenting the victim. How many of us are prepared to respond in a way that honors our Unitarian Universalist values?
[Use of pronouns “they,” “their,” and “them” is intentional. Even the most enlightened people make assumptions and value judgments based on gender. What assumptions might you have made about the gender of the individuals in the scenarios above? ]
All of these narratives occur regularly here in Northwest Arkansas. They are due, at least in part, to our reliance on sexuality education provided by public schools or by well-meaning but ill-informed parents (who are often dreadfully uncomfortable discussing anything sexual), or by no one at all. Much of the sexuality education provided in Arkansas (including here in Fayetteville) is based on the “abstinence only” model that charges youth to abstain from “sex” until marriage. Youth are often pressured into signing vows of chastity and are shown repulsive videos of sexually transmitted infections meant to scare them into “abstinence.” This propaganda leads young people to believe that any sexual contact will result in pregnancy, infection, or both. The material presented is flawed enough, but even more egregious is what is lacking — topics of relationships, of difference, of consent, and information on birth control that is comprehensive and medically accurate.
The theoretical basis of Our Whole Lives (OWL) runs contrary to all of this. OWL affirms that we are sexual beings from the moment we are born until the moment we die. We know that sexuality is a broad concept, involving not just genitalia and reproduction, but gender and orientation, relationships, consent, body image, families, justice, inclusivity, friendships, values, sexual health, contraception, and much more. This is all delivered by trained OWL facilitators in a safe setting and in an age-appropriate manner. What’s more, OWL acknowledges parents/caregivers as the primary source of sexuality education and involves them in their children’s classes.
OWL opens up the discussion on sexuality, empowering students of all ages with vocabulary and information that can help them navigate relationships with confidence. They come to understand their inherent rights as human beings and are equipped with vocabulary to express themselves. They are challenged to think deeply about various scenarios that might occur in their lives and to prepare to make informed, deliberate choices.
So, with experience of Our Whole Lives:
Madison might love their body just as it is, significantly decreasing the negative effects of bullying.
Adrian would have denied consent with confidence and might still see sexuality as positive.
Jaden would have an opportunity to accept t heir same-sex attraction as “normal” without fear of punishment or ostracism by family and church.
Angela would likely have discussed birth control and their relationship with her boyfriend, and her pregnancy might have been averted.
Fewer bystanders would have joined with the bully, and more would have protected the victim and spoken out.
In your mind’s eye, are you imagining a school-aged child – or perhaps a teenager – in all of these scenarios? While traditionally, sex-ed has been served up almost exclusively to pubescent youth and teens, OWL is for EVERYONE. Appropriate OWL classes are offered at all age levels, beginning with kindergarten and continuing through old age. And, if you are wondering what an older person might learn from sexuality education, consider that the incidence of sexually transmitted infections is rising significantly in adults aged 55 and up. Information about sexuality (and sexual health) constantly evolves. Social values are regularly re-examined. It is impossible to outgrow Our Whole Lives.
Children, youth, and adults who participate in OWL classes and/or who become educated in sexuality and relationships are people who are armed to resist misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. They are likely to be accepting of others. They tend to make healthier choices. They are not as easily manipulated. They are less likely to passively accept violations to their bodies and to their rights as human beings. They resist. Congress might move to de-fund Planned Parenthood and other public clinics. But if we are empowered with information and grounded in our values, we will find ways to practice safe sex, to prevent unplanned pregnancy, and to maintain our sexual health. We will continue to be actively inclusive and will protect the vulnerable in our midst. We will continue to take responsibility for our choices. We will not give in to bullies or terrorists.
We will be respectful, valued members of our families, our schools, our workplaces, and our communities. Confidence, knowledge, and values cannot be legislated.
Visit the OWL page on our website for more information on the program and upcoming classes.