Ways of Seeing: Sex education is an evolving curriculum

In August of 2017, I spent a weekend in Boston being trained to teach sex education to teenagers. This sex positive, consent-based, gender affirming curriculum was first conceived of over 40 years ago by two faith communities, The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Society. These religious organizations wanted their young congregants to have accurate, age-appropriate information about sexuality, to encourage lifelong healthy decisions about sex and intimacy. The program, called Our Whole Lives (OWL), is the opposite of so-called abstinence-only teachings. Instead, we teach all about sex, knowing that people of all ages make the best choices when we have all the information we need.
The Our Whole Lives curriculum is built around three core values: Respect, Relationships, and Responsibility. The ideal is that these values guide our decision making in every aspect of life, but especially in how we express our sexuality. Looking over the OWL material as I prepare for my second year of teaching the curriculum to 7th and 8th graders in Middlebury, I am struck by how badly I want our whole country to have access to these essential teachings.
Back in Fall of 2017, just a few short weeks after receiving our training to teach OWL, my fellow facilitator and I nervously awaited our first group of middle schoolers. We knew that most likely these kids wouldn’t be too excited to wake up early on Sunday mornings to come talk about sex with two old people. In fact, if I could travel back to my own 13 year old self, it would probably be my worst nightmare. We had posted materials on the wall, placed chairs in a circle, and put the Question Box in a prominent place. When the kids came in, we would explain how the Question Box worked. At the end of every single class, each teen would receive an index card and a pen. If they had any question at all, they would write it on the card. If they didn’t have a question, they would write “I don’t have a question.” That way, writing on the cards was something the whole group would participate in, no one would know who asked questions, and we facilitators would answer any questions from the Question Box at the next meeting.
Little did we know, as we planned our lessons for the 2017/2018 school year, that this would be the year that would see one after another prominent journalist, movie executive (the Harvey Weinstein story broke during our first week of OWL), politician and so many more, accused of weaponizing their sexuality against women in their spheres of influence. It seemed like each time we would meet, there was another story of a grown man causing terrible harm. I felt determined that these kids would know they had a right not to be treated that way, wherever they might go.
Spending time with these middle school students made me remember back to my own early teen years. Did I have caring adults who taught me that human sexuality and desire express themselves in a rainbow of different ways? Did anyone tell me it was fine to love people of the opposite gender, the same gender, or both/neither genders? Did the grown ups in my life understand that gender is NOT an either/or duality, that many humans identify as outside the gender binary? Did anyone ever tell me explicitly that if I wasn’t feeling safe, that if I wasn’t enjoying myself tremendously, it was my human right to get out of that situation, NO MATTER WHAT the other person wanted? No, I never got that. How about you, Gentle Reader?
This month is the 50th annual Pride Celebration, marking the Stonewall Rebellion, when patrons of a gay bar in New York City fought back against a police crackdown. An Elder Stateswoman named Miss Major, who was there at Stonewall, described it like this: “Looking at the riot squad was like watching Star Wars storm troopers, but they were in black with riot gear, sticks, guns, mace, helmets, and shields. The brutalization as they moved across and down the street was like a tidal wave hitting a coastline city. It just hit and rolled over you. If you fought, you’d wind up down, and if you were down, they would keep beating on you.” 
It was queer, gender non-conforming, people of color who lead the spontaneous uprising against police brutality for these three consecutive nights, now known as the Stonewall Rebellion. It was queer, gender non-conforming, people of color who, in so many ways, brought us to this moment in history where LGBTQIA+ people don’t have to live closeted lives, have the freedom to marry, and are represented in the media. But we still have such a very, very long way to go. Trans Women of Color have a life expectancy of only 35 years, and 57 percent of transgender women of color make below $10,000 a year. Miss Major is angry that all these years after Stonewall, trans people are still fighting to survive.
In many ways, today’s queer and gender non-conforming youth are growing up in a different world than the one their parents knew. If they don’t live in a religious fundamentalist community, they can be out to their parents, teachers, and friends. They can go to the prom with their sweetie, even if they both are wearing tuxes. They can see queer characters on TV. If they feel isolated, they can be part of a group that offers online support. How much of this positive change in society do we owe to those brave drag queens at Stonewall, who had had enough of being violently targeted for simply being themselves?
The freedom to be who you are, to enjoy basic human rights and comforts, should never be denied. The middle schoolers who will take part in OWL in the coming school year are very lucky, even if they don’t feel like it when their parents are waking them up on Sunday morning. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to make sure they understand how much of their freedom to be who they are is due to the courage of people who are still struggling to get free.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District, and is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. Joanna serves on the Board of Directors of WomenSafe, and enjoys working with her allies to dismantle the Patriarchy. She lives in East Middlebury with her family, and welcomes feedback for this or any column at [email protected].

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