‘Our Whole Lives’ improves lacking sex-ed curriculum

By Operations Assistant

Sexual education in the United States has been a highly contested issue since the 1970s, when widespread concerns about teen pregnancy—and subsequently the HIV/AIDS epidemic—ignited public support for a mandatory curriculum.

However, the content of the curriculum and the extent of its use lags behind that of many other countries. While sexual education in the Netherlands begins as early as kindergarten and persists throughout students’ youth, American programs are often limited to a single semester at the high school level. American programs are also far less comprehensive.

“We had health for one semester in sophomore year, and sex ed was only a small part of it,” said Rachel Bedore, a freshman international affairs major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. “More information definitely would have been of benefit. Most of what I learned about sex wasn’t from the class.”

Bedore added that discussion of LGBT issues was entirely absent.

“I had a girlfriend in high school, and it was treated as a joke by students and teachers,” she said. “To have your relationship belittled like that is very annoying.”

More comprehensive curricula have been developed, although they are seldom employed in public schools. An example is “Our Whole Lives”, a set of six comprehensive curricula that address students’ needs by age group, from K–12 and beyond, said Melanie Davis, OWL program associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

“We take the stance that we are sexual from birth to death,” Davis said. “We should bring up the subject early because even the tiniest kids have bodies that they’re learning about.”

OWL is also LGBT-inclusive, Davis said. Throughout the program, language is employed which encompasses many varying orientations and identities.

OWL is jointly developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. While UUA is an interfaith body composed of individuals from both religious and secular backgrounds, UCC is a liberal Protestant Christian denomination.

However, OWL is a secular curriculum, Davis hastened to note.

“In public schools, my belief is that the curriculum should be secular and inclusive of everyone in the room, whether they be atheist, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or anything else,” she said. “You just can’t do that if you have a policy that’s based on religion or politics. It absolutely must be secular.”

The religious right is often associated with the United States’ lack of progressive values, but the real issue is more multidimensional than that, according to Amy Johnson, OWL coordinator at the United Church of Christ. While she acknowledged some Christians may be more conservative than others, she is completely comfortable in her beliefs.

“I think what sets [OWL] in the [UCC] apart is that we don’t just teach secular sexual education,” Johnson said. “We combine our deeply held spiritual beliefs about social justice, safety and community into a conversation about challenging topics.”

While the core OWL curriculum is secular, an optional companion program called “Sexuality and Our Faith” can be appended. Although Davis and Johnson’s perspectives on faith differ, they are both strongly in favor of progressive, inclusive and comprehensive sexual education in the United States.

“We’re not done yet,” Davis said. “As long as the government is giving money to abstinence-only, which we know doesn’t work, we’ve got a long way to go.”