Deborah Roffman ’68
Sexuality 101 and other important things (some) schools don’t teach
By Natalie Eastwood
Deborah Roffman ’68 talks about sexuality in ways that are radical to a post-Comstock American (see our feature Still fighting for more on the outdated laws). Gender and gender roles, sexuality, reproductive health, sexual pleasure, and consent are all in Roffman’s curriculum. Her expertise is highly sought after in classrooms—for students and parents—around the country. She has written three books about sexuality education for parents (a new book for young children, The Science of Babies, is due out soon) and has been interviewed as an expert source many times, including for an HBO documentary and a feature in The Atlantic. She’s the Sex Lady.
“I often joke that I don’t recall my mother ever suggesting that I become a sexuality educator,” Roffman says. “I fell into this work purely by accident, which is how many people ended up in the field at that time.” In the early ’70s, sexuality education was in its infancy, which is maybe why Planned Parenthood hired Roffman despite her lack of knowledge and experience in the field. When her Planned Parenthood supervisor left for the Park School of Baltimore, a progressive private school, Roffman followed. She continues to be a sexuality educator at Park and consults with other schools across the country. “When I came to Park in 1975, I was told, ‘We only have one requirement for you. And that is to listen to your students first and lesson plan later,’” Roffman recalls.
But many schools lack comprehensive sexuality education. Roffman says the more typical “stay out of trouble model” goes like this: “Here are the body parts that you have. Here’s what they do. Here’s the trouble they can get you into. And here’s how you can prevent that.” Sex education across the U.S. varies greatly. In 37 states, educators must talk about abstinence, and only 15 states mandate medically accurate information. Only nine states require the inclusion of people who identify as LGTBQIA+; seven states prohibit educators from talking about sex from an LGTBQIA+ framework or require educators to frame LGTBQIA+ identities and relationships negatively.
However, that isn’t the case everywhere. Roffman teaches sexuality education to keep her students safe—but also to support them in becoming healthy, happy, and ethical human beings. Her approach is holistic and nurturing. It goes far beyond condoms and STDs to discuss healthy relationships, the expectations and realities of sexual behavior, and how gender, gender roles, and sexuality are essential to one’s identity. “In evaluating a curriculum I look to see if it is body-focused or whole person-focused.” Roffman asks. “Is it a broad based enough that everybody understands how pervasive issues of sex, gender, and reproduction are in our lives?”
Roffman started at Park teaching elective classes to juniors and seniors and expanded sexuality education to middle and elementary grades, including a semester-long human sexuality course for seventh graders that she started in 1977. As of this year, Roffman has stepped down from the upper-level classrooms to work exclusively with elementary-aged children and to create a curriculum that could be used by teachers and parents.
“I’ve always been interested in attitudes and beliefs and how they affect behavior and society, and there’s so much to unpack in regard to sexuality,” Roffman says. “And of course, it’s very healing to be in this field for people who grew up the way I did—with absolutely no education, no support—and to suddenly realize that it’s okay to talk about sexuality. It’s okay to think about it. That is truly liberating.”