You know the feeling. The kid in the back of the room raises his hand. You feel your stomach flop. You know it’s going to be a doozy and you have to answer it. Out comes a bizarre, slightly inappropriate question that you’re not even sure you know what it’s asking. What do you do? Panic? Re-consider your career choice? Mumble some answer and dive into a new topic?
One of the things I was most worried about when I started teaching at Planned Parenthood, was how I would answer a question calmly and efficiently, especially if it was something very charged or inappropriate. Luckily, one of the very first things we did while I was in training was to learn about how to answer sexuality questions. Cat Dukes, the VP of Education and Training at the Delaware Planned Parenthood developed a framework that I find particularly useful:
The very first words out of your mouth should always be “good question.” There are three reasons for this. First, if you do it sincerely, it’s very affirming to the person asking the question. They’ll feel good about themselves and that’s important because it may have been very hard for them to ask the question, even if it seems totally off-base to you. Second, it reassures the asker that you are a good, reliable source to sexuality information. Third, it gives you a chance to stall. Take a deep breath after “good question” and think before you speak! A lot of times we get nervous about the question, or about possibly saying the wrong thing, that we start to ramble without thinking about what we want to say first. (I know I’m guilty of that one at least!) Remember, you don’t want to end up on the news for something you said to a kid because they asked you a question about analingus.
If the question is a fact-based question—for example “If a boy and a girl both have HIV and they have unprotected sex can they give each other more HIV?” (real question I got yesterday)—and you are 100% sure that you know the answer, tell them the answer. However, if you’re not sure and it is a fact based question, say “I don’t know.” It is really important that we, as sexuality educators, get used to saying “I don’t know.” Of course we should be as well-versed in our subject manner as we can, but we are never going to know everything, and it is much better to admit to not knowing than to give faulty, possibly even dangerous, information out. As members of professional organizations, administrations and the Widener community, we should all strive to put out accurate information. That being said, if you don’t know, you should follow up with “but I can find out.” If possible, go home, do some research and return to the next class with the answer. A lot of the questions can be solved with a quick Google search or a quick call to a colleague with that particular sub-specialty. Your students will feel that you respect them by taking the time to get the answer, and if you still feel uncomfortable with saying I don’t know, you have the chance to “redeem yourself.”
Not all questions are fact based however, many are opinion questions. Whether these are personal questions (what kind of birth control do you use, Miss Kelly?) or permission seeking questions (is it okay if I masturbate?) or general opinion questions (is abortion good or bad?) there is no easy answer. “If you are a public educator, your charge is to illuminate the range of values that exist in the community and to assist students in examining their own values” (Hedgepeth and Helmich, 1996, p. 94). At PPDE, we are trained to use the following groupings: “for some, for others and for you.” In other words, you should cover both sides of the debate and then explain that the individual needs to make the decision on their own and encourage them to talk to family or trusted adults about the issue. So with the “is it okay if I masturbate” question a complete answer might go something like this: “Good question. For some people masturbation can feel very good and be a pleasant experience, for others they may not like to masturbate or may not believe it is a good idea because of religion or values. Only you can decide how you feel about masturbation, but you can also talk to your parents or other trusted adults to help you figure out what choice is right for you.”
You can use the framework for personal questions as well, as in the “what kind of birth control do you use” example. “Good question. Some people prefer methods such as condoms because they are cheap and very effective. Other people prefer hormonal methods because they don’t interrupt sexual play. For each person, the method that they are going to use with the highest degree of effectiveness is the best method for them. You can talk to your parents or the school nurse for more information on the different methods so you can choose the one that is right for you.” (I might also take this opportunity to remind the class about which methods protect against STD’s and HIV, just to use it as a teachable moment.)
I also think that having a question box is a great way to help handle difficult questions. If you have the opportunity to meet with a group several times, you can pass the box around once per session and then prepare to answer the questions at the beginning of the next meeting. This gives you a little more time to think and research your answers, and allows the questions to be anonymous. Also, you can use the question box in class if you have a student who keeps raising their hand to ask you difficult questions. Instead of interrupting the lesson (again), you can ask them to write it down for next week.
So the next time you get a difficult question from a participant, take a deep breath, say “good question” (and mean it!) and remember that being a sexuality educator sometimes means having to say “I don’t know.”
For more information check out:
Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: NYU Press.