Friday, March 2, 2012

Being A Sexuality Educator Means Sometimes Having to Say "I Don't Know"

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.


  1. Great post Kelly! I also did my practicum with Planned Parenthood and have gotten my fair share of tricky questions as well.
    The fact-based questions are much easier to navigate. The ones that throw me off guard are the value-based questions. You definitely hit the nail on the head with the best ways to handle these ones, though.
    For me, it can often be difficult to be careful not to let my own personal biases and beliefs sway my answers too obviously. For example, as someone who identifies as Pro-Choice, questions or comments that negatively address abortion were difficult for me. And as someone who supports the rights of LGBT identified people, it was also very difficult for me to answer questions like, "Aren't gay people going to Hell?".
    But I've learned that, as hard as it is for me to do, its just best to answer with a general "Everyone is different/believes in different things" sort of answer!

  2. Kelly, this was excellent (and so well written!). You definitely covered all your bases with this post. I found it really useful to have answering values based questions laid out for me because I'm not so great at keeping my values to myself. I also tend to feel (whether rightly or wrongly) that what I think is the correct thing and therefore everyone should know! Obviously, this is a tendency I am working to curb but we would be lying if we didn't admit that teaching indulges some narcissistic tendencies. The one thing I would add is that for groups with which you are only doing a one-day workshop, they could be prepped and have questions sent to you before hand (so you can most effectively answer them) and give them an email address where they can reach you just in case you won't see them again or they have more questions.

  3. Kelly, great post! Like you, I have had fears about answering a question wrong or putting too much personal information out there. Kids definitely want to know about us and like to ask personal questions. I like you're part about the values based questions because it is important to acknowledge their question. Those are some great tips because helps slow down the answer process and hopefully prevents me from saying something I shouldn't. Also, I think you are absolutely right that it is much better to answer "I don't know" if you're not entirely sure about an answer. It's better to get correct information out that say something that may not be 100% accurate, plus it makes us as educators more credible. I think it also personalizes us as educators. No one knows absolutely everything, so it allows us to be human and students can relate to us a little more.

  4. Great topic Kelly! While I haven't worked with children or teens, this still comes up even at the undergraduate level! For my practicum in the University setting, my experience with the "i don't know" response was actually questions that I really did not have an answer. Some students are go getters and they are sometimes more interested in research studies they've heard about and then figure you know the answer, because obviously, we sexuality educators know every study ever published on the subject! I found myself stating I am not too sure or I don't know whenever students asked such questions. However, if I felt I could handle a biology question based on what we had learned in HSED 644, than I would say I am making an educated guess followed by I will do research this week and get back to you by our next class. Thus, making sure following up with what I'd found researching that week to ensure they know their question is valued! Overall, as sexuality educators, we are going to at one point or another have to say "I don't know"!

  5. Thank you, Kelly! I appreciate the fantastic advice as this is one of my biggest fears I have when I must teach or present to an audience is not knowing the answer. I like the reply method suggested to you by Cat Dukes but I am also comforted by the notion that it's okay to say you don't know and we don't have to have all the answers at one moment but can give ourselves the opportunity to find them. This, I believe, is a good opportunity for ourselves too in that we can learn new information and use it as an exercise to keep our skills sharp. I agree with you and some of the other bloggers that by admitting we don't know the answer is a much better response for the learners than telling them false information or evading the question. Thank you again for a great post!

  6. Awesome advice Kelly! I really like the idea of the question box. I'm sure you will get a few random silly questions, but the majority of questions will be ones kids might be too shy or embarassed to ask in front of their peers. I also like to remind students if they have questions they can always come to me on their own or at the end of class. Also validaing any question a student asks will help kids realize that no question is stupid or will be judged. It sounds like your job really keeps you on your toes and is excellent practice for you! Good luck.

  7. Great post, Kelly. I recently went to one of PP's trainings by their Sexuality Education Training Institute and I just wanted to share the acronyms that we talked about in that training. Just like you said, always start out with "good question" or GQ. Then, like you said, if you don't know 100%, you can say "I don't know...but I can find out". IDK...BICFO. And finally, when answering tough questions or value based ones, "For some...for others...for you", or FS...FO...FY... I like to follow the whole thing up by adding "its a personal choice" when answering those types of questions. I've found these letters helpful because I can write them down on the corner of a piece of paper and then I never forget them. I hope this helps someone else too.

  8. Kelly your post was excellent. When I began reading the post immediately I felt the same way you did about the bizarre questions that come from left field. The approaches that you explained are a good way for any sex educator to feel more confident in the classroom. By stating that the question is good at the beginning does assist in getting our thoughts together plus acknowledging the young person’s question. Also the way you explained your approach to answering value based questions with FS..FO..FY.. Is a brilliant way to address those touchy subjects, by giving them the information and allowing them to make those value based decisions for themselves.

  9. Great post, Kelly, and good follow-up posts, as well. I have a specific situation related to answering questions that I want to share. In my middle school (7th grade) Sexuality Education classes, I invite students to submit anonymous. I encountered an issue I have not faced before this year. I received a range of questions indicative of the fact that some of the students in the class were very naïve and minimally educated about sexuality and, at the other extreme, other students were clearly exposed to sexuality information that was pretty sophisticated. For example: “Can you grow your virginity back?” “Do girls where diapers when they have their period?” “I’ve heard something about a G-spot, what is it?” and “How does queefing happen?”

    I always promise that I will answer every question, but this was the first time I reneged on my promise. For fear of losing my job, I chose to answer the queefing question in person with the student who asked it (how did I know, you might ask, since these were supposed anonymous questions? The student was so eager to ask, he submitted the only question on a given day and his card was, therefore, obvious). And similarly, the G-spot question I deliberated on whether I should answer it, didn’t, and the student came up and said “my question was not answered.” I responded by asking which question and gave her a response in person, not in front of the class.

    I mistakenly thought, having almost completed this Widener program, that no question would ever throw to the point where I wouldn’t answer it. But, I realize now that there are some situations where discretion is important. I legitimately wondered if my job might be threatened if I answered these questions like I have answered 100’s of others. I consulted with the principal of the school and he concurred with me that I should not answer these in front of the whole class. Wonder what others would have done.

  10. Thank you so much for posting this! I have a question box at my practicum that gets used each time I present. I also use the technique where I answer the questions presented during the beginning of the nest group (It gets people to come to the next group as well!) The great thing about this is that I have ample amount of time to do research and come up with the perfect answer. Almost always though, somebody asks me a question during my group that is usually a value based question or a question that I am unsure of the answer. I really appreciate the framework you talked about to answer many questions and I will definitely use it in the future. One really great thing about my practicum is that I am teaching all adults. So when I get a value based question a lot of the time I will ask the group what there opinion on the topic is or what they were taught when they were little. This always sparks an interesting conversation that usually highlights both sides to the value question. If one side is not mentioned I will then highlight it and finish up with the generalized "what works best for the individuals statement" and then usually some resources where they can find more information. Thanks again for addressing this topic. Even remembering something as little as saying "that's a great question" was a good reminder for me. I'm starting to answer these questions so much that I have forgotten to important steps such as this.

  11. Great advice, Kelly! I really appreciate the tips about how to approach questions that involve personal values; those seem to be the most difficult questions to answer!
    When teaching about healthy and unhealthy dating relationships, one of the most challenging questions for me is: “what would you do if you were in that/my situation?” Coming from an organization that uses the empowerment approach, we are trained on never tell students what to do but to encouraging them to find their own answers; which is really difficult to do sometimes!
    However, using the answer: “I would not know what to do because you know your situation better than me…” really works for us.
    Chris, I have not found my self in a situation like yours, but I think you solve it in the best practical and ethical way. Though we want to provide students with as much information as we can, jeopardize your job for answering two questions is not going help them or you in the long term. Like you, I am also wondering how other people would have done.

  12. Kelly, thank you so much for your post. Getting questions can be a terrifying experience, especially as a new sexuality educator. At times I feel like I am pretending to be the educator because I still do not feel comfortable in this role, and my feelings of discomfort are sometimes most apparent when I am asked a question I do not know. I really appreciated you spelling out the three step rule. I thought that you had a great positive reframe when you tell the learner that you do now know, which could actually build the relationship.