Written by Emily Mullins
Members of First Congregational UCC in Eau Claire, Wis., first proposed the idea of offering comprehensive sexual education to middle school students a few years ago. At the time, the idea fizzled because of lack of interest. But times have changed, and two nine-session classes are being offered this fall.
"It's like a perfect storm," Jill Christopherson, the church's director of Christian education, said of the opportunity. "It may be that the culture in our community is changing, or that our youth programs are maturing and asking for a different conversation, but this time it's simply working."
First Congregational UCC is sponsoring the "Our Whole Lives" values based sexuality curriculum in partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, also in Eau Claire. While this idea has been on the table before, the success of the current effort comes on the heels of legislation passed by Wisconsin lawmakers in April allowing schools to teach abstinence-only sex education. Under the new law, schools retain the option to teach about contraceptives, but they must emphasize abstinence as the best method. The legislation was opposed by groups like the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and the congregations feel these OWL courses will fulfill a community need.
"Even prior to this legislation, sex education in schools was primarily abstinence-based," Christopherson said. "But we continue to advocate the changing culture of sexual activity and its prevalence in schools. We need to insert a different conversation."
The response has been positive this time around. The churches already have enough families signed up to fill both of the nine-session courses. The classes are open to families in both congregations and the general community. After an informational session Sept. 17, when parents can ask questions about the curriculum, meet the instructors, and have the opportunity to enroll their child in the class, the congregations will determine if additional instructors and more sessions will be necessary.
Current instructors are a husband-and-wife team of physicians from First Congregational UCC and a university professor from Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Curriculum will include topics like recognizing oneself as a sexual being, contraceptives, alternative lifestyles, and making the decision to become sexually active. Right now, the class is geared toward middle school students, but the option of doing a follow-up program for high school juniors is being discussed. Class sizes will be limited to 10-12 students to instill a sense of safety and confidentiality, Christopherson said.
"Today's children have very different views of what sex is," Christopherson said, adding that things are particularly difficult for females. "Young women feel more powerful, but they have not yet discerned the difference between sexual power and personal power. It is a very challenging culture for young women to be growing up in and there is not a lot of guidance on how to handle their sexuality."