It's not what you remember: The lessons are intimate, the homework electrifying.
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.S. government. 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. "Touch one of your hands with the other," she says. "Feel the smoothness and roughness of all the various parts, the places where it's dry or moist." Some of the students close their eyes as they follow her instructions. Small smiles play on their lips. Tuttle's birdlike mouth breaks into a huge grin. "Congratulations," she says. "You all just masturbated. And in public!"
Next Tuttle, a retired sex therapist, asks the students about the experience of mindfully touching themselves: "How did it feel? Was that pleasant?"
"It made me wish someone else were touching me," Elizabeth says.
"It was just nice to be touched at all," says Judith.
So begins the fifth session of Our Whole Lives (OWL): Sexuality Education for Adults, at the First Unitarian Church of Austin. Tonight's class is one of 14 in the seven-month course, which is the result of an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Since 1998 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. "We see sexuality as a very important part of the human experience that is lifelong," says Janet Hayes, public relations director for the UUA. "That's why we named our program Our Whole Lives. Your sexuality doesn't end after you stop having babies or get divorced or after you turn 60. 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." So in 2008, the churches—which together have about 6,600 U.S. congregations and 1.4 million members—introduced classes for adults 18 to 35. (In the past ten years, it's estimated, more than 40,000 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. "You can have the best high school sexuality curriculum in the world," he says, "but a lot of critical issues are not going to be addressed in those classes: 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?" There's one simple reason those questions aren't tackled, Tino says. "Teenagers don't have them yet. Most of what affects our sexuality happens in adulthood—long-term relationships, breakups, parenthood, illness, sheer exhaustion from managing life."
Although the courses the churches prepared were aimed at adults in their 20s to early 30s, to the organizers' surprise, middle-aged parishioners have stampeded the discussion-based program. Students in tonight's class, for instance, are in their late 40s to mid-60s.
After wrapping up the discussion about self-touch, during which Tuttle encourages students to "think about sensuality broadly and not shut off the pleasure of getting to know the whole body," she and her coteacher, Michael West, an economic development project manager in the Texas A&M University system, explain the next exercise: a sexuality timeline. (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." The men look on and appear intimidated. Finally, Eugene picks up a pen and writes down "first time had sex." The other men slowly begin to join in. Together they manage to write: "accidentally masturbated," "masturbated," "first time had sex," "prostate," and "Viagra."
Tuttle calls time and invites the students to look at the timelines. "What comes up?" she asks.
Judith says the exercise made her realize that one huge thing she can't control about her sexuality is her fading looks. "Like, I'm still looking at 40-year-old men," Judith says, "but they're not looking back." A few of the other women agree.
Elizabeth stares at them as if they're insane. "I love being middle-aged," she says.
The women return her you're-out-of-your-mind look, so she explains: "When I was young, I'd see these older women and they just seemed as if they had confidence and were wise—and more comfortable in their skin. I'm much more comfortable in my skin today than I was at 30, 25, 20, and definitely 15."
"How?" asks Judith.
Elizabeth thinks for a minute. "I didn't get any mileage out of being cute when I was young. 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."
A little later, Judith admits that she can think of a few good things that result from getting older. "My husband of 13 years always accused me of being frigid because I never had an orgasm with him," she says. "After we split up, I definitely learned I wasn't frigid. Which was a relief. Which was fun."
The women marvel that virtually all of them have had distressful sexual experiences. One says her sex life was "messy," explaining that she means nonlinear. "I was always a little ashamed because I didn't do the perfect progression of first kiss, go steady, first love, first sex," she says. "It's nice to see that all the women were a little out of order."
She turns to the men and asks if they ever felt that way. One says men don't think about sex in those terms. "Especially for young men, sex is very goal oriented," he says. "Get a kiss, get a girlfriend, get laid."
Larry agrees. In fact, he later explains, that's why he signed up for the course with his wife of 15 years. "We're past the Kama Sutra part of life," Larry says. "You want to—you need to—broaden the definition of sex. Like the other night, my wife was singing to me, and I said, 'Oh, you're making love to me.'"
One of the first pilot classes for the OWL program took place in Boston three years ago. Several of the participants say that the course lessons were not only useful but surprising. Sylvie*, a 35-year-old medical counselor, signed up for the class after seeing it advertised in the church bulletin. Speaking from her home near Boston, she explains that she'd always felt fortunate to have what she considered healthy feelings about her sexuality. "My dad was a general practitioner and my mom was a counselor, and they were very open with my brother and me growing up," she says. 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 2005, Sylvie and her husband began struggling with infertility. "It took all the joy out of sex," Sylvie says now. "We were always trying to get pregnant." So she signed up, with the hope of refiling sex under "pleasure" instead of "work" in her brain.
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." She says that despite the sexualization of our culture, many of her students don't know what normal genitals look like, and she has discovered that loads of women worry that theirs are abnormal or ugly. 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." She had labels ready (clitoris, perineum, vagina, glans, PC muscle) and asked volunteers to place them correctly. 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." In a circular model, Detwiler pointed out, partners can start or stop sensual activity anytime they want, and the activities don't necessarily lead to orgasm.
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). "Oh, you know," she'd say at the end of each night's summary, "that reminds me. Let's have sex just for fun."
Then a few sessions later came the "values voting" game.
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." Then Detwiler read statements, directing students to stand on the line in a position that represented their values. 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." Each person explained why they stood where they did and moved if someone said something to change their mind. About midway through the game, Detwiler said: "Viewing pornography is not healthy."
Sylvie stepped to a place she considered completely noncontroversial. The "sort of agree" spot on the line. "I'd gone to very progressive summer camps when I was a teenager, and a lot of my counselors were strong feminists," she says. "I guess I'd just gotten the message that pornography was exploitative of women." Sylvie did not boycott newsstands that carried Playboy or refuse to stay in hotels that offer adult pay-per-view. 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.
"The porn I have is on my computer," he said. 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. He did. Sylvie was surprised to find some of it turned her on.
"I thought married men who look at pornography must be unhappy with their spouses," Sylvie says. "But my husband said, 'No, sometimes when I feel like being sexual I just feel like being alone.' And I thought about that. 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.'"
Over the next few weeks, as she discussed the subject more with her husband and her classmates, her opinion changed. "My parents had told us that smoking was bad," she says. "So my brother came to think that people who smoked were bad. 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."
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.
Back in Austin after the OWL class, a group of students settle in at a nearby diner to discuss the value of the course. "It hasn't solved all my sex problems," says Judith, the lone single student. "It's still very hard to find older guys who don't have a truck full of baggage with them. But it's been nice to have a place to talk honestly about things that are never talked about. Like how after a certain age you're not touched anymore. Certainly not lovingly. It's just 'Excuse me' if someone bumps into you at the grocery store. It's been nice to talk about my needs and have them taken seriously."
This is why the courses are so popular, says Elizabeth, the happy-to-be-middle-aged student. "There's those almost pornographic women in Sex and the City. There's a Victoria's Secret in nearly every mall." The other women at the table nod in commiseration. "So many TV shows revolve around some sex problem—someone cheats, someone wants someone he can't have. But no one ever talks about sex in a meaningful way. It's always innuendo. It is always pretending to be about something else," Elizabeth says. Now the men are nodding. "Sexuality is this thing you carry around all the time. It grows and changes—it's part of your health and relationships and your age and your self-image, but our culture likes to talk about it in this really silly, trivial way," she says. "People—especially grown-ups—are sick of it. We want adult conversation about an adult subject."
Her husband, Eugene, gives her a smile, then raises his hand to the waiter and orders another round of drinks.