Back in 1832, a Massachusetts physician named Charles Knowlton published a pamphlet on sexuality education, including instructions for contraception. Titled The Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, Knowlton wrote his pamphlet for young married couples. He printed it privately (and anonymously), and distributed it to his patients.
Knowlton, a freethinker who didn’t attend church services, apparently got to know the famous freethinker Abner Kneeland. Kneeland published Knowlton’s pamphlet for wider distribution, this time placing Knowlton’s name on the title page. However, the laws of the time classified information about contraception as obscene, and Knowlton was tried and convicted. He had to spend three months in jail. But he never repudiated his pamphlet.
[Researching Knowlton led me to an interesting website, The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Produced by Arizona State University, this website contains peer-reviewed articles on “the science of embryos, development, and reproduction.” Included are basic science articles, but also articles on bioethics, people (such as Charles Knowlton), and more.]
If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.
In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.
“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”
In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).
There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.
While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.
Alex, a friend who works at Health Initiatives for Youth (HI4Y) in San Francisco, told me about their Risk Reduction Resource Kits. These kits contain resources to help teens teens learn about sexuality and safer sex. Alex knows about the OWL comprehensive sexuality education program, and has heard me describe our youth programs, and based on that he encouraged me to put in an application for the last remaining Risk Resource Reduction Kit, and Carol and I went in to JI4Y’s offices to pick up the kit on Monday.
The whole point of the kit is that it’s supposed to be placed where teens can access it without adult supervision, to encourage them to explore the materials on their own. The kit was designed to accompany a sexuality education curriculum developed by HI4Y, but be accessible both to teens taking the curriculum and other teens. So for our congregation, it’s a prefect accompaniment to the OWL unit for gr. 10-12; for those taking OWL the kit will reinforce the curriculum; and it can also serve as an educational resource for those not taking OWL.
The Curriculum Subcommittee of our congregation met the day after I picked up the kit, and we devoted the meeting to talking about the kit. The Curriculum Subcommittee has been exploring ways to be more intentional about our congregation’s implicit curriculum, asking ourselves: How can we structure intentional learning opportunities that are not part of the explicit curriculum, the formal educational programs? We agreed that the kit is a solid addition to our implicit curriculum: Not only does it educate teens about specific sexuality topics, it provides a larger lesson that information about sexuality should be easily accessible and shared without shame or guilt.
Beyond educational theory, we also talked about how best to implement this aspect of our implicit curriculum. Alex had warned us that sometimes the kits get forgotten, and stowed in some obscure corner. So we’re going to provide orientation to the kit for key adults (youth advisors, OWL leaders, ministers, and others) to increase the chance that adults will remember to make the kit accessible. In addition, we’re also going to provide a brief orientation to the kit to teens — both to youth group members, and participants in OWL gr. 10-12 — showing them what’s in the kit, and telling them where it will be located. (When we offer OWL for gr. 7-9 next year, we’ll do another orientation.)
But the real strength of the kit is what it contains. HI4Y came up with some excellent youth-friendly resources, including comics, zines, books, and samples — I’m putting a complete list of what’s in the kit below. The materials are housed in a wheeled nylon case, like airline luggage (actually, it’s a scrapbooking case HI4Y bought from Michael’s art supply). A highlight of the kit is contraceptives samples that youth can examine: condoms of course, but also dental dams, female condoms, and lubricant; HI4Y even has some grant money left to replenish samples when they get depleted. There’s both a penis model (made of wood, not plastic!) for trying condoms, and a vulva/vagina model for trying female condoms. We were able to add one very important thing to this kit: our congregation has a ten thousand dollar bequest that we can use to put books in the hands of children and teens, so we are able to provide copies of the book “S.E.X.” by Heather Corinna that youth can take for their own.
We would not have been able to afford to put this kit together ourselves, and we are grateful to HI4Y for writing the grant and assembling the kit, and to the federal government for providing the grant money. Just in case your UU congregation can find the funding, I’m going to provide a complete list of all the resources in the kit below; at the very least, this list of resources might spark ideas for you.
Here’s what’s in the kit:
Birth control samples and examples: Dental dam samples Female condom samples Female Contraceptive Model (to practice inserting female condoms) Lubricants samples Male condom samples Penis model (to practice with male condoms) IUD model The Ring model The Pill model The Implant info card Plan B info card Birth Control Patch info card “How Well Does Birth Control Work” info card
Home test kits: Pregnancy test kits HIV Home Test Kit information (actual kit is stored separately, per instructions from Health Initiatives for Youth)
Handouts and Miscellaneous: “Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis” handout Individual Drug Fact Cards (handouts) Drug Fact Cards set Chlamydia Plush Toy HIV Plush Toy Youth Clinic Youth Guide to San Francisco and Silicon Valley (list of local clinics that serve youth; includes 1-page summary of California law on youth’s right to treatment) (We also added handouts from the nearest Planned Parenthood Health Center)
Publications: “Dr. Rad’s Queer Health Show: Self Exams & Check-Ups” zine by Rad Remedy and Isabella Rotman “You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STIs” comic zine by Isabella Rotman “Not on My Watch: Bystander’s Handbook for Prevention of Sexual Violence” comic zine by Isabella Rotman “100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents” book by Elisabeth Henderson and Nancy Armstrong “S.E.X.” book by Heather Corinna “LGBTQ: The Survival Guide” book by Kelly Huegel Madrone “Birth Control Top Picks” magazine by Bedsider.org
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.”
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.