The Questions Sex-Ed Students Always Ask

For 45 years, Deborah Roffman has let students’ curiosities guide her lessons on sexuality and relationships.

A collage of flower petals, photos of Deborah Roffman, and a sex education cartoon
Deborah Roffman / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

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.”

During her 45 years of teaching, Roffman has witnessed the evolution of the nation’s attitude toward sex education and, as her experience at the public school shows, how uneven that education can be.

Perhaps more than any other subject, sex education highlights the country’s fierce loyalty to local control of schools. Twenty-nine states require public schools to stress abstinence if they teach about sex, according to the latest count by the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., and New York that promotes reproductive rights. Some of the more outrageous abstinence lessons employ troubling metaphors, such as comparing sexually active, unmarried women to an old piece of tape: useless and unable to bond. Only 17 states require sex education to be medically accurate.

Most research has found that sex education for adolescents in the United States has declined in the past 20 years. Like art and music, the subject is typically not included on state standardized exams and, as the saying goes, “what gets tested gets taught.” In the case of sex education, waning fear about the spread of HIV and AIDS among heterosexual youths has contributed to the decline in instruction, says John Santelli, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

But some bright spots do exist, says Jennifer Driver, the vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. For example, in some parts of Mississippi and Texas, there has been a shift away from "abstinence only" to "abstinence plus" curricula, with the latter permitting at least some information about contraception.

Roffman remembers her own sex education while growing up in Baltimore as being limited to a short film in fifth grade about periods and puberty. She began working in sex ed in 1971—when access to birth control was rapidly expanding amid the sexual revolution—helping Planned Parenthood train health-care professionals who were setting up family-planning clinics in the region, and doing broader community outreach.

Four years later, she followed her Planned Parenthood supervisor to the progressive Park School, where students often address teachers by their first name and current tuition runs about $30,000 a year. When she arrived that spring, she heard that the senior-class adviser had recently rushed into the upper-school principal’s office, exclaiming that something had to be done before the seniors’ graduation, because “we forgot to talk to them about sex.”

During the next several years, Roffman not only made sure the school remembered to talk to students about sex but steadily built up the curriculum. At Park, students learn about standard fare like birth control and sexually transmitted diseases but also delve into issues such as the history of abortion rights, changing conceptions of gender roles, and how to build respectful, intimate relationships.

Students start by learning about the reproductive systems, the importance of open communication, and the fundamentals of puberty in their first classes with Roffman, in the fourth and fifth grades. In seventh grade, they take a deep-dive course on human sexuality, covering everything from pornography to the use of sex in advertising to gender identity and sexual orientation. They see her again for a shorter, related course in eighth grade. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Roffman’s seventh graders spent most of a semester researching the candidates’ differing views on sex, gender, and reproduction. “In the process of doing that, I got to teach about every topic I wanted to teach about,” she said.

In high school, students take a required sexuality-studies seminar. The specific content varies year to year, but it’s always based on what Roffman calls the “eight characteristics of a sexually healthy adult,” which include staying healthy, enjoying pleasure, and relating to others in caring, nonexploitative ways.

The through line of her approach, at any age, is letting students’ queries guide her instruction. So she asks her students to submit anonymous questions at the start of the semester, and makes sure that she answers them as the course progresses.

Regardless of whether they grew up in the ’80s or the aughts, kids of certain ages always ask versions of the same questions, Roffman has found. For instance, middle-school students, she said, want to know if their bodies and behaviors are “normal.” Many older students ask her at what age it’s normal to start masturbating.

High schoolers routinely ask about romantic communication, relationships, and the right time for intimacy: “Who makes the first move?” “How do you know if you or the other person is ready for the ‘next level’?” “How can you let someone down easy when you want to break up?”

But some contemporary questions, Roffman said, are very different from those she heard earlier in her career. Sometimes the questions change when the news does. (More than 30 years ago, Roffman started reading two newspapers a day to keep up with the rapid pace of news about HIV and AIDS; she’s maintained the habit since.)

She said she received a flood of questions about sexual harassment after the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in the early 1990s. The same decade ended with a spike in student interest in oral sex and behaviors that had previously been considered more taboo, such as anal sex.

Sometimes changing student questions signal broader cultural shifts, like the recent surge in student queries about gender identities. “There would have been questions 20 years ago about sexual orientation, but not about gender diversity,” Roffman said. But one recent eighth-grade cohort submitted questions like “How many genders are there?” “What does ‘gender roles’ mean?” “What is the plus sign for in LGBTQIA+?” and “Why is ‘gay’ called ‘gay’?” She finds a way to answer them all.

Roffman’s students appreciate her blunt and holistic approach. As a sixth grader at a charter school several years ago, Maeve Thistel took a brief unit in sex education. The teacher seemed uncomfortable and nervous, she remembers. The condoms the teacher brought for a demonstration were expired, and split when she took them out of the package. Thistel came away from the class with the impression that sex was both “icky and disturbing.”

Thistel, now a college freshman, transferred to Park for high school, where she found that Roffman presented some of the same material quite differently: Her very first step in the lesson on condoms was to point out that all of them have an expiration date that should be noted and heeded.

Under Roffman’s guidance, sexuality at Park has come to be treated as something closer to social studies, science, or other core subjects. Sex ed is “just another part of the curriculum, not carved out as its own special thing,” says David Sachs, a 1988 graduate who studied with Roffman and whose son, Sebastian, is now in 11th grade at the school and has her as a teacher as well.

Like all Park students, Sebastian Sachs had to complete an eighth-grade project wherein he examined the root cause of a social-justice issue. His team picked sexual assault and, with Roffman as their adviser, focused on consent education and how to introduce it in the youngest grades. Sachs and his teammates created a curriculum for preschoolers that, among other things, encourages them to ask permission before hugging a classmate, borrowing a pencil, or swooping in for a high five.

In Roffman’s ideal world, the school would implement lessons like these, and other age-appropriate sex and relationship education, from the earliest grades. Several of her co-workers agree. “Fourth grade might be too late for us” to begin this kind of education, says Alejandro Hurtado, Park’s Spanish teacher for the lower grades. Last summer, Hurtado participated in a voluntary two-week workshop led by Roffman that aimed to create a sexuality-education curriculum for Park’s elementary-age kids. “It will be subtly woven in,” he says, noting that he plans to talk more explicitly about traditional gender roles and expectations in some Latino cultures as part of his own class.

In her teacher training, Roffman encourages colleagues to be scientifically accurate and use age-appropriate language when answering even the youngest children’s questions. Four-year-olds are beginning to understand place and geography, so they will frequently ask where they came from. “The proper answer is that there’s a place inside a female body called the uterus, and that’s where they grew,” Roffman said.

Sarah Shelton, a Park third-grade teacher who also participated in the summer workshop, says Roffman inspired her to not dodge students’ questions about bodies and sex. In the past she’s deflected sex-related inquiries, such as when a student asked about birth control last year.

“I told her, ‘Great question. Ask your parents,’” Shelton recalls. “If that were to occur again, I would say something like ‘When reproduction happens in the body, there is medication that you can take to stop it so you can have sexual intercourse without creating a baby.’”

Sarah Huss, the director of human development and parent education at the private Campbell Hall school in Los Angeles, says Roffman helped her rethink her school’s sexuality education. Huss reached out to Roffman after reading her book Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex. The ensuing dialogue prompted Campbell Hall to begin sexuality education in third grade and to significantly shore up its middle-school programming. Prior to meeting Roffman, “I had taught sex education as ‘Don’t get hurt, don’t get pregnant, don’t get a disease,’” Huss says. “That wasn’t a hopeful message for the kids.”

Huss admires her colleague’s patient tenacity. “She’s walking into schools where there is so much emotional baggage around a subject,” Huss says. “To suggest doing it differently, you have to confront years and years and years of thinking that talking with young kids about sex is dangerous.”

After decades of striving for change both within and beyond Park’s walls, Roffman is optimistic about the future of sexuality education at progressive private schools like Campbell Hall and Park. “I’ve always believed that independent schools have the responsibility to give back to the larger educational community,” she told me. “It’s up to us to demonstrate that, yes, this can be done well and successfully.”

By contrast, “I see very limited movement in the public sector,” she said. And in a country where only a minority of states require medically accurate sex-education classes, her dream of seamlessly integrating the subject from kindergarten up may be a long way off. But Roffman has lived through one sexual revolution, and she holds out hope for a second, in education.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.