On the surface, religion and sex ed may not seem to mix well. The combination may bring to mind the recent controversy over the Catholic Church preventing public schools from teaching sex ed classes on their property, or shame-based abstinence education programs that impart negative messages about human sexuality.
But in some churches, it’s actually an entirely different story. Some progressive denominations are taking it upon themselves to integrate comprehensive sex ed curricula into their weekly Sunday School lessons.
First United Methodist Church in Madison, WI, is one of those congregations. As the Capital Times reports, the church will introduce a comprehensive sexual education program for the first time this year. It’s going to use the “Our Whole Lives” curriculum, a program first developed by the Unitarian Universalist (UU) and United Church of Christ (UCC) churches in 1999.
Those two church bodies have been invested in sex ed for years. “The Unitarian Universalist Association has long been an advocate of age-appropriate, medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education,” the UU’s official site explains. “For over 40 years, the United Church of Christ has encouraged churches to study human sexuality,” the UCC’s site notes.
Melanie Davis, who works as a program associate for “Our Whole Lives,” told the Capital Times that sex education shouldn’t be in conflict with religion. In fact, merging the two can have dramatically positive effects for churchgoing youth. “When an entire congregation supports the idea that people deserve accurate information about sexuality, that creates a feeling of safety for the participants,” Davis said. “And it models for the rest of the community the normalcy and appropriateness of discussing sexuality in a religious setting.”
Seth Schroerlucke, who coordinates the young adult ministries for First United Methodist Church, noted that talking about human sexuality in church can move beyond the abstinence-only messages that aren’t working — and that often leave youth feeling guilty and ashamed if they start thinking of themselves as “impure.” For instance, if an older teen chooses to engage in emotionally healthy and safe sexual activity, they’re not considered to be a failure in the context of the “Our Whole Lives” program. The emphasis isn’t on purity, but rather on healthy relationships.
“We can have a message that is stronger than ‘Wait till marriage to have sex,’” Schroerlucke explained. “Are relationships sacred? Is that something we’re wanting in our relationships? If it is, how do we cultivate that? How do we cultivate respect for all people, love and compassion for all people?”
Other progressive churches are working to have these conversations, too. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) published a faith-based comprehensive sex ed curriculum in 2006, and affirms human sexuality — including the expressions of sexuality that occur within same-sex relationships — as a gift from God. The United Methodist Church passed an official resolution in 2010 to encourage congregations to take up the issue of sex ed. Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization that pushes for comprehensive sexual education policies, has an entire section dedicated to faith-based sex ed resources. “Social conservatives have dominated discourse around religion and sexuality,” the group notes. “But Advocates for Youth joins with millions of religious and spiritual youth and adults in believing that faith, and a positive approach to healthy sexuality, are not mutually exclusive.”
And when it comes to the UU and UCC’s sex ed curriculum, it’s possible that it’s being used in more Sunday School classes than you may imagine. It’s available for free online, and Davis told The Capital Times that she has no way of knowing who’s utilizing it. “I’ve been contacted by three different ELCA congregations in three parts of the country,” Davis noted. “I also get inquiries from Jewish congregations that are interested, both conservative and reform. I am aware that some Quaker meeting houses are using it.”
Many of those faith-based programs may be filling in important gaps for teens. Sexual education isn’t standardized across the country, and there are wide ranges in the curricula across different states. Predictably, the areas of the country that lack adequate comprehensive sex ed requirements tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancies and STD infections. Although the resistance to comprehensive sex ed may remain politically polarized, programs that teach kids about birth control actually have broad support.