Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex


With a rare directness and clarity about sex and reproduction, sexual values, and cultural influences on sexuality, Deborah Roffman challenges and teaches readers how to develop a blueprint for opening the lines of communication with children of all ages. Sex and Sensibility introduces the five core parenting skills that parents need to confidently interpret and comfortably respond to virtually any question a child might pose or any situation that arises. Powerfully instructive and thought provoking, it should be...

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With a rare directness and clarity about sex and reproduction, sexual values, and cultural influences on sexuality, Deborah Roffman challenges and teaches readers how to develop a blueprint for opening the lines of communication with children of all ages. Sex and Sensibility introduces the five core parenting skills that parents need to confidently interpret and comfortably respond to virtually any question a child might pose or any situation that arises. Powerfully instructive and thought provoking, it should be required reading for parents; it will inspire honest talk about sex and sexuality, helping all of us be better parents for the effort.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Our Review
My three-year-old knows there are certain words that are inappropriate for him to use, words like "stupid" and "idiot." Whenever he hears them, he is proud to proclaim, "That is not a nice word." The other day, however, he overheard a conversation about the sex of a baby and promptly informed the speaker that "sex" wasn't a nice word. Since we have certainly never discussed "sex" with him, we had to wonder where a three-year-old, without older siblings or playmates, picks up an idea like that! What should we, as parents, do about it? We wouldn't want our child to grow up thinking that sex was inherently bad, but isn't age three a little young for the birds and the bees? Deborah Roffman, a certified sexuality and family life educator, addresses this and countless other issues of pressing concern to parents who want to raise sexually healthy children.

The book is built upon a set of six basic beliefs:

  • Sexual knowledge is good for our children.
  • Too little sexual knowledge too late should be our concern, not too much too soon.
  • Sex means more than just intercourse.
  • Values education is at the heart of sexual education.
  • Sexuality means more than just sex.
  • Parents and schools have a moral responsibility to educate children about sexuality.
The author writes about each of these issues persuasively and with precision. As she does so, she emphasizes the practical steps parents can take and the simple conversations parents can have that will help steer our children toward healthy sexual development.

Throughout the book, Roffman emphasizes the power language has to influence and mold our thinking, and she offers language to help readers rethink sexuality. For example, to use the word "sex" to mean only intercourse implies that the same responsibilities do not necessarily apply to the whole range of other sexual behavior -- a topic quite relevant even to presidential politics in the '90s. She points out that "sexuality" involves more than just a broad view of "sex" and includes health, values, intimacy, sensuality, gender, and development. Although the emphasis on exactly which words to use may seem trivial to some parents, the author's discussions of why particular words and phrases are unhelpful contain very practical information and advice for the parent or teacher struggling over what to say and how to say it.

Despite the serious and potentially uncomfortable topic, Roffman uses an efficient, conversational tone that gets to the heart of the issues and takes time for a laugh or two. As she explains that she never set out to be in the field of sex education, she writes, "In one recurring nightmare, I run into an old boyfriend from college. When he learns what I do for a living, he can be heard laughing uncontrollably. They finally have to sedate him to get him to stop."

This is not an encyclopedia of facts about sexuality -- the reader will not find out how long it takes to get a 100 percent accurate result from an HIV test. Instead, Sex and Sensibility attempts to help us reshape the ways in which we deal with our children, from toddlers to 20-year-olds, with respect to sex and sexuality. It offers ways to see, ways to listen, and ways to talk and behave so that our children learn how to make wise and happy choices about all things sexual.

--Kate Montgomery

Los Angeles Times
A wonderful book. It untangles the knotted ball of yarn that we have made of the subject [of sex]. It is also a clearheaded script for talking to your children about sex.
Michael Gurian
A remarkably wise book. It offers a new way of thinking about sex and sexuality.
From The Critics
I have mixed feelings about this book. It is a very thorough and thought-provoking book about sex education. The author, however, has very strong opinions about what children need to know. She is not an "abstinence only" sex educator, so parents will need to examine their own values and be open to Deborah Roffman's experience and information. She provides many insights and observations about children's perceptions, gained as a result of teaching sex education for many years. She tackles tough topics such as gender identification, AIDS, sexually-transmitted diseases, and teen pregnancy. I think parents who are very conservative will have some issues with Mrs. Roffman's approach, but other parents will find the directness and honesty helpful. 2001, Perseus Books, $26.00. Ages Adult. Reviewer: S. Latson SOURCE: Parent Council Volume 8
Library Journal
This highly intellectual primer will appeal to parents who want to know the theoretical as well as the practical "whys" and "hows" of talking to children about sex. Roffman, a certified sex educator for 30 years, addresses definitions of sex and discusses age appropriateness and values, "doing" vs. "being," gender, and family/school partnerships, relating them to young people's needs for affirmation, information, values, limits, and guidance. Her insights and tips are outstanding, e.g., when she discusses dealing with sex in the media and forming alliances with other parents. How to listen and how to present viewpoints to spark dialog, not conflict, are also well handled. Yet the intellectualism and writing style that will appeal to college-educated and "idea"-type parents make Roffman's message inaccessible to readers more accustomed to sound bites and the simple prose of consumer magazines. Also, more and longer examples of parent-child dialogs would have improved this guide's usefulness. Highly recommended, but also suggest Mary Calderone and James Ramey's still-valuable Talking with Your Child About Sex (o.p.), which is over half sample dialogs. Martha Cornog, Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780738205205
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 11/29/2001
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 336,625
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah M. Roffman, M.S., a nationally certified Sexuality and Family Life Educator, is an associate editor of the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy and the author of Sex and Sensibility. She has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Table of Contents

Preface: My Mother Always Wanted Me to Be a Sex Educator, and Other Myths

  1. Part 1 New Ways of Thinking and Talking

  2. Starting Over: We Can't Get There From Here
  3. Age Appropriateness: Too Much, Too Little, Or Just Right?
  4. What Is Sex, Really?
  5. Values: Becoming Your Child's Cultural Interpreter
  6. Sexuality: More Who We Are Than What We Do
  7. Gender: Girls Aren't from Venus, Boys Aren't from Mars
  8. Partnership: Families and Schools Working Together

    Part 2 Raising Sexually Healthy Children

  9. Sexual Health: Five Universal Needs Along the Way
  10. Affirmation: Seeing and Hearing Children as They Are
  11. Information Giving: Empowering Children Through Knowledge
  12. Values Clarification: Highlighting "Right" Thinking
  13. Limit Setting: Keeping Our Children Safe and Healthy
  14. Anticipatory Guidance: Making Ourselves Dispensable
  15. Sexual Orientation: Why and How It's Everyone's Business
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My Mother Always Wanted Me to Be a Sex Educator, and Other Myths

Life is full of unpredictable twists, but in my case it made a full hairpin turn. I don't know anyone less destined than I for a career in sex education. In one recurring nightmare, I run into an old boyfriend from college. When he learns what I do for a living, he can be heard laughing uncontrollably. They finally have to sedate him to get him to stop. It is very embarrassing. In real life, my mother and I barely discussed anything as sensitive as periods, so if she had hopes or dreams about my becoming a sex educator when I grew up, she never mentioned them.

So how did I turn up in this most unlikely of professions? Totally by accident, I can assure you. It was the early 1970s, and I needed a new job. On a tip, I interviewed for a community educator's position at a local family planning agency. To this day, I still wonder why I was hired. Sometimes I think the director simply wanted to demonstrate that you literally could take anybody off the street and make her into a sex educator (thereby proving that there is hope for us all!). But, nonetheless, within two weeks, I was traveling the state of Maryland talking to people I had never met before about sex and birth control, and waving diaphragms, IUDs, and condoms in front of them.

No one was more astonished than I that I could do just that. Up until then, I had not uttered the words "penis" or "vagina" more than three times during the previous twenty-three years. (That is only once every seven and a half years or so, and not a lot of practice). Suddenly, I was having to say these words, and plenty more like them, for a living—in front of Girl Scouts, garden clubs, rap groups, college kids, foster parents, social workers, nursery school teachers, armed forces personnel, Rotarians, prison inmates, and just about any other category of folks you could name.

It was fun, adventurous even. Though the sixties had passed me by as a naive high school and college student, I was catching up in a hurry as a young professional working in a "child of the sixties" movement. The family planning and sexuality education fields were in their infancy, and my agency was at the cutting edge of both. With family planning declared a national priority, clinical and educational facilities were being funded all over the United States.

Consequently, shortly after I was hired, the agency was awarded a federal grant to train newly hired personnel throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The challenge was scary and exciting. I myself had barely learned the rudiments of teaching, and before I could blink, I was being asked to show others. There were so few of us, and precious few good resources. We had to learn quickly (mostly by trial and error), and then teach the next guy how to do it. As a result, from practically the first day I've walked into a classroom, I've brought a triple layer of questions: What's the best and quickest way to get this lesson across? Exactly what's working, what isn't, and why? What did I learn today about teaching, and how can I most effectively pass it on?

After all these years of fallopian tubes, I am even more excited to be in the classroom today than I was thirty years ago. I'm still asking the very same questions and discovering new answers every day. I'm still constantly teaching about teaching and trying hard to impart whatever I'm learning as quickly as possible. Over the years, I've worked with thousands of students, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, health care professionals, and youth workers of all kinds; my sense of urgency has only increased as a new list of topics and problems—HIV, gender, sexual harassment, date rape, the special needs of sexual minority youth—has entered the picture.

It is my concern over these and other issues, and my frustration at not being able to impart my learning quickly enough, that have motivated me to write this book. I wrote it fully committed to the proposition that what children and adolescents need most are not sexuality "experts," but wider and wider circles of everyday adults available to them for open dialogue about sexual matters. Otherwise, my work and the work of all of us in the classroom, no matter how skillful, become isolated, out-of-context learning experiences with, ultimately, very limited impact.

All our work as professionals is severely limited unless the role of parents—our children's primary and most important sexuality educators—can be strengthened. Consistently, research documents that children who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed grow up healthier, a finding that should cause no great surprise. Moreover, when parents do not take positive, conscious, and proactive roles, much of the work in the classroom becomes remediation—helping children unlearn inaccurate information and destructive attitudes—before new learning can even begin to take place.

I believe that these truths about the sexual learning process create a mandate for all of us who work as sexuality educators: To be truly effective, we must—as an essential component of our work, never as a sideline, an afterthought, or a defensive measure—encourage and support parents. Unless we work with parents as full partners, no matter how skilled and successful we may be as teachers, we may well be sabotaging our own efforts. Unless we constantly define and highlight the complementary but unique and critical role of parents, we risk encouraging a false sense of relief for them and a false sense of reliance on us. By allowing the perception that we are giving children all that they need, we may inadvertently disempower the very adults who can help them the most.

Although I have worked in a great variety of settings over the years, the independent school community is where I have learned most of what I know about children and adolescents, development, and teaching. In the many fine, independent schools in the Baltimore/Washington area and throughout the country where I have worked as a teacher and consultant, I have been struck most by the ongoing commitment to identifying and meeting real developmental need. Whether the school considers itself very "traditional" or one that is more on the "progressive" end of the continuum, adults in all these institutions consistently try to tell children the truth about the world around them, and the children, in turn, are allowed and encouraged to tell us the truth about themselves and their world. As simple as this may sound, in the midst of a culture that operates out of denial about so many sensitive issues, most especially sexuality, institutions like these provide children an oasis of honesty, openness, and directness. And for adults, these schools are veritable laboratories for learning about children and their needs as they grow up in this very complex world. Consequently, in my work as a sexuality educator in the independent school community, I have always been encouraged, and in fact implicitly expected, to be in touch with and accommodate the real needs and interests of children.

I began teaching in independent education in 1975, having both attended and taught classes in many other schools where caution, not accommodation, was the primary operative. I was, therefore, a little slow at first to fully catch on. Then one day I came to work and was greeted by someone asking a rather unusual question: "Hey, Deb, have you seen the Womb Room?"

"Womb Room? What's a womb room?" I asked sheepishly, because if indeed there was such a place, then I, the resident "sex lady," as the kids called me, should certainly be able to speak about it intelligently.

"It's upstairs at the end of the upper school hallway," I was matter-of-factly informed.

A short flight up, and I could hardly believe my eyes. The senior drama class had decided to put on as its final project an avant-garde play about a serious contemporary issue. The topic they had chosen, after research and deliberation, was sexually transmitted disease—venereal disease, as it was called at the time. Their teacher had helped them locate a play about Gonorrhea and Syphilis, quite literally, as these were the names of its central characters. The third and only other player was—who else?—Penicillin. (You can tell how long ago this was by the absence of any other actors; there wasn't even so much as a Penicillin-Resistant Gonorrhea character, let alone someone named Herpes, Chlamydia, or HIV.)

To achieve maximum dramatic effect, the class had obtained permission to turn their classroom into a suitable stage. They accomplished this feat by transforming the entire space into the inside of a uterus! Using various shades of crepe paper, with lots of reds and pinks, they had lowered the ceiling to create a truly womblike setting. To enter the womb room, the audience walked single file through a long tunnel, constructed from dark, folded blankets strung from above. After a sharp, anatomically correct right turn, a brief walk through the cervical canal brought the audience center stage, or rather center uterus, where they sat on benches and watched the performance. In the background, a faint, rhythmic, swooshing sound (fetal heart beat? menstrual sloshing?) pervaded the cavity.

On the way out, audience members were handed a pencil and a brief true/false quiz about gonorrhea and syphilis, complete with latest statistics, appropriate admonishments, and a list of places to go for help. The entire upper school, including students, faculty, and parents, was invited to attend one of the numerous performances offered throughout the day, and even middle schoolers were welcome. After some thought, though, and with help from the middle school principal, the students decided to discourage sixth-graders. As consummate concrete thinkers, the sixth-graders may have drawn some pretty strange conclusions about how human bodies—or upper school classrooms—are actually constructed!

As amazing as all this was to me, the most remarkable part was the casual reaction of the school community. No student was surprised, no teacher got nervous, no parent got outraged, no administrator got so much as a phone call. What's most important, nobody got, or gave, the message, either directly or indirectly, that there was anything special or unusual about this topic. Human sexuality was just another interesting and important subject—like all the others addressed during the course of a normal school day&151;to think, learn, wonder, and ask about.

In fact, the only person who seemed unglued at all was me, the sex lady. I stood in the corner, silently taking it all in and trying hard not to let on that anything remarkable was happening—for fear of spoiling it!

Tragically, what is expressly permitted and encouraged at schools like this one is a revolutionary concept in U.S education: that children can and should be trusted to say spontaneously what they really think about and experience regarding sexuality, and that teachers can and should be trusted to respond in kind in whatever ways they feel are necessary and appropriate. In contrast, in most U.S. schools, when sexuality is dealt with at all, what is typically covered are the subjects that the adults in the building are most comfortable talking about or least afraid to teach about—or subjects permissible according to some distant mandate, prescriptive policy, or airtight, controversy-free curriculum finalized long before the first real live student enters the classroom. Somewhere in the midst of meeting all those adult needs, the real needs of the children and adolescents inevitably become lost, if they truly are ever considered at all.

Partially because they are more able than schools in the glare of the public eye, independent schools are willing to take the risks necessary to meet real student need. However, this incongruity is not fundamentally a public/private issue or dichotomy. There are many fine individual public schools and whole school districts that, despite real or perceived community opposition, insist on programs that are honest, inclusive, and relevant. What's more, many independent schools remain blind to the real needs of their students or cave in at the slightest hint of controversy. The critical difference lies in a realistic understanding and acceptance of developmental need, and an unshakable commitment to meeting it.

In an environment where children are not permitted to learn what they need and want to learn about sexuality, they lose. So do the adults in that environment. If students are not permitted to grow, neither are their teachers. When students are allowed to ask, stretch, and test, they teach, because they reveal themselves and their needs. When teachers are permitted to listen, respond, change course, take risks, make mistakes, and change course again, only then can they really teach.

We may decide, finally, that the stakes are now too high, and that our children and our teachers should be trusted to learn from and teach one another. But both students and teachers have already lost many opportunities to learn and to teach, and much precious time. Many of us are novices in territory that is foreign and dangerous.

Over these many years, I have been privileged to teach, to listen, to respond, to take risks, to make many mistakes, and to change course as often as I have needed. My hope is to help reclaim some of that lost time for others, by sharing what I have learned back from my students, who have taught me well.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 9, 2010

    The best parenting book I have ever read

    I recently heard Deborah Roffman speak and was very impressed. As the mother of a teenager, I was desperate for help on the subject of talking to my daughter about sexuality. This book was extremely intelligent and practical. I only wish I had read it years ago so that I could have begun the important discussions that will help shape my daughter's life. I feel I am a much better parent for having read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2002

    Book Suggests Tips That Lead to Meaningful Sex Discussion

    Although my kids are still very young (4 and 5), I bought this book to get myself prepared with the right answers and strategies when the time comes. I found an abundance of helpful information, especially in regards to dealing with the subjects of "sex" and "sexuality" with older children and other parents with similar concerns--such as how to open effective lines of communication that encourage two-way listening and dialog between parents (or teachers) and children--rather than arguing, threatening, and criticizing that often leads to misunderstandings, anger, disrespectful "attitude" and revenge. The author has a rather theoretical, more formal writing style which I think could have been complimented with more short, practical anecdotes, giving specific examples of the words to use with the kids. Also interspersing some clear bullet points throughout the text for those of us that are more comfortable with a more informal, simple format and tone would be welcomed. Therefore, if you have preschoolers like me, I also highly recommend "The Pocket Parent", a very practical, friendly A-Z troubleshooting guide written exclusively for parents and teachers of 2-5 year olds. There are a number of very helpful related issues addressed such as Sexuality, Friends, Listening, Lying, Television-Videos-Computers, and Potty Training. This pocketguide is not written in paragraphs, but rather hundreds of bullets of quick-read advice called "sanity savers". There are also many short, funny anecdotes and dialogs that demonstrate the exact words to use in your discussions. If you have young kids, consider both helpful books that compliment each other in style and subject matter for different ages.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2001

    Think Family Relationships

    I like all the open and good advice on how to think about and talk about sex with my children. I found it helpful to put the context of relationship around every coversation or crisis response. Thanks for the guide and the support.

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