At a time when those who support healthy sexuality are under attack, comprehensive sexuality education continues to serve a uniquely important role for people of all ages and identities.
“We all have an equal right to be understood as sexual beings,” says Dr. Melanie Davis, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s program manager for the Our Whole Lives (OWL) lifespan sexuality education curriculum.
OWL was developed and co-published by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) Justice and Witness Ministries to provide developmentally appropriate comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) for children, teens, young adults, and adults in young, middle, and older stages of life. As program manager, Davis—who was named 2022’s Sexuality Educator of the Year by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists—works closely with the Rev. Amy Johnson of the UCC on the curriculum.
As conservative propaganda is increasingly aggressive in its politicization of sexuality education, the UU and UCC faith communities—with their long history of providing CSE—can call out misinformation while amplifying the transformational impact of this work.
"Comprehensive sexuality education helps children feel seen. You become seen.”
–Dr. Melanie Davis
“People who oppose CSE often believe that you can change who someone is, that mere words or storybooks will affect your sexual orientation or gender identity,” Davis explains. “We know that is not true. In reality, CSE helps children feel seen. You become seen.”
This support of the development of healthy sexuality is what has made OWL’s breakthrough curriculum so valuable since it was first introduced in 1999. And it continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of people at every stage of life.
OWL does not contain any religious references or doctrine, and thus is used by a variety of secular and religious communities, including some public schools. Faith communities often use a companion publication, Sexuality and Our Faith, which relates OWL’s values of self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusion to core religious values of the UUA and UCC.
Using these values as a lens through which to view the program, OWL is in a continuous cycle of revision aimed not just at reformatting and streamlining the physical materials, but also at reflecting the diversity present in its audience.
“Embodying the value of justice and inclusivity requires us to ensure that everyone gets to see themselves, their identities, and their bodies reflected.”
–Dr. Melanie Davis
OWL previously lacked variety in its art. In fact, its K–1 edition had few illustrations. “The commitment to increased diversity is evident in artwork added as editions are revised,” Davis explains. “Embodying the value of justice and inclusivity requires us to ensure that everyone gets to see themselves, their identities, and their bodies reflected.”
Now, the K–1 visual materials will display real-world diversity in skin color, age, ability, and body types. They will also include portraits reflecting a range of family types. The forthcoming second edition for Grades 10–12 introduces genital and reproductive anatomy illustrations of people with varied skin colors and body sizes, plus a montage that normalizes variation in genitalia.
“We want to expand the concept of what normal means, and what healthy bodies may look like,” Davis says. “This counteracts typical media and textbook images.”
The values of justice and inclusivity apply to format changes being made to OWL, as well. Previous editions were bound books that underwent lengthy and sometimes cumbersome revision and editing processes. Now, OWL will be published as a loose-leaf hole-punched copy split into several units with a storage binder. The publisher can update a unit, or even just a page, for facilitators to download and replace the outdated material in their binder. This allows for a just and swift system to apply changes quickly, rather than leaving potentially harmful language for extended periods of time while editing an entirely new version.
Additionally, instead of supplementing OWL curricula with a separate companion religious publication, three complete versions of the material will be available: OWL by itself, OWL with UU faith content incorporated, and OWL with UCC faith content incorporated. This means facilitators in UU and UCC settings will no longer have to flip through two separate manuals while leading workshops.
UUA Publications Director Mary Benard announced the format changes during a monthly OWL Taking Flight webinar co-hosted by Davis and Johnson. These webinars provide OWL facilitators and religious educators with educational content related to sexuality, culture, faith, and program implementation. Recent topics have included intimacy during the pandemic, UCC and Canadian Unitarian Council research findings on consensual polyamory, and how to bring an antiracist and accessibility framework to OWL.
In addition to the changes in artwork and formatting, content is changing to reflect the need for new perspectives and voices. Accountability readers holding a range of identities have been engaged by the UUA and UCC to review all new content and illustrations. “This type of review by multiple people ensures that the content is as inclusive as possible,” says Davis.