How to fail sex ed

One of the wonderful people who teaches comprehensive sexuality education in our church sent along a link to a post on Imgur headed: “Two years ago today, my then 14 year old sister got suspended for submitting these answers for her sex-ed class. I’m so proud of her.” Then there’s a photo of a worksheet titled “Objections to Condoms.” Kids were supposed to come up with possible responses to various excuses for not using condoms.

So, for example, one of the excuses for not using a condom was: “Condoms are gross; they’re messy; I hate them.” To which this creative girl replied: “So are babies.”

Condoms are messy -- So are babies

Mind you, a couple of the replies are just plain unconvincing, e.g. — Excuse: “I’d be embarrassed to use one”; reply: “Look at all the fucks I give.” Yeah, whatever.

But some of the replies, while very snarky, just might actually work in the real world, e.g. — excuse: “I don’t have a condom with me”; reply: “I don’t have my vagina with me.” This is not a good response to put on a worksheet that a public school teacher has to read; but a snarky early adolescent girl who needs to use a little humor to get through to a boy might find that reply useful.

This brings up an interesting point of educational philosophy. A core element of my educational philosophy is to start where the learner is. Some early adolescents learning about sex and sexuality may be most comfortable using snark and f-bombs to talk about sex. Of course we want to move them to a more reasoned form of discourse, a way of speaking that will allow them to talk about sex with potential partners openly, humanely, and with emotional intelligence. But we may have to listen to their f-bombs for a while before we get them there.

Portrait of a religious education program

This is a portrait of the religious education program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where I am the Associate Minister of Religious Education. While I focus on religious education for children and youth in this portrait, I also look briefly at religious education for adults.

While this is way longer than the average blog post, nevertheless I thought some of you might be interested in reading this portrait — both to see what another religious education program looks like, and as an example of one approach to describing religious education programs. I wrote this portrait based on questions asked by Dr. Mark Hicks for the course “Religious education in a changing world.” Continue reading “Portrait of a religious education program”

Why we still need OWL, part II

The school newspaper controversy in nearby Mountain View, which I reported on in this post, got picked up today by the San Jose Mercury News in an article written by Sharon Noguchi: “Mountain View High School newspaper’s sex stories raise parents’ ire”.

The Merc tries to remain objective, but they’re obviously on the side of the student journalists who dared to report on some of the realities of teen life today. In her news article, Noguchi writes: “But the debate also illustrates the gap between adult and teen conversation and mores.” As a columnist, Scott Herhold was able to state his opinion boldly: “A group of parents crawled from their caves to protest that the student journalists had taken things too far — that the stories promoted unprotected sex and imperiled futures. In truth, the articles in the Oracle, the student newspaper, were fairly tame….”

Herhold goes on to point out the heroes of the story, the people who protected the rights of student journalists, and who stood up for what was right instead of caving to intolerant parents and religious views: “The heroes were the administrators and educators who stood up for the paper, led by Superintendent Barry Groves. At the meeting, Groves praised the journalism department and said, ‘There’s nothing I would have taken down.'”

Residents of Los Altos and Mountain View might want to take a moment and write a note of support to Barry Groves. You can find his email address on the school district Web site.

Further reading: You can read the Oracle online here. The Los Altos Town Crier published my letter to the editor on this topic, under the title “Minister supports sex education for teens” (“Look, Mildred, those crazy Unitarians are at it again”), and for the sake of the record I’ll include the full text below the fold.

Continue reading “Why we still need OWL, part II”

Why we still need OWL

Every once in a while, I hear someone say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t need the Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality education curriculum because “we live in a progressive community, and our kids can get adequate sexuality education in the public schools.”

However, a recent controversy in the relatively progressive communities of Los Altos and Mountain View show that school systems are always subject to the pressure of popular opinion and loud voices in the community. Recently, the student newspaper at Mountain View High School (which also serves Los Altos) ran a spread on sex and relationships that aimed to supplement and fill out what is not taught in health classes — and some very vocal parents objected:

The paper recently ran a two-page feature, “Sex & Relationships,” including the piece “What they teach you in health and what you really need to know.” The article upset many parents, who attended the Feb. 11 Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District board meeting to voice their objections.

Mountain View High parent Nathan Sandland described the article as “too forward” and said it “counteracts parental advice.”…

Daniel Ledesma, whose four children are not yet in high school, said he was concerned with the content being “too explicit” and that he didn’t want his children exposed to it.

“It sends the wrong message,” he said. “It approves sex before marriage.”

Superintendent Barry Groves acknowledged that the article contained content that should not have been published and apologized for it.

“Parents sound off over Mountain View High newspaper content,” Los Altos Crier, 27 Feb. 2013

My read on this is that the opposition is religious in nature — the key quote above is “It approves sex before marriage.” Of course we Unitarian Universalists would like to see sex happen within committed relationships, but since gays and lesbians can’t get married in this state marriage is not an option for them. Those who demand that people have to be married before they have sex is probably against same sex marriage, and that kind of attitude is typically linked with conservative religion.

Since that article, the school board and superintendent have had to backtrack. Fortunately, California has laws in place that protect student journalists:

As objectionable as the articles may have been to some parents, there is little school officials can do to prevent the Oracle from publishing such articles in the future, according Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

“Very, very little can be censored in California,” Goldstein said, explaining that while the Supreme Court precedent set in the 1988 case “Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier,” dictates that districts can censor school publications, laws have since been passed in the state which supersede that ruling. The only way a school administration could legally exercise prior restraint on an article in a student newspaper, Goldstein said, would be if that article incited students to act in way that presented a “clear and present danger” to the operations of the school, or if the articles were defamatory, libelous or obscene.

While Robinson and other parents have said that they felt certain articles printed in The Oracle met the criteria for obscenity, Beare pointed out that U.S. courts have had trouble defining exactly what “obscenity” means.

There is a good reason behind California’s strong legal protections for journalists, no matter their age, Goldstein said. “Whenever you have a question to err on the side of fewer rights or more rights,” he mused, “you always produce better citizens by giving them more rights.”

“Calmer heads prevail in aftermath of sex discussion: Support for student journalists who wrote controversial articles,” Mountain View Voice, 1 March 2013.

But in this instance, the dissemination of information on sexuality is allowed by protections for student journalists — not because it’s inherently good to give adolescents comprehensive information and education on sex and sexuality. Those protections would not apply in the classroom, and given their initial response, the school board might well give in to any demands made by religious conservative parents who objected to comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools.

This helps explain why we continue to need OWL programs in our congregations, even in relatively progressive communities like Mountain View and Los Altos. Too much pressure can be brought to bear on school boards for us to certain of comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools. Indeed, I would argue that we need to expand our OWL programs so we can offer them at no charge to people outside our congregations — and doing so might be the most important social justice effort we could take on right now.

Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Continue reading “Marriage as a religious act”

Theological unity — a conversation

On Thursday, January 31, Amy, the senior minister at our church, and I are going give a class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism. We’re starting our class with an online conversation about the topic. And I’m going to begin my side of the conversation by listing five areas where I think Unitarian Universalists already have some degree of theological unity:

(1) Women and girls are as good as men and boys: During the 1970s and 1980s, Unitarian Universalism, like many liberal religious groups in the U.S., went through the feminist revolution in theology. We came out of those decades with a very clear theological consensus: when it comes to religion, women and girls are just as good as men and boys.

(2) Human beings must take responsibility for the state of the world: The Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones has argued that humanists and liberal theists have come to resemble each other in that both affirm the radical freedom and autonomy of human beings (“Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525). Today, we have a wide consensus that, whether or not we believe in God, none of us believes some larger power is going to come fix up our problems for us — if humans made the mess, it’s up to us to fix it.

Continue reading “Theological unity — a conversation”

The Condom Song, from India

The parent of one of the teens in our OWL comprehensive sexuality education curriculum sent me a link to “The Indian Condom Song,” written and sung by Kanagunti Venkatesh. The song is in another language — Hindi, perhaps? — but there are English subtitles. The chorus is translated as follows:

Never forget me I am Nirodh.
I am the condom friend ever useful to you.
I am made in different colors with fragrance.
I am sealed with lubricant.

Mind you, it sounds much better in Hindi. My favorite line is: “No need to feel shy use one with a smile.” And there’s that catchy call-and-response tune, along with great dance routines with seven guys and three dancing condoms (a pink one, a blue one, and a yellow one). Hey, what are you waiting for, watch the video:

Wouldn’t it be great if we had an American Condom Song? Yeah, I know it’s unlikely to happen, given the unwillingness of Americans to talk openly about condoms. But maybe there’s someone out there who will be inspired to write and perform such a song.

Isaac Asimov on sex education

In his memoir I. Asimov, the writer Isaac Asimov has this to say about sex education:

Considering how important sex is,how great a source of joy, how enormous a source of misery and disease, how it permeates the working of courtship and marriage, isn’t it strange that we go to great lengths to teach our children to play football and make no effort whatever to teach them to play sex?

Any attempt to introduce sex education classes into the school curriculum is always met with fierce opposition. The feeling among those who oppose it (after you strip off the hypocrisies of “morality”) is that learning about sex will encourage youngsters to experiment with it and lead to unwanted pregnancies and disease.

To me, this seems ridiculous. Nothing on earth can stop youngsters from experimenting with sex unless they are kept so brutally in ignorance and captivity that their lives are distorted and ruined. By stripping away the mysteries of sex and treating it openly, the act is robbed of illegality, of its attraction as “forbidden fruit.” In my opinion, good knowledge of all aspects of sex, including proper methods of contraception and hygiene, will actually reduce unwanted pregnancies and disease.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.