Recently the atrocities of human trafficking made the front page of the news when a nationwide sweep recovered over 100 sexually exploited children and resulted in the arrest of close to 150 adult suspects. Each time we receive news like this, we wonder with renewed urgency: How can we help keep the children in our communities safe from sexual exploitation?
Children begin asking questions related to their bodies and sexuality as soon as they have enough language to form the questions. Our responses—or lack thereof—begin shaping their understanding about who they are, what is acceptable to speak about, and potentially what must be kept secret. Children will learn about sexuality somewhere, somehow. A colleague of mine who counsels sexual predators once shared what he learned from a client about the power of sexuality education. “Show me a kid who knows absolutely nothing about sex,” the client said, “and I’ll show you my next victim.” Those words are haunting, and they reinforce my belief in the importance of educating children about sexuality and healthy relationships from an early age.
The work of keeping our children safe from sexual exploitation requires the efforts of many, including educators, law enforcement professionals and other community members. The church has a role to play as well. We can offer sexuality education that builds the self-esteem of children and helps to equip the parents and guardians who will be their primary sexuality educators. Our Whole Lives (OWL) is a sexuality education curriculum offered by the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association that is grounded in faith values of self-worth, responsibility, sexual health, relationship, justice, and inclusivity. The program provides resources for children age five through adulthood and is one of the most requested resources in our denomination. OWL teaches children accurate terms for their bodies and the lesson that if someone touches their bodies in ways that make them afraid or uncomfortable, they are right to say “NO!” The curriculum empowers them to “GO” – get away, and to “TELL” someone they trust to believe them and help keep them safe. The mantra the kids learn is “NO! GO! TELL!” This gives children the self-awareness, body knowledge, and language to recognize and respond to inappropriate behavior. It also sets the foundation for them to grow up with a healthy, positive understanding of their bodies and interpersonal skills that help them to distinguish and pursue mutually respectful relationships. What a valuable and lifelong gift!
Sexuality education is (still) under attack by political leaders who insist that it leads to sexual activity, or who buy into the idea that human sexuality is inherently sinful or dangerous. It is resisted by well-meaning adults whose discomfort keeps them from communicating in effective and helpful ways with their children. But make no mistake: discomfort is not acceptable justification for avoiding the conversations that children need to have with us. We have a chance and a responsibility to work through our own lingering discomfort with sexuality for the sake of educating and empowering the children and youth in our lives, churches, schools and communities. More information about Our Whole Lives can be found at http://bit.ly/ourwholelives.
The United Church of Christ has 5,154 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.