Let’s Talk About Sex

By Laura Lang — February 01, 2001 9 min read
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The 10-year-olds sitting on the carpet at the Park School of Baltimore know what to expect from the next lesson as soon as they see who’s teaching it: Deborah Roffman, aka “the sex lady.” A longtime sex education instructor at the school, she’s visiting their 5th grade class for the second in a series of lectures designed to teach them the basics of reproduction and a bit about puberty.

The students wriggle, squirm, and laugh a little at first. Then they quickly get down to business. Roffman tells them to gather in groups at the scattered tables and, together, identify three systems in the human body. Pick out two body parts in each system, she adds, then explain what the system does as a whole.

Piece of cake. Who said sex ed had to be difficult?

But when Roffman asks the students to read their answers out loud, most respond with descriptions of PG-rated body parts, the kinds that 10-year-olds can talk about without giggling too much. For example, the muscular system, equipped with biceps and triceps, helps you move. And the digestive system, with its esophagus and stomach, breaks down food.

One ruddy-faced, blond-haired boy, however, is a bit more bold. “Reproductive,” he blurts out. Roffman perks up; this is exactly what she’s been waiting for. “Testicles and vagina,” the boy continues. The purpose? “To create life.”

“OK. Very good,” says Roffman. “That’s perfect.”

One student snickers, and two others slap hands over their smiles. But most listen quietly, showing no sign of discomfort, as if they could just as easily be discussing architecture in the Middle Ages, a topic dominating the classroom’s bulletin boards. As was amply demonstrated by the boy who uttered the word “testicles” in front of his classmates, the basics about sex are already standard fare for these students, many of whom were taught by Roffman in the 4th grade.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. For 25 years, Roffman has worked hard to establish a comprehensive sex ed program that encourages Park School parents and teachers to talk openly with students about sex-related topics, even at early ages. Roffman’s message is simple: Kids need accurate, complete information so they can make smart decisions about their sexual health.

“The courses I teach are not about sex. They are about human sexuality,” Roffman says during a break between classes. At 53, she’s a handsome woman sporting a curly, no-fuss hairstyle and a gray pants-and-shirt combo. An associate editor at the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, Roffman’s written opinion pieces for the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post. Her first book, Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex, was just published.

“What is sexuality about? Closeness and intimacy,” Roffman tells her teenage students at Baltimore’s Park School.
—David Kidd

The Park School, situated on a 100-acre campus just outside Baltimore, is a progressive private institution that encourages critical thinking among its 880 students in grades preK through 12. Roffman also teaches at other private schools in the area and lectures at PTA meetings and teacher workshops— sometimes in public schools. But at a time when more and more educators are promoting abstinence in classrooms, Roffman is trying to broaden the scope of sex ed for what she believes are the right reasons.

"[U]nless we become more proactive in reaching out to our children about the topic of sexuality—probably a great deal earlier than we may erroneously believe is the age-appropriate time—they most assuredly will learn about it first from someone else,” she writes in her book. “And that someone else, more than likely, will be offering a different kind of message from the one we would like them to have.”

While growing up in Baltimore, Roffman never would have guessed what she’d end up doing for a living. At home, her parents were tight-lipped about everything from menstruation to birth control. “I don’t know anyone less destined than I for a career in sex education,” she writes in the preface to Sex and Sensibility. “In one recurring nightmare, I run into an old boyfriend from college. When he learns what I do for a living, he can be heard laughing uncontrollably. They finally have to sedate him to get him to stop.”

Roffman’s 300-page book—which draws on her experiences as both a teacher and a mother of two sons—is an often-humorous how-to guide on the complicated task of talking about sex with kids. While it’s targeted at parents, much of the book focuses on what its author considers the necessary partnership between families and schools, where teachers should complement discussions begun at home.

Roffman got her start in sex ed on a whim, after applying for a community educator’s position at a Baltimore Planned Parenthood office in the early ‘70s. In 1975, after she’d addressed scores of groups throughout Maryland, she was hired by the Park School to design and teach a course for 11th and 12th graders— an elective titled Human Sexuality. A year later, she was doing the same for 7th and 8th graders, but she soon discovered that even younger students needed instruction. Teachers from the lower grades, it turned out, were approaching Roffman for advice on how to deal with some of their students’ sex-related questions. By the early ‘90s, Roffman was teaching 5th grade classes a couple of times a year, and last school year she began teaching 4th graders.

Sex ed for 9-year-olds might draw complaints from parents at most schools, but Louise Mehta, associate head of the Park School, says Roffman’s program enjoys widespread support. “We are a school which believes the total development of the individual matters,” she says. “And we think human sexuality is a part of that.”

Lessons for 4th and 5th graders at the Park School focus on the basics of reproduction. For students in the middle grades, Roffman skips the notorious condom-on-the-banana demonstration—which, she says, is “not exactly dignified"—and encourages students to discuss relevant topics, such as birth control. During a recent 7th grade lesson, for example, students considered how certain devices impede the pregnancy process. Describing “the female condom,” one boy said: “It’s. . . the same thing as a male condom, only backward. It interferes with the sperm as it enters the vagina.”

This may sound pretty basic, but it’s advanced thinking for 7th graders, according to Roffman. Most 12- and 13-year-olds know only the names of birth control devices; it’s important, she says, that they understand how the devices work, so that they can make informed decisions about what to use and when, if at all. “It’s not just about unwanted pregnancy, per se,” says Roffman. “I’m a health educator. I want them to think about health education in systematic ways.”

Hence the title of her high school course, which is now required at the Park School: Sexual Health and Decision-Making. Using the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun as texts, students in the class discuss and debate the latest sex- related issues and how they may affect teenagers.

Tamara Kreinin wishes there were more Deborah Roffmans out there. As president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a national nonprofit organization, she keeps an eye on sex ed trends, and, lately, she doesn’t like what she’s seeing. Four years ago, Congress passed legislation making funds available to schools that promote abstinence as the sole method of birth control. And, indeed, 23 percent of the country’s sex ed instructors say they teach abstinence-only courses, compared with only 2 percent in 1988, according to a report released in September by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research-oriented nonprofit dedicated to protecting reproductive rights. Kreinin worries that this shift means fewer students are receiving information about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, and that many are discouraged from discussing sexual issues openly.

“We used to think that we’d go into a class and teach them the basics and mechanics for 45 minutes and have that be the end of it,” says Kreinin. "[Sex ed] needs to be an ongoing conversation. Parents need to be involved. Schools need to be involved.”

Parents appear to agree. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a California-based research organization, recently polled 1,500 families and reported that both students and parents want more information, such as how to broach sex-related issues at home and where to get birth control, to be made available in schools. This past September, the Institute of Medicine, a public policy watchdog group led by doctors and college professors, recommended that Congress stop funding abstinence-only programs, explaining there isn’t enough evidence that they’re working. The group claimed that comprehensive sex ed programs, such as those designed by Roffman, help reduce young people’s high-risk behavior and do not increase sexual activity.

Roffman admits that many teachers would have a hard time implementing a program like hers, especially in public schools, which are bound by state, county, and district regulations. “When people ask where I teach, I say I teach in a small town in Maryland called Utopia,” she says, referring to the Park School. “There’s no way I could do any of this in your average middle school public school.”

She’s right. The Baltimore County school district, for example, provides sex ed as part of its “family life and human sexuality” curriculum, which consists of approximately seven weeks’ worth of lessons over the course of a student’s elementary, middle, and high school years, according to Barbara Sullivan, the district’s supervisor of health education. But Baltimore County is not alone; few districts nationwide provide comprehensive programs. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 89 percent of public school students get their sex ed from just a couple of classes between the 7th and 12th grades.

But Roffman argues—and demonstrates in class—that even teachers in conservative districts can find ways to talk about sexual relationships.

It’s 10 o’clock on a recent morning at the Park School, and Roffman is meeting with five of her high school students. Known to these older kids as Debbie, she pulls up a chair and sits in front of them. The group begins discussing last night’s homework. The assignment: Pay close attention to conversations with family and friends so as to critique the listening skills of each party.

After the students recount their conversations—most of which had to do with boyfriends, girlfriends, or college plans—Roffman asks, “What does this have to do with this course?” A couple of students emphasize the importance of communication. Roffman nods and adds: "[Communication] will improve relationships. It will bring people closer. What is sexuality about? Closeness and intimacy.”

This approach seems easy enough—perhaps too easy, considering that sexuality can be about much more, including impulsive passion and high-risk diseases. Park School students insist, however, that Roffman’s classes not only teach them about sex, but challenge them to reflect in ways that few courses do.

“She really makes you think about the way you’ve lived your life, about the decisions you’ve made,” explains 17-year-old Emily Ries, who has been at Park School since preK. “Everything changes when you’re talking to Debbie. She really cares about your feelings. She does an amazing job changing the way you think about things.”


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