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On any given Sunday morning at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, the minister is giving her sermon, the churchgoers are swaying to the music, and downstairs, in the Sunday school, the 8th grade class is learning about sex. That's right, sex.
It's a local example of the Unitarian Universalists' nationwide OWL program. It's short for 'Our Whole Lives,' which, as the name indicates, teaches sex education not only during adolescence, but in age appropriate lessons from kindergarten through adulthood.
"How explicit do we get?" Peter Benjamin, a long time OWL facilitator asks rhetorically. "The answer is very. There's nothing left to the imagination."
The philosophy behind OWL is part of the Unitarian Universalists' mission, to encourage members on their own spiritual paths. In this case, their own paths in sexuality. An 8th grade OWL class is typically a group of 15 to 20 students and two trained adult facilitators. Not only is the conversation frank, but OWL requires students to get outside their comfort zone in the real world, too.
Aaron Weinstein, 16, says he still has condoms in his bedroom from the time OWL leaders asked each student to bring a fresh package into class. Three years later, "they're still in my room, and my parents don't care. They know it's there," Weinstein laughs.
"We had a couple days when we all came together and sat in a dark room, and they said 'guys get ready, we're going to show you something,'" says former OWL student Rosie Cohen, who's now 18.
Cohen says the most memorable day was when the class gathered in a dark room with a slide projector. "They just put [slides] on the wall... Here's a man masturbating, here's a woman masturbating, here are these people having sex. They were drawings, but that was pretty shocking," she says.
Seeing the slides took away a lot of the mystery surrounding sex, Cohen says. Aaron Weinstein agrees. "They didn't just show the traditional sex, it was gay sex, interracial, not people with perfect bodies, overweight people. It was like... you don't have to be perfect to do this."
Every OWL student's parents attend two orientation sessions before the class begins. And it's not only about sex. They talk about gender, eating disorders, alcohol and drugs.
Katherine Hubley, an OWL facilitator at River Road, says the most surprising thing about it is how little the questions change from year to year. They want to know how to talk to the opposite sex, how to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship.
Even in this age of overflowing information, it's that sort of information that you can't look up online.
"You can have something that's much more credible when you're in person with people who care about what information is going into your head about this stuff," says former OWL student Clare Hardin. "It leaves a lasting impression on all of us."
OWL classes for 8th graders are offered at many of the Unitarian Universalist congregations around the D.C. area. Some congregations also teach the later modules to high school students and separately to adults.
River Road Congregation is starting an adult OWL class for the first time in October. So, for those with unanswered questions about their own sex education experience, or care to dive into the deep end of human relationships and sexuality... now is the chance.
[Music: "The Birds and the Bees" by Patrick & Eugene from Postcard From Summerisle]