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Answering Preteens' Questions About Sexuality

by Pamela M. Wilson

Welcome to Skills for Educators! ReCAPP's educator skill for March 2002 is:

This month's Educator Skill will provide you with an online opportunity to review guidelines for answering preteens' sexuality questions and practice your own responses. After an introduction, it includes information about the following issues and strategies:


Introduction

Most good sexuality education programs include an ongoing segment where youth can ask any questions that they have either verbally or on anonymous cards. This simple strategy enables youth to participate in defining the content of the program. The goal of question/answer segments is to identify preteens' genuine concerns and issues about sexuality and to offer responses to their questions that:

  1. Are factually correct
  2. Guide decision-making
  3. Encourage openness about sexual discussions, and
  4. Promote sexually healthy attitudes and behaviors

What isn't always so simple is having answers for those questions that are age-appropriate and convey positive sexual health attitudes. In sexuality workshops, educators gain so much from practicing how to answer these often challenging questions about sexuality.

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The Anonymous Question Box

If you are able to create an environment in your program in which youth feel comfortable, safe, and motivated to participate, they will often ask their questions verbally. However, to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to ask a question, use the anonymous question box.

All you need is a shoe box and a stack of index cards. It works best if you give each youth an index card and ask everyone to write down a question they have about sexuality. Ask youth who don't have specific questions to write "no question" on their cards. Then walk around the room and ask the youth to place their index cards directly in the box.

Announce the question box at the beginning of the program; then provide regular opportunities for participants to write questions. One advantage of this technique is that you can collect the cards at one session and answer them at the next. This gives you time to review the questions and think about how you will answer them.

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Getting Prepared for Preadolescent Questions

The first step in preparing to answer questions from this age group is to understand their mindset. Preteens are intensely curious, constantly teasing and interested in everything including their own bodies. They notice the obvious differences in development (physical, emotional and social) within their peer group and worry about changes happening too quickly or too slowly.

At the beginning of this stage, children are open and direct in their conversations about sexuality. They will ask what they want to know with a forthrightness that tends to dissipate with age. How many minutes do you have to stay in sexual intercourse? Can a man have a baby? What causes Siamese twins? Because they are exposed to so much from the entertainment media, preadolescents also ask questions that may seem surprisingly sophisticated. They may ask, for example, about oral sex, intercourse with multiple partners, or homosexuality.

One very nice characteristic of this age group is that they are still very open to getting information from adults. They tend to love these open exchanges and will barrage you with questions for as long as you will answer. For this reason, teaching this age group can be particularly fun and rewarding for educators.

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Guidelines for Answering Anonymous Questions

The guidelines listed below should help you in preparing thoughtful responses to anonymous questions:

  • Read each question just as it appears on the card. If a slang term is used, restate the question using the correct terminology. Suppose a fifth-grader asks, "How big will a boy's dick get when he grows up?" You could say, "Dick is a slang term for penis," and go on with your answer. Reading the question as it is written validates the question and gives you an opportunity to model appropriate language.

  • Be honest. Be aware of what you know and what you don't know. Young people are exposed to enough misinformation without the adults in their lives adding to the confusion. If you are at all unsure about an answer, say so and do some research to find the correct information. Likewise, if a question is embarrassing, don't try to pretend it's not.

  • Give simple, concrete answers that avoid technical jargon. Choose language that you know preadolescents can relate to. If you are introducing a new or unfamiliar term, make sure you define it. Offer illustrations from their current base of experience. For example, if you are trying to explain how the vagina can expand to allow a baby to be delivered, you might compare it to a balloon that can expand when filled with air but goes back to its normal size when the air is released.

  • Turn "feeling" questions back to the group. Questions such as, "Is kissing the first time fun or scary?" or "How come when you like boys they are all you think about?" can lead to interesting dialogue if managed correctly. Read the question and then ask the group what they think. Once the youth voice their own perspectives, you might offer your point of view.

  • Handle value questions carefully. Do not impose your personal values, but support universal values — for example, it is always wrong to exploit or take unfair advantage of another person. When value issues come up, discuss the range of values held in society. If someone mentions a value and only discusses one point of view, be careful to bring up other points of view. Always remember to encourage young people to continue their conversations about value issues with their parents or other trusted adults.

  • Feel free not to answer personal questions. Never discuss your own sexual behavior, but you can answer personal questions in a general way. For example, if someone asks, "Have you ever had oral sex?" you might say, "I understand that you're very curious about me, but that is personal information. Do you want to know if women my age have ever had oral sex? The answer is that some have and some haven't. It's an individual decision that each person makes." On the other hand, it can be very appropriate to answer less personal questions, especially those that help young people get to know you as a real person with a range of human feelings.

  • Have fun with the "What happens" questions. Preteens are often full of questions about what happens if or when…. In most situations, these youth have not yet engaged in sexual intercourse of any type, and they are simply trying to figure it out. They want to know how things work. Here are some examples:

    1. What happens if a dog and a lady have sex?
    2. What will happen if a woman has sex with another woman?
    3. What will happen if a boy shoots his sperm into a girl?

    When you get "what happens" questions about sexual behavior, consider two issues: what are the possible physical consequences — pregnancy and disease, and what is the possible impact on feelings.

    The "What happens" examples are endless. Sometimes youth this age are trying to imagine what can go wrong:

    1. What happens if a baby can't get out?
    2. What happens if a girl never gets her period?

    With the first question, it's important to be honest and explain that, "Sometimes problems occur or things don't go smoothly with the delivery of a baby. The doctor might determine that the baby must be delivered by making a cut in the mother's abdomen and uterus. The doctor can take the baby out that way. This type of delivery is called a Cesarean or C-Section. It's always important to have a good doctor to consult with who can help manage any problems. But please know that in most cases, things don't go wrong — they go the way they are supposed to."

  • Answer explicit questions honestly, but avoid giving explanations of sexual technique. If youth know enough to ask a question, they deserve an age-appropriate answer. When educators decide that certain questions are not okay to answer, we leave sexuality education in the hands of peers and the media. If the question is, "What is a blow job?" you might answer, "A blow job is a slang term. It usually means using the mouth on the penis during sex." Notice the choice of the words "using the mouth on the penis" instead of "licking" or "sucking" the penis. These words tend to evoke visual images.

  • Watch your nonverbal communication. As you are answering these tough questions, pay attention to what your facial expressions are communicating. A frown or a wrinkled brow can communicate distaste or judgment even when you think you are being open and nonjudgmental.

  • Use inclusive language. Avoid being sexist. For example, use "he or she" to refer to doctors or use "she" half of the time. Also, do not fall into the trap of speaking as if all the youth in your program are — or should be — heterosexual. With practice, you'll be able to answer questions about relationships without using words like "boyfriend," "girlfriend," "husband" or "wife" and choose a more inclusive term like "partner" instead. In time, youth often end up using the language that you model in the program.

  • Don't forget the music. Music is a metaphor for the emotional content of your words when answering sexuality questions. Think back to the last musical you saw. You probably left humming the tune of your favorite song but you weren't able to sing the words because you couldn't remember the lyrics. However, the tune or melody sticks with you.

    It's the same with sexuality conversations. Preadolescents, or youth of any age, will not necessarily remember every fact you communicate, but they will remember, for example, if they felt comfortable, validated or reassured. So think consciously about your music in these discussions. Take the opportunity when answering the typical question to make some music — to convey positive sexual health attitudes through your words, tone of voice, and facial expressions.

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Sample Questions and Answers

  • Why is one breast bigger than the other?
    The human body has been created with many interesting variations and imperfections. Most of us have small differences on the right and left sides of our bodies. The right breast might be a little larger than the left. The right foot might be smaller than the left. Some of us have even larger physical variations or disabilities. These human variations make us unique and more interesting.

  • How do two women have sex together?
    A lot like the way a man and a woman do. They might kiss and hug, and use their hands and mouths to touch each other's bodies, including the clitoris. The one thing that two women can't do is have intercourse during which the penis goes into the vagina because there is no penis.

  • Why don't men have to go through a period?
    It is possible that this person is asking why do women have to deal with changes like having periods and men don't. It's true that men don't have periods, but they do experience physical changes during puberty. Boys often have wet dreams that they don't always understand, or they may have more frequent erections that can sometimes be embarrassing. They also typically experience a lot of peer pressure to have sexual intercourse at very young ages. So, although it may seem that girls are going through more than boys, both boys and girls have their own different changes and challenges, and one is not necessarily better or worse than another.

  • Can young people like 10 years old have sex?
    The answer to this question really depends on what you mean by "have sex." Having sex is much more than just having sexual intercourse. For example, a 10-year-old might sometimes touch his penis or her clitoris (if these words have already been defined) because it feels good. That is a form of sex that is a normal part of childhood for most human beings.

    But the person asking this question might be talking about sexual intercourse. If we're talking about sexual intercourse, 10-year-old children are much too young to be able to handle that kind of behavior. It is a serious behavior that can be a way of showing love in a relationship, but it can also lead to grown-up consequences like having a baby or getting certain diseases.

    (You could stop here. But if the group is still listening carefully, you might continue.)

    Often, when a 10-year-old is having sexual intercourse, it is with an older teenager or adult who is taking unfair advantage of him or her. In that kind of situation, the 10-year-old isn't doing anything wrong. The older person is doing wrong. The child needs some help from a trusted adult who can step in and help stop what is going on. If any of you know someone in this situation, remember that you can always talk to me (or the school counselor, etc.) about what is going on so we can figure out how to help.

  • If you were a boy and you wanted to have sex, what would you do?
    It is very normal for a boy — or a girl — to have feelings of wanting to have sex. Sometimes it is a feeling of curiosity. Perhaps the boy has heard about sex or watched sexual scenes in movies or on TV. Or maybe, he is starting to have strong feelings in his own body. Often, a boy has friends who make him feel like he ought to be having sex. Sexual feelings are natural and normal, but it's important to figure out how to handle these feelings. Some boys satisfy their sexual feelings by touching themselves or masturbating. Other boys choose not to because that behavior doesn't fit with their values or they aren't interested.

    What does it take to have a healthy sexual relationship with another person?

    • Both people must want to do it.

    • Neither person should feel pressured or forced.

    • Both people should enjoy it.

    • It should be able to be done safely without worry about pregnancy or disease.

    • The two people should care about each other and want the same thing from the relationship.

    Remember, if a boy has sexual intercourse at an early age, he can end up becoming a father before he is ready or able to raise a child. Or he could find himself with a sexually transmitted disease, such as Herpes or AIDS. It's really great for a boy to be able to talk with an older man — perhaps his dad, uncle or a family friend — who is willing to talk honestly about sexual feelings and growing up.

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Questions to Practice Answering

Now, it's your turn. Review the questions below and write out your own responses. Then assess each answer using the following criteria:

  • Is it factually correct?

  • What message would you take away if you were the preteen asking the question?

  • What was the "music" or the feeling tone of the answer?

Ask a colleague to read your answers and offer some feedback.

  1. What is the protection for a boy not to get a girl pregnant?
  2. Why is it difficult to talk with my mom about sex?
  3. What does sex feel like?
  4. Do you think sex is bad or good?
  5. Can a woman get pregnant from swallowing sperm?
  6. How old were you when you had sex the first time?
  7. I'm worried. Some wet stuff comes out of my vagina sometimes. Do I have a disease?
  8. Do dogs and humans have sex the same way?
  9. What is masturbation? Is it okay?
  10. When your period comes on without warning, do you have to be shy or embarrassed?
  11. What happens when a man has a sex change operation?
  12. Is sex better with a big penis?
  13. How do homosexuals have sex?
  14. Why do boys like to touch girls on the butt?
  15. What is a good age to start dating?

About the Author
Pamela Wilson, MSW, is a nationally known sexuality education consultant and trainer. She has written or co-authored numerous curricula and other publications, including, When Sex is the Subject: Attitudes and Answers for Young Children and a new curriculum, Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Grades 7-9. She is also featured in the sexuality education videos Raising Healthy Kids: Families Talk About Sexual Health. Pam can be reached at pwilson@npcl.org.

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