Teaching/Discussing Sensitive Topics


I was just wondering what peoples experiences have been with this.

Since I started teaching I've had to cover some pretty emotive stuff, books which use strong racist and sexist language for example. It's not particularly bothered me before but as we move into the last few weeks the texts I will be teaching are becoming more 'extreme' if you like. On Tuesday I will be discussing a text with some extremely graphic sexual content.
Now, the LAST thing I want to do is be all princessy about this and skirt around the issues. For a start that would completely go against the point of the novel. But annoyingly I do feel apprehensive about it and I'm sure I'll end up blushing at some point. I'm a 22 year old woman who's quite shy to begin with so discussing these things with a group of largely male 18/9 year olds isn't filling me with the joys of spring.
I'll get through it fine, I'm pretty sure of that but I was wondering if other people have experienced anything similiar.


This does seem like a very challenging matter to teach, not helped by the fact that it's being delivered to a group of older teenage boys (not that I'm tarring them all with the same brush). Keep_Calm, although I've never had to teach anything close to what you have, I do find the worst students are often the younger ones. The only advice I can offer is that you should be very direct and matter of fact in terms of the delivery of the material (it's important, so you won't blush). If they snear of smirk, more fool them and their childish ways. Doubtless, they'll read the atmosphere you create and none of them will be juvenile. If any of them make silly comments, just stare at them blankly and carry on.

This is probably terrible advice, and I expect that someone will be along with something better.

Avatar for Eska

Hi Keep Calm, not sure if this is any better than Wally's advice, but here goes.

I have used a couple of films with graphic sexual content this term, one as a clip in a lecture - it was banned across the word for 25 years after it was made and stll can't be shown on British TV, so you may guess the content. I felt fine about discussing it at the time, although I did frett before hand, I had to give a textual analysis of it, so had to refer to certain dificult bits explicitly. It was ok,I just thought about the issues that needed to be explored and about the film as an important work of art. I did the same in a workshop I ran on Friday when the group asked about an animation sequence in which a sexual act is performed and we watched it a few times on slow mo, discussing each move! What a strange job I have... I felt OK, made a bit of a joke at one stage. But I'm older, I'm 40, and I feel that that somehow gives me a useful barrier when I need it, I am not their peer. Maybe you should think of yourself only as their educator, and not as a peer. But I reckon you'll be fine, you're a professional with expertise in literature so just do your thing, and if they giggle, then let them, at least they've had a laugh and they'll probably remember the session for ever.


I rarely teach topics that are not of a sensitive nature. I actually feel really comfortable discussing sexually explicit topics with most people, and my main concern is usually ensuring everyone in the class is really respected since sexual topics can bring up uncomfortable personal stuff for anyone. The students I have worked with are all 20+ but the young men in your class my surprise you and just take it in their stride.

If you blush then they should all understand. Standing up in front of a room of people and trying to teach can be difficult enough even if you don't have to say naughty words so I think your apprehension is pretty understandable!

Good luck


Be clinical and factual about it and show no fear. If you're (obviously) nervous, that will make them nervous, and there's nothing worse than a room full of tittering 18 year old boys. You might get a few anyway - ignore them unless it becomes an issue then shut them right down. Or shut them down immediately if it'll make you feel better to set clear boundaries. Sometimes they don't notice they've left high school until they graduate. Sometimes not even then *sigh*

I do some science outreach work in secondary schools, you'd be amazed how even something ridiculous like the polarization of light can be sexualized in the wrong hands (minds?).


Thanks everybody,

Eska your post made me laugh, especially the slow motion scene. I will think about that tomorrow and remind myself it could be a lot more difficult! I suppose the majority of us will come up against this at some point and there's probably people all over campus struggling with it as we speak. I'm not really worried anyone will laugh, the problem might be trying to get them to talk about it with me, but I think I just probably need to learn how to phrase questions so they're not so intimidating. I taught a poem a few weeks ago which had a sex scene but which was phrased in quite euphemistic terms, so I said 'ok, what do you think might be happening here?' and of course was met by a wall of blank faces!
I will try and be as 'factual and clinical' as I can. I was thinking I might practice reading it out tonight so I'm used to saying the words and make sure I don't stumble over anything. I'm annoyed at myself for even caring about this, especially as it's a feminist novel - I feel like a bit of a failure!


I've just been teaching about sex and rape in some ancient poetry which is tricky on all sorts of levels. They are second year undergraduates and mainly boys. I was very impressed with their behaviour and mature approach but pretty much I addressed the topic at a level that assumed they would be mature about it. I found if you don't skirt around the edges or think about it as being anything other than just another topic you have to cover (I kicked straight off with the connotations and uses of penetrative imagery) they'll just go with you. Now admittedly the stuff I was covering is not especially graphic sexually but has a lot to do with sex and violence (not to mention the complications of the unwilling victims), but to be honest if you're asking them to read this stuff then both you and they should be able to meet it at the same level as the original text: no skirting, no euphemisms, just treating it as a text. I to be honest was more worried about sudden emotions or cases of angry feminism in the class... Good luck! :-)