In this installment of my The Case for Sex Ed blog post series, I’m going to address how teaching the basics of equitable relationships as part of a sex education curriculum can improve the lives of teens and everyone.

When we talk about relationships there’s a tendency to assume that we mean sexual and/or romantic relationships. Cue freaking out, because apparently talking to teens about anything sexual apparently is the same as telling them to go do it. But everyone is in relationships, all the time, most of them platonic. We all relate to our family members, teachers, friends, mentors, coworkers, acquaintances, hobby-sharers, and more. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sex educator, it’s that solid communication, relationship, and ethical principles tend to apply across multiple categories. If you should be honest and empathetic with your friends, that’ll probably work in your relationships too. So in teaching about relationship skills and communication, we teach life skills that apply more broadly.

In sex educator Al Vernacchio’s (yes, he of the fantastic sex as pizza metaphor) new book, For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health, he addresses teen relationships as a major area needing more education and attention.

Vernacchio guides his students through the process of figuring out how their values impact their relationship needs and wants over time, stating: “It’s also important for kids to know that some deal makers and deal breakers can change as we grow. Others will remain set in stone no matter what our age. Thinking about our individual deal makers and deal breakers in relationships is an evolving process. We continually need to call them to mind, evaluate them, and make adjustments when necessary” (80). This is excellent advice, and I wish I’d had more of this guidance growing up.

Another of Vernacchio’s points is that there are multiple ways in which teens are subjected to inaccurate and harmful messages about power and symmetry in relationships, from the media as well as the dynamics they observe around them. According to Vernacchio, the social pressures to be in a romantic or sexual relationship – whether or not it’s healthy – are immense, and without education that explicitly addresses how healthy and unhealthy relationships each work, teens might end up in toxic or even predatory relationships.

The components of healthy relationships that Vernacchio teaches include: equitable levels of power, maintaining your individuality within the relationship, being able to express yourself fully without fear of repercussion, and being reliable and present. I think there are obvious benefits to teaching about these healthy relationship traits, though in-depth discussion of what they mean and how they might play out could lead to talking about examples that might include sex, coercion, and other taboo topics.

Further, there are findings indicating that when sex ed programs address power in relationships, they’re more effective at preventing teen pregnancy and STI transmission. This makes sense, as the types of sexual activity that results in pregnancy and/or STI transmission don’t happen in a vacuum: they often happen in the context of romantic and/or sexual relationships where there might be a power disparity or inequality that could be addressed.

There’s also evidence that our relationships impact our health. Studies show that spousal conflicts impact one’s immune system and ability to recover from disease and injury, while other researchers have found that people with unsupportive, critical partners were more likely to suffer depression.

While we’re all constantly surrounded by and participating in various relationships, it’s not necessarily an intuitive process to figure out what makes them healthy. With all the mental, emotional, and physical health risks and benefits that accompany being in relationships, we owe it to everyone in society to ensure that we have a grasp of how relationships work, and how we can improve and benefit from them.