Sex and Sensibility: A Faith-Based View
Sex Educator Tackles Tough Issues with Young Teens - Ministries - World's Message vs. The Little Voice
Michael Guiliano was not put into the world to make kids uncomfortable. Quite the opposite. Talking to young teens about sex is just about as cozy as talking to them about death, he disclosed.
"Why are you making such a big deal out of it?" eighth-graders at Our Lady of Mount Carmel school here have asked him often in the seven years he has taught a course on "Sexuality and Spirituality" to the class.
For Guiliano sexuality is not a small matter. "It's probably the biggest deal in your whole life," he tells the 14-year-olds. "You may get to understand God better through your sexuality than through your intellect, prayer, meditation or years of theological study."
Talking about sex to teens is so hard because of "the weight of garbage and emotions that are thrown in by society, the media, our culture," Guiliano told NCR during an interview at his home in Englewood, N.J. That's why there's a lot of squirming and giggling during the first of the nine 60- to 90-minute sessions of the class.
Sex is such a big deal that "God uses it as an analogy for his church," he tells pupils--an idea that lets them catch their collective, embarrassed breath. But there's no holding him back. "Your sexuality is sacred. It's a beautiful, wonderful gift. Anyone who looks on it as dirty doesn't understand that God himself created it for you."
Most of the eighth-graders have seen this guy before. He's a lector at Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, a eucharistic minister and an occasional usher. He and his wife, Mary Beth, have five children, four boys and a girl, who've all been altar servers and attended the parish school. Both he and Mary Beth have taught religious education on Sunday mornings.
Michael Guiliano is a physician, a specialist in neonatology and the associate director of pediatrics at Lennox Hills Hospital in New York City. "I can put on my doctor's hat and be frank and open with the class," he says. (He also holds a master's in elementary education from the Jesuit-run St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J.)
The class soon settles down when Guiliano hands out his "Food for Thought"--33 questions that plumb what students believe about God, the church and its authority, what they want for their future life on earth and in the next world, how much they know about sex and how far they've experimented with that knowledge.
He asks students to type or write their answers and to return their replies, anonymously, at the second meeting. The first 10 questions deal with Christian belief, the church, prayer and the Bible. The next 10 probe areas of behavior, good and evil, sin and forgiveness with an eye to choosing a life partner. The final 13 are all about sex.
"The whole introduction is so critical," Guiliano said, illustrating it by drawing a huge circle. At its top is God, on the bottom is evil and "dead center is where we all are."
He chooses a spiral staircase to help youngsters understand that as persons "we're all going up to God and out toward him through our relations with others, or else we're going down in the direction of evil and turning inward toward ourselves, away from God and service to others."
Eighth-graders learn about God's gift of free will, and their enormous power to make choices about matters that can take them up the staircase or bring them down. He also draws a clock for them, using the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; the gifts of wonder and joy; the acts of praying, experiencing and choosing as hours of the day.
When students choose evil over good and commit sin, Giuliano points out God's unconditional love for them and shows them how to climb back up the staircase toward forgiveness and repentance by utilizing the sacrament of reconciliation.
In the "Truth and Consequences" segment of a lecture, he helps teens see how misusing their sexuality can have unwanted results. By the fourth class, he is meeting alone with the boys and then with the girls, and the comfort level between him and the students is on the rise. The doctor brings along an anatomical cutout of the female body, showing the girls exact details of their internal organs and explaining their reproductive cycle. This also aids discussion of hormones, menstruation, intercourse and pregnancy.
The boys receive Fr. William J. Bausch's chapter on masturbation from his book Becoming a Man. Bausch, a retired priest of the Trenton, N.J., diocese, assures boys that masturbation "is not as bad as they say" and "it's not as good as they say."
Giuliano agrees with Bausch. Giuliano said, "The self is always a dangerous place." He tries to help boys understand how masturbation is "petty and immature," and how "God is always drawing us out and inviting us to love others and to express our love through service to others."
While virginity is the course's "unspoken theme," Giuliano covers the gamut of possible consequences of engaging in sex before choosing a lifetime partner. No student finishes the course without knowing about pregnancy, abortion, HIV/AIDS, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia and genital warts. They also learn that a quarter of all Americans are infected with some form of the herpes virus. The doctor also covers promiscuity, fornication and homosexuality.
Some argue that eighth-graders are too young for such topics. The doctor disagrees.
"These kids are bombarded with this stuff from outside. Either they get the information inaccurately, with all the biases and perspectives of our hedonistic culture, or they get it from loving parents at home and informed teachers in class," he said.
Eighth grade is the perfect time, he said, to delve deeply into issues about change, growth and choices up the road. Youngsters are experiencing and seeing changes in their bodies and their psyches just as they are deciding where they will go to high school, who they will date and what they will become. They are also preparing for confirmation, the sacrament by which they become adult Christians.
To facilitate discussion between teens and their parents, he sends home questions concerning dating, career plans and personal abilities. The list also includes inquiries about prayer, purity and what positive activities a pupil will do to maintain a healthy mind, body and spirit. He asks students to examine their relationship with family and friends and to reflect on what kind of family they would like to have and who will be their friends as they move into a larger world.
In his years of teaching, he's found that all his students intend to marry and have families. To date none has expressed interest in a religious vocation or the single life.
The take-home packet also contains the "True Love Waits" commitment to sexual abstinence before marriage. Although Guiliano said he has been "surprised how innocent" most of his suburban students are--based on their answers to his 33 questions--he is also aware that virginity until marriage "is an open question" for most of them. When he asks students at the first class whether they aspire to a life of virginity before marriage, about half of them give him that "Are you crazy?" look, he said.
In the first class, Guiliano entices them to think about their future spouse. What should this person be like, what special qualities will he or she bring to the relationship? To focus their attention, he brings a Tiffany & Co. blue gift bag to each class and sets it in the middle of the desk, telling them that he has purchased their "first wedding present."
For their final session, Guiliano gathers the class in church and reads to them Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians with its opening chapters about what Christians should believe and its final chapters about how they should live. "God wrote you a letter," Guiliano tells them, "because he knew you'd be in that spot one day."
Students bring their commitment to chastity to this session--a sign, he tells them, of their willingness to try to live purely until marriage. "Keep in mind that person you want for your spouse," he tells them. "Pray and pray often. Avoid persons who cut you down. Eliminate that which makes it more difficult to live a Christian life. Be humble, honest."
Live your faith, he exhorts them, in the Pauline spirit. "Get involved in your parish, school and community. Think about your choices. You are God's hands in the world."
Although his medical duties and long hours have not left him time to draft a text of the course, that's "next on my agenda," Giuliano said. At the final class he has students drop their names into the Tiffany bag. The one whose name is pulled walks away with a first wedding gift--a blue and white, hand-painted porcelain box.
"I wanted it to be a symbolic present. I wanted to plant some seeds. I hope they got started."
Michael Guiliano developed the course he teaches on "Sexuality and Spirituality" after examining his oldest son's eighth-grade religion book. The textbook was "pretty watered down in both biology and spirituality." he said. When he voiced his dissatisfaction to Mount Carmel's then-principal, Franciscan Sr. Michele Craig, she urged him to "help us find a better book or help us teach it better."
For many students the classroom is the first place they're getting information they will need in today's dating environment. Giuliano wishes it were otherwise. One of his hopes is that students will discuss these subjects with parents. Before he begins the course each February he invites the parents of his students to meet with him. About 70-80 percent show up to review the curriculum. "Parents are uncomfortable with these issues," he said, "and teachers are relieved that someone is doing it."
Since devising the sexuality and spirituality curriculum, he has taught it with his three eldest sons in the class. In three years, he may present the course again when his youngest will be an eighth-grader. His daughter, who said she would not like such matters discussed by her father in front of her friends, transferred to a middle school in New York City last year--though not solely for that reason.
Guiliano has only to look at his own life--his two decades as a doctor, husband and father--to see that "one's spiritual life is embedded in one's family life and one's community." He fondly recalled his 1973-77 undergraduate life at the State University of New York in Albany. Some students formed a "true Christian community, a refuge and place of mutual support." On Friday nights they gathered for Mass in Chapel House and met with Fr. Paul Smith.
As they were about to graduate, Smith told them that the community they found in Albany did not exist before they arrived. To have a Christian community, "you have to make it and live it," Smith had said. A quarter century later Guiliano has not forgotten Smith's advice.
"How to stand alone against a world that is giving you one message and a little voice that is telling you something else" may be the toughest task of adolescence and even adulthood, Guiliani said. The call to faithfulness requires a personal relationship with God built on prayer, he tells students.
"If your faith is ever going to be more than words and following Mom and Dad, you need to do some things on your own," he said. This includes making choices about drugs, friendships, dating and about praying and attending Mass- or not.
Guiliano admitted it was difficult teaching the course with his sons in it. The only feedback he's gotten came from a high school senior who called the course "the most sophisticated and truest presentation" on sex and spirituality that he'd heard.