The High-Quality Sex-Ed Program on Offer From Churches

Sexuality "is a normal, wonderful part of our lives, why the heck wouldn't we talk about it at church?" said Amy Johnson, OWL coordinator for the United Church of Christ. "We all have bodies. Jesus has a body. That's a big deal."

Eugene's First Congregational United Church of Christ is an example of one congregation in which the OWL program has become a beacon for sexuality education within the broader community. Evelyn Shoop / Rewire

Griffin Macguire, a high school junior, is passionate about social justice work. A movie buff, he has a film-related podcast with his mom and grandma. He also, in his words, has “a very long history of being disillusioned with Christianity and religion in general,” based on vocal conservative Christian groups and the amount of media coverage they garner.

“Before I experienced a progressive church, I had the false conception that Christians were uniformly heteronormative, anti-choice, and puritanical,” he told Rewire.

So when Griffin’s mom, having brought the family to First Congregational United Church of Christ in Eugene, Oregon, suggested he participate in the church’s Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexual education curriculum, he was skeptical. He feared that a sex-ed program offered through a church might dwell on judgment of sexuality rather than healthy exploration.

However, he said, that wasn’t the case. “There was a lot on the nature of relationships and part of that is the idea of family,” he said. For example, OWL isn’t centered on the idea of “family” as a man, a woman, and children conceived through sex—what Griffin calls “the traditional religious paradigm of how a family should look.” Rather than positioning “purity” against “sin” in the manner of other religiously rooted sexual education programs, the OWL course offers accurate information about anatomy, human development, safer sex, contraception, and other evidence-based topics, while also helping participants examine their values, build relationship skills, and dive into the social, emotional, and spiritual facets of sexuality.

In fact, after participating in OWL, Macguire is surprised about how much misinformation his peers have about sexuality. “I notice a lot of things being said that are straight-up incorrect,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people our age don’t know how the human body works.”

Sex education advocates haven’t traditionally viewed church-influenced sex education as a positive thing because it tends to be rooted in conservative Christian ethics and teaches abstaining from sex until marriage as the only option. SIECUS, an advocacy organization that pushes for accurate and comprehensive education that treats sexuality with dignity, notes that more than $1 billion in federal funds has been used for abstinence-only sex education programs. While well-designed abstinence-only programs can treat sex with respect (although only within the bounds of marriage), they often exclude LGBTQ youth and youth who have experienced trauma, for example, or provide only negative information about condoms and contraception—leaving many teens with inaccurate, incomplete, and potentially stigmatizing information.

L. Kris Gowen, Ph.D., is the author of Sexual Decisions: The Ultimate Teen Guide, a resource book for adolescents that focuses on understanding sex through relationships. She noted in an interview with Rewire that abstinence-only programs can often give teens the idea that “only people who don’t have sex are good.”

So it’s perhaps unexpected that OWL, a curriculum created jointly by two religious institutions—the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ—is one of the most respected sexuality curricula in the broader, secular sex education community, according to Nora Gelperin, M.Ed., director of sexuality education and training for Advocates for Youth (AFY). Gelperin cited a handful of other inclusive, comprehensive programs as part of that high-quality group: “Family Life and Sexual Health” (FLASH) from Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, “Get Real” from Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, and AFY’s own curriculum, “Rights, Respect, Responsibility.”

OWL and its religious companion material, “Sexuality and Our Faith,” were created in 1999; the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ continue to update both regularly. About 5 to 10 percent of the United Church of Christ’s churches (which comprise 900,000 members nationwide) use the program, according to Amy Johnson, OWL coordinator for the United Church of Christ and a commissioned minister for sexuality education within the church. Among the Unitarian Universalist churches, comprising about 155,000 members, the number of churches using OWL is more than half.

Interfaith Use

OWL has a set of secular texts as well as faith-based companion texts, so the program can be used in a variety of settings.

Melanie Davis, Ph.D., certified sexuality educator and OWL program associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association, notes that many other faith-based traditions have used OWL, including Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches; Jewish synagogues; and Quaker meetings. Davis encourages people of faith who offer the course to tailor the materials to reflect their own traditions. However, when she was approached by a church who wanted to use OWL without the LGBTQ references, she told them that wasn’t an option. “Inclusivity is included throughout the curriculum,” she said. “We’re very clear that OWL is not for everybody.”

New facilitators are selected by their organizations and attend a weekend training to prepare them to offer OWL. “We have a set of standards for how to select a candidate for training,” Davis said. The training itself, she continued, “is less about the curriculum than it is about learning about your own attitudes about the content [and] your own comfort about discussing sexuality with whichever age group you’re going to be working with.” Many adults never received adequate sexuality education themselves, and often have to get comfortable talking about sexuality in a group. Workshop leaders pay close attention to how future facilitators use their speech and body language. Trainers “will pull people aside so that the person has an opportunity to rethink how they’re relating to others” if there’s an issue, said Davis. Trainers also have final authority not to approve a candidate, but that rarely happens.

Ultimately, OWL materials try to be overt with course values and best practices, but OWL’s shoestring staff can’t monitor all programs. As Amy Johnson put it, “We also make sure to let folks being trained know that if they are taking things out of the curriculum … it’s not really OWL any more.”

Mariotta Gary-Smith, MPH, a health equity strategist at Health Share of Oregon and co-founder of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, has been doing community-based sex education for 33 years. “In my experience, OWL has been an accessible curriculum for people,” Gary-Smith said. “It’s always struck me that I’ve been able to utilize OWL in a way that if I want to incorporate more culturally or ethnically specific pieces, that can happen.” The best programs, Gary-Smith said, are “ability-, accessibility-, trauma-, and LGBT-informed,” and they center on responding to participants’ desires for information.

Even if a program is inclusive, she noted, it’s not always precise. A lot of curricula “are written poorly and are very much outdated,” Gary-Smith said. “The language is not current. The terms that they use are not necessarily accurate.” Gary-Smith cited OWL and another program, It’s All One, which uses a human-rights and social-justice lens to address sexuality, as examples of high-quality, responsive curricula. They are “flexible and able to be utilized for communities as they need,” she added.

Such flexibility is important: L. Kris Gowen notes that comprehensive sexual education hasn’t necessarily done a fantastic job at equipping children and teens with the skills they need for mature sexual decision making and having healthy sexual lives. Secular sex education has tended to focus on anatomy, sexually transmitted infections, and saying “no”—often separating sexuality from relationships. In sex education, she said, “A lot of where the future is going is to bringing those two back together.”

OWL in Eugene

Eugene’s First Congregational United Church of Christ is an example of one congregation in which the OWL program has become a beacon for sexuality education within the broader community. There, OWL hinges on a 27-week program for eighth graders offered every year, and it also includes two bi-annual programs—one for high-schoolers and one for fourth- and fifth-graders. Educators and staff have been offering the program as part of their ministry since 2003, and they hope to add a kindergarten and first-grade component soon.

Parents who do not attend the church often seek out available OWL slots not filled by the congregation. According to First Congregational associate minister Melanie Oommen, “Community families are just lining up.” When families at the Temple Beth Israel, a synagogue in Eugene, weren’t able to get enough spaces, parents went through the OWL facilitator training in order to offer the course on their own.

“This is one of the major ministries of our church, and one of the things that other people know about,” said Gretchen Jewett, director of children and family ministries at the church.

OWL frequently breaks with conservative Christian dogma on issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion. At one of two First Congregational OWL panels exploring LGBTQ issues geared toward adolescents, panelists talked about coming-out stories and parenting as a queer person. “It was great,” said Amber Travis, a physician’s assistant and OWL facilitator, “because it really sheds light on the personal experience, instead of… stereotyping.”

Fellow facilitator Lisa Lovelybrook agreed. Referring to the panel concerning trans and gender-nonconforming experiences, Lovelybrook said, “It’s super powerful to have people who are willing to be vulnerable and share their stories, and to be able to ask questions that you would feel would be intrusive in another situation.”

This kind of individual exploration and identity affirmation is in line with the core values of the United Church of Christ, a traditionally progressive denomination. “What we hold up as a value and talk about in a very regular way is the moral agency of each person, and how important our conscience is in understanding God’s will for our life, and that’s not something that can be imposed on another,” Oommen said. “In our tradition, we honor as sacred that moral agency. I hope that our young people get that message. That’s what we strive for.”

Sexuality “is a normal, wonderful part of our lives, why the heck wouldn’t we talk about it at church?” said Johnson. “We all have bodies. Jesus has a body. That’s a big deal. Let’s talk about these bodies and how they’re in relationship together. How to stay healthy. How to have a sense of justice and inclusivity in our relationships.”

Abstinence is also a part of the curriculum. A workshop on “redefining abstinence” for middle-schoolers defines abstinence as “a very mature choice to make at this age,” and not as an “attempt to negate [young adults’] natural sexual feelings and desires.”

When it comes to middle- and high-schoolers especially, Johnson continued, “We need to be able to give them the tools to do their own critical thinking.” For example, “We don’t say ‘don’t have an abortion’ or ‘do get an abortion.’ We say, ‘What would you do? If you are going to decide to be sexually active, what can you do that fits within your values?'”

Parents and Families

First Congregational members say that, overall, the program has been overwhelmingly positive experience for them.

Griffin Macguire’s 16-year-old sister, Molly, has completed the high-school program and the middle-school program. When she got to the first session of the eighth-grade course a few years ago, she realized that she had classes at school with about half the kids in OWL—definitely awkward, she thought. “And I was right for the first few weeks,” Molly said. “But towards the end we all got close.” In fact, when it was time for the high-school course, Molly, who is an artist and a singer, recruited her best friend to join her. “I talked to her mom on the phone and [her mom] signed a waiver.” Now that the high-school course has ended, the group is planning an end-of-the-year karaoke party.

Lovelybrook helps coordinate an exchange-student program and teaches classes at Pacific University. She said that her daughter, now 24, was not excited about being signed up for OWL years back. “I almost never insist on anything …. And I insisted because I wished that I had had this when I was her age.”

Lovelybrook feels it’s important that the church offers a high-quality, responsive sexual education curriculum, given the reputation of conservative churches for having prescriptive views on sexuality that get applied to all denominations. “One of the big things about having [OWL] at the church is to have the solid, underlying idea that the church supports this … and sexuality is a valued part of Christianity.”

Even with a strong sense of purpose behind the OWL program, and support from the church, parents whose children haven’t participated before can have misgivings and misconceptions. At First Congregational, parents are required to attend an information session and pledge to make the course a priority for their children. According to Travis, when parents are asked during the information session about who among them feels like they received good sex education growing up, maybe one person typically raises their hand.

Anil Oommen, Pastor Melanie Oommen’s husband, and an assistant professor of education in the Pacific University School of Education, has now been working with parents and children to deliver OWL content at local charter schools for years. One of the biggest obstacles he found as he started using the program was getting parents on board—not because they were opposed to the curriculum, but because of cultural preconceptions and taboos that they held about sexuality. Now he reflects on talking with parents in the beginning of any OWL course as one of the most rewarding and pivotal components of the program—and it starts with affirming each family and their values.

“Part of this curriculum is letting kids explore what their own family values are. Your parents are your first and primary sexuality educators,” he said. “In a school setting, I’m here to start the conversation. [If we] can’t talk about the very bodies [children] live in, that they inhabit every day, what’s the hidden curriculum that we’re enforcing?”

The OWL course content outlines strategies for how to get communities or congregations on board with teaching in-depth sex education, noting that overcoming the obstacles of false assumptions and unchallenged stigma can be the toughest part.

Mariotta Gary-Smith notes that patience, relationships, and trust are instrumental so that content and honest investigations can follow. “You’re teaching people how to be in relationship with one another, and teaching folks how to have conversation when they don’t agree. At least for me, that’s one of the things that people may not understand” about community-based sexual education, Gary-Smith said.

The flexibility of OWL and its ability to be adapted for different church and community settings is likely what will keep it growing. In Eugene, the local school district recently took on OWL as a supplementary high-school health curriculum after reviewing a number of programs. Anil Oommen led the training for the health teachers.

The OWL program at First Congregational also continues to grow. “The Our Whole Lives Sexuality and Our Faith ministry is integral to the life of our congregation,” Pastor Oommen said. “This ministry is … a sign to all who enter here that our church is a safe place for all aspects of the human person, human experience, and our deep yearning for justice in every dimension of our lives.”

Anil Oommen agreed. In his view, “the world ‘holy’ means ‘whole.’ [OWL is] about wholeness …. Usually in our world we think binarily: Sexuality is over here, and religion is over here. But really, they’re bound together and twisted together.”