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?