SEXUALITY EDUCATION AND FAITH
a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
10:00 AM, August 30, 2015
Do you remember when your quickly expanding young mind first received messages about sex, gender, sexuality, or sexual orientation? I have vague memories that I can’t quite place in time – memories of hearing the awkward child’s metaphor of a hotdog and a bun. And I remember that, even with the statement of an older kid about what each represented, I still didn’t get it. It was just something unthinkable to giggle about because it had to do with parts I’d been carefully trained not to talk about, display, or touch. Long before that first crude lesson from kids a little older, kids who also didn’t really understand, I was already getting an education in the human body – more precisely my own young male body – and the message was that it was shameful. In Sunday school, I learned the Bible story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. How they were naked. And it took a lot of circular explanation about how that was okay when I knew nakedness was considered sinful by my parents, except when I was in the bathtub on Saturday night. The Sunday school teachers taught that body shame was the result of sin. And there was a whole lot about it that didn’t make sense to me. We just had to take it on faith. Take it on faith that ancient stories were telling a literal truth. Take it on faith that my parents and my church knew the one right meaning of the stories.
In about fifth grade, I began getting more information about the mechanics of sex from classmates with older siblings – some of it somewhat accurate, much of it fairly inaccurate. All of it was heteronormative and homophobic. In junior high I would stop at the public library and go to the stacks from which children could not check out books and surreptitiously read from Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask by Dr. David Reuben. It wasn’t perfect – especially on anything to do with sexual orientation – but it was the best information I had available. And I had to keep the fact that I read it a secret. The euphemistic statements of parents and church became a deafening roar of “Don’t! Your body wants to, but it is sin. Absolutely no carnal gratification of any sort until you are married.” Growing up in a rural county while the effects of the sexual revolution were beginning to filter in was a specific cultural reality that is amazingly different than youth experience today.
The easy availability of internet porn, the hypersexualization of film and advertising and music, the body image manipulation thrust on young girls especially but also boys, the ubiquity of photographic and video capability and instant sharing all work together to create a reality that I couldn’t have imagined in the 1960s and 70s. The pressures are through the roof, but real knowledge hasn’t kept up for most youth. The challenge that presents itself is making sure that youth have both the knowledge and the values they need to make their way toward adulthood while staying safe, respecting their own and others’ worth and dignity, without body shame, and ready, when the time is right, to take pleasure in their sexual bodies and the ways their sexuality can bring mutual joy with another.
In the late 1960s, the Unitarian Universalist Association developed its first version of sexuality education titled About Your Sexuality. It provided what at the time was a medically accurate understanding of sex. It was highly effective and also controversial. In the early 1970s there was even an obscenity case against it in Brookfield, Wisconsin – especially because the curriculum included explicit materials that some thought were contrary to public morals. It was never tried on its merits but put About Your Sexuality in the national news in a negative light. Eventually the case was dropped, but the science progressed and culture changed. The filmstrips showed people with eventually outdated hairstyles and clothes, as well. It became an out of date curriculum. Did anyone here this morning attend an About Your Sexuality class in a UU congregation? Did any of you teach this curriculum?
In the 1990s the UUA and the United Church of Christ together developed our current sexuality education curriculum, Our Whole Lives, often abbreviated as OWL. It became available to congregations at the turn of the twenty-first century. In the years since the development of About Your Sexuality, HIV-AIDS had decimated gay communities across the United States. No longer did sexual activity that was not engaged in with appropriate care risk pregnancy or unpleasant but mostly treatable sexually transmitted infections – you could die from it. The sexual revolution ran its course and brought new norms in sexual mores. Over the decade and a half since OWL was released, the internet has grown exponentially, social media has been invented, and many other technological and cultural changes have changed the risk factors and dangers. OWL has expanded so that now there are six age-appropriate curricula for pretty much everyone from pre-kindergartener through senior citizens. Most widely used is the middle-school curriculum, hoping to catch youth when they are old enough to understand the issues and the basic science but still young enough that many of them are not yet sexually active.
You may have heard our larger culture described as a “rape culture,” where boys and young men are encouraged to take what they want and to assert their power, where the inherent worth and dignity especially of women is frequently not affirmed and promoted. Where, when a man goes on trial for rape, the woman is put on trial in the court of public opinion for how she dressed, for her sexual history, and such. The ethical lynchpin of mutuality is little present in the culture but is an essential part of OWL. Factual information about how the parts work, how conception takes place, how pleasure is achieved, how conception can be avoided, how sexuality and sexual activity comes into play in relationships, how issues of sexual orientation and gender identity come into our decisions – all this information is crucial to being safe in the world and reaching adulthood without serious damage or able to act responsibly when disease is at work. Issues of self-esteem often prevent people making appropriate responses when asked or cajoled into being sexually active. OWL addresses body image issues and engages exercises that help build confidence in the high-stakes, high stress interactions especially young people have around when and how and with whom to be sexually active.
Our Whole Lives saves lives, we say and believe. But what, you may reasonably ask, is it doing in our congregations? Why don’t parents teach their children about this stuff? Why don’t the public schools? Such questions are part of the training of an OWL facilitator. We facilitators were required to think our way through the difficult questions about what all this has to do with religion. And it takes a while to come up with comprehensive, meaningful answers. Yes, we believe it is worth doing. But we don’t instantly know how it impacts the spiritual growth and development of the young people in the class.
Why do you think age-appropriate sexuality education belongs in our congregations?
The fact is that religious leaders have been preaching and ruling on matters of sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, and relationships for a very long time – perhaps as long as there have been religious leaders. Roman Catholicism, as one example, teaches that it is a sin to use birth control, to have sex outside marriage, to have an abortion; they teach that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are intrinsically disordered. Only with great reluctance did the previous pope allow that condoms may be used as a public safety issue by people who were simply beyond the pale. And while the current pope has shifted the emphasis to justice issues that many of us would agree with, their positions on these sexual and gender issues has not changed. Many conservative Christian groups have similar positions. Those values are generally not our values. If the sex-negative, pleasure-opposing message that does not affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all is preached from America’s pulpits, it is crucial that the message that promotes our inherent worth also come through our religious channels.
Our Whole Lives is a set of curricula that honor the responsible search for truth and meaning, the exercise of compassion, that seeks to promote equality and tear down stereotyped thinking, to seek justice for all. OWL develops in our youth a sense of sex and sexuality as natural and good rather than fearsome, sinful things. Being human is to be in varying ways creatures with a place in a given moment on the continua as sexual beings. OWL cultivates a healthy respect for difference and those who are outside the norms of society, it breaks down heterosexism, homophobia, and sexual stereotyping.
This is a program for faith in action. Ours is a faith that brings the same values that shape our work to dismantle racism to play in every area of our lives.
Our Whole Lives honors the individual experience and is based in our UU values. Our first question may have been, “How does this curriculum belong in church?” I think a better question is, “How can faith dwell in us as whole people when faith does not address every aspect of our lives?” Science is constantly increasing our knowledge about sex and sexuality and gender. Social customs and culture wars perpetuate themselves. But living our values is a full-body experience – from brain to genitals to muscles. Our lives and the lives of our children will not be whole until our values permeate every aspect of our being. And that is the work of church.
© 2015 by Rev. Paul Oakley