Another member of this pilot class, Kim, then 35, had been happily married for more than a decade; she had even taught the OWL classes to middle school students for three years. "I was functioning well," she says, on the phone from Framingham, Massachusetts. "But deep down, I still had some weird, mixed-up feelings about sex left over from my childhood." Her parents had divorced when she was 3. "Afterward my mother was very free with her sexuality," Kim remembers. "I would hear a lot, and the sounds scared and confused me. I'd say, 'Mom, what are you doing?' She'd say, 'Kissing.' Well, I knew that wasn't it. I signed up for the adult OWL course to keep peeling back the layers, to keep getting better, healthier, happier."
The early sessions confirmed for her that she needed to deal with free-floating shame around her sexuality. 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.
"There wasn't one moment in the class when I said, 'Wow, amazing, I'm okay, and [my classmates] are okay about my wanting to have sex more often than my spouse,'" Kim says. "But gradually, over 14 sessions, talking and talking and talking about how weird and wildly varied sexuality is for people, you get to feeling more and more normal yourself."
"Often the question behind a question in sexuality education," Detwiler says, "is 'Am I normal?'"
Although the unitarian universalist and UCC churches are among the leading organizations promoting adult sex education, they aren't alone. The U.S. government is in the field, too. In 2005 Congress passed an act that provides $150 million annually for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood initiatives. So far the government has paid to educate more than 290,000 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.E. (Marriage Education), which is given in hospitals and community centers, as well as at the army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The eight-hour curriculum was a product of WAIT Training, a 17-year-old Colorado-based nonprofit founded by Joneen Mackenzie, RN.
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.E. courses encourage young adults to wait until marriage to have sex, much of the training is focused on relationship skills. 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.E. instructors ask students to reflect on what has influenced their view of sexuality and then offer exercises to help the students imagine alternative ways of being intimate. 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.—from the least to the most intimate. 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.E. curriculum includes sex education because couples who have satisfying sex lives have stronger, healthier marriages. "When you're talking about adult relationships," she says, "you're talking about sexuality, and when you're talking about sexuality, you're talking about adult relationships."
Jessica, 23, who works for a nonprofit in Denver, had attended WAIT Training abstinence workshops in college. 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. "We talk about what we're comfortable doing or not," she says. "How often we want to have sex. What time of day. What feels good and what doesn't." Jessica thinks the class gave them the skills to deal with conflict before they found themselves tangled up in an argument, as well as a means to explore their sexual desires in a way that felt comfortable. "Knowing how to communicate is empowering," she says.
We Hear You!