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How can I talk about healthy sexuality in conservative, religious communities?

Monday, December 01, 2014

by Ali Mailen Perrotto of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

We often hear from advocates in the field who are struggling to bring their messages of healthy sexuality to pockets of their communities that are very conservative, very religious, or both. We know that increasing individual knowledge about sex and sexuality is a key piece of the sexual violence prevention puzzle, so it’s important to find ways to engage all members of your community.

While many spiritual communities have long grappled with issues of responding to sexual violence, we all know that making that next move toward primary prevention can be a leap of faith. An entire issue of Connections magazine was dedicated to this topic a few years back. Contributors found that partnering with faith communities was an important part of their prevention work, and a worthwhile experience for those involved.

If you’re trying to figure out where to begin, you’re not alone. There is a notable body of scholarly work on sexuality and sexual violence in religious contexts. There are also examples of both religious communities and anti-violence programs initiating work on healthy sexuality. The Our Whole Lives (OWL) curriculum from the Unitarian Universalist Association provides comprehensive sexuality education materials that cover the entire lifespan. The Religious Institute is another example of a spiritual community dedicated to lifelong, comprehensive education on sex and sexuality. You can access samples of guidebooks, sermon ideas, and study guides that they’ve developed and request your own copies. Organizations like the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, with their report on promising curriculum based approaches, and the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence WholeSomeBodies project have been working hard to make healthy sexuality a part of prevention efforts.

A door that is open only part way (even if only a crack) is still an open door. Preventionists can begin by approaching local faith groups with talking points focused on the value of discussing sexuality openly in faith communities. Here are a couple of conversation starters that might help you open the dialogue with faith leaders, and perhaps help to further widen that doorway:

  • Faith communities that discuss sex and sexuality set the stage for ongoing discussions with young people about values, decisions, and choices they make and how they can relate those back to their growing faith.
  • Creating a climate in your congregation of open discussion and reflection can make your leaders and community members a resource to someone who has experienced sexual violence or abuse. If you do not have the space and language to discuss consensual sex, it can be even harder for a survivor to disclose abuse.

Talking points may also explore the power of community connectedness in shifting our culture towards one that values respect and equality. As you consider your audience and your goals, developing those key points that can start the conversation will become easier. You can also hold discussions with members of your staff and volunteers who are already a part of faith communities about what is needed and what might work to get healthy sexuality to the prevention table.

Related resources in the Special Collection, Domestic Violence and Religion, explore how faith leaders from many different spiritual communities can become effective allies in the prevention and intervention of gender based violence in their communities.

What successes have you had in working within faith communities around healthy sexuality?