In today's world, teens are bombarded with sexual messages — in movies, on TV, in music, magazines and clothing. However, parents can also play an important role in shaping their children's views on sex — if only they could get them to listen.
Toward that end, Mothers of Youth (MOY) has invited an expert in sex education and communication to advise parents how to tackle this tricky subject with their children.
Deborah Roffman, a noted human-sexuality teacher and author of "Sex & Sensibility," will speak Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m. in the Franklin Middle School auditorium. The public is welcome; cost is $10. To RSVP, e-mail email@example.com.
"This is going to be terrific because it's information we don't have," said MOY member Mary Moore of Oak Hill. "I'm still at a loss as to how to talk to my kids about sex."
MOY is composed of mothers wanting to provide parents with the knowledge and skills they need to deal with teen-agers and the problems they face. Members live throughout Fairfax County — in Chantilly, Centreville, Clifton, Herndon, Oak Hill, Reston, Fairfax, Oakton, Vienna, etc.
Their October meeting on parenting drew 200 people and, said Moore, many said it "gave them a new perspective about really facing the truth about what's going on [in their children's lives]. Sex is a topic the [community] coalitions aren't allowed to discuss, but parents have to talk about it openly with their children."
However, parents often don't want to acknowledge the possibility that their teen-agers could be involved in sexual acts — or might even be thinking about sex. Yet, said Moore, it's important that parents tell them how they feel about such things. But it's not easy.
"I know what I believe is right, but how do I get it across to them what they should do, for example, regarding birth control and AIDS?" she asked. "They think they're immortal and it won't happen to them — but it's a real danger."
In this age of instant gratification, said Moore, parents want teens to understand why they should have particular ethics and morals, "when they know other kids are doing it. The whole thing is just scary to parents of teens, and the more information we can get about how to speak to them about it, the better off we'll be." And since moms often ask dads to speak to their sons about sex, she hopes they, too, will attend Roffman's talk.
Roffman, 55, of Baltimore, is a nationally certified sexuality and family life educator who's taught for 28 years. She teaches human sexuality education to grades 4-12 at The Park School in Baltimore and several other schools and has worked in sex education for 32 years. She's also written articles in national newspapers and appeared on "Nightline," "20-20" and "The Early Show."
Married 33 years, she has two sons, 28 and 22. She holds a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in health education and has written two books including, in 2001, "Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense about Sex."
"I want to help parents understand their children better and recognize that parents make the difference in terms of children's sexual health," explained Roffman. "Scientific research has shown that children who grow up in a household where sexuality is openly discussed grow up healthier in a number of ways."
She said the roles of families and schools in this arena are not interchangeable, so asking, "Whose job is it — the school's or the family's?" — is missing the point. It's more complex than that.
"All my work is based around the fact that children and adolescents have five fundamental needs: Affirmation, information, clear values, clear limits and anticipatory guidance," said Roffman. "We're the adults — we're supposed to build in the things children need to become independent from us."
As for affirmation, she said parents must understand their children's sexual needs from birth on; otherwise, they can't nurture their children properly. "We, as a culture, do not understand our children's needs in regard to their sexual development," she said. "[But] both families and schools have roles to play in meeting [them]."
Roffman first told her sons, then 6 and 12, about AIDS while she donated blood, introducing that topic "in the context I wanted to do it in — and before anyone else did. And that's my job as a parent."
Typically, in American culture, said Roffman, when parents say "sex," they mean sexual intercourse. But that's only part of it, she said — people react to each other sexually in a number of ways.
"Sex is a special and unique way that adults hug, kiss and touch one another that gives them wonderful feelings of pleasure and closeness," she said. "This a human explanation — and, boy, do our children need to hear this from us. In this culture where children see sex impersonalized and about body parts, I want them to know it's about human relationships."
Roffman said the major reason kids don't consider oral sex as being sex is because some parents don't think so, either. Fairfax County is about to give some of its students a survey including questions about their sexual behavior.
She hasn't seen the survey, but said, "If the questions only ask about sexual intercourse, it's implying that this is the only kind of sex — and the only one that's important to think and talk about and apply values to," she said. "And as a result [of this type of thinking by adults], our children are engaging in all sorts of other sexual activities — under the most dehumanizing of circumstances."
Roffman said parents don't articulate clearly how to handle sex in their own lives, "and we pass that on to our kids. I consider most Americans developmentally disabled about this issue. They also haven't learned about sex in a systemic, age-appropriate way as they [grew] up."
But things are more complicated now, she said, because "into that vacuum has stepped advertisements, entertainment and merchandising, increasingly targeting their messages at younger and younger children — and [not having] our children's best interests at heart."
In this way, said Roffman, girls are trained to take on the stereotypical-male role "where sex supposedly is only about doing it, not about relationships. And I'm deeply concerned about our young girls because they're being pressured in so many ways that are damaging to their development and self-esteem that it's just unconscionable. And this is terrible for boys, as well."
She said most girls who engage in oral sex define their worth by being able to attract a boy's attention — thereby basing their decisions on someone else's terms. "They're being conditioned to think of sex as meaningless," said Roffman. "Girls still want to live happily ever after — relationships are still important to them. But they're being pressured to act as if they're not, and they're being separated from who they really are."
She said almost every image of women and girls in today's culture portrays them as being available for sex and "good for one thing" — not to otherwise be taken seriously. And, she added, "If boys and men demean them, they also demean themselves. And what does this say about the character development of our young men?"
That's why, said Roffman, it's so vital for parents to be their children's cultural interpreters. "We have to take our children back," she said. "Parents have to be retrained to know how to think about this subject, understand their children's needs and learn the skills to meet them."
And that's what her book — available at bookstores, Amazon and the Web site, sexandsensibility.net — is about. Roffman will explain more, Feb. 5, at Franklin Middle School. To contact MOY, call Moore at 703-715-0704.