Adventures in Adult Sex Education It's not what you remember: The lessons are intimate, the homework electrifying. By Amanda Robb Illustration: Zohar Lazar Nine middle-aged men and women are sitting in a circle in a cluttered, colorful classroom in a church annex in Austin.
Judith, the oldest, is an artist, and her long, curly gray hair is piled into a messy halo atop her head. Larry is a gregarious man who works for the U.
Elizabeth, an information technology manager at a local government agency, is an athletic woman, efficient in her movements. Her husband, Eugene, sitting nearby, was raised in Spain and has handsome features and courtly manners.
The teacher, Barbara Tuttle, begins class. Small smiles play on their lips. Tuttle's birdlike mouth breaks into a huge grin. Since the institutions have coproduced sex education materials for children ages 5 to 18; as church leadership reexamined the curricula, they noticed a need for age-appropriate material for grown-ups. Your sexuality doesn't end after you stop having babies or get divorced or after you turn It is who we are in our core. We feel it has to be integrated into our spirituality because, for us, spirituality is about wholeness.
In the past ten years, it's estimated, more than 40, children, young adults, and adults have taken at least one OWL class. Michael Tino, a Unitarian Universalist minister with a PhD in cell biology, cowrote the young adult OWL curriculum and understands why the adult classes have proved popular. How do I enjoy my sexuality if I've lost a breast to cancer?
How do I manage being a parent and a sexual person? Can I feel sexually satisfied if I don't have a life partner? Most of what affects our sexuality happens in adulthood—long-term relationships, breakups, parenthood, illness, sheer exhaustion from managing life. Students in tonight's class, for instance, are in their late 40s to mids. OWL facilitators are trained over three days, and the program is typically team taught, usually by a woman and a man.
Thirty feet of newsprint is rolled out across two long tables. Red and black pens are placed on each table. The men are assigned one sheet; the women, the other.
The students are asked to write down sexual experiences in chronological order, using the black pen for those that were in their control such as a first kiss and the red pen for those that were not such as getting their first period.
The women are a flurry of activity, practically tripping over each other to scribble—"played doctor," "found a pubic hair," "menstruation," "kissed a boy," "kissed a girl," "touched by a cousin," "fell in love," "lost my virginity," "had an abortion," "had a baby," "breasts sagging," "menopause," "discovered sex without love. Finally, Eugene picks up a pen and writes down "first time had sex. Together they manage to write: Judith says the exercise made her realize that one huge thing she can't control about her sexuality is her fading looks.
Elizabeth stares at them as if they're insane. The women return her you're-out-of-your-mind look, so she explains: I'm much more comfortable in my skin today than I was at 30, 25, 20, and definitely Elizabeth thinks for a minute. Maybe that's the positive side of not being cute or flirty at 20—when you don't get that attention at 45, you haven't lost anything. Which was a relief. One says her sex life was "messy," explaining that she means nonlinear. One says men don't think about sex in those terms.
In fact, he later explains, that's why he signed up for the course with his wife of 15 years. Like the other night, my wife was singing to me, and I said, 'Oh, you're making love to me. Several of the participants say that the course lessons were not only useful but surprising. Speaking from her home near Boston, she explains that she'd always felt fortunate to have what she considered healthy feelings about her sexuality. Her parents didn't shy away from explaining things, and kept books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Joy of Sex in the house.
But in , Sylvie and her husband began struggling with infertility. The first few workshops turned out to be exactly what Sylvie was looking for. Jane Detwiler, a certified sexuality educator, and her cofacilitator led the group through "anatomy of pleasure" and "understanding sexual response" exercises. Contacted recently at her office, Detwiler says many people learn about the reproductive capacity of sexual organs in traditional sex ed, but not the "pleasure capacity.
In Sylvie's class, Detwiler used diagrams and photographs to explain that the truth is, of course, that there's a variety of "normal," as wide ranging as human faces. Her students also discussed the parts of the body besides the genitals that are wired for sexual response—skin, lips, breasts, nipples, tongue, hands, brain.
Then Detwiler pulled out a model of a penis and the "Wondrous Vulva Puppet. As students moved through the lesson, they talked about how the different parts contribute to pleasure. Next, the instructors asked the students to compare the Masters and Johnson linear model of sexual response—excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution—to a circular model of mutual pleasure.
To explain the idea, Detwiler drew a large circle on newsprint and asked students to think of all sorts of sexy, fun activities and list them around the circle. The students came up with "caress, oral sex, kiss, massage, lubrication, talking, fondling, phone sex, kiss again, snuggle.
Sylvie says that some students thought that type of sex would be an exercise in frustration, but others said they could imagine times in their lives when those options would work—when they were not ready to have sex with a new partner, when they were too tired to have intercourse with their current partner, when they were trying to liven things up with a longtime lover.
After most classes, Sylvie came home and described what she had learned to her husband who did not attend, because the course was something she wanted to do on her own. Let's have sex just for fun.
During this exercise, the instructors asked the class to envision a line on the floor, with one end representing "I strongly agree" and the opposite end signaling "I strongly disagree. Detwiler called out things like "It is more fulfilling to be free of commitment than committed" and "If I made vows to my partner during a marriage or commitment ceremony, I would stick to them no matter what.
About midway through the game, Detwiler said: The "sort of agree" spot on the line. She didn't consider herself an extremist, so she figured she'd have plenty of company at her spot. She was amazed to see that most of her classmates—each a very likable, not-perverse-seeming person, in Sylvie's opinion—were in the "sort of disagree" to "strongly disagree" part of the line.
They explained that yes, pornography could be exploitative, but it could also be a safe form of fantasy. Sylvie went home and told her husband the news. For the second time that evening, Sylvie says, she was shocked.
Her husband said that he looked at it every few weeks; she asked if he could show it to her. Sylvie was surprised to find some of it turned her on. And I thought, 'Well, sometimes when I want to be sexual I want to be alone, too. For me, that doesn't involve porn, but if it does for him, so be it. I did a similar thing with pornography. I still don't think pornography is a great thing for women, but now I don't think people who look at it necessarily want to exploit them.
I'd say, 'Mom, what are you doing? I signed up for the adult OWL course to keep peeling back the layers, to keep getting better, healthier, happier. In the same workshop that featured the "anatomy of pleasure" exercise identifying body parts , the instructors led them through the "pleasure pinwheel" game.
In this lesson, students arrange themselves in two concentric circles, with each person in the inner ring facing a partner in the outer ring. One of the instructors asks questions regarding the messages students have received about sexual pleasure from their parents, schools, peers, and lovers.
The students have one minute to give their answer to the person facing them; then the outer circle shifts one place. By the end of the exercise, Kim had a better sense of the messages she'd received throughout her life—many dating to childhood—and she began to see that the ones that made her feel the worst related to her libido, which was stronger than her husband's.
So far the government has paid to educate more than , Americans on the how-tos of building and maintaining relationships. One popular program that receives federal funding is a course called It's All About M. Marriage Education , which is given in hospitals and community centers, as well as at the army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Mackenzie believes that the best and healthiest place for sex is a committed, long-term monogamous relationship, but she agrees with the UUA and UCC churches that sexuality education—especially for adults—is generally less about plumbing than about emotional issues.
Because It's All About M. For instance, participants learn the program's ten keys to successful dating such as get a life of your own, take it slow, set clear boundaries, engage in healthy responses to conflict, and choose a partner who makes you feel affirmed, inspired, and challenged to be a better person. But they do discuss sexual relationships. It's All About M. For example, in a lesson called Steps of Physical Intimacy, students arrange types of contact—eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand, hand-to-waist, face-to-face, French kissing, touching above the waist, etc.
They discuss the physical, intellectual, social, spiritual, and financial consequences of doing the steps too quickly or out of order. Mackenzie says the All About M. When she and her boyfriend got engaged last year, she volunteered to attend the group's pilot program for marriage education. She says it gave them the tools for a happy sex life both had chosen to be abstinent until marriage.
One hugely important concept they took from the course was discussing sexual issues in nonsexual moments. The idea is to make a potentially fraught conversation less emotional, less likely to hurt feelings. Jessica and her husband have these talks anywhere but the bedroom. What time of day. What feels good and what doesn't. Back in Austin after the OWL class, a group of students settle in at a nearby diner to discuss the value of the course.