General Assembly 2000 Event 548
Presented by Dave Weissbard, Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL
Originally presented March 14, 1999; version below edited for General Assembly (GA) presentation as the Sunday School Society Award Winning Sermon, June 26, 2000
Life Long Learning
I have been actively involved with sex education for more than fifty years. When I was seven, in response to my continuing questions and some enthusiasm for playing doctor, my parents sent me to our family doctor's office to pick up a couple of books on where babies come from she ordered for them to give to me. I quickly became the sex expert for our neighborhood, and gladly shared my new found knowledge widely.
In high school, a friend and I, in a social studies elective, did our research paper on Planned Parenthood, and pushed the limits a bit with our teacher, the not-young Miss Lulu Charles, by reporting and sharing materials on family planning with our class.
When I went to Bedford, MA, the first church to which I was called to minister, I discovered that I was automatically a member of the Family Living Committee, a group comprised of all the clergy in town, along with school board, administrators, and parent representatives. Bedford was in the process of implementing a program of family life education in the schools, and our committee was responsible. I became intensely involved, and in my second year, when I was all of twenty-six, I was elected chair of the committee.
Four years later, when the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) developed About Your Sexuality (AYS), a pace-setting program in sex education, I missed by one being the parish minister on the curriculum team, but my wife and I became field-testers of the curriculum, and I was to serve as a teacher-trainer for several years, introducing our curriculum not only to Unitarian Universalists (UUs), but to some outside organizations that decided to utilize it.
In my library, I have four shelves of books on human sexuality and three shelves on the Bible.
As I said, I have been actively involved in sex education for five decades—at some times more than others. Why a sermon on it? I have two reasons. First, I believe that our engagement in sex education as Unitarian Universalists is a manifestation of some of our core principles. Second, I fear that some of our involvement in sex education is a demonstration of how we can lose sight of some of our core values.
The Three-tiered Approach
The Family Living Program in Bedford was based on a three-tiered approach—school, family, and church. Parents were to be kept well- informed as to what was happening in the classrooms so they would have the opportunity to follow up at home, and the churches were all to offer some kind of program at the same time to provide their perspectives on the moral dimensions of the subject that the schools would present scientifically.
I found a new slide series that was available for churches which involved paper cut-outs of birds and bees and chickens, and an optional slide depicting a man and woman in bed under the covers to suggest that people did it too. My female co-teacher decided that this was so radical that while the 7th grade boys and girls could see it together in the dark, they needed to be in gender-specific groups to discuss it. This was clearly not enough, but I was twenty-five and new to the church.
About Your Sexuality
The development of About Your Sexuality was really a radical step. It was a pace-setting curriculum—way out in front of all the rest at the time. (It has, of course, aged in spite of some revisions over the years, and is in the process of being replaced by a new curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL)) AYS came about because people in our churches kept contacting the UUA in Boston seeking sources of materials that could be used to respond to parents requests for help in educating their kids in this touchy subject. There were few really useful materials available. The UUA hired a sex educator, Deryk Calderwood, to work with a curriculum team to develop a program that reflected our values. Sexuality is not "just another subject." The recent presidential impeachment process was not just about politics—it was also about our personal and collective conflicts about our sexuality. It is far beyond just the rational—as the President's behavior as well as people's responses to it illustrate. The vast majority of people tell surveys that they had an inadequate sex education— inadequate in that what little they learned about their own bodies and those of the opposite sex was heavily laden with elements of shame and embarrassment. Most parents have trouble providing their kids with what they themselves did not have, so they would prefer that others do it for them. It is safe to say that that is often the kids' preference also, given that they pick up on their parents' discomfort.
The reason why there are Unitarian Universalist Churches is that we have some values that we tend to hold in common. Some of these are values that are not the same as those shared by most of the other religious communities around us—that's why we aren't satisfied to be members of them. Developing a curriculum on sex education appropriate for Unitarian Universalist Churches was a way of manifesting those values.
In the early days of AYS, we had to spend some time justifying how this was really religious education—how it was a reflection of what we were about; how it was one of the most important elements we could offer in a religious education program designed to help our children feel at home in the world and take responsibility for their lives.
I believe we have never really processed the meaning of the response to the curriculum. In most of our church schools, the average attendance is usually something under 50% of those registered. While parents may often be attracted to our churches because of their desire for help in the religious education of their children, that need is operationally less important to most of them than they think it is. Many kids appear once or twice a month and we pretend that we can offer them something of meaning on that basis, although everything we know tells us that consistency of participation is essential for achieving the goals we have. Well, AYS immediately became something different than most Sunday School curricula. It was special. It demanded, as a condition for participating, that kids participate regularly. We could not risk the negative impact on the group of kids popping in for an occasional session, without having shared the experiences that led up to it. The demand built respect for what we were doing. If families planned to be away, kids would demand that arrangements be made for them to be in class anyhow because they knew that something important was going on and they didn't want to miss out.
What was going on? AYS was a no-holds barred discussion of all dimensions of human sexuality based on the liberal assumption that "the truth will set you free." During the field test, teachers were challenged by kids who insisted that the artistic depictions of human sexual interactions, using paintings and sculptures, did not do the job of communicating what sexual intercourse was about. The curriculum team could find no tasteful pictures to share, because the only explicit pictures available at that time seemed pornographic. They had to arrange for photographs to be taken that would meet our needs.
The Field Test
The kids that Linda and I were teaching during the field test, during a discussion of dating, asked how far it was appropriate for them, as 8th graders, to go on a date. We, of course, turned the question back to them. The result was brainstorming and listing the possible options on newsprint, having the kinds rank them according to the degree of intimacy, and then discussing how far on this continuum they felt they should be free to go, and how far they thought their parents thought acceptable. The gap was enormous—they figured parents thought hand holding was the limit while they opted for freedom to have intercourse. We were nervous about this until we discovered that their insistence on the freedom to have intercourse did not mean that most of them felt prepared for it or had experientially passed much beyond kissing. (Our little list ended up being shared with a teacher in the public school family living unit, who shared it with a principal, who shared it with the police, who tried to convince some members of our congregation that we were offering what they called "a roadmap to seduction." It was their interpretation that we were giving points for how far kids progressed.) That exercise became a part of the final curriculum.
It was interesting that we made a second contribution. A parent of one of the kids in our field test group was in heavy duty therapy. For a variety of reasons, I was in frequent communication with her psychiatrist. Having heard about the curriculum, the shrink asked to see it. She pointed out a strange omission—with all the units on anatomy and dating and same sex relationships, and masturbation and sexually transmitted diseases, love-making and contraception—there was nothing included on childbirth. That was immediately addressed by the curriculum team.
As we were progressing in the development of our denominational curriculum, the family living curriculum in the schools was also progressing. The program began its first year with a couple of evening meetings for parents and kids, together and separate. Then it moved in a subsequent year to three week units on sexuality in the 7th grade general science and high school biology courses. One new biology teacher was particularly effective and was not invited to return to the school the next year. A general science teacher complained to our committee about the obscene questions asked in his classes. When I asked him to specify, he indicated that some troublemakers asked about, "Ughh, sexual intercourse." We had our setbacks, but ultimately the program grew and we received grant money to assign a particularly gifted grandmotherly English teacher, Esther Kahn, to be our full time co-ordinator for family life education in our system, and we instituted a comprehensive program of sex education throughout the grades.
We faced a couple of major dilemmas. One of them is that teachers are human beings. It follows logically that if many if not most human beings have a significant degree of discomfort with their sexuality, teachers, as human beings, are likely to have similar hangups. Most teachers are not emotionally qualified to teach about human sexuality, and a weekend workshop cannot resolve that.
The other thing is that not all parents really want their kids to be free of the sexual hangups that they have. We will come back to that.
The result of all this was that as the program expanded, it was also watered down and before long it effectively vanished. We won the battles but lost the war of attrition.
Sex Education as Panacea
We generally approach sex education as a remedy for a problem. There is too much Sexually Transmitted Disease among teens. There are too many teen age pregnancies. To those we might add that too many adults carry the burden of a dysfunctional sex education with them throughout their lives, but it is the first two social manifest social problems that attract legislative attention. As liberals we believe that more information will help reduce the problems. Conservatives, in contrast, believe that the issue is not information but a lack of the fear of God, and we need to scare kids into better behavior. These two conflicting approaches do not co-exist well.
Values for a Program
If we were to set out to design an ideal program in sex education from scratch, what would it include?
First and foremost we would insist on providing accurate information to young people at the time they want it. Adults notoriously want to provide too few answers too late. Most kids want to know virtually everything there is to know about sex by the time they are thirteen. The fact is that our media confront our kids with heavy doses of sexuality at an early age, and the gaps in their knowledge are filled in with rumors and urban legends and old folk tales. There are, still today, people who insist that children are protected by their innocence (by which they mean ignorance), but it is clear that that is not what we have in mind.
We would also want a course of education in human sexuality to include, in addition to information on plumbing, the development of communication skills regarding sexuality. Since most sexuality is not solitary, it is important that our children learn to communicate with significant others about it.
Third, we would want to see a program in sex education work on building healthy attitudes. These would include:
- The recognition of sexuality as a positive and enriching force in life.
- The understanding and acceptance of the reality that some expression of sexuality is normal and is to be expected at all ages.
- The realization that people are not all the same in regard to their sexual identities, and that differences among people are not generally problems unbless we make them such.
- Awareness that there is no one established, universally accepted norm of sexual behavior that has applied in all times and all places, or even at any time or place. Sexual norms vary with culture, class, religion, education, and life style. The individual is, therefore, responsible for making his or her own decisions based on the best available information.
These are pretty reasonable principles from a liberal perspective. They reflect the goals that were inherent in our About Your Sexuality Program, and that underlie its replacement. These are consistent with the values that most sex educators believe are important.
What we often fail to realize is that these values are in conflict with the values of a large segment of the population. We can call it ignorance, if we choose, but the fact is that there are people who feel very differently about these matters.
When I was on the Family Living Committee in Bedford, I had conversations with the old Catholic Priest, Fr. McDermott, who was very clear that we could not possibly teach that masturbation was ok because his church taught that it was a sin. The lay minister from the fundamentalist Baptist Church commented, in what I suspected was a personally revealing statement, that people who masturbated might prefer that to meeting their sexual obligation to a spouse, and that was a sin.
Our dear, liberal, secularly Jewish Director, Mrs. Kahn, could not understand that the holding of an open discussion or moral values on the assumption that the individual had to decide, was not, in fact, neutral. It was, indeed, taking a stand. It was, indeed, in direct conflict with Roman Catholic and fundamentalist teachings that the individual has no right to decide, but must obey authoritative teachings of their church.
The very conservative psychiatrist, Ernst van den Haag suggested many years ago that we do not understand that to suggest to kids that "A, B, and C are about equal and it doesn't matter which you choose; it's up to you as long as you like the effects" is actually a form of indoctrination. He insisted "You don't see the problem because you are so sure of the answer that the alternatives seem absurd. But, whether your philosophy is right or wrong, you should at this point agree that it is a philosophy and that other people may disagree with it."
Selling Our Souls
I was appalled many years ago when the UUA decided to accept money from the federal government for revising About your Sexuality. The Department of Health Education and Welfare was seeking excellent programs in sex education, and ours was outstanding. It needed revision, so why not let the government help? I couldn't believe it. I had devoted a lot of energy to selling UU's on the fact that this was a legitimate religious education curriculum. We believe in the separation of church and state. We would protest the use of government money for anyone else's religious education program. How could we justify it? We did—for a while. The UUA Board itself voted to contract with the government. Then we discovered that the revisions that would be necessary to make it acceptable to the government (deleting material on abortion and homosexuality) were not acceptable to us, and we withdrew—curriculum interruptus. We sold only a small part of our souls.
We were, however, prepared to do to others what we would not tolerate their doing unto us. The determination of the religious right that we should fill our schools with programs of sex education that stress total abstinence is no different from our insistence that the schools should teach moral relativism or situation ethics. They are convinced that there is the only way; we are convinced that ours is.
"The Failure of Sex Education"
The cover story in the Atlantic in October of 1994 was an intelligent but very conservative account of "The Failure of Sex Education," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Whitehead did not suggest that the kind of sex education in which we believe is wrong or evil. What she does say is that there is no empirical evidence that it achieves the goals of reducing teen pregnancy or venereal disease.
It is smart to identify sex education with realism, honesty, and sexual freedom. (Its opponents are thereby unrealistic, hypocritical, and sexually unliberated.) Similarly it is advantageous to link the sex-education campaign with the struggle against religious fundamentalism and, more generally with opposition to religious argument in public life. When the issue is cast in Scopes trial terms, it appears that an approach to sex education based in science will triumph over one rooted in blind faith.
She cited one study which concluded that "a knowledgeable thirteen year old is no more likely to use contraceptives than an uninformed thirteen year old." "Ignorance is not the solution, but knowledge is not enough."
Whitehead concludes her article:
The health and school establishments did not create the problems associated with teenage sex. Thus it is impossible not to view their response to these problems with a measure of sympathy. On the front lines of the new sexual revolution, overwhelmed by the clinical evidence of breakdown—thirteen year olds with gonorrhea, sixteen-year olds giving birth for the third time—the youth swerving professionals respond with the tools of the clinic.
What sex educators are offering now is training in sexual survival. Once the kids have been equipped with refusal skills, a bottle of body oil, and some condoms, "reality based" advocates send them into the world to fend for themselves. Perhaps that is the nest protection that today's school and health leaders are able to offer from a harsh and predacious sexual environment. But it is not realism. It is retreat.
The SEICUS Response
In a letter responding to Whitehead's article, Debra Haffner, of SEICUS, the major sex education organization in the country, sounded like a Unitarian Universalist minister (which she has since recognized—she's now in seminary):
Whitehead insinuates that courses on sex education explicitly discuss sexual behavior without discussing values. Comprehensive sex education is based on a clear set of values. The National Guidelines Task Force, a group of representatives of mainstream national organizations, has come up with a list of values that underlie a comprehensive approach to sex education. These values include broadly held, widely accepted concepts such as "Every person has dignity and self-worth." "All children should be loved and cared for" and "All sexual decisions have effects or consequences." Perhaps most important, comprehensive sex education is based on the idea that "in a pluralistic society like the United States, people would respect and accept the diversity of values and beliefs about sexuality that exist in a community." Whitehead confuses presenting young people with an opportunity to develop their own attitudes, values and insights with a fictionalized program that has no values.
Wrong! What Whitehead was saying is that comprehensive sex education does in fact communicate values that are NOT shared by everyone in our diverse communities and that by inculcating them, we show disrespect for the diversity of our communities. "Presenting young people with an opportunity to develop their own attitudes, values and insights" is placing the schools in the position of giving them a freedom that their family's religious orientation may deny them. We are in effect saying that one set of religious values, ours, is superior to theirs.
Someone might do the "Scopestrial thing" and suggest that this is just like the teaching of evolution in the schools - that offends some religious groups—in fact, some of the same religious groups. Let me try to differentiate. Evolution is, to the very best of our knowledge, scientific fact. We teach it just as we teach 2 + 2 = 4. It is a fact that masturbation does not cause mental illness, blindness, or warts. That's fact. We should teach that in public schools. But I suspect that the teaching that a healthy dose of masturbatory activity is life enhancing is more of a value statement than a scientific fact. And the teaching that it is up to an individual to decide is definitely a value statement rather than a factual one. An individual has a right to believe that their God teaches that masturbation is wrong and that he or she should feel guilty about it when they do it. We have no more right to tell them that belief is wrong than a teacher has to tell our children that they will go to hell for being Unitarian Universalists.
I am afraid that we have tried to take an easy way out and that we have been willing to step on the religious freedom of others, many of whom have little concern for our religious freedom.
More Than Education
Teenage sexual behavior is not simply a matter of education. Approximately one million teenage girls become pregnant each year. It is not just that they don't have the facts. The causes are diverse. Many of the youngest girls are the victims of coercion, and schools can't change that. (One study suggests that two-thirds of teen mothers have been sexually abused. Education will not resolve that.) Many are the victims of low self-esteem, and there is only so much schools can do about that.
If it could be demonstrated that we have a public health issue that could be clearly impacted, like putting chlorine in the water or insisting on vaccinations, then that would be one thing. But there is no such evidence. Comprehensive sex education does not make it as a solution to this problem.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Let me be clear. I do believe that it is vital to include education for human sexuality in the appropriate times in every school, but that we must be far more sensitive than we have been about differentiating between the promotion of liberal values and the teaching that is appropriate for a public school. We must not do to the children of religious conservatives what we do not want them to do to our children.
Having said that, I want to affirm that I do personally believe in the values of comprehensive sex education, and I believe the church has a critical role in helping parents to inculcate those values in our kids. It is, I believe, a matter of religious education, and I believe it is we, not the public schools that should be addressing those issues in depth. We have the opportunity to hand pick teachers whose values we share and whom we trust. We have done wonderfully in this regard over the years in the churches I've served, and I trust we will continue to do so. It is critical that we share all the best tools and insights at our disposal with our kids to empower them to lead healthy, happy, and productive lives. It is our commitment to the future that we will try to give them every advantage we can.
A brief postscript: I have been teaching OWL this year. I am concerned that too many of our churches are failing to give it the attention it requires. It is being taught in too many of them in an educationally unsound way—grouping units together with too little time for processing—the reason being given is that the kids "don't have the time."
We taught it for twenty-six 2-hour sessions. In their feedback at the end, the kids said 8 to 4 that the sessions were the right length (one thought they were too short), and 11 to 2 that we had the right number of sessions. Churches should not settle for teachers who are not willing to give the class the time it needs, and the parents need to understand its importance.
OWL is being taught in some churches by people who, like my colleagues in Bedfordd thirty-four years ago—one convinced that sex cannot be discussed openly in mixed gender groups—by teachers who believe the kids are "not ready" for some of the subjects in the curriculum. The ability of adults to project their fears and sham onto kids is unlimited.
This is a life-shaping opportunity. OWL is among the most important gifts we can give our young people. We need to give it the respect it requires so we don't squander it.
Order of Service
Lighting of the Chalice
Hymn: Gather the Spirit, Jim Scott
Gather the spirit, harvest the power
Our separate fires will kindle one flame
Witness the mystery of this hour.
Our trials In this light appear all the same
Gather in peace. gather In thanks.
Gather In sympathy now and then.
Gather in hope. compassion and strength.
Gather to celebrate once once again.
Gather the spirit of heart and mind.
Seeds for the sowing are laid in store.
Nurtured in love, and conscience refined.
With body and spirit united once more.
Gather the spirit growing in all.
drawn by the moon and fed by the sun.
Winter to spring. and summer to fall,
the chorus of life resounding as one.
Reading: "Is Sex Necessary?" White & Thurber
Sermon: "Sex Education and Religious Liberty," Dave Weissbard
Hymn: Earth Was Given as a Garden, Bard/Prichard
Earth was given as a garden, cradle
for humanity: tree of life and tree of
knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of
land and sky and sea; all created
In your image, all to live in harmony.
Show to us a-gain the garden where all
life Rows fresh and free. Gently guide your sons and
daughters into full maturity
Teach us how to trust each other. How to
use for good our power. How to touch the
earth with reverence. Then once more will Eden flower