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For anyone still traumatized by high school sex ed, you can have a do-over. The District is host to a comprehensive sexual education class for adults in what many might consider the unlikeliest of places—a church.
At All Souls Unitarian Universalist in Columbia Heights, the current course session is underway, with 14 participants ranging in age from 23 to 96 who have committed five Monday evenings and two Saturdays to learning about sex, sexuality, and healthy relationships.
At 96, eldest student Bert Steinberg is probably the least in need of the class. “I would doubt that I would be involved with anything that would be new to me about sex that I didn’t already find out in my long and very happy life,” he says. But he was still eager to sign up because his wife Le Anne, nearly four decades his junior, was interested as soon as she saw the listing in the church bulletin.
Le Anne Steinberg, 58, came of age in a small Texas town. “My parents did not talk about sex at all, other than when they said to me, ‘If you do it, don’t come back through that door.’” Her mother had gotten pregnant at 16 and wanted to prevent Le Anne from the same fate. But that left her in the dark.
Like many course participants, she still has questions even in middle age. She says the class is wonderful.
All Souls’ sex curriculum is formally called “Our Whole Lives,” or OWL. The Unitarian Universalist Association has been developing and enhancing it since the late 1960s. The United Church of Christ began collaborating on it in the 1990s. The most popular and widely used segment is geared toward adolescents and teens, but the full curriculum includes age-appropriate modules for kindergartners through adults. The course has long been inclusive and diverse, with a unit on gay sex established in 1973. A special program on sexuality for people age 50 and older is currently in field testing.
“OWL presents sexuality as a good and creative force that can enhance life, as well as generate life,” says Tracy A. Zorpette, one of three facilitators for the D.C. group. “That is a radically different perspective for a lot of people and a lot of faith traditions.”
The course includes a mix of facts (including a detailed unit on anatomy) and feelings (such as how to communicate desires). It supports sexual relationships that are mutual, respectful, and free from coercion. As a course of policy, facilitators answer every question participants ask. And just in case people are too shy to speak up, there’s a box for submitting anonymous queries. In a recent course, adults asked: “What is the hymen?” and “Is the G-spot real?”
“Often there’s never been a context outside of junior high health class to actually ask questions,” says Steven Stichter, the group’s primary facilitator. (The third facilitator is Jen DuMond.) Their goal is most often to ensure that everyone feels safe having a conversation, rather than arriving at a specific answer.
Take the G-spot question. “The key is learning about how your body responds, and being comfortable with it, and being comfortable talking about it,” Zorpette says.
The course is faith-based but open to everyone. “All Souls views human sexuality as a gift and a sacred dimension of our lives,” says All Souls minister Rebecca Parker. “And we understand that using that gift in responsible and life-affirming ways requires information and spiritual and ethical education.” In class, facilitators start by lighting a chalice candle and doing a welcoming reading. Together they write a “covenant,” or a list of rules and values guiding their interactions, such as listening respectfully to others and speaking for oneself.
The Unitarian approach is fairly new to the Steinbergs. Bert identifies as an atheist, and Le Anne is a Lutheran. “We didn’t find a Lutheran church in D.C. that would welcome an atheist Jew,” she says of her husband. Their religious backgrounds are typical in most Unitarian churches.
The Steinbergs met on a cruise a few years ago. Le Anne was divorced and Bert a widower. They got to talking, and she was determined to write up an eHarmony profile for Bert so he would get more dates. But then they fell in love and soon decided to marry. It’s been nothing but love and roses (actual roses, on a regular basis) ever since.
In her marriage to a nonagenarian, Le Anne has been pleasantly surprised that sex doesn’t end with old age. “That was a revelation to me,” she says. “And now I realize that as you get older, you don’t have to give up any of the things you enjoy.” (She kept these revelations to herself when the couple went to visit her mother, who put them in separate twin beds.)
In fact, Bert counts sex as one of his primary interests, in addition to baseball and the theater. “My parents had a sex manual for married people,” he says. “I don’t know whether my mother left it around by accident or deliberately, but I learned a lot about marriage and sex.” He grew up in New York City and began reading the book at 14 or 15. This was approximately 1935.
Of the class, Steinberg says, “Obviously, this was a group that was willing to be open about their feelings, and I’m all for that.”