In this third installment of Answer’s blog series, Inter(sex)tions, sexuality educator Deborah Roffman tells us why human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. Ms. Roffman has been teaching sexuality education for over 40 years in grades 4-12 and is also the author of three books: Talk to Me First, Sex and Sensibility and But How’d I Get in There in the First Place. Sexuality is a topic that is too often reduced to genitals and sexual behaviors. Ms. Roffman shares how sexuality educators can begin to get at the complexity of human sexuality by making connections from sexuality to just about any other academic subject area. She encourages all teachers to make deliberate, ongoing connections for students between the topic of sexuality and other academic disciplines, to promote students’ critical thinking about a topic that is too often portrayed in simplistic ways.
“Years ago I read that the average American adult processes information about sexuality on a second grade level,” explains Ms. Roffman. “That really struck a chord, because of what I know about cognitive development. Before ages 7 to 8, children process information very concretely; they can’t yet mentally step back far enough to ‘see’ or grasp the context around the content of life. While most adults are fully able to think contextually about many, many other topics, because of the poor quality of the ‘sex ed’ they likely experienced, they may be ‘stuck’ at a concrete level of understanding.”
With such a wealth of teaching experience and a deep commitment to broadening how we think, talk and teach about human sexuality, we were excited to have Ms. Roffman share her insights into teaching sexuality education and teaching across topic areas.
Answer: You have noted that sexuality educators need to help students move beyond a limited understanding of sex and sexual health that narrowly focuses on the genitals. Why is this so important?
Roffman: The excessive emphasis in our culture on the genital aspects of sexuality—rather than the whole human being attached to those genitals—reflects and reinforces what in my mind is an ultimately dehumanized understanding of who we are as sexual beings. My mantra to my students is that, no, they are not “walking talking genitals.” They are thinking, feeling, caring, valuing, relating, communicating, decision-making, self-care taking human beings, who (also) happen to have genitals.
I want them to understand too that “human sexuality” is not just longhand for “sex” or “sexual health.” It is an exceptionally broad field of study that encompasses anything and everything in the world that connects meaningfully to issues of sex, gender and reproduction. And, if you think deeply enough about those three issues, that is just about everything in the world! After all, sexuality is the fundamental life force. Why wouldn’t it be connected to everything?
So, the point, on both the personal and macro levels, is to engage students in thinking deeply and critically about themselves and the world around them in as many ways as possible. That’s the point of education, right?
Answer: Given the constraints on the time many educators have to provide sexuality education, what can educators do to help broaden students’ understanding of sexuality?
Roffman: My first response to this type of question is that, as sexuality educators, we must also be child and youth advocates. We have to be prepared to articulate persuasively—to administrators and everyone else who needs to know—that the way we are most often required to teach this subject matter is neither pedagogically sound (large groups, brief sessions, few classes, little continuity across age groups) nor developmentally sound (way too little too late), and how that needs to change for us to do well by our students. Until it does, I find that assigning meaningful readings, especially those that relate to our curriculum or to relevant current events, keeps the learning exciting and dynamic. In any three-month period, practically all of the topics I want my students to think deeply about will appear in print or online media.
Answer: Can you give us a few examples of how sexuality educators can use other disciplines—such as math, history or even astronomy—to teach about human sexuality?
Roffman: This skill comes with the recognition that the topic of human sexuality and all of life itself are astonishingly interconnected. Think about the myriad ways that sex, gender and reproduction intersect with the following disciplines, by no means an exhaustive list: history (Henry VIII’s domestic and public life, for example, was all about sex, gender and reproduction!), religion, economics, politics, government, war and peace; all of the basic sciences, all of the arts, literature; mental and physical health, disability, child and adolescent development, health education, public health; race, gender, ethnicity, and class; world cultures, social studies, social justice, psychology, sociology, marriage and family; psychiatry, medicine, pharmacy, law; the armed services, criminology, journalism, linguistics, and anthropology; communications, mass media, technology, social networking, marketing; philosophy, morality and ethics.
Even topics that may seem totally unrelated to sexuality aren’t really: architecture (would women throughout the ages have designed all of those phallic-shaped structures?); agriculture (the invention of which established the sexual double standard and solidified the notion of women as property), geology (Mother Earth); and astronomy (think constellations).
Answer: How can educators in other fields be sexuality educators? What opportunities could there be for educators in sexuality education to partner with their colleagues in other academic fields?
Roffman: Human sexuality is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic. That means all teachers are potential human sexuality educators. A middle school math teacher was sitting in a faculty group at his school when I quoted the statistic that if two people begin to engage in sexual intercourse at 16, with each having two and only two partners that year and repeating that exact pattern each year thereafter with two new partners, by age 20 each will have been exposed directly and indirectly to 100 partners. Intrigued, he went straight to his 7th grade class the very next period, tossed his lesson for the day and instead challenged them to work out this interesting and important mathematical progression!
Integrating human sexuality into every-day learning was a genuine gift to his students, who within 40 minutes broadened their practical understanding of math (and STIs), made important connections among subject matters, and learned to think more critically about human sexuality. Most importantly, they identified yet another adult in their school community who was “askable” and available for conversations about sexuality. Imagine a whole school full of teachers playing these roles, even if only briefly and once in a while!
Answer: What advice do you have for educators?
Roffman: I’ve advocated, well, forever, for a reframing of our subject matter from “sex” to “human sexuality,” and meaning it in the broadest possible way. In the general public, the work we do is most fundamentally associated with “sex” (which, by the way, makes us more vulnerable to attack) and sexual parts, not the growing, developing human being attached to them and the infinite ways that issues of sex, gender and reproduction play themselves out in human life. That’s the way, I think, to get us all past second grade.