How I learned to protect myself, how we teach our young people to do the same

Image from Kristin Schmit
Today and tomorrow I am training with Bill Taverner on Unequal Partners , so while my mind is here, I’m going to discuss my favorite two lesson plans in this manual. Because I seem to enjoy putting together small tables of contents recently, here’s what’s coming: first a refresher on the manual itself, then the lesson, and then two personal stories.
While all of the Center for Sex Education’s manuals are unique and interesting for one reason or another, Unequal Partners has the distinction of being based on qualitative research that was done regarding adult-teen sexual and romantic relationships. The research was done with adult males and teen females. This is relatively unsurprising, given the proportion of the adult-teen relationships that are made up in this way. The 2007 revision of the manual looked to expand this focus so that the lessons would speak to youth about a wider range of unhealthy relationships by focusing on the acronym HERR: healthy, equal, responsible, and respectful. Not a bad rubric by which to measure any relationship.
Healthy Relationships for All: What’s Sexual Orientation Got To Do With It?
By Bill Taverner and Sue Montfort
Students will:
1. Identify the reasons younger people of any sexual orientation might choose to have a relationship with an older partner, and examine the healthiness of these reasons.
2. Identify problems that may occur in relationships between younger and older partners.
3. Distinguish healthy from unhealthy aspects of relationships.
Young people of all sexual orientations, as well as those who are uncertain about their orientation, may find themselves attracted to, or attractive to, older individuals. Should a relationship ensue, it may come with significant costs, especially when the older partner is controlling the terms of the relationship, as the imbalance of power may impact on the health and safety of the younger partner.
Many of the lessons in Unequal Partners are built upon an examination of the experiences of adult male–teen female relationships; however, most lessons also have components that are applicable to all relationships, regardless of age difference or sexual orientation. This lesson draws on the unique experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. It presents an important opportunity for students to evaluate the health and safety in the relationships of several couples of different orientations, using the Unequal Partners model of healthy relationships: honest, equal, responsible, and respectful.
I promise that I didn’t pick this lesson because I’m training with Bill today and wanted him to like me…really, it’s entirely fantastic on its own terms. And I’ll tell you why: the relationship scenarios it asks participants to consider are full of shades of grey.
Far too often in curriculum based stories I see blatant examples of unhealthy dynamics that offer participants relatively black-and-white examples of what it is to be in an abusive relationship. When I read these clearly cut and dried cases I think back to when I was 18 and engaged to a 24 year old. We had been together about a year and a half. Even with my sex educator, hindsight is 20/20 lenses on, looking back I don’t see substantial power differential issues. We had our issues, as all couples do, that just wasn’t one of them. But then there came a day when we were fighting (a relatively rare thing for us to do), and I found myself backing away from him. It was the strangest thing to suddenly feel the wall, literally against my back, and become aware that I had been trying to put physical distance between us without noticing it. I didn’t walk out that day. It took me about a month of introspection before I left. Leaving was the right thing to do, but it took everything I had to make it happen. The situation was not clear – I needed a deep understanding of the nuances inherent in unhealthy relationships.
And what small grace gave me the knowledge, deep in my bones, that backing away from someone means that something is so wrong, so very, very wrong in the relationship? He told me I need never be afraid of him when I pointed out what had happened – and I entirely disregarded his opinion in this matter, preferring my own gut reaction. I knew that I had to take stock and either work from the ground up to rebuild trust or leave.
And here’s how I knew: I grew up knowing a man who abused his wife and children. I saw their pain and had it named for me by other adults in my life even as there was nothing they could do to stop it. I saw the abuse get worse, turn horrific, over my childhood years. The mother finally took her children and left the abuser a year or two before my experience with my fiancé. Through watching her, I had integrated a deep understanding of the shades of grey that abuse travels through before it reaches what might be recognized as violence into my understanding of relationships. The knowledge allowed me to pull myself out of an unequal, unhealthy relationship at the right moment.
I didn’t become a sexuality educator to save young people from this sort of fate. But now that I’m here, I will do everything I can to try and accomplish that very thing, and I know that what young people need are examples and stories that confuse them, where they don’t know the right answer. Talking through these sorts of stories saves lives.

But they’re not easy to write – far more difficult than the stories that are clearly cut, healthy or unhealthy, lacking in nuance. Teenagers respond to nuance – they eat it up. And the stories in this particular lesson plan, buried deep in on page 137 of Unequal Partners, offers the potential for those sorts of life-saving conversations.

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