In 1982, Martha Roper received her first death threat.
Martha—perhaps better known as Ms. Roper—is not a drug trafficker or a gang member. She does not work for the government, or involve herself in dangerous, secret operations. She does not even run an abortion clinic. She teaches sexuality education.
Martha Roper is an award-winning, widely acclaimed sexuality education teacher and author in the state of Missouri. She holds a master’s degree in family and community relations from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and taught sexuality education in Missouri for over thirty years.
“I had a 13-year-old son around that time,” Ms. Roper told me. “Fortunately, he had a sense of humor, and when a letter addressed to ‘Lesbian Slut’ or ‘Sex Sinner’ would arrive in the mail box, he would say, ‘I think this one’s for you, Mom.’”
Ms. Roper began receiving death threats and hate mail in the early eighties, and they have never completely stopped. Since the advent of the Internet and online technologies such as Google Earth and Google Maps, Roper has had to become much more quiet for her own safety.
In the state of Missouri—or perhaps we should say “misery” as Martha jokingly tells me—it is not possible to get an advanced degree in Health Education without a major in Physical Education. Neither degree leads to a teaching credential. Upon returning to Missouri after obtaining the degree that she felt she needed in New York, Roper looked for jobs as a sexuality education teacher only to be told that her skills would not be needed, because “we don’t have that problem here.”
As a Missouri native who felt that she entered marriage and motherhood with little knowledge of sex and sexuality, Ms. Roper was determined to stay in her home state, and teach the curriculum that she had always needed and never had.
“One day, a rumor started that I wore a red shirt the mornings after I would have sex with my husband,” Martha told me. “Obviously, there was no truth in that. No matter how absurd it was, the rumor would not die. Kids told their parents, their parents told the principal. Young adult teachers even helped spread the rumor! Even my department head assumed it was true.
“If that doesn’t turn a teacher away from dealing with anything remotely sexual, what will?
“I was extremely lucky that my school’s principal would have defended me until the day I died. He would tell parents who complained, ‘If your child’s math teacher had a master’s degree and was an expert in their field of study, would you call me to complain that your child was learning too much in their math class?’ ”
Another veteran sexuality educator and sexuality education advocate, Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, now executive director of Answer, tells me that even teachers in more liberal states, such as her home state of New Jersey, face the same stigma and fear teaching sexuality education.
“Even in states where there is a mandate or a law, such as New Jersey and now New York City, there are no systems of accountability. It is still incumbent upon the very brave teachers who are willing to risk difficult questions from the students, controversy from the school board and ultimately their job security to keep sexuality education alive. No educator or administrator should have to feel like their job is on the line when they are adhering to their state’s law.”