Our Whole Lives – Sexual Language Lessons for 8th Graders

One of my joyful duties as a sex educator is to help teach the Our Whole Lives (OWL) curriculum at the Unitarian Universalist congregation that I attend. The OWL curriculum provides a chance for eighth graders to examine their ideas and attitudes about sex and relationships, practice friendship and dating skills, and learn facts about pregnancy, contraception, and STIs that will help them stay safer when they do become sexually active, if they haven’t already.

A favorite session of mine occurs early in the curriculum, where we talk with the youth about the different types of language one could use when talking about different sexual acts and body parts. And since OWL is an activity-based curriculum, we can’t just talk about it, we also need to do an activity. The facilitators read aloud some words for sex acts and body parts and the youth write down all the synonyms they have heard for that word. The words workshopped include vagina, sexual intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, and menstruation.

I appreciate this activity for two reasons: first, because it gives the youth permission to use all of the “dirty” words, and they can demonstrate their comfort (or discomfort) with them. It is also nice for the adults involved, because we can learn new words or simply figure out what words and phrases are influencing our students. For example, one of the popular words for “penis” this past year was “disco stick,” which the youth identified as originating from the Lady Gaga song.

After the youth write down all the synonyms they know for these words, the teachers/facilitators divide the words the youth created into four categories and give a definition for each:

  1. The scientific language – vulva, penis, mammary glands, coitus – words designed for accuracy.
  2. Common language – Make love, have sex – words to communicate plainly with friends and family.
  3. “Street” language – cock, screw – words designed to elicit a reaction and often demeaning or crude.
  4. Language of childhood – wee-wee, ta-tas, down there – words designed to hide embarrassment and avoid explicit conversation.

In the follow-up discussion, instead of prescribing a certain language to be used, we have the students discuss when it would be appropriate to use each type of language as well as the purpose of having all these different languages to refer to the same thing. It is always a great discussion, and it prepares the students for having more comfortable and respectful conversations about their sexuality.

Learn more about the OWL curriculum here, and I look forward to sharing with you more lessons from the front of the classroom!

Thanks to fotopedia.com for the owl image.

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About Craig VanKempen

Craig VanKempen

Craig VanKempen, LLMSW/MPH, is a sex educator and therapist practicing in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area. His professional interests include HIV, polyamory, compulsive sexual behavior, religion and sexuality, and GLBT issues.

  • TheSpecialLadyFriend

    Really wish I would have had that program growing up.