Sexuality Through a UU Lens

Sermon by Dr. Melanie Davis
July 19, 2020

A transcript of the sermon appears below the video.

From Elizabeth Canfield:

I’ve often wondered what it would be like if we taught young people swimming in the same way we teach sexuality.

If we told them that swimming was an important adult activity, one they will all have to be skilled at when they grow up, but we never talked with them about it. We never showed them the pool. We just allowed them to stand outside closed doors and listen to all the splashing.

Occasionally, they might catch a glimpse of partially clothed people going in and out of the door to the pool and maybe they’d find a hidden book on the art of swimming, but when they asked a question about how swimming felt or what it was about, they would be greeted with blank or embarrassed looks.

Suddenly, when they turned 18, we would fling open the doors to the pool and they would jump in. Miraculously, some might learn to tread water, but many would drown.

We read those words by Elizabeth Canfield when we train future facilitators of Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education. We want to impress upon them the importance of the task they are about to undertake. Whether they will be working with kindergarteners or 80-year-olds, they will be entrusted with providing education that is sensitive, engaging, potentially triggering, compassionate, bonding, challenging, life-affirming, and empowering.

In other words, the facilitators’ job will be to keep people from drowning in sexual ignorance. Our Whole Lives – or OWL – is a lifespan curriculum co-published by the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) and the United Church of Christ (the UCC). OWL has been in use since 1999, when it replaced the About Your Sexuality curriculum developed in the 1970s.

OWL is one of the most successful programs the Unitarian Universalist Association, or UUA, has ever offered. Today, it is used in religious and secular settings throughout the US and Canada, with culturally appropriate adaptations being used in the Philippines and pilot tested in Rwanda and Tanzania.

I’ll speak more about OWL in a moment; first, I’ll share why we discuss sexuality in our congregations in general.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has been committed to sexual rights and health for more than 40 years. Congregations and national leaders rose to the personal and political challenges of the AIDS crisis. We led interfaith coalitions in the successful movement toward marriage equality. We continue to hold a place at the forefront of the ongoing struggle for gender and reproductive justice.

Our bylaws and practices recognize many identities and types of relationships as well as the need to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct, including misconduct by our clergy.

UUism sees sexual expression as an affirming part of the human experience, and we support everyone’s right to learn about and engage in sex in consensual, pleasurable, developmentally appropriate ways. We also acknowledge that sexuality in our society is damaged by violence, exploitation, alienation, dishonesty, abuse of power, and the treatment of persons as objects.

Our faith tradition doesn’t maintain a list of “shalt nots”; rather, we offer opportunities to learn about sexuality, to engage in dialogue, and to gain spiritual perspectives on sex so that we make decisions wisely, ethically, and in accordance with our personal and faith values.

Our embrace of sexuality as a core element of human experience has proved to be life-saving, literally, for people of all ages who have emerged from religious traditions that shamed and diminished them. They have found that Unitarian Universalism encourages them to discover or reconnect with the rich and vibrant beauty of their sexuality.

Scientific evidence is central to UU perspectives on sexuality. We trust the statistics showing that education decreases rates of unintended pregnancy and improves health outcomes. We know that honoring each person’s sexual identity can decrease self-harm. We know that sexual expression is a developmental process that begins in infancy and lasts throughout life. We know that consent education decreases sexual assault.

We offer Welcoming Congregation and Welcoming Renewal programs to support people of all sexual orientations; a new small group ministry program called Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators; and a host of webinars and resources on consent and on topics such as supporting gender-diverse children, youth and adults.

More than half of our congregations have offered at least one age level of the Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education curriculum over the years. Those that haven’t usually report that they lack sufficient numbers of participants, have other priorities, or lack the money to train facilitators.

Right now, our OWL programs and facilitator trainings are on hold, due to the health risks involved in group gatherings. My UCC OWL colleague and I are hosting monthly online meetings to support congregations in offering sexuality education resources to families, and we have offered advice to congregations seeking to create their own online programming. It’s not OWL, but it may help tide people over until we can meet in person again.

This break in OWL programming is frustrating, but it also affords us an opportunity to engage in conversations about new ways of offering OWL later on – perhaps new levels of the program, or participating in field tests, or expanding OWL programs into the larger community.

Our Whole Lives has set the sex ed gold standard for comprehensive sexuality education – religious and secular – for 20 years, and it is a gift we give our congregations and communities. OWL’s effectiveness is due in part to the values embodied within the curriculum.

Values are ideals, beliefs, and attitudes that guide behavior. They explain what we understand to be good or bad, desirable or undesirable. For example, in terms of gender and orientation, we are who we are — we don’t choose our sexual identity. However, our values determine whether we accept and appreciate our own and others’ gender and orientation.

Our values are guided by the families and culture we grow up in, our faith traditions, and our life experiences. They affect the types of people we find physically attractive, which smells and sounds we find arousing, the kind of clothing or body modification we deem alluring or off-putting; our decisions around sexual health and parenting; and whether or how we will engage in relationships. Our values shape our views about sexuality as a positive or negative part of our humanity.

The OWL program helps people of all ages explore sexuality within a framework of the values of Self-Worth, Responsibility, Sexual Health, and Justice and Inclusivity. These values honor sexuality as a good part of the human experience, even as we recognize that aspects of it can be misused and violated.

When people call me to inquire whether the program is a good fit for their organization or their child, I say, “If you agree with the OWL values, this curriculum might be a good fit. But if any of those values don’t work for you, a different curriculum might be a better choice.”

For example, a Baptist minister once asked whether he could offer OWL “without all the gay affirming material.” I said he couldn’t because the OWL value of justice and inclusivity honor every aspect of sexuality, including a range of sexual identities.

These values are reflected in every activity, reading, and recommended resource within the curricula. They are the music that sings throughout all levels of the program.

Self Worth is usually defined as the sense people have of their own value. In OWL, we also define it as the belief that people at all ages and stages are entitled to dignity and self-worth and to their own attitudes and beliefs about sexuality.

Today’s offering music, “Thursday,” represented this value in lyrics that included, “Who I am is enough. There are many things that I could change so slightly, but why would I succumb to something so unlike me? I was always taught to just be myself.”

The OWL value of Responsibility calls us to enrich our lives by expressing sexuality in ways that enhance human wholeness and fulfillment and that express delight, pleasure, responsible sexual choices, love, and commitment. The interlude “She Keeps Me Warm” represented this value.

The value of Sexual Health says that knowledge about human sexuality is helpful, not harmful. We all have the right to accurate information about sexuality and to have our questions answered.

We teach that healthy sexual relationships are consensual, nonexploitative, mutually pleasurable, safe, developmentally appropriate, respectful, and based on mutual expectations and caring. This value also acknowledges the many ways there are to express sexual feelings alone or with a partner, and that it is healthier for young teens to postpone sexual intercourse.

The Justice & Inclusivity value acknowledges that people of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, backgrounds, income levels, physical and mental abilities, and sexual orientations must have equal value and rights when it comes to sexuality. Today’s opening music, “Wonder” celebrated a disabled child with unlimited possibilities for her future, which includes her right to enjoy her sexuality.

Essential to our ability to truly embody the value of Justice & Inclusivity is the UUA’s and UCC’s new commitment to hire critical readers during the OWL curriculum development process. They provide feedback based on their personal perspectives of marginalized race, disability, gender, and orientation.

We do this because it’s essential that we get OWL right. It may be the only place participants trust others enough to disclose their sexual identity or to experiment with the use of new pronouns or names.

OWL programs are a setting that transforms a cultural climate of confusion and fear about sexuality into a new reality in which every person’s inherent worth and dignity is valued. This is especially true when congregations incorporate material from a companion guide called Sexuality and Our Faith, which adds religious ritual such as chalice lightings and hymns – or Biblical references for UCC programs – and adds faith-relevant discussions to secular sexuality education.

This faith companion is important because liberal religious sexuality education gives children, youth, and adults a safe forum in which to make meaning of their lives. Participants learn to feel good about themselves and their sexuality while they clarify their own values and faith values, apply those values to their decisions and experiences, and learn about their bodies, feelings, identity, behaviors, and relationships.

OWL employs Experiential Learning Theory, which is a process of completing an activity before sharing observations about it, reflecting on what was learned, and considering how that new knowledge can be put to use. This model fits well with our Unitarian Universalist affirmation of each person’s search for truth and meaning.

In the elementary grades, OWL brings these experiences home, with drawing and reading activities that supplement what children learn in OWL workshops. This supports parents as their children’s primary sexuality educators.

In OWL for grades 7-9, one activity uses grab bags of differently colored candies to teach the impact of contraceptives and barrier protection on the likelihood of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

In OWL for Older Adults, participants can share personal stories of loss before completing activities that honor grief and help participants identify ways they can bring more joy into their lives.

Participants may not recall the specifics of these activities later, but they will recall the experience of being fully accepted, conversing comfortably about sensitive topics, and learning how to make values-informed decisions that respect their own and others’ sexuality and worth.

No other curriculum does sex ed like Our Whole Lives and Sexuality and Our Faith do. I’ve been a fan of the program since 2000, when my congregation’s director of religious education recruited me to learn how to facilitate a brand-new program called OWL. Back then, I was only familiar with the curriculums for children and youth but today, I am committed to lifespan sexuality education.

Some of you may wonder what could be left for adults to learn, but I assure you that we are never too old or too experienced to make meaning of your life experiences, to share wisdom, and to learn more.

When I was traveling by train a few years ago, I began speaking with a Jewish man sitting across from me in the dining car. We shared our professions – his as a cantor, mine as a sex educator.

He disclosed the tension he felt being married to the mother of his children while being sexually attracted to men. He said he read a book that claimed his same-sex attraction was due to his being damaged by bad parenting.

We discussed sexual orientation and the implications of religious values and psychological theory for the next 30 minutes. I didn’t challenge his religious beliefs, but I did point out the flaws in the theory he referenced.

If he had been in an Adult OWL program, he would have been invited to examine the values he was taught, and he would have learned that his sexual orientation is an intrinsic and good part of his humanity, rather than making him damaged goods.

An illustration of the value of sex ed for older adults from a woman in her 70s who mistakenly walked into an OWL for Older Adults workshop that was being field tested at her congregation. When she realized her mistake, she told the director of religious education, “I don’t need this class. I’m a widow and I’m not even dating anyone.”

Her friends encouraged her to stay, and she remained throughout the 14-week program. At the end of the program, the woman proudly told the group, “I just tossed out my ratty old pajamas and bought a pair that feels wonderful against my skin. I now know I deserve that kind of pleasure and don’t need someone else around to appreciate it.”

That feedback made my heart sing! I didn’t write the curriculum to help older Adults have better sex, although that may be one result.

I wrote it to help them feel more confident, more hopeful, and more empowered in their right to sensual pleasure and sexual expression in whatever form that might take, from buying new pajamas, to coming out of the closet, to protecting sexual health, and experiencing more joy.

Blessed be! We are part of a faith tradition that values us as sexual beings throughout our whole lives. We may express our sexuality in different ways, and we may not always understand each other’s identities and behaviors, but if we consider sexuality within the context of our UU Principals and the Our Whole Lives values of self-worth, responsibility, sexual health, justice and inclusivity, we will treat our own and others’ sexuality with respect, acceptance, and joy.