Joanna Neborsky
Joanna Neborsky
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Beyond Abstinence

Unitarian Universalists rethink sex education—in their churches, and in schools

Maggie Phillips
September 19, 2022
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Joanna Neborsky
Joanna Neborsky

School is back in session throughout the country, and since it’s a midterm election year, American politics is embroiled in one of its recurring cultural debates over the role of sex education in public schools. In various states, bitter arguments over what kind it should be, when it’s appropriate to teach it, and whether it’s even needed are taking place. Often, advocates of more comprehensive sexual education point to the religious right’s historic and ongoing role in championing abstinence-only curricula. These discussions pay little attention to those on the religious left, though, who offer a holistic approach to the subject—one that includes information on contraception and guidance on healthy relationship-building and boundary-setting, and also takes LGBTQ students into account.

Since the 1970s, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), together with the United Church of Christ (UCC), has published its own alternative, secular sex ed curriculum, which offers content geared toward different ages and stages of development, beginning with kindergarten, and continuing all the way to adulthood. Known today as Our Whole Lives (OWL), the curriculum is taught at Unitarian and UCC churches, as well as at public, private, and charter schools across the U.S.

This kind of public-private cooperation on sex ed is well-established, albeit usually in the opposite direction. Indiana, for example, funds faith-based sexual risk-avoidance education (this term is something of a recent rebrand; this type of curriculum is better known as “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus”) for middle and high schoolers. There, the Evansville Christian Life Center’s Truth Talk program trains facilitators in a curriculum called Creating Positive Relationships, which they say is utilized in public schools, and takes place without the sharing of personal beliefs.

While sex education that discouraged premarital sex and stressed the difficulties of family life had existed for decades in the U.S., it became more ubiquitous in the mid-1990s, after the Republican-controlled Congress passed and President Clinton signed landmark welfare-reform legislation. Republicans attached $50 million in funding to states that offered abstinence-only sex education programs, in an attempt to nudge out-of-wedlock birthrates down, thereby also decreasing the need for welfare benefits among unwed teen parents. At the time, in order to qualify for the funding, programs had to meet certain standards, including: focusing on the physical and mental benefits of abstinence, setting marital sexual intercourse as the ideal standard, upholding abstinence as the only real way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, offering guidance on rejecting sexual advances, and discussing the difficulties facing parents and children in the wake of out-of-wedlock births. The debate over funding for abstinence programs flared up again in 2010, when federal funding for abstinence-promoting curricula in the form of five-year block grants was revived as part of the Affordable Care Act, after funding was briefly slashed as part of the 2009 omnibus spending package.

When the UUA took on the challenge of providing a holistic sex ed program in the 1970s, it was a response to what they describe as an “urgent request from parents and religious educators” at the time. The result was the publication of course materials known as About Your Sexuality. Some decades later, the OWL curriculum was developed, and today, the UUA website explains that OWL builds on About Your Sexuality’s initial foundation and “the idea that sexuality is an important and sacred part of being human, offer[ing] accurate information, and [guiding] participants to make their religious and moral values central to their understanding of themselves as sexual beings and their relationships with others.”

According to a white paper from the UUA assessing OWL’s alignment with current educational standards, the curriculum is in use in some public schools. An Oregon education official confirmed via email that it is taught at some schools in the state. In recent years, OWL also appeared on the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction list of sex ed curricula that meet state standards for the subject.

Around the time Congress was beefing up spending for abstinence-only curricula in the states, the UUA and the UCC were looking to write a curriculum that updated the mission of About Your Sexuality for a new generation. They put out a call for authors, and recent Ph.D. in sex education Eva Goldfarb answered it. The OWL curriculum has been updated in the ensuing decades, and Goldfarb has gone on to author the 3 R’s curriculum that is being adopted around the country to meet national sex ed standards. But when she was first selected to co-author the curriculum along with another recent Ph.D., it seemed like a chance to do something that no one else was doing.

The affirmational non-judgmentalism that characterizes Unitarian Universalists might have come as a surprise to the New England Puritans, from whom the Unitarians trace their roots.

“At the time, the big debate was going on about abstinence-only-until-marriage education, versus what was called comprehensive sex ed, but was really what I and others term ‘abstinence-plus education,’” she said. As the name suggests, abstinence-plus curricula mention the use of condoms and contraception as runners-up to prevent disease and pregnancy. Because same-sex marriage was still illegal, Goldfarb said, “LGBTQ kids were completely left out of the picture.”

Goldfarb wasn’t interested in the confines of what she said was a “a tired debate.” She defined true comprehensive sex education as something “much broader,” something “developmentally, culturally appropriate, medically accurate, it looks at the whole person.” That way, “young people feel good about themselves and their bodies, and their sexuality,” and learn “to appreciate the sexuality and the rights of others, and to make good healthy decisions throughout their lifetimes, which includes family planning and contracepting and all that.” An effective sex education program, Goldfarb said, “looks at sex as a positive force in life that can be pleasurable, and can be a joy.”

Goldfarb remembers that the OWL curriculum listed at its beginning a set of values taken from Unitarian Universalist values. In her experience, for the Unitarian Church, OWL is “a very common Sunday school program for kids,” likely going against most Americans’ conceptions of what goes on at Sunday school. The affirmational non-judgmentalism that characterizes Unitarian Universalists might have come as a surprise to the New England Puritans, from whom the Unitarians trace their roots. Independent Puritan congregations came to America for the freedom to practice their more austere version of Christianity, one free of the still-too-Roman-Catholic-feeling pomp and hierarchy of the Church of England. According to How We Got Our Denominations, a 1959 “Primer on Church History” by former U.S. Council of Churches press secretary Stanley Stuber, the Puritans planted the seeds of what came to be called “Liberal Christianity” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the Pilgrim fathers’ Puritan churches became what we know today as Congregationalist churches, which carried on their emphasis on the autonomy of congregations, free from the interference of bishops, and the autonomy of the individual conscience. The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Congregationalism asserts that over time, this worldview led to Congregationalist churches being characterized by advocacy for civil liberties, as well as for separation of church and state.

Unitarians formally split from the Congregationalists in 1825, after a gradual cleavage between their beliefs and those of their fellow Puritan descendants. Stuber wrote that unlike the Calvinism that held sway among the early Puritan Protestant reformers, Unitarians believed in the perfectibility of humankind, rejecting the Reformation doctrine of “total depravity,” the belief that as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, people are alienated from God, sinful in every aspect of their being, and totally helpless to be otherwise, without God’s grace. Unitarians also rejected Trinitarian doctrine, the belief that God and Christ are one-in-being, despite being two distinct entities, with a Holy Spirit that proceeds from the relationship between the two of them. For Congregationalists of a Unitarian bent, Jesus was not a deity, but he was divine, with a lot to offer in terms of practical teaching about loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Far from Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” Stuber wrote that Unitarians developed a belief that the doctrine of hell was not compatible with an all-good, loving God, and that all humanity would eventually be saved. Although they set aside the traditional Christian creeds and the Protestant belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the Unitarians maintained the Congregationalist model of independent congregations. They organized a national conference in 1865, and today meet in an annual General Assembly to “worship, witness, learn, connect, and make policy.”

For their part, the Universalists trace their ancestry to late-18th-century America, when Congregationalists in Gloucester, Massachusetts, built a church that they called the Independent Christian Church. They were known as Universalists, and preached a universal salvation that rejected the stringent Calvinist doctrines of predestination and damnation. In 1961, the two churches merged, creating what is known today as the Unitarian Universalist Association. While still eschewing a creed, today it espouses what it calls its Principles and Purposes, which do not mention Jesus Christ by name, and affirm instead the wisdom of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of humanism, and “earth-centered traditions.” Members can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic.

“Our faith tradition grew from Christianity,” the UUA website says, noting that while their churches might have Christmas or Easter observances, they are celebrated “with a liberal and inclusive twist.” And although some Unitarian Universalists “have a relationship with Christianity,” and some UUA churches “are Christian in orientation,” the site’s careful wording distances the denomination from “the traditional God-as-Trinity that most Christians promote.” The all-loving God of the Unitarians and the Universalists “is too big to be contained in one person, one book, one tradition, or one time in history.”

“Is Our Whole Lives more relevant now? It is much needed,” OWL program director Melanie Davis said in an email. “But whether it can be used depends on the values of the school and its legislative mandates. Our Whole Lives is a comprehensive, developmentally appropriate curriculum for grades K-1, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12. It also has editions for Young Adults, Adults, and Older Adults. Each level embodies the values of Self-Worth, Responsibility, Sexual Health, Justice and Inclusivity (simplified for the youngest children). If a school is prohibited from discussing anything other than heterosexual orientation, or cisgender gender identities, Our Whole Lives won’t be the right fit.”

While gender identity content (which OWL has beginning from the earliest grades) is a sticking point in the sex ed debates, for Goldfarb, it remains a problem that many programs are still abstinence-only or abstinence-plus: “Not only does it not work, but it can be very harmful to young people, and stigmatizing,” she said. She appears to have a point. While the conservative Heritage Foundation could be seen touting the benefits of such curricula in the early 2000s, there don’t seem to be any defenses published more recently than 2010. And states where abstinence education is the rule don’t necessarily have the outcomes its advocates might like to see. Texas, where sex education isn’t mandated (and where it is taught, predominantly stresses abstinence), is among the states with high teen birth rates. States that lead the nation in teen birth rates also either do not mandate sex education, or give primacy to abstinence where it is offered, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. Of course, correlation is not causation, and while it may be something of a chicken-egg scenario, there is another risk factor for teen pregnancy in which these states lead: single parent households.

If the children are our future, few seem to be willing to invest in it. American culture warriors’ preoccupation with children and the prospective harms threatening them at school obscures the reality of a declining U.S. birth rate. But when there is less of a given commodity, its value tends to go up. So for the minority who are willing to invest, a kind of bidding war has ensued. And with a bidding war, come speculators, eager to exploit the rush for personal gain, often with bad faith arguments intended to score political points. “What’s going on now,” said Goldfarb, “with the arguments that are being made now, are this whole idea that people in sex education are ‘groomers.’ Sex education does the exact opposite.”

There’s a whole world out there that is just dying to teach children around sex and sexuality, and it’s likely not the values that most parents or professionals would want our kids to learn.

She explains the OWL curriculum for kindergarteners, first, and second graders as she conceived it when writing OWL, an approach she said was “groundbreaking” at the time: “We’re talking about things like bodily integrity, and I get to decide who hugs me, and you get to decide who hugs you, and treating everybody with respect and dignity, and there’s no such thing as a girl toy or a boy toy. And you may feel differently than the way people expect you to feel because of your gender, you’re perfectly OK the way you are. I mean, these are very basic concepts that are taught in early grades. And,” she asserts, “they are very effective at helping to reduce child sex abuse.” The other things they do, according to Goldfarb, is lay foundations for later in life, when the way we relate to others becomes more complex. Failing to lay these foundations for sex education later on, she said, is like teaching algebra without first establishing with students the concept of numbers.

Before the release of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Pew Research published poll results that showed 60% of Americans support expanding sex ed in schools. Even in Utah, it seems, a majority of voters favor going beyond the abstinence-only curriculum paradigm. But in addition to advocating for comprehensive sex education, Goldfarb also believes parents are important when it comes to teaching kids about healthy sexuality, and the OWL curriculum today continues the emphasis on parental involvement. “There’s no such thing as keeping children innocent, especially in today’s environment,” she said. “But there’s a whole world out there that is just dying to teach children around sex and sexuality, and it’s likely not the values that most parents or professionals would want our kids to learn.” Parents and other authority figures remaining silent on these topics, said Goldfarb, creates a vacuum. “The way most young people learn about sex is from other kids on the playground,” she said. “It’s [from] older siblings, or the internet, or from pornography.” It’s about helping them to become “critical consumers” of the things they see on screens, which she believes are impossible to avoid, and to help them “figure out what’s real and not real.” For her, naivety is not an advantage in a hypersexualized culture like ours, which is hemmed in by a border between fantasy and reality that is porous at best. Parents not talking to their kids about sex, she said, “is not the same as being neutral.” Rather, it demonstrates to children that the topic is taboo, and “that brings the shame, and they will not come to you when they have a problem.”

“Many wonderful resources exist for parents and caregivers who want to be their children’s primary sexuality educators,” Davis said in her email. “Each of our organizations offers a version of Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators, which is a free, downloadable curriculum. It’s designed for groups but can be used privately as well. We have also created Under Your Wing videos to help adults with grades K-1 children to start conversations about bodies, babies, gender, and more.” Likewise, the OWL website states that the program “affirms parents as the primary sexuality educators of their children.”

But although sex ed was initially primarily intended to prevent teen pregnancy, today, the fact is young people (and Americans in general) are having less sex. They aren’t even getting married. While this trend was already underway before the pandemic, it’s not hard to extrapolate outward that less social interaction, combined with more screen time, might stunt young people’s understanding of relationships and intimacy. Just like the developmental delays among younger children likely caused by pandemic-era restrictions, to some extent, that seems to be the case with rites of passage for teens. For example, a 2021 USA Today article stated that members of Gen Z tend to get their driver’s licenses later now than teens in years past, a trend that actually predated the closure of DMV offices in the spring of 2020. In this context, what is comprehensive sex ed really for?

To answer that question, cars and driving may be something of an instructive metaphor, given their linkage in the American popular imagination with adolescent experimentation, risk, and freedom. But while it is one thing to show a teen how to change a tire, it is quite another to model a healthy relationship for them from their earliest memories, to address uncomfortable topics with them, or to answer difficult questions. For Goldfarb, sex education is more than watching film strips about puberty in PE class. It’s about “helping young people to be able to get into good relationships, and stay in healthy relationships,” she said, “And recognize unhealthy relationships.” And with more Americans living without a spouse or a partner, real-life examples could be getting scarce.

While secular, the UUA is careful to note on its website that OWL “is not value-free.” It is rooted in UUA principles about the worth of the human person, and about justice, responsibility, and inclusion. It also stems from the faith’s commitment to science and reason. Goldfarb understands that specific information about sex and sexuality isn’t always something parents are equipped or comfortable providing to their children, which is why she believes comprehensive sex ed curricula like OWL in schools can fill a need in a developmentally appropriate way.

But even so, were Mississippi, Louisiana, or Arkansas to enact such curricula, many students would still lack the experience of a committed two-parent household. Goldfarb believes family dynamics are decisive: “Kids see how their parents live,” she said. “Parents model what love looks like, parents model what relationships look like, parents model how they talk to people, and how they treat people, and what kind of physical affection they show or don’t show. Just from living, kids absorb that. Families are definitely the most critical educator around values, and beliefs, and ideas about gender roles. That comes from parents and family.” But if current U.S. demographic trends around family continue, for increasing numbers of young people, programs like OWL may be one of the only places these values are taught.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.