Our Whole Lives
It was dusk. The apartment was empty save for the two of them. As they lay entwined in warm embrace, this room/this bed was the universe. Aside from the faint sounds of their tranquil breathing, they were silent. She stroked the nape of his neck. He nuzzled her erect nipple first gently with his nose, then licked it, tasted, smelled and absorbed her body odor. It was a hot and humid August day, and they had been perspiring. Slowly he caressed her one breast as he softly rolled his face over the contours of the other. He pressed his body close against her, sighed, and fully spent, closed his eyes and soon fell into a deep satisfying sleep. Ever so slowly she slipped herself out from under him, lest she disturb him, cradled him in her arms, and moved him to his crib. Having completed his 6 o’clock feeding, the four-month old had also experienced one more minute contribution to his further sexual development.
And that’s one of the stories for reflection coming from the Our Whole Lives sexuality education curriculum (or OWL for short). Did it get you reflecting? Yes? Some questions might include:
What aspects of the story struck you as sexual in nature?
Did you think that the male was a teenager or adult? Did you leap to that conclusion instantly? If so, why?
Have you considered that sexual experience and development occur at all stages in life?
These are all fascinating and important questions taking a person deeper into one of the most powerful dimensions of human existence. No less than life and death consequences can stem from choices around sexuality, as when we consider STDs or the epidemic of suicides in GLBT teens. And then there are the wounds to our sexual integrity (via shaming, misinformation, unintended pregnancy, exploitation, violence) that we can feel all our lives. As artist and writer Melinda Gebbie says, “We are delicate. We bring our damage to sexuality, we bring our hopes, we bring our self-image, we bring our world-image, we bring what we believe we are/what we believe we aren’t, our blind spots, our prejudices, our sadness. Everything comes out. A lot of people are left wanting, and confusing, and having the idea that their body is like an unloved apartment building; it’s up for grabs and it’s of absolutely no worth.”
“I say the word ‘vagina’,” writes Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, “because when I first started saying it I discovered how fragmented I was, how disconnected my body was from my mind. My vagina was something over there, away in the distance. I rarely lived inside it, or even visited. I was busy working, writing; being a mother, a friend. I did not see my vagina as my primary resource, a place of sustenance, humor, and creativity. It was fraught there, full of fear. I’d been raped as a little girl, and although I’d grown up, and done all the adult things one does with one’s vagina, I had never really reentered that part of my body after I’d been violated. I had essentially lived most of my life without my motor, my center, my second heart.”
The wounds hurt. People feeling their bodies are like unloved apartment buildings, up for grabs. People living without their motor, their center, their second heart. People so distant from the sweetness of that story from a moment ago, in which we saw the child breastfeeding at dusk, the room/the bed as the whole universe….
And yet—we don’t want to forget the sexual joy that can be had way beyond infancy, also, all through the stages of life. Listen to Melinda Gebbie again: “Sex is a metaphor for everything else and everything is a metaphor for sex as well. Because sex is a coming together of two weather patterns, two separate countries, two entities in a conscious state of potentially blissful crisis. Or chaos, or harmony. You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, but it is the most catastrophic, exciting, and [beautifully] weakening thing that can happen to us.”
How can we not want to reflect on all this? To become more wise about all this? Become less reactive and more proactive, more values-focused, values-driven?
And yet here is the reality in America today: a tremendously oversexualized society populated by millions and millions who don’t want to talk about it in candid and informed ways. Parents who freak out if children are brought into honest and practical conversation about it, parents who want their kids to remain perfectly innocent, even though those kids are bombarded by media-based sexual imagery and innuendo and can’t possibly be perfectly innocent—even though what all kids actually need is self-defense against all of that, a way to critically interrogate that.
Side story: one grandmother tells about an in-the-car conversation with her grandson. Grandson surprises grandmother by stating very matter-of-factly that his brother came out of his mother’s vagina, and then he goes on to share how he told his mom that she needs to put his brother back in there….
Kids know something’s going on. It’s on internet sites, phone apps, television, movies, magazines, music, and video games. Often they’re sources of unrealistic and sometimes dangerous messages about body image, gender roles, and promiscuity. A survey of 1,351 randomly selected TV shows by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that over the course of one week 56 percent of TV programs and 67 percent of prime-time shows contained sexual content in word or deed. Yet only one in ten such shows mentioned contraception, safe sex, or the possibility of delaying sexual activity.
Given this, one could only hope that public education might help us out here, but not really. Let me hit you with some statistics. Only slightly more than half of the states are legally required to provide some instruction about HIV/AIDS and slightly less than half actually require sex education in public schools. Of these states, less than forty percent require their curriculums to be “medically, factually or technically accurate.” That’s right. As a teenager you are bombarded by sexual messages in the larger world and so you hope to be able to get things straightened out at school but it’s highly likely that, (a) your biology textbook will have a better explanation for how mosses and ferns reproduce than for your own species, and (b) if you do receive information, it might very well be wrong or misleading and for sure it will emphasize the risk-related and negative side of sex and nothing positive.
Many school districts requiring sex education choose to go the abstinence-only route. Doesn’t matter that abstinence-only has been an abject failure in every place it’s been tried. Doesn’t matter that study after study shows that comprehensive sexuality education like OWL actually decreases the likelihood of teens having sex. Millions of dollars are still spent on abstinence-only. Writer Savannah Hemmig shares an experience she had with this in ninth grade. She says, “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.” Savannah Hemmig goes on to say, “This brief exchange became the only contraception acknowledgement I can remember in six years of [public school] Family Life Education.”
And we wonder why there is so much sexual dysfunction in our world.
Unitarian Universalism says no to this. We’ve been saying it for more than 40 years.
For more than 40 years, originally through a program called About Your Sexuality and, now, Our Whole Lives, we’ve been providing up-to-date information and candid answers to questions; activities to help people clarify values and improve decision-making skills; effective group building to create a safe and supportive peer groups; education about sexual abuse, exploitation, and harassment; opportunities to critique media messages about gender and sexuality; acceptance of diversity; and encouragement to act for justice.
For more than 40 years, we have been saying: all persons are sexual; sexuality is a good part of the human experience; sexuality includes much more than sexual behavior; human beings are sexual from the time they are born until they die; it is natural to express sexual feelings in a variety of ways; people engage in sexual behavior for a variety of healthy reasons–so as to express caring and love, or to experience intimacy and connection with another, or to share pleasure, or to bring new life into the world, or simply to experience fun and relaxation. We’ve been saying: sexuality in our society is damaged by violence, exploitation, alienation, dishonesty, abuse of power, and the treatment of persons as objects. We’ve been saying: it’s healthier for young adolescents to postpone sexual intercourse, until (as one of UUCA’s OWL instructors, Jean Woodall, puts it) it happens “at the right time and place and with honor and respect for self and other.”
For 40 years, we’ve been saying this. Teaching that is tailored to the needs of different age groups. UUCA OWL teacher Katie Sadler-Stevenson says, “For young children it’s important to learn how to name the parts of their body (and how they work) and to be able to do that without feeling shame or embarrassment. It also encourages children to be empowered about their own bodies – what those bodies are capable of and having body autonomy. For older children and adults it helps people to make healthy decisions by being knowledgeable and hopefully having the opportunity to think about things before they happen in real life.”
But now, let me ask you: Do you think all this has happened without generating any controversy? Without coverage in the press? Allegations of violating obscenity statutes? Courtroom drama, and so on?
Oh yes. We cannot underestimate how counter-cultural the values are that animate Our Whole Lives, or its predecessor program, About Your Sexuality.
Just yesterday I was reading an article in The Atlantic—from April 28, 2016—and I found this statement from Sharon Slater, the president of the advocacy group Family Watch International who has a new documentary out entitled “The War on Children: Exposing the Comprehensive Sexuality Education Agenda.” Here’s her statement: “Comprehensive Sexuality Education encourages children to engage in sexual experimentation and high-risk sexual behaviors.” And then there’s psychiatrist Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist who regularly lectures on the topic of sex education, who argues that abstinence-based education is essential to protecting children from sexually irresponsible behavior.
But there’s nothing new about this sort of opposition to programs like OWL. Rev. Jennifer Hamlin-Navias tells the story of the time (about 18 years ago) when TV show 60 Minutes did an “expose.” “Originally,” she says, “the Unitarian Universalist Association had offered to have a male professor who taught in the area of human sexuality for the interview. But 60 Minutes did not like him. Rev. Makanah Morris [then the head of the UUA’s Religious Education Department] got the sense that 60 Minutes wanted to interview someone who would be easy to manipulate. Eventually the UUA suggested Bobbie Nelson, a Director of Religious Education from Massachusetts who had worked with the development of our sexuality education. 60 Minutes agreed to her. Bryant Gumbel, as the story goes, barely got a word in edgewise. When the interview was over he said ‘Well that wasn’t so bad was it?’ That’s when Bobby Nelson shook her finger at him and said ‘You should be ashamed for what you just did.’” Rev. Hamlin-Navias ends the story by saying, “I think maybe 60 Minutes expected some sweet little church lady – they did not know how fierce our [religious educators] can be in helping to raise up our children. 60 Minutes’ sexism did not serve them well that day.”
That’s right. Unitarian Universalist religious educators are fierce. We are fierce for our children and for people of all ages. We are fierce about the truth, which is that talking about sex in candid and factually-informed ways does not so much inspire Irresponsibility as Responsibility and Respect. We are fierce about that. Fierce about helping people make wise decisions about their sexual health and behavior. Fierce about equipping people with accurate, age-appropriate information in human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. Not just negative stuff but positive stuff too. Fierce about providing facts about anatomy and human development. Fierce about helping people clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, social, and political aspects of sexuality as well.
And the ripple effects are amazing.
One has to do with Standing on the Side of Love. Rev. Hamlin-Navais rightly points out that “when AIDS activism started we UUs showed up. The Holly Near song that we now sing as our hymn ‘We are a Gentle Angry People’ is likely the first hymn published in an American church hymnal that used the word ‘gay’ (meaning homosexual, not happy). We could do that, “she says, “because we did all this education. We knew that sex and sexuality are important parts of each human being. When the movement for marriage equality came to the forefront of the American culture … we were already there standing, singing, chanting, demanding, voting, welcoming. We could not have done that if it were not for About Your Sexuality, if it were not for Our Whole Lives, if it were not for our religious educators.”
Fierce, for 40 plus years. Because it’s worth being fierce about the most important things in life. Because the implications are life and death, or lifelong. Because “Sex is a metaphor for everything else and everything is a metaphor for sex as well.
Because sex is a coming together of two weather patterns,
two separate countries,
two entities in a conscious state of potentially blissful crisis.
Or chaos, or harmony.
You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen,
but it is the most catastrophic, exciting,
and [beautifully] weakening thing that can happen to us.”