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To describe my experience with sex education as “complicated” would be a severe understatement.
Growing up as a Unitarian Universalist in a conservative Virginian suburb, I learned two contradictory programs of sexuality values simultaneously during my awkward pubescence.
At the age of 14, I spent my weekday health class studying “abstinence-only” education in public school and my Sundays studying controversial O.W.L. “sexuality education” at my Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Abstinence-only education and O.W.L. have become just two schools of thought aimed at fixing America’s infamous teen pregnancy and STI rates. As legislators in D.C. threw money at research surveys to determine the best form of sex ed, unknowingly their perfect guinea pig, me, sat less than 20 miles away in her church’s basement eating chocolate chip bagels while learning about dental dams.
In my home state of Virginia, I attended Fairfax County Public Schools where health teachers instructed state-mandated “Family Life Education” or F.L.E.. Though proven ineffective, F.L.E. remains one of many abstinence-only curriculums where in Virginia 5-10 graders in gender-segregated classrooms are taught that abstaining from sex until marriage is the only acceptable way to prevent pregnancy and STIs.
Each year my teachers reiterated the importance of postponing all sexual activity until marriage, followed by the benefits of adoption as a positive choice in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. In ninth grade, I remember a blushing girl who dared to interrupt our health teacher’s sermon about HIV rates with:
“But what about condoms?”
To which the teacher responded, “I am only allowed to tell you that condoms are not 100% effective” before promptly moving on.
This brief exchange became the only contraception acknowledgement I can remember in six years of F.L.E.
Out of curiosity, I recently reread the official F.L.E. course guidelines, where I found many passages reminiscent of the famous “don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die” joke in Mean Girls.
On the subject of “premarital sexual relations,” Virginia’s curriculum dictates that “the student will be aware of the consequences of preteen and teenage sexual activity” by focusing on STIs, HIV, cervical cancer; unintended pregnancy, ruined reputation, anxiety, economic implications, parenting before marriage, and the effects on a student's “lifelong goals and potential achievements.” My health classes relied heavily on fear and judgment tactics to “teach” about the dangers of sex and urge abstinence.
Alarmingly, F.L.E. taught me about healthy pregnancy, childbirth, parenting, and even fetal development as though preparing me and my classmates for young-parenthood. Yet they contain no discussion on STD-testing, abortion, gender identity, LGBT issues, access or appropriate use of contraception, or any information to support sexual health for a sexually active teen.
Moreover, a recent report on federally funded abstinence-only curriculums found that more than 80% contained false, misleading, or distorted information, probably due to the fact that only 13 states require that sex-ed curriculums present factual and medically accurate information.
Educators in schools like mine legally scare teens with false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, the risks of abortion, and reinforcement of gender stereotypes while religious beliefs and false information get taught as scientific fact.
Of course the conservative parents and educators in my VA suburb prefer that their teens wait to have sex: the Christian majority of VA churches encourage saving sex until marriage and abstinence does remain the only fool-proof birth control. But while the public schools continue to deny teenagers’ fundamental right to accurate and comprehensive sexual health information, teens continue to have sex regardless of what they learn in their health classes. I watched my classmates learn about sex exclusively through this narrow-minded scope, leaving them unprepared for inevitable romantic/sexual relationships and leaving me to answer questions like “Can I get pregnant from oral sex?” from my ill-informed friends.
Thankfully, on Sundays, I became a student of a very different curriculum titled “Our Whole Lives.” The Unitarian Universalist-created Our Whole Lives, O.W.L. for short, provides a comprehensive, interactive, and shameless look at “sexuality education” with a curriculum adaptable for kindergarteners to adults.
However, many UUs, like myself, specifically dedicate one year to its study, for me during eighth grade. While my Jewish friends studied the Torah in middle school to prepare them for adulthood, I studied sexuality. The largest difference between my two educations stems from the difference between “sex education” and “sexuality education,” with F.L.E. as the former and O.W.L. as the latter.
The goal of O.W.L.’s curriculum is much larger than simply preventing pregnancy and STIs. The goal of sexuality education is to help its students make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health/behavior with a “holistic” view of sexuality as spiritual, emotional, and social, instead of just physical.
Thus for an hour every Sunday morning for one full school year, I completed what I describe as a priceless education that easily undid the damage of F.L.E. Though the class was inevitably awkward at times it remained inclusive, interactive, and admittedly fun.
In one of the first “workshops” of the class, titled “The Language of Sexuality,” my gender-mixed class tossed a ball around the room and each time someone caught it they had to say word (slang, slur, curse or otherwise) associated with sex until we could not think of anymore.
Imagine, if you can, a circle of teens tossing a tennis ball while shouting “disco-stick,” “intercourse,” and “cunt” at the encouragement of teachers then discussing the negative and positive connotations of the words and gender biased insults. Afterward we agreed on the words we found respectful to use in our class setting.
Other workshops ranged from the basics, “Concerns about Puberty,” to more controversial topics such as “Gender Expression, Roles, and Stereotypes.” During our “Gender Identity” workshop, we learned the difference between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. The following week we had a transgender guest speaker share her experiences with us.
We also had guest speakers for the workshop on “Sexuality and Disability” and speakers from Planned Parenthood for our workshop on STIs and unplanned pregnancy.
During one memorable workshop on “Contraception and Safer Sex” we learned how to put condoms on bananas and debunked condom myths by stretching them to their limit. When I describe O.W.L. to someone new, I usually start with the story of our instructor John chucking a banana with a condom on it at my head.
And yes, we still talked about abstinence. But we discussed it in a “redefined” manner where we differentiated between higher risk sexual behaviors and safer non-intercourse behaviors such as masturbation.
Our instructors openly admitted that sex could become a positive and life-enhancing experience when in a consensual, mutually pleasurable, safe, respectful, and developmentally appropriate setting.
O.W.L. helped me to form my own values for better sexual decision making by touching on nearly all topics associated with it. I questioned my own sexuality in a safe environment without judgment, I listened to my male peers open up about masculinity, but most importantly I came to my own conclusions about the right decisions for my sexual health instead of having my graying, sexist gym teacher ordain them for me.
Although I could not articulate it at the age of 14, I wished that my peers at school had the same opportunity to experience what I now believe could be the solution to America’s sex-ed problem.
In treating sex as a part of life rather than just an embarrassing statistic to compare against other counties, Unitarian Universalists created the most comprehensive sex education program in the United States.
As US teens and young adults continue to rack up as many as 850,000 pregnancies and about 9.1 million sexually transmitted infections a year, it has become clear that abstinence-only education does not work.
I have had the unique experience of undergoing the best and worst of sex-ed in the US at a vital time in my life. Now that I reflect back on O.W.L. and F.L.E. six years later, I urge all parents to give their tweens the same opportunity mine gave me. I speak from incomparable experience.