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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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"When you talk to your children about sex, what are you giving them the power to do? To talk about it! Children in families that encourage them to become sexually literate are -- surprise, surprise! -- healthier and grow up more slowly. They delay first intercourse; they are much more responsible in any kind of sexual behavior."

Roffman lectures widely to professional as well as parent groups. Associate editor of the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, she contributes articles to The Sun and the Washington Post and to such magazines as Education Week. Next year, her book "Sex and Sensibility" will be published by Perseus Books.

But her first concern is the kids.

At Park, her semester-long human sexuality course covers the basics: male and female sexual anatomies and how they work, how babies are conceived, how to prevent pregnancy, the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.

But seventh-graders also learn how to interpret their culture, discussing how sexual issues can affect politics and public policy as well as societal attitudes toward such subjects as gay marriage.

They analyze messages about gender and sexual behavior from advertisements, pop songs and movies. They talk about context as much as content.

And television provides them with continuous fodder. Roffman recalls discussing an episode of "The West Wing" in which a presidential aide picked up a woman at a bar, went home with her without a second thought and departed just as casually the next morning.

After describing the show -- which many of the students had seen -- she opened the floor for interpretation:

What would you think if you were Martians just plopped down here to decide what sex was all about and you only saw this show?

Silence.

OK. Let's try it another way: What would you decide sex wasn't about?

Certainly not about relationships, the class agreed. Not about morality, either. Maybe not even about responsibility or safety.

It's 1999, and someone's picking up somebody she just met and bringing him home? Aside from HIV, what about the issue of bringing a strange man into your apartment?

Beliefs and behavior

In 1971, after she had graduated from Goucher College with a degree in psychology, after she had tried foster care case work, Debbie Roffman took a job with Planned Parenthood. For the next three years, she traveled around Maryland in her chestnut-colored Ford Fairlane disseminating information about birth control and family planning.

It was this field work that made her realize that teen-agers were hungry to learn more about their sexuality and that understanding its complexities could actually affect, and slow down, their sexual behavior.

Perhaps Roffman's greatest talent is helping kids feel comfortable with their own beliefs about sexual behavior, says Amy Wilen, parent of two Park School students who've studied with her.

"Debbie makes kids feel very safe. Anything and everything is talked about," Wilen says. "At an age where it is easy to do what your friends are doing, this class helps kids get real with who they are and what feels right to them. My daughter felt it was OK not to be interested in doing the sexual things she saw on TV partly because Debbie's teaching gave her real strong reasons in a positive way."

Seventh-grader Sarah Raifman says she has learned to question what she hears about sexual behavior and to challenge others' assumptions.

The Sex Lady is particularly fond of middle-school students, the group she considers most open to thinking critically about sexuality.

"Someone once said that 11- to 14 year-olds are like a cross between a sponge, an automobile mechanic and a newspaper reporter," she says. "They're taking in a lot of things from the world around them. They are very fact and detail-conscious. They're also still fairly level-headed, reasonable and wise beyond their years about a lot of things. ... And they are very open to hearing adult opinions."

As long as the adults can overcome their fears of expressing them.

Parents and panic

One wintry school night, The Sex Lady meets with a group of fifth grade parents who have gathered to talk about what, exactly, she will be teaching their kids and how they can help reinforce it. Along the way, she also answers questions that can be much harder for grown-ups to ask than for their kids.

One woman confesses she panicked when her 6-year-old asked if she could have a lover like the one Britney Spears was singing about.

Roffman nods sympathetically. "So what's the answer to 'Mommy, can I have a lover?' Can she have a lover?" she asks the room of parents.

Silence.

"C'mon, c'mon ..."

"When you're older?" a few brave souls venture.

"How much older?"

Nervous laughter.

"When she's an adult!" Roffman says, laughing along with them.

It's another duh! moment that The Sex Lady finesses without making anyone feel stupid. And why should they? These folks never anticipated such questions from their 6-year-olds because they never thought to ask them when they were 6.

In fact most of these parents -- a group filled with physicians and other professionals -- admit they never had a meaningful discussion about sexuality with an adult as they were growing up.

They're having one now. "Consider this," Roffman says. "Is it OK for a teen-ager to have sex?"

Silence.

"Raise your hand if you think 'no.' "

Hands begin to go up.

"Actually, the issue is not 'yes' or 'no.' The issue is when I said, 'Is it OK for teen-agers to have sex,' how many of you heard intercourse?

"This is the real joke about Bill Clinton: The real joke is that he was right. What he said was in line with the way Americans define sex. Everybody laughed at him for a whole year, but that is how we talk about it!

"Adolescents will say, 'It's not really sex because you're still a virgin, you can't get pregnant, and you can't get a sexually transmitted disease' -- which, by the way, is wrong. And the reason they don't know it is because we don't tell them!"

Instead, many kids still discuss sexual behavior in terms of "first base, second base ... and going all the way," -- what Roffman calls "that lame sex metaphor."

"It's everything that's wrong with American sexual attitudes neatly packaged in a very easy to understand set of rules.

"But look at the system: Baseball's a game. Who's the batter? The boy. Where are the bases? On her body. How does he win? He scores. How does he score? By tromping all over her private parts. Where are his friends? On the bench, cheering him on.

"Kids will tell you that it's not really like that anymore, that she's much more of a player so that makes it OK. But if they're still using the baseball metaphor, they're still talking about sex as a game where somebody's going to win and somebody's going to lose."

She encourages her students to come up with other metaphors. The one she likes best, she says, is ballet. It's the notion of "creating a highly individual dance with someone" vs. "competing to score."

If you can't change what's out there, Deborah Roffman preaches, you can change how kids understand, interpret and, perhaps consequently, decide to act.

When it comes to sex ed, we can all do better.

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