Deborah Roffman isn’t afraid to talk to kids about sex. In fact, for the last 39 years she’s made a career of it, addressing lower and middle school students at Baltimore independent schools about the birds and the bees, but she never intended to gain a reputation for being “the sex lady,” as she is known among generations of graduates from area schools.
Roffman, educator and author of several books, most recently Talk to Me First (Perseus Book Group), talked with Baltimore Fishbowl about how she became a sex education guru, what she blames on the inappropriate sexual behavior of today’s adolescents, and how parents can serve as their kids’ guide to sexuality, starting at age four.
So, how did you get your start as a sex educator?
Back then, people fell into this field by accident. I needed a job, and Planned Parenthood was looking for a young educator. I knew nothing about the field.
Really? You had no prior experience disseminating information on this topic?
Roffman: I saw the film about periods in fifth grade. I had no other [sex] education until college. Then, all I remember was seeing the word ‘masturbation’ in print. It was in an abnormal psychology book. So, I had no formal training. But our Planned Parenthood agency became a regional training center for the National Family Planning Program. Today, there are graduate programs and many more pathways you can take.
At what age are children when you start teaching them sex education?
I start with fourth graders. But I work with lower school teachers at Park School and elsewhere to support them in integrating age-appropriate programming, starting in preschool. With very young children, a lot of adults are still using ‘code’ words for basic anatomy terminology, so the children think there’s something shameful about their body parts.
Most of today’s pre-teens and teenagers won’t shower or change in front of one another in a locker room, yet I hear stories about adolescents engaging in sexual activity at ever-younger ages. And, girls as young as 11 are routinely sharing pictures of themselves in bikinis via Instagram. Can you explain this disconnect?
They’re uncomfortable with their bodies because they’re changing. Sharing something that intimate feels very risky; it’s a skill you sort of have to grow into. On the other hand, kids are doing things that are so developmentally inappropriate. It tells you they’re being manipulated.
Manipulated? By whom, or what?
Their behavior is calculated by marketers, who want adolescents to think of themselves as short adults. Advertisers and marketers have systematically undermined our understanding of who children are and what they really need. The last thing a child needs is an Internet connection in their hands over which they have total control. An Internet connection represents unbridled independence. We would never drop off our kids in a strange place and say we’ll be back in an hour.
So, what do you recommend parents do about it?
I recommend to all families, starting when their kids are at a very young age, acceptable use policies. Point out that parents control the Internet, it’s a powerful tool, and kids can earn use of it only when they’ve demonstrated that they’re responsible. Independence is earned.
What educational messages are most kids getting about sex these days, and how do these messages compare with what you try to impart?
Our kids get two messages about sex: Do it now, save it forever. In neither situation are kids being asked to think about their decisions. My job is to say: Let’s look at this again. Is it really all that simple? What do people need to communicate? What sort of values do they need to bring to certain situations? Under what circumstances might this be an okay behavior?
Where do parents figure into the message?
Parenting, beginning when kids are in middle school and moving to high school, is about making the transition from limit setting to anticipatory guidance. You need to know your child well enough to know whether or not they can manage situations that present the opportunity for sexual encounters. Gradually, as you observe them make decisions in other ways, you can decide whether they can manage these decisions.
Do you think most parents are doing a good job of ‘anticipatory guidance’?
I am very disheartened by the responses I get from parents I work with whom, when I ask them about setting limits, tell me they look to see what other parents are doing. In some ways, I feel like we’ve lost our moral compass.
What about pressure parents get from their own kids? You know, when they tell you: Everybody else is doing it.
All kids at all ages, it seems, grossly overestimate the number of their peers who are doing or not doing things. Parents need to be ready when their child says: Everybody is going but me. Parents need to be connecting with other parents, creating a safety net.
You seem somewhat discouraged by the role you see many parents taking—or not taking. Is there anything that encourages you about the sexual health of today’s young people?
What encourages me now is what has always encouraged me, and what decades of research has shown: That it’s parents and other immediate adults in kids’ lives that they’re paying attention to. Throughout the generations, adults have not embraced these conversations about decision-making. But when they do, kids grow up healthier. When these conversations happen, kids postpone involvement in potentially risky behaviors. They have their parents’ lens over their eyes, their voice in their head. That makes mom or dad the primary reference point. Everything else kids see, hear, and read will be filtered through that.