Expanding the sex-ed audience

Expanding the sex-ed audience

Our Whole Lives offers new program for adults aged 50 and over.

stock photo of an older gay male couple snuggling playfully in a bed.

© Nicolas McComber/istock

© Nicolas McComber/istock


In 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland, became a field tester for the Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education program for older adults (ages 50 and up). Facilitated by Robin Slaw, director of religious education, and the Rev. Paige Getty, senior minister, the nine-week series registered thirteen people aged 70–90 who were single, married, or partnered. On the first night, Slaw recalls, one woman mistakenly showed up for a different event. She didn’t need a class about sex, she said as she started to leave. However, her friends encouraged her to stay.

“That same person ended up becoming a facilitator,” says Slaw. Some single women who took the class started “wearing beautiful lingerie to bed instead of their worn-out pajamas” because even if they were single, “feeling sexual . . . should be a welcome part of themselves and their lives,” she says. Another profound response was when one of the participants publicly shared their sexual orientation for the first time.

OWL for Older Adults is the latest addition to OWL’s comprehensive lifespan sexuality education curricula. For more than twenty years, OWL has offered accurate and developmentally appropriate information to different age groups from kindergarteners to adults in their 30s and 40s. Co-created by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, OWL’s programs are led by trained facilitators and cover topics such as relationships, gender identity, and sexual health. Rose Hanig, manager of inSpirit: The UU Book and Gift Shop, says lifetime sales of OWL books add up to 28,698 copies, with 4,066 being sold in 2019. When OWL is taught at a UU congregation or UCC church, Sexuality and Our Faithis a supplemental book that places OWL’s secular sexuality education into a faith context.

When Melanie Davis, OWL program associate, arrived at the UUA, OWL’s final age group was age 36 and up. “I have a PhD in human sexuality and education with a specialty in sex and aging,” she says. “It was pretty clear to me that the interests and need for information for somebody in their thirties is very different from those of the people who are 50, 60, 70, and 80 and beyond.”

Over the past five years, fourteen two-hour workshops (three of them supplementary) were developed by Davis and other experts, and field testing was completed predominantly by UU congregations and UCC churches. Four units are currently represented within the curriculum: Exploring Ideas about Sexuality; You, As a Sexual Being; Relationships; and Changes and Challenges. Workshops include Attitudes about Aging, Sexual Consent and Boundaries, and Dating as an Older Adult. Davis mentions two workshops in particular that benefited from the subject matter experts who created them. Robin Wilson-Beattie wrote the workshop on reframing sexuality, disability, and chronic illness. “Robin is disabled, black, a sexuality educator and activist who wrote a fabulous workshop that I could not have done as a currently abled person,” says Davis. In addition, Dr. Jane Fleishman wrote the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity workshop, which includes doctoral research on LGBTQ elders. Some of this research will also be published in her forthcoming book, The Stonewall Generation.

Some people may have the expectation that “you’re over 50, you must have [sexuality] figured out by now,” says Davis. “Sexuality is so much more than figuring out how bodies work.” Sexuality is also about changes in one’s body, interests, and relationships. The goal of OWL’s programs is to help people gain knowledge, “to help [them] understand their own values,” so they can lead sexually healthy and responsible lives, Davis says. OWL for Older Adults gives participants the opportunity to decide whether the values they’ve had for years still serve a purpose. “We don’t have to be stagnant in our knowledge or our values.”

OWL emphasizes values by using an adaptation of the Circles of Sexuality model developed by Dennis Dailey. Five different categories of sexuality are represented within the circles: sensuality, intimacy, sexual identity, sexual health and reproduction, and sexualization. Davis notes that a center circle of values was added by owl “to highlight that all of our values influences every other circle.”

OWL for Older Adults doesn’t make assumptions about who is using the curriculum, asserts Davis. Participants may be any gender identity, any sexual orientation. They may not be sexually active by choice or circumstance. They may have children and grandchildren. They may not. OWL for Older Adults also builds an understanding of the experiences, identities, and needs of others, which can include peers, adult children, grandchildren, or young people they mentor. This understanding opens up the possibility for more conversations about values related to sexuality.

OWL for Older Adults also challenges social norms, which “aren’t universal,” observes Davis. But in the United States, for example, youth is often related to sexual interest, ability, and attractiveness. OWL for Older Adults counteracts this message by centering older-adult experiences. Participants learn “older adults report more satisfying sexual experiences in older age,” says Davis. “They know what pleases them. They tend to be less embarrassed by sags and bags because they’ve lived with these bodies. That can be reassuring.”

Participants may have concerns with confidentiality or how difficult topics are approached. Each group develops promises of how they will be together, Davis says. They use their own wording, but what’s most important is they all agree “what’s said here, stays here. What’s learned here, leaves here.” In addition, facilitators know how to manage discussions to limit oversharing. They can also look for signs when someone is emotionally triggered and provide extra support.

Another important component to OWL for Older Adults is adult learning theory, which honors “the wisdom in the room.” Participants may not want to listen to a younger facilitator talk about what happens when one loses a partner. They may already have this experience, says Davis. Instead, the learning process shifts away from the facilitator and more towards incorporating the participants’ own life experiences and wisdom as they complete activities and questions.

Davis adds that OWL for Older Adults could also offer the opportunity to build community outreach. Even with the Sexuality and Our Faith supplement, participants could bring in their own faith traditions. New people could be introduced to a congregation. “The UUA and UCC have created something that could have a huge impact on an entire generation,” asserts Davis.

Update: COVID-19 placed OWL’s programs on hold, but anyone interested in OWL for Older Adults is encouraged to communicate with their director of religious education or minister. Learn more about OWL.