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Teaching Adults About Sensitive Topics: Tips and Pits

Many of you reading this blog are doing so because you attended a class I taught at one point in time. It is a major part of my shamanic work, which to some can be confusing. Why would Loki want me to teach adults about sex, gender identity, leather history, and kinky stuff? Without going into a long explanation, here are a few reasons:

  • Because I don’t look like a porn star. I have no issues with porn stars who want to teach, and if they use their looks as a gimmick to get people in the seats, more power to them. For me, I want to be a startling visual that there is no appearance-based barrier for entry when it comes to things like sex magic or fucking in public. In fact, my gateway into sex-positive demographics was because I couldn’t find porn with people who looked like me (unless they were being degraded for their size). Even though I only teach one class that specifically relates to being fat (BDSM For Bigger Bodies), I feel that I teach about fat sex, as well as trans* sex and disabled sex (etc) just by teaching anything at all in that realm.
  • Because I’ve been there. I’m teaching the classes I do because in one way or another, I have gone from knowing very little about something other than the fact that it turns me on or that it intrigues me; to having studied how people do it; to people seeing me do it and asking me to show them how. I’ve made terrible mistakes and had accidental success. And I don’t pretend I am the be-all, end-all; I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I haven’t tried that” and I usually share stories about my fuck-ups as much as my glories.
  • Because I talk about subjects that few others are. I tell a lot of people who are interested in becoming a presenter like me, the best advice I have to give is this – look at the classes being taught at a few events. Then look for the topics no one else is addressing, especially if it’s a topic you feel passionate about. Now go fill that hole! My “Adaptive Kink” class was born after I had attended too many Disability and Kink classes that were focused on different kinds of disabilities one may encounter in the scene, or focused on access issues that PWDs face. But in the five minutes at the end of the class, all of the questions would be from PWDs asking how they can do their kind of sex/play without the disability getting in the way! So the rest of my classes’ title is “What We Do What It Is That We Do With What We Have To Do It With”.

But what I really want to talk about, and get real contributions and comments about, is techniques, gimmicks, pedagogy, or strategies that you have found to work well when teaching sensitive subjects to adults. You don’t need to be a presenter or teacher to play, either; maybe you attended a class that did something to hook your attention or really answer your questions. I’ve studied books on everything from adult teaching techniques to how our brains learn and taken collegiate level classes on these sorts of things. But I’m always looking for new and different ways to make my classes fun and engaging, but also memorable enough that people actually learn something, rather than just being entertained for 90 minutes.

I’ll go first. I don’t make any claims that I came up with these things on my own; these are just techniques I have found useful and/or have received compliments about.

  • How To Handle Handouts. Handouts are actually a very divisive topic among presenters. Some swear by them, and compile 20 page workbooks that carry most of the factual information and use the class time to discuss specific issues and answer questions. Others hate them, citing that nothing is more demoralizing than looking out upon a sea of “page face”, where everyone is reading the handout and no one is listening or watching the teacher. I used to be one of them, but I’ve learned that for some people it is vital to have something to read along with or they won’t retain any information. My tip: I print out a very small number of handouts – maybe 5. These are formatted to be “fill in the blank”, so they have my major points but none of the details. Before class starts, I explain that I have only 5 handouts in hard copy, but if you give my assistant your email address, she will send you an electronic copy. This saves trees, increases the chances the student will keep the handout, gives you a place to add your URL or social media information, and eliminates “page face”. (I’m actually experimenting with follow-alongs that are cloud-based, kinda like powerpoint slides that the student reads on their mobile device and can access whenever they want to reference it.)
  • How To Talk About Potentially Triggery Subjects. For some, their biggest kink is something they feel a lot of shame about. Or it may be something they’re trying to heal from their past through framing it as “play”. Whatever the reason, it’s not impossible to teach a class that takes those sorts of concerns into play. For example, I teach a class called “Non Parental Age Play”, which includes role-play from the overindulging babysitter to the malintentioned kidnapper. In order to go as deep as I feel is necessary without freaking people out, I present the class in three sections. The first is mostly about lighthearted stuff like Sibling Pillow Fights or when a Little Tops a Nanny. Then I announce that the next section includes more sexual content, and therefore we’re taking a “get water and pee” break. When the class goes into adding BDSM into the mix, there’s another short break. That way, people can leave when they’ve reached their comfort zone without feeling like they’re being rude by walking out, or worse, feeling pressured to stay even though it isn’t a good idea. I announce this structure at the top of the class, and I’ve even had people go get friends who were reticent because now they could stay for what they wanted.
  • When ❤ is not a heart. I know very few presenters who have never encountered the “small group” phenomenon – where less than 3 people arrive for your class. It could be because you got a bad time slot (like 9am on Saturday, or opposed to a very popular or famous presenter), because your topic has a specific audience, or because it’s raining and few people braved the walk to your space. It messes with most presenter’s plans, because when we write a class and class activities, we’re usually assuming we’ll get somewhere between 10-20 people (depending on the subject matter). This problem can sometimes be compounded when the people who show up are peers or even someone who knows more about the subject than you! (like the time I was asked to teach Leather Traditions to two title holders! Sheesh!) So what do you do? I usually start the same, introducing me and my qualifications, but then I turn it into a coaching session of sorts. I ask questions about the people, what they were interested in and what they want to learn. I might even do an impromptu demo if that’s what someone would like. I basically throw out my structure and talk about why I wanted to teach the class, tell stories about my experiences, and then at the end give my outline (hard or electronic) so they can glean from that too. I almost always give out my email address and tell them they can ask me questions whenever.

And then there are the things that I have learned to avoid. Sometimes I learned the hard and painy way.

  • “Ask Me Anything” is for Reddit only. Whether it’s a room full of people or a single client, you’d think that sharing where your expertise lies and what you have to share would encourage people to ask all sorts of questions. More so when you’re regarded as a well-respected presenter in that field. But alas and alack, this has always led to failure. In fact, my most spectacular failure of a class was a combination of a totally unresponsive and ineloquent demo bottom, trying to teach in a large warehouse-type space where people were playing (and in specific, long whips were being cracked), and I was running on empty mentally and physically because of the frantic pace of the event. I literally begged people to ask questions, because my brain was totally fried and I felt terrible. This is also what used to happen with the ‘less than three’ problem; I’d encourage them to ask questions but without structure or guidance they feel lost.
  • Don’t assume you’re the only expert in the room. And especiallydon’t ACT like you’re the only expert in the room. This was something I learned early on from attending someone else’s classes. I was really excited about a particular class, but felt deflated when the presenter in question (really) kept repeating “I don’t know how anyone couldn’t figure this out on their own”. They had also brought a cheerleading section of either fans or lovers (or both, who knows) that she would “ask questions” to, only so they could slobber on about how smart she was and how well she was able to handle the subject in question. It was one of those times I reminded myself, “You always learn something. It just might not be what you had hoped or expected.” I am always interested if others in the room have different experiences or points of view to share. I also believe that this is a key difference between teaching children and adults. You should always remember that people attending your classes have decades of life experience to draw from. In a way, it also makes it easier to teach, because if you can relate a point to another life experience (like needing different kinds of aftercare depending on the situation, like the difference between how friends can help after a surgery, versus how they can help after a divorce.)
  • Be subtle if you’re using the class to promote other work, like books.. Because events pay a pittance to presenters (if they pay at all), many of us are finding ways to turn our classes into a gateway to other potential income sources. The most well known is writing a book – in fact, if you have a book on the subject, sometimes that’s all it takes to get an event to pay you more! But don’t turn your class into a 90 minute infomercial about your other products. A story I tell often to new presenters: I once attended a class that touted itself to be about alternative forms of energy healing for intermediate students. I was excited because it specifically said it wasn’t about reiki (I am allergic), and it wasn’t a 101 class. But after ten minutes, it became all too clear I had been hoodwinked – he would ask us to do an exercise, and then report back to the class. After we shared what we observed, he would tell us which page in his new book that would explain what it meant. And we did this over and over again, for an hour. There are subtle ways of doing this, from leaving a few copies of your book on a table in your space, or mentioning that if people want more information they can find your book at X booth in the vendor’s hall.
  • Don’t practice medicine, law, or any other illegal things. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a mistake I have made personally. Here’s the story: I really wanted to teach a class about power dynamics and mental illness. I knew I had a lot to say on the subject, and I was frequently sought out for my opinions and advice. So I started doing a class about submission and mental illness. All three times I taught it, no matter what I did or didn’t do, it turned into group therapy. Not only was that not my intent, but it usually ended badly because someone shared something sensitive and another attendee would share a very harsh opinion or assumption about them. After the third time, I realized I had come very close to posing as a therapist (which I am not), so I took the class off my list. Nowadays, when a professional topic like medicine or law is brought up, I make sure to give the “I am not a lawyer, but” disclaimer, and I also make sure that the discussion is kept short and sweet.

So there. I’ve shared some tips and pits about teaching adults. What works for you? Was there ever a teacher that really got you excited or interested in the material? What was your biggest screw-up? Please don’t be afraid to share – I really would like this essay to become a resource for up and coming presenters. It doesn’t matter what subjects you teach, unless you have suggestions that specifically relate to teaching sensitive subjects like spirituality, sex, or psychology. If you want to post anonymously, you can email me at awesome.del at gmail.com and I will post it for you.

About Del

A shaman who writes about spiritual things, but not in that namby-pamby "everything is light and fluffy" sort of way.

3 responses to “Teaching Adults About Sensitive Topics: Tips and Pits

  1. Del

    I thought of another tip: although many presenters teach from their personal point of view, it is best if you broaden your approach so people of different genders, relationship styles, power dynamics, etc, feel included in the class. Use examples of couples in different gender combinations, and don’t assume everyone is poly or in an open relationship. If you aren’t sure on how to use more inclusive language, reach out to people you know who have a different experience, or take classes in inclusive language and teaching.

  2. Alex

    My handouts, if I use one at all, consist of a resource list that I hand out or make available at the end of the class. If I do decide to do an informational handout, I throw it up on Google Drive as a publicly viewable doc and write the short URL to it on whatever is there for me to write on that everyone will see.

    I think a potential pothole that is really, really easy to fall into when you’re talking about or teaching about sensitive topics is having the class get awayfrom you. When people are in a place where they are being presented with information about something they may not be able to talk about anywhere else, they want to talk about it and everything that is connected to it from their life. This isn’t a bad thing and is totally natural, but it can be an issue when it is clear that them sharing or contributing is taking away from the experience of the other attendees or is getting into territory that you cannot have be part of the class for whatever reason.

    I have found that there are three big ways to handle that which do not leave the presenter standing there while someone else takes over or shutting someone down who is earnest with their contributions.

    The first is to have a plan for the session–walk in with something either in your head or on your phone or on a paper that is a basic outline of where you want things to go and what you want to communicate. It is much easier to get things back on track when you know what the next topic is going to be.

    Then, there’s how to politely redirect someone who is talking quite a bit. I like something in the realm of ‘that’s really interesting and I want to hear more about it. Can we maybe chat after class/could you hold onto that thought until a little later when we’ll be talking about that specifically?’. Most people will not challenge that and will be happy that you want to speak with them or hear more from them later.

    I use it as a stop-gap when things are either getting really emotionally charged or there are multiple people trying to talk at once, but putting a full stop to whatever is going on and grounding the room with either a few moment’s silence or a collective breath gives you a chance to redirect the train back onto the tracks.

    Also, you taught me how to wield silence. When they all just sit and stare at you when you ask a question, stare back. Someone will eventually break the silence after a few moments. If they don’t, rephrase the question or add a new bit of information to it.

  3. cloakit

    I really, really appreciate your comment about remembering that people in the audience might know as much or more than you, or something very similar but they never had names for it. I’ve been in many classes and around people teaching who are so excited about what they’ve learned, that they will teach it to you. I love that, I want to here some one else’s passion, I want to here what they learned, I want to learn it as well. But there is a fine line between sharing with someone, and “educating those poor uneducated people that came to your class begging for your simple explanation, that only you in all your smartness could figure out.”
    In truth, I often go to classes having a rough idea of it, or a good grip on the information, most importantly, I want to see the presenter expand on it. Sure, give the basics, everyone needs a refresher (and don’t insult those that need that refresher!) but don’t assume that everyone is ignorant. Just because the audience member didn’t start the class by coming up and shaking your hand and announcing that they are a fully trained psychologist, don’t assume that no one in the audience might have a very good grip on the subject, like you said, maybe even better than the presenter.
    The thing I would like to add, having been to a fair amount of workshops and classes, energy and kink, if for the presenter to not try and validate themselves with the crowd. It rarely makes the presenter look inclusive, simply makes them look scared. Especially if they /know/ some one in the crowd is better trained in an aspect of the subject then themselves.
    I’ve had these teachers, since they’re in the role of a teacher, make all of their information seem questionable, when they have to look over to the back corner and ask “Right? We know this, right? Science has mentioned this, right?” and have a hopeful ‘please pet me on the head’ expression on. As someone in the class ‘learning’ I ask “Wait, why am I listening to this person, for any of it?”
    I would rather a presenter say, as you mentioned, “This is not my field, but as far as I know, or have been taught, Science mentions X” Or “Like I said, I’m not certified for anything medical, but I have heard this, and have been told by others it is beneficial, but of course I can not suggest you do it. Talk to your doctor.” Or even, “With my own personal experience, and research, I have found this, and this, and I know your experience might be different, but today I am here to present things along this line…”
    VRS
    “Well, I am presenting this, and wait, anyone a Nurse?” waits for ppl to raise hand, “Ok, then /you/ will understand where this is coming from, when I mention that ppl now know about X, right? Everyone else, don’t take my word for it, the Nurse will point out if I’m wrong.”
    Um, sorry, I didn’t go to the class to watch the Nurse to see if they agree with your presentation. I appreciate when someone in the audience has experience, and is willing to share, if that is what kind of class it is, but I am not there to listen to you stroke your own Ego by getting little boosts from being able to have a Nurse validate your presentation.
    I understand presenting can be terrifying, and when you’re staring at paper face, I know you might want to fish to get validation that someone is listening, and that this is working, and people are getting it. But I think there is a fine line between getting people to validate that you’re having a conversation and they’re learning, and validating that your information is /right/ and will get you kudos.
    Thank you for the article, it has amazing points and i will be sure to pass it on. They are things I’ve seen and things I would like to keep in mind for the future when I’m in that type of terrifying position.

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