The holiest moment I have experienced at my home congregation involved a tampon.
Many years ago I was trained to be a teacher/facilitator of the Our Whole Lives (OWL). Don’t know what OWL is?
Our Whole Lives helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. Grounded in a holistic view of sexuality, Our Whole Lives not only provides facts about anatomy and human development, but also helps participants clarify their values, build interpersonal skills, and understand the spiritual, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality.
It was developed in collaboration between the UUs and the UCCs. Folks who do sexuality education (aside from abstinence education) hold OWL in high regard. As they should. It’s pretty f*cking awesome.
Here is a radio report from 2007 that shares 8th graders singing about their “healthy, holy sexuality.” 8th graders! Those awkward puberty-laden creatures – SINGING… in public… with each other… about sexuality.
I have taught 6th graders (though my home congregation also offers OWL for Kindergartners/first graders and one for younger high schoolers). These are kids who are generally on the cusp of puberty, though as yesterday’s National Public Radio’s Youth Radio report on the earlier appearance of signs of puberty (in kids as young as 6!), even the start of middle school may be too late to get this information to our children.
One of the brilliant parts of the OWL curricula is the question box. At the end of each session, each kid must write something on a piece of paper and put it in the question box. They might write a question related to our topic. They might write something totally unrelated. Or they might write that they do not have a question at this time. Having everyone write helps to protect the anonymity of the questions, which are read by the teachers after the class has ended. The teachers research the answer and then address the question and answer at the next class, so that everyone gets the information. Like I said, brilliant.
One of the questions I was given was, “How do you put in a tampon?” My male co-teacher was happy to cede the answering of this question to me, though to be fair, he was willing to take on the challenge. (I had an awesome co-teacher!)
This is not a theoretical question. The context is not one of mere intellectual curiosity. This is urgent, and highly relevant, and perhaps imminently necessary. It was clear that a verbal answer alone would be insufficient. And that healthy and safe boundaries had to be maintained, so there could be no reference to either teacher’s body or use of video demonstration (if such things exist – I have not checked and plan to keep it that way). So I consulted with the Director of Religious Education and we came up with a plan.
Of course, we would need a tampon. Not a drawing of a tampon or a photo of a tampon. A real tampon. Even if none of them would dare to touch it in public, seeing what a tampon looks like would be important. (Especially for the boy in the class.)
However, after consulting with my own daughter (who was several years older than these kids), I decided that it might be too much to show them what I call an OB tampon – one where there is no applicator: that this might, in the words of a trusted adolescent, “gross them out” too much.
So though I am morally and ecologically opposed to applicators, I felt it necessary to make this exercise as user-friendly as possible.
Taking into account the age of these kids, it didn’t make sense to show real photos. That might be something to consider for older youth and definitely for adults (yes, there are OWL classes for adults! ), but not for kids at this age. This is one of the key parts of OWL: in recognizing that sexuality is a lifelong gift, there is also the recognition that to engage these conversations, they must be developmentally appropriate.
I drew a near-life sized drawing of the mid-section of a woman’s body, highlighting the joining of her thighs, her hips and much of what happens under the skin there. I drew a vaginal canal that fit the size of the tampon perfectly (any people with vaginas out there remember the fear that yours would be far too small to be able to accommodate a tampon, much less a baby – or was that only my fear?). I made sure to draw a cervix in, definitely over-emphasized, to be able to convey how impossible it is for a tampon to go lost in there.
I posted a flipchart drawing on the wall and was nervous as the dickens as the time approached for me to answer the question. When I read the question aloud to the kids, the nervousness shifted from me to them. They knew if the teachers were reading the question aloud, that meant they were now going to hear the answer. Like highway drivers whose stare is drawn to the roadside accident, these 11-year-olds were trying to look like they weren’t listening and couldn’t care less. But when I walked over to the drawing on the wall, all they could do was stare. The girls were staring straight on and the boy (yes, a sole boy – these classes are intentionally co-ed, but it was a shame that he was the only one there that day) had his body turned away, but his face was full-on enthralled.
I took out a tampon in a wrapper. I unwrapped it and showed it. I offered for them to hold it but I they declined. Then I demonstrated how one inserts the applicator in the start of the vagina, encouraging them to find the right posture, and then one pushes the tampon through and it emerges on the other side (but again, doesn’t get lost), leaving the string so that it can be pulled out.
Utter, attentive silence. They were enthralled and so was I. It was in that moment, meeting a need so real, so dire, and so wholesome, of these wonderfully awkward pre-pubescent and just-pubescent human creatures, that I sensed the holy there among us. In connection. In meeting the need of another of my human companions, whose individual worth and dignity I honored by giving information about their bodies in ways that empower each of them.
At the end of that session, as in all OWL sessions, the kids wrote their questions (or their “questions”) and placed them in the anonymous question box. Below is what I found there, on a red sheet of paper, in the same handwriting as the original question about the tampon. I keep it on my bulletin board and plan to have it accompany me throughout my life and ministry: