The Sex Lady

Educator Deborah Roffman teaches teens -- and the grown-ups in their lives -- how to talk more comfortably about sex so they can behave responsibly

April 05, 2000|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Picture a wife who raves about her husband of 30 years, a proud mom with one son in medical school and the other in college. Picture a trim, chatty, middle-aged woman who's still perfectly at home in the stirrup-pants fashions of the 1980s.

Then imagine this person as The Sex Lady.

It's easier, perhaps, to imagine educator Deborah Roffman circa 1960, when she and her fifth-grade buddies at Garrison Junior High School -- the girls, that is -- were shown "the `period' film" while the boys were excused to play outside.

And, yes, you can picture her reading the sex books she borrowed from the girl down the street -- under the covers, with a flashlight.

"For 23 years, I was actually a relatively normal person," Roffman says. "I was so normal that I was embarrassed to talk about sex in public just like everyone else. ... I didn't read about it, write about it, converse about it, study it -- any of those things you have to do to become sexually literate."

Roffman is one of the country's few full-time human sexuality teachers, a woman who figures she's uttered the words "fallopian tubes" more than anyone else on the planet. She can also bring other body parts into the conversation without making people wince -- a talent that has earned her considerable respect.

Especially from the grown-ups.

Friendly, concerned, matter-of-fact, all-knowing -- just like someone's mother, only not -- Roffman is proud to be known as "The Sex Lady," a title she has borne for the past 25 years at the Park School in Brooklandville and at other schools in Baltimore and Washington. She has worked primarily in private schools because most public schools do not have the mandate to offer the kind of comprehensive sexuality education that Roffman provides.

But she gets her message across to a lot of public school parents by lecturing at PTA nights. Her goal is to help children think clearly about sexuality and to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions. She wants them to understand the gender stereotypes that determine so much of the behavior they see. She wants them to question what counts as sex and what doesn't. She wants them to place sexual behavior in the context of a relationship, always mindful of the health risks that can accompany it.

She wants students to think critically, and ethically, about sexuality while they navigate a society that is both sex-crazed and sex-phobic.

In short, The Sex Lady wants to create sexually literate Americans.

"There's a very basic life philosophy that says `What people can communicate well about, they handle well. And what they can't, they don't,' " she says. "So I am constantly trying to reinforce the students' ability to communicate in every possible way."

Education, communication

What is Sex Ed, Roffman-style?

Picture a group of seventh-graders reviewing the fundamentals of menstruation, then pairing off for short discussions about whether it is more difficult to be a boy or a girl, whether boys and girls have different attitudes about sex, whether sexual intercourse should be saved for marriage and whether they've had a peer pressure situation that was really difficult to handle.

Then imagine this scene without anyone snickering or even looking embarrassed.

"If we could clone Debbie and send her out to the world as the sexuality educator, we'd all be much better off," says Monica Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the national Sexuality Information and Education Council. "Some people censor themselves, they get really nervous answering questions about things like masturbation or homosexuality, but Debbie's not afraid to answer. ... She's really keyed into what young people need."

Most Americans, Rodriguez says, still believe sex education means learning about sex. And that sex means sexual intercourse. The public argument about sex ed -- whether students should only be taught abstinence from intercourse until marriage or if they should also be shown other ways to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases -- exasperates Roffman.

"If that's the debate, then everyone is still acting as if `sex education' equals `how to have intercourse' or `how not to have intercourse,' " Roffman says. "But sexuality is not an issue of behavior. It is an issue of fundamental identity. Sexuality education focuses on the thinking, caring, feeling, decision-making, valuing, relationship-building human being that happens to be attached to its genitals."

Not only does The Sex Lady talk to elementary, middle and high school students, but she also enlightens their parents. In fact, she tells one apprehensive group, she's in partnership with parents. As their children's most trusted guides, parents must do better than the "Don't you dare!" dictums they grew up with.

"Why were our parents afraid to talk about sex? Because if you heard about it, you would do it. And when would you do it? Immediately," she says.

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