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.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."