Real Sex Education Gets a Chance

I could not have possibly been more excited when I saw this article about the handful of sex-positive sex education courses taking place around the country:

The photos were a small piece of a yearlong sexuality education program called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. A joint effort by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, OWL aims to help teens understand sexuality. As Detwiler recalls the sessions of three years ago, the pictures demonstrating what sexual intercourse looks like were “shocking to kids, but also helpful. It helped them to grasp another dimension of sexuality.” So did the frank discussions about dating norms, the chance to pass around condoms, and informal conversation about the way sex is portrayed in magazines, movies, and music. OWL is among a handful of sex-ed programs that take a position more radical than it may, at first, sound: namely, that sexuality education should actually talk about sex. While events like the spike in teen pregnancies in Gloucester last year or the bulging bellies of youthful pop stars (or Alaskan first daughters) can prompt outcries for better sex ed, most of what we call “sex education” is really about preventing the bad stuff. As one Newton teacher puts it, “It’s all been reduced to two issues: teen pregnancy and STDs. That’s all really important, but I feel we’re losing other important things.”

With US sex education heading into its second century, some educators are suggesting that sex ed can, and should, be about more than just all the things that can go wrong, that adults need to do more than robotically recite statistics about condom failure or the merits of abstinence. This new approach, almost too small to be called a movement, exists largely outside the public schools, but it’s a new twist in a debate that often gets bogged down in finger-pointing and name-calling. The “sex is good” mentality involves talking frankly to teens about sexual pleasure and about when and how to achieve it safely. It means focusing less on whether kids have had vaginal intercourse, and acknowledging that teens (like adults) will engage in a variety of sexual experiences. It’s an approach that might make some grown-ups uncomfortable, but it’s exactly what sex ed needs if it’s ever going to grow up.

*Hops up and down* This is what I’ve been suggesting!  For so long!  It’s the kind of sex education I’ve written about extensively here, and in my essay for Yes Means Yes.  Someone — in the U.S.! — is actually doing it!

Okay, so there are of course a couple of caveats.  This isn’t exactly what I’ve been promoting, first of all because these are voluntary programs not being taught in schools.

But probably a lot more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of explicit discussion about meaningful consent.  I hope it’s in there (I mean, I really hope it’s in there), but in the otherwise really great article that you should go read in its entirety now, it doesn’t get a mention.  Of course, if the writer (who seems to really strongly promote sex-positive sex education) just didn’t feel that it’s an important enough aspect of teaching teens to value sex as a good thing to include it, well that’s just a whole different problem on its own.

The thing is, though, that while it’s not enough in my book, teaching teens that sex is a good thing, and something that is supposed to be fun and okay to desire, gets us a big part of the way to enthusiastic consent lessons already.  It’s not equal to explicitly saying “both partners have to want and agree to each and every sexual act that’s engaged in,” but it is planting a seed entirely different from the one that we usually let grow in people’s minds.

It takes away the idea that girls don’t like sex and boys need to “obtain” it from them, or it will never happen.  That dynamic is, in fact, subtly changed to one where sex is supposed to be enjoyed, in a wide variety of forms, not achieved.  That is, even if unintentionally, taking a big old hunk out of rape culture, balling it up and throwing it out.  Teaching that women are sexual beings, so long as it comes along without a message that women aren’t always sexually available, is in itself adversarial to a lot of what enables certain kinds of rape.

Indeed, this part of the article, about a different sex education program than the one discussed above, might have made me happiest of all:

“Sexuality is a great thing. It’s not something you should be afraid of,” says Ortiz. The program gives a lot of reasons for girls to delay intercourse — getting a good education before starting a family; avoiding disease — but instead of assuming that girls have sex only to please boys, Girl Talk speaks frankly of safe, alternative sexual practices that “make you feel really good.”

“If you look at the public health data, they’re going to do things,” she says. “My big thing, as a public health person, is that we don’t want unwanted pregnancies or STDS. But we want sexually happy people, so we talk a lot about masturbation.”

Wow.  Messages that sexual desire and sexual pleasure are okay, being aimed at teenage girls.  What a novel concept.  And one I desperately hope to see spread.

via Feministing

0 thoughts on “Real Sex Education Gets a Chance

  1. Lemur

    Can we give THAT some government funding and teach it in schools, instead of “women are like crock pots, men are like microwaves”? Puh-lease? Can one part of American life be based on logic from now on?

    Reply
  2. Kissmypineapple

    Wouldn’t that be nice! While it still isn’t enough, and while it’s still really small, I’m so relieved, excited, and just…happy that this is going on. Movements have to start somewhere, and this is really fantastic.

    Reply
  3. Victoria

    I am an eighteen year old Unitarian Universalist who took OWL in my grade eight year. To answer your inquiry, in my programming (and all of the OWL curricula hopefully…they have grades K-1, grades 4-6, grades 7-9, grades 10-12, young adults (ages 18-35), and adults) there was absolutely and definitely an emphasis on consent. I remember discussing it in the context of healthy relationships and in the context of any physicality, including sexual intercourse.

    If I had to name the top three parts of OWL that have informed my life and sex life that I seriously doubt I would have ever learned anywhere else, especially in an institution, they would be:
    #1) Being sexual is nothing to be guilty or ashamed about. Sexual desire can be and some folks think intrinsically is a part of being human. And it can feel pretty good, too! (Being Ex-Mormon this lesson was extremely important for me and anti an internalization I had formed and was combating)
    #2) When engaging in (consensual) heterosexual (and yes we talked about a diversity of ‘sexes’ and sexualities) sex (oral, anal, or vaginal), one must always have a condom and some method of birth control. We learned about all the different options for condoms (male, female, other options) and methods of birth control, their side effects, and how they help to prevent pregnancy and STIs.
    #3) Masturbation is okay too! We specifically discussed female masturbation and how it is seen as a taboo in society. And the event all people my age who went through grade 7-9 OWL bond over: the slideshow! We all watched a slideshow which had drawn illustrations of different people masturbating. And again with diversity of images…I remember that was the first time I thought about differently abled peoples and sex.

    Grade 7-9 is the most common and well-known OWL programming in UU congregations though I’ve heard the other curricula is also great. There are so many other lessons and understandings I gained from OWL though, those are just the big three in my experience.

    Reply
    1. Cara Post author

      Thanks for sharing, Victoria! I’m so glad that you got to go through that experience . . . it sounds absolutely wonderful. I wish that I’d had it, and hope that more people will someday. And of course, I’m also really thrilled to hear that there seems to have been an in depth discussion of enthusiastic consent. Great stuff!

      Reply
  4. Dorian

    OWL really is wonderful. While I am not now UU, I was part of a congregation in Winnipeg, Manitoba for two or three years, and I did take the OWL program in each of those. As Victoria said, there’s definitely emphasis on consent, as well as a million other things. It’s been a couple of years now since I was in the program, so my memory is foggy, but I remember it as a very positive experience.

    Reply
  5. AshKW

    I am so excited, and I have to say, the post from Victoria about the program showing masturbation as being healthy, as well as the images of differently abled people…I’m going to start crying from joy here. I’m also thrilled about the images of what sex actually looks like. When I lost my virginity, my boyfriend and I had no frigging clue what we were supposed to do. He penetrated and we just stayed like that for a minute, trying to figure out what to do next; it was pretty hilarious, in hindsight. *Sniffles*

    Reply
    1. Cara Post author

      Haha, yeah. The whole concept of “thrusting” during intercourse did not come to my awareness until I was 14 going on 15. I totally thought that was how you did it — stuck it in and chilled, and somehow that was going to feel really good or whatever.

      Which is amusing. But the definitely not amusing part is that the person who clued me in was my boyfriend, who went onto sexually abuse me. And he regularly used my ignorance about all things sexual to humiliate and coerce me into various sexual acts.

      Reply

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