About 25 years ago, a public school in the Baltimore suburbs invited Deborah Roffman to teach a class on puberty to fifth graders. Roffman, who was known as the “Sex Lady” at the private Park School of Baltimore, where she had been teaching for two decades, was flattered. But she was troubled by the restrictions that the public school’s vice principal had given her: She couldn’t use the words fertilization, intercourse, or sex. And she couldn’t answer any student questions related to those subjects. That wasn’t going to work for the Sex Lady.
Eventually, Roffman reached a compromise with the public school: Students would get parental permission to attend her talk, and Roffman could answer any question they asked, even if it meant using the S-word.
Roffman’s title of human-sexuality educator has not changed since she arrived at the Park School in 1975, but the dimensions of her role there have steadily grown. So, too, has her outside work in consulting and teacher training: Over the years, she has advised at nearly 400 schools, most of them private.
Initially, Roffman taught elective classes in sexuality to the juniors and seniors at Park, but within two years, she had expanded to seventh and eighth graders. In the 1980s, she added fourth and fifth graders to her roster. She also meets annually with the parents of students as young as kindergartners, to coach them on how to talk with their children about sexuality, and she leads summer training for the Park’s elementary-school teachers on incorporating sexuality instruction into their classrooms. “There is this knowledge that we keep in a box about sexuality, waiting until kids are ‘old enough,’” Roffman told me. “My job is to change that.”