Oklahoma doesn't mandate sex ed, so some churches are trying to fill the gaps
Margo Starr grew up going to All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa. When she was in middle school, the church offered classes on Sunday afternoons, and one of them was a sex education course.
Her friends signed up for it and, in classic middle school fashion, she joined in on what her friends were doing. Now, as a college student, she said she can’t imagine what life would be like without that education in her church. Especially when she compares it to what she learned in school, which she said was “nothing memorable.”
“Being that age, like seventh, eighth grade, no one else knew any of the things that we were talking about,” Starr said. “No one else knew the reproductive organs or the technical terms of any of these things. … I felt like my friends would ask me questions and especially when we got into high school.”
The only mandated subject for sex ed is AIDS prevention instruction. But the rest is left up to school districts, who can decide whether to teach sex ed. If they choose to, the district superintendent must approve the curriculum, it has to include information on consent and abstinence, and parents can review the curriculum and choose to opt their kids out.
This means youth end up having inequitable access to sex ed depending on where they go to school. And there are Oklahoma legislators who want to limit that access even further.
But, for some local churches, providing comprehensive sex ed is a matter of faith, and they’re working to fill in some of the gaps.
Creating ‘competent young adults’
On Oct. 18, kids gathered in a room at the end of a hallway in All Souls Unitarian Church. Coordinators Kalyn McKenzie-Scoggins and Amanda Stewart took the time to read through questions students left anonymously at the end of last week’s class.
They had a visit with criminal defense attorney Jill Web, who spoke about state laws and penalties related to consent and pornography. That’s a topic that isn’t required in schools.
The curriculum All Souls uses is called Our Whole Lives, or OWL, which provides K-12 lessons with developmentally appropriate information on topics like relationships, gender identity, sexual orientation and health. It was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, and it’s written by professional sexuality educators.
Parents attend a meeting before they sign their kids up where they get an outline of the curriculum. They also receive handouts with recommended questions to start conversations with their kids to keep their role as the primary educators of their kids intact.
All Souls divides its classes into kindergarten and first grade, fourth through sixth grade, and seventh through ninth grade.
Shannon Boston, the church’s executive director of lifespan religious education, said that looks like teaching bodily autonomy and consent to its youngest class, puberty and self-acceptance to its middle class, and delving deep into a variety of lessons that explore individual values in its later class.
“Each OWL class comes up with its own covenant of how to behave within the class,” Boston said. “But the church-wide covenant, to dwell together in peace, to be peaceful, to seek the truth, in love, and to help one another. That’s our basic covenant.”
In October, McKenzie-Scoggins and Stewart spent class time talking about consent, healthy sexual relationships and abstinence. Each topic aligns with the church’s ideal of respecting yourself and others, and the coordinators help students talk through their feelings so they can come to their own conclusions.
“We really want to teach you how to think. We want to teach you how to learn your own mind, your own value system, based off all that other stuff, so that you make the best choices for you,” McKenzie-Scoggins said.
“And your own body, so that you can be safe and be making educated choices about what you're doing and not doing with your body,” Stewart said
Starr said the awkward environment and giggling you might associate with sex ed was absent from OWL classes, which she described as a safe place to ask questions without judgment. The thing that stuck with her the most was how OWL classes addressed sexuality.
“I identify as bisexual, and the first place I ever learned about a dental dam was in this class,” Starr said. “They were just very open about sex education and sexual safety and health for all sexualities.”
No-nonsense sex ed means OWL students get to be leaders among their peers, Boston said.
“It's really incredible and foundational to have a group of adults that you can trust, that you can go to, who are willing to look at you as a sentient being, as someone who who has a brain and does not need to be told what to do but can be part of a decision and trusted with knowledge,” Boston said. “It creates competent young adults, who will then go on and model for others.”
Sexual health in Oklahoma
Other churches in Oklahoma provide comprehensive sex ed, but they don’t all use the same curriculum.
For example, Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa provides classes for eighth through twelfth graders that pull from different curricula — like Love Notes and These are Our Bodies — and partner with local experts in a six-hour session.
One of these experts is Amplify Youth Health Collective, which brings partners together to advance youth sexual health through education, collaboration and advocacy. The collective does things like provide parent education and resources, and support educators through school-led initiatives.
Director of learning and impact Jenny Briggs said she grew up in Tulsa without quality sex-ed programming. Now, through an expansion of sexual health programs and services, Amplify found that Tulsa County’s teen birth rate declined by 67% since 2009.
But the state as a whole still has a long way to go.
Oklahoma ranks fourth in the nation for its teen birth rate, which is 24.1 births per 100,000 teens. It’s also seen an increase in STI rates, and Briggs said Amplify sees a link between the questions and misconceptions young people have.
Research shows comprehensive sex ed can reduce rates of sexual activity, risky behaviors, STIs and teen pregnancy. It can also help with the development of healthy relationships, prevention of child sex abuse and media literacy.
“Sex ed is so important for laying the foundation for a lifetime of positive health outcomes and sexual health outcomes, ensuring that all people have an understanding of not just how their bodies work, but when they need to go to the doctor, [and] when they need to reach out to other professionals for anything they need,” Heather Duvall, Amplify’s executive director, said. “So sex ed really does help with the entire continuum of individual health.”
Recent policy on sex education
In the 2023 legislative session, Oklahoma legislators considered a few bills related to limiting sex ed in schools, although none of them made it very far.
- Senate Bill 131: This would have turned sex ed into an opt-in program for parents to determine whether their kids would participate in sex ed. Oklahoma currently operates under an opt-out program.
- House Bill 1812: This bill would have also created an opt-in program and added the definition of abstinence into statutes related to Oklahoma sex ed.
- House Bill 1780: This would have banned sex ed classes, programs, tests, surveys or questionnaires.
Rep. Danny Williams (R-Seminole), the author of HB 1780, said he authored the bill because he wants Oklahoma schools to go back to the basics. He said he thinks sex ed should be a parents’ responsibility based on their values.
“My parents taught me a little bit, but that's all I needed, so,” Williams said. “Anyway, because I'm married. I have children and grandchildren. So it worked out, and no education in sex.”
Williams said he also disagrees with the idea of teaching sex beyond the context of a man and a woman, and he thinks it shouldn’t be viewed in a recreational context. But he doesn’t take issue with schools teaching about anatomy.
“I think when it gets into graphic indication of inappropriate things, I think that's where that line is drawn,” Williams said. “But in all the biology books that I studied in, there was none of that in there, and it was just teaching about biology and all the different species and how things work, and nothing was shown up to be inappropriate. ... I think it's necessary especially if you want to become a doctor or nurse, or something in that field.”
Rep. Amanda Swope (D-Tulsa) said Oklahoma schools don’t have enough resources when it comes to sex ed. She wrote HB 2118, which didn’t pass. If it had, it would have added information about state laws and criminal penalties into sex ed. That’s a topic All Souls OWL students learned about in October.
“You see a lot of instances where kids end up getting themselves in trouble strictly because they don't know what the actual statutes are there, or what's OK and what's not OK,” Swope said.
She said, as a freshman Democrat, she wasn’t expecting her bill to go far, and she also anticipated pushback. But, as the child of a teen mother, she said she knows how not having an education can be very limiting. She said she hopes more information can be presented to Oklahoma students.
“I think, because of the culture of Oklahoma, we still have a propensity to focus kind of on abstinence-only type education when it comes to sex ed, and I think that that's definitely a mechanism for some people,” Swope said. “But I just think we need to start being a little bit more realistic in that conversation. We need to make sure that young people know their options.”
Duvall said she thinks effective sex ed in schools is important for creating positive outcomes. She also said more communities of faith could help support kids and their parents in a lifetime of conversations so they can thrive later on.
“Congregations and faith communities play a vital role in the lives of a community, of a lot of people in a community,” Duvall said. “And, parents really need supports and resources, and I think that's another important role that they could play is to support parents as their child is growing.”
In the spring, All Souls plans to expand its offerings to adults and seniors to keep the conversation going.