Sunday, April 3, 2011

Getting Your Message Across Without Putting People Off

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation on Veganism. It was someone else presenting at my practicum site, so I wasn't there specifically to hear the program, though I generally don't have anything against the veg-eating folk. It's just not something I'm particularly passionate about. Call me neutral. The reason I decided to blog about it is that I left that presentation feeling attacked and completely alienated from the topic. I never want to make anyone feel like that in a presentation. Ever.

In case you aren't familiar with the arguments for Veganism, there are a number of very graphic videos on youtube depicting cruelty to animals. The presenter started with one of these videos and went on to explain how our bodies aren't designed to process meat and that raising animals for food hurts the environment. There was actually quite a bit of evidence that made sense for what was being put forward. The problem was, right from the very beginning, I was made to feel ashamed for eating and liking to eat meat. I have had discussions about Veganism before, as my former boss is vegan and she would explain her view on the subject. Not once did I come away from those discussions feeling ashamed for eating meat like I did from this program. I felt like I was being bullied and when you are in that situation you don't open up to new ideas – you get defensive and shut down.

What does this have to do with sexuality education? Well, there are many an issue that we as sexuality educators can come from a place of “I'm right, what you thought is wrong”. One example is sexual assault prevention. Often the message given to men on college campuses is that “no means no, no matter what”. What about the fact that women in our culture are often taught to play coy? That “no” might mean, “you're going to have to work for it”, or “make me want it”? If the only thing we teach is “no means no”, when often it doesn't, does that really get the students to listen, or do they ignore the message because it is contradictory to their reality?

Another issue that is at the core of my passion is fat sex. I realized half way through that program on Veganism that it would be incredibly easy to alienate participants from my ideas on fat sex because it is hard to give people the space they need to think, reflect and rethink their position about fat and fat people and then connect that to sex. I know that the first step is to own my bias (something the vegan presenter did not do) and let others know that this is not necessarily an easy topic to come around about.

So the questions I want to pose are, how else might I approach this topic without shutting people down? And what are some of your sensitive topics that you have encountered and how did you navigate the hard points well (or not so well)?

           ~Rachel Girard


  1. Rachel,
    I think you're right that it's a great idea to name your bias and show your awareness that this may be a new topic for many people. I think that part of what you can do is to remember how it felt for you to be an audience member in that vegan presentation. Think about what that instructor did, specifically, that made you feel shut down and shamed about your preference for meat eating. Remain open towards viewpoints of your participants and set the tone for comfortability. Establish an environment where questions and discussions are encouraged with sensitivity and respect.
    I have been involved with a parent night presentation for the child sexual abuse agency where I've completed my community partner project. I mainly acted as an observer in this particular situation and did some minor assisting with acquiring feedback forms. The subject matter is child sexual abuse - which I tend to think of as a fairly sensitive issue. I saw parents become a little bit defensive during the Q and A session. The way that the presenters handled this (to prevent this defensiveness to escalate or turn into feelings of alienation) was to first remain calm, then to respond in ways that showed the parents they were respected.
    Sometimes it's a nice touch to simply thank your audience for their participation - which was another tool that these presenters used. They said something like, "I really want to applaud you all for being great parents. Thank you so much for giving us your time. We know that you all care a great deal about keeping your kids safe."
    I'm not sure who your target audience will be for this topic, but I would imagine that you'll be working with adult learners and therefore it might be helpful to simply show your appreciation for their participation.

  2. Rachel,

    In my practicum i do a lot of education on topics like dating violence, healthy relationships and sexual harassment/assault/rape, etc. I always approach the topic from a point of view that absolutely anyone can be an abuser, not just men, and that anyone can be abused or assaulted, not just women. often times the boys will bring up the topic of double standards (and if they don't bring it up i do) of men always being the abusers or attackers. i always make sure that i validate their feelings about that- not all men are abusive, and men can and are sometimes abused by women, and we talk about the ways in which women can abuse men and the types of abusive that don't require a woman to be able to overpower a man (like verbal or mental abuse, or even burning a partner with something hot). I never come out and say to the boys "you are abusive, or you may become an abusive partner," but we do talk about strategies they can use if they get angry in an argument, like deep breathing or leaving the room.

    I also make sure that we talk about abuse in gay and lesbian relationships. i try to use the word partner as much as possible, but often times the students will revert to gendered language like bf/gf or husband/wife. we specifically talk about whether or not abuse can or does happen in gay/lesbian relationships. They seem to respond pretty well to this, and once a boy asked about non-heterosexual relationships and abuse.

    I hope this helps!

  3. Rachel, such a relevant issue you bring up in your post. It seems that (potential) alienation and sexuality are fraternal twins. They share the same space (the information), but can come out looking completely different (alienation, shutting down, defensiveness, anger).

    I echo Jamie’s statement on owning your own bias, but I would also say it’s important to know that although you were shut down there were some people in that presentation, who received, what they feel, is important information. What this differing of perception says to me, on a critical level, is that I have to accept as an educator (because this is bigger than sexuality) that some people are just not going to care. More importantly, not everyone has to care. I’m aware that I won’t reach everyone in my presentations, but yet and still, it’s bigger than that. Every topic or concern will not be relevant to most people – it’s unrealistic to think that. I can’t care about Black sexuality, and politics, and poverty, and saving the Earth, and stopping the conflict in Libya, and whatever else is happening in this world to the same degree. I have to prioritize otherwise I will be emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. Can I seek out new knowledge (just as you did with Veganism)? Absolutely, but seeking new knowledge doesn’t mean it now has to be my life’s work. Similarly, there will be folks who come to our presentations, classes, events who are just curious, not ready to be converted. Maybe as sexuality educators if we humble ourselves and acknowledge that the rest of the world doesn’t eat and breathe sexuality as we might (probably because they care more about veganism or some other cause), it could open up our sensibilities and minimize the “put off-ness factor” that you felt.


  4. Rachel,

    This is a great thing for all of us to consider. Also interesting to consider how differently someone may view a presentation from one individual to another. Someone may take our presentation or perspective as an affront when we may not intend for it to be such. We need to pay attention to this, without a doubt!

    Another prespective that I wanted to point out is that certain topics often do cause us to feel attacked and sometimes it has very little to do with the presenter or presentation. I have certainly had times in courses where I felt internally defensive of my position on a topic even though the lesson wasn't aimed at attacking my position. I think for me, that it was helpful because it helped me to clarify why I felt so strongly about my position in the first place. I guess what I'm saying is that sex ed, by nature, can push people and sometimes it can be a really great thing. Other thoughts?


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  6. This is a great topic and certainly something I want to be aware of in my work. As an educator I try my best not to shut down an audience because as you mentioned, it is very hard if not impossible to get them back once that has happened. In general, much of what we learn about creating a safe environment for participants would likely help this situation. It seems that this particular presenter did not set up an environment which was safe for participants, especially those of the meat-eating variety. As Hedgepeth & Helmich (1996) acknowledge, “learners want to know…that you are skilled as a teacher, open-minded, and respectful of their personal beliefs and life-styles” (p. 41). Based on your blog, this instructor seemed to be missing most of these ideals. It may have been more helpful to set up the workshop by acknowledging the biased perspective that was going to be presented while also including time for discussion from the audience about different perspectives on the topic. One way to diffuse a potentially defensive situation is to allow a range of viewpoints to be expressed. Perhaps the instructor could have given more time at the beginning to allow participants to explore their own opinions and reactions to veganism and share these with the group instead of just preaching about one particular perspective. I’m sorry about your experience though it seems to have sparked some great conversation on what NOT to do in education.

    Hedgepeth, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Principles
    and methods for effective education:
    Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York,
    NY: New York University Press.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. While I was reading Rachel I realized that something similar had happened to me once. I was in a health and nutrition class that had 8 students. Seven of them were under 100 pounds and then their was me. I have an eating disorder and being in that class was very difficult for me and at times the teacher did not know how to approach some topics because she was afraid I would be offended. Reflecting back I now realize that if the educator had began the class talking about the diversity of bodies and lifestyles that exist I would have felt more comfortable and not so insecure and depressed. Educators need to be very observant and recognize when their are students that are excluded. Our mission should be to empower students and to provide information but as an educator it is our job and responsibility to make sure that the environment is a safe space where people can learn and grow. So Rachel I have felt this same way but I had no tools to deal with the emotions that kept me from learning anything in that class. What I have observed is that some educators with experience seem to realize when these situations happen more than the inexperienced ones and this makes me think that being observant and finding ways to create a safe space for people is a skill that can be developed with time. In short, one should always think about possible problems or issues that may arise when educating taking into account the factors involved like place, participants, age, etc. This will help us be prepared for those things that may arise. However, One cannot think of absolutely everything that can go wrong so we should also be aware of our limits as human beings and learn from our mistakes.

    Posted by: Karla Diaz

  8. A sex educator must have a gamete of knowledge. Of course, the educator must have the data to back up their lesson plan, this is not to say that the educator's knowledge is finite. This is to say that a sex educator might be discussing safer sex preactices to a group of individuals who perfer to bare back. Dispite the well know implications of this behavior, a sex educator might have to look at safe bare backing practices to meet the needs of the audience. Whether right or wrong the behavior should not be chastized but taught without judgement so that the learner can be educated on safer practices. So I often feel that I cannot let my biases show, but rather, bring to the table different perspectives that allow the learner to come to his or her own conclusion.
    "I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework" Lily Tomlin as "Edith Ann"

  9. There can sometimes be a fine line between passion and militancy. I can imagine that in the example of the vegan presentation, that was probably a topic that the presenters felt extremely passionate about. And teaching your passion is generally great advice! That is why most of us got into teaching about sex, right? But I can imagine that our passion can be off-putting or overwhelming to an audience that doesn't share our values.

    I often teach risk reduction techniques to be used with patients who participate in risky sexual behavior. The aim is to get people to accept small increments of behavior change to decrease their risks, step by step. I wonder if this same concept can be applied in reverse. In other words, propose our ideas in a way that people can accept small increments? I could imagine this would be a good technique in situations where the speaker is worried about alienating the audience.