A "Real" Sex Ed Story: A Teenager Recalls Lessons From "Our Whole Lives"

October 24, 2009

by Meg Young, Our Bodies Ourselves intern

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS) would like you to get REAL about sex education.

SEICUS has declared October “Sex Ed Month of Action,” and the organization is encouraging young people to raise awareness for the need for comprehensive sex ed — and specifically the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act [pdf].

Introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the legislation (S.611, HR.1551) calls for a dedicated federal funding stream ($50 million) that would cover state grants for developing comprehensive sexuality education programs. A petition in support of the REAL Act is online at AmplifyYourVoice.org.

Reviewing these quick facts about the need for comprehensive sex education, I was reminded of my own “real” sex education.

Picture this: It’s Sunday morning, and I’m competing in a condom-stretching contest in the basement of a pre-school. Other kids are trying to blow up the largest condom-balloon, shoot a condom the farthest (rubber-band style), or beat my record of 24-inches for the condom-stretch (all the way from the floor to my hip). Four adults are recording scores and announcing winners. In the center of the room, next to a few condom-clad bananas, sits a box of donuts, a subtle bribe to get us out of bed so early on a weekend.

I was in eighth grade, and I was a reluctant student in Our Whole Lives.

Our Whole Lives (OWL), a sexuality education curriculum developed jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, was first published in 1999, and subsequently updated in 2005. The class provides a comprehensive, interactive, unabashed look at sexuality, offering six sets of curricula for age groups spanning kindergarten to adulthood.

The “big curriculum” for seventh-to-ninth graders is predominantly offered outside of schools (I took OWL as part of Sunday school at my local UU church), and tends to take a more personal angle than classroom based sex-ed classes, offering time for discussion, games and unlimited questions.

The first sessions of the curriculum focus on building rapport between the instructors and the students, as well as creating a high level of comfort between the students themselves. One of my OWL classmates recently said: “Because of the intimate environment of OWL, it felt really awkward at times, but in the end was really effective in achieving its purpose… There was room for open discussion, and questions arose that never would have when surrounded by 22 random kids from school.”

This “intimate environment,” as well as the fact that, by virtue of being taught outside of the school system, OWL does not need to conform to any state or federally-imposed limitations, means that OWL can address sexuality education more broadly. Topics include everything from anatomy and physiology (I clearly remember being ejaculated on by a working model of a penis built by a class-mate), to gender roles in dating (we had a long argument about who should pay for dinner and a movie).

There was a whole session devoted to “love making,” and another devoted to masturbation. Trading colored m&ms taught us about the terrifying ease of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. We played with condoms, diaphragms, female condoms and spermicidal gels. We discussed our feelings about abortion at length. We spent three weeks discussing sexual orientation and gender identity. At an all-class sleepover, as part of our unit on responsible sexual behavior, we watched “American Pie.”

When I took OWL at age 14, issues like herpes, emergency contraception and “responsible sexual decisions” often seemed remote to the point of irrelevance, and I can’t deny that my high school health class served as somewhat of a necessary refresher. However, what I really absorbed from OWL at the time, and what I have carried with me ever since, is an outlook on sexuality that was strikingly absent from my sex-ed unit in health class: OWL taught me that sexuality is not something to be ashamed of, to be hidden or feared. It is something to be questioned and explored, respected and protected. It is nuanced and complex, and sometimes infuriatingly confusing.

Most of all, it is an essential part of the human experience that last from birth until death – Our Whole Lives.

So, am I bitter that I had to be up by 9 a.m. every Sunday for a year? Yes. Am I glad my parent made me do it? Absolutely.

Meg Young recently graduated from high school in Middlebury, Vt., and will enroll at Tufts University in the fall of 2010 after taking a gap year.

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