MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I’m Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is Coming of Age. Later in the show, we'll meet a guy who dealt with a classic coming-of-age conundrum, choosing between the career everyone says you should pursue and the career you actually really want. First though, we're going to head to Bethesda, Md., to a Sunday morning religious service…
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
…at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
On any given Sunday morning, you'll find the minister giving her sermon, the churchgoers swaying to the music, and the eighth grade Sunday school class downstairs learning about sex. Yeah, you heard that right. Learning about sex. It's a local example of the Unitarian Universalists' nationwide OWL program. That's short for Our Whole Lives, which, as the name indicates, teaches sex Ed not only during adolescence, but from kindergarten through adulthood. Emily Berman has the story, which we should caution you, includes some pretty frank language about those birds and bees.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
Our Whole Lives takes place at church. But if you're expecting to hear a watered down message about abstinence or a demonstration of how a condom works by rolling it on a banana, this class may surprise you.
MR. PETER BENJAMIN
How explicit do we get? Very explicit.
Peter Benjamin has been leading Our Whole Lives since the program began, back in the early '70s.
There is nothing left to the imagination in case you really need to wonder about what it's all about.
The philosophy is part of the Unitarian Universalists' mission, Benjamin says, to encourage members on their own spiritual paths. In this case, on their own paths in sexuality. An eighth grade OWL class is typically a group of 15 to 20 students and two trained facilitators. It's an hour of frank conversation every Sunday morning. And sometimes there are assignments that take OWL outside the classroom, like buying condoms.
MR. ANDREW WHITE
You're like 13 or 14 and they're like, what is this kid doing? Oh, my God.
MR. AARON WEINSTEIN
Like, they're still in my room and my parents are, like, don't care.
MS. ROSIE COHEN
They know, yeah.
I mean, they know that it's there.
That was Andrew White and Aaron Weinstein. They're both 16 years old now, but took the OWL class, like most kids here, when they were 13.
We had this one -- or a couple days where we just, like, all came together and sat in this dark room and they're like, okay, guys, get ready, we're going to show you something.
This is former OWL student Rosie Cohen. She's talking about the day they saw the slides.
And then they just put it up on the wall. And it was like, oh, here is a man masturbating, oh, here's a woman masturbating, oh, here are these people having sex. They were drawings, but, like, that was pretty shocking, but I'm glad they did it. It sort of took away a lot of the mystery.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1
Yeah, that's true.
But, like, they didn't just show the traditional sex, it was like gay sex, interracial, there's like, with not like people with perfect bodies, like overweight people. And it was like, whoa, everybody's doing this. Not like I mean, not that…
Everybody's doing it.
Yeah, but not like, everybody around you is doing it, but like you don't have to be perfect to do this or whatever.
It might seem over the top, but it's not only sanctioned by the Unitarian Universalist Association, it's parent approved, too. Every OWL student's parents attend two orientation sessions before classes begins. And, as OWL alum Eliza Clifford (sp?) explains, the lessons OWL teaches make it beyond the classroom as well.
MS. ELIZA CLIFFORD
My friends will be, like, oh, my God. I can't believe you learned that. And I'm like, well, it's useful.
And it's not only about sex. They talk about gender, eating disorders, alcohol and drugs. According to Clifford, it's learning through sharing.
In school they always would like say, you know, these are the negative effects of drugs, stuff like that. But I think I remember one time in OWL we were given like actual situations where we read, like, people wrote down their stories about how this drug affected me. And it really gave me a better perspective, like, wow, if I do drugs then that could happen to me.
Peter Benjamin and Katherine Hubley have both led the year-long class dozens of times. And the most surprising thing about it is how little the questions change from year to year.
MS. KATHERINE HUBLEY
One of the exercises is dividing the kids into a group of boys and a group of girls, and letting them put together a list of all the questions they can think of that they want to ask the opposite sex.
Year after year, boys want to know…
How do you talk to a girl if she's standing with a group of her friends?
And the girls want to know…
How do I know if a boy likes me?
They're much more interested in relationships. How do I enter a relationship? What happens in a relationship? Those are the things that really matter to them and is, in fact, the really important part of what this all is.
And not to leave you with those eternal questions just hanging in the air, according to the OWL class, if you want to know if a boy likes you, ask him. And if you want to approach a girl standing in a group, don't.
The girls will say just wait. Don't do it while she's with her friends. Wait until she's by herself.
Even in this age of overflowing information, former OWL student Clare Hardin says the real content of the class is stuff you can't look up online.
MS. CLARE HARDIN
When you're on the internet it's just this huge pool of information and there's no really right answer, but you can have something that's much more credible when you're in person with people that you trust and people that care about what information is going into your head about this stuff, because it's important. I mean, it leaves a lasting impression on all of us I think.
OWL classes for eighth graders are offered at many of the Unitarian Universalist congregations around the D.C. area. Some congregations also teach the later modules to high schoolers and separately to adults. River Road Congregation is starting an adult OWL class for the first time in October. So, whether you have unanswered questions from your own sex Ed experience, or are looking to dive into the deep end of human relationships and sexuality, now's your chance. I'm Emily Berman.
We want to know what was your sex-ed experience like and how did you approach the topic of sex with your kids. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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