How do teenagers know if they are in a respectful relationship anyway?
When talking about sex with primary aged students, I refer to it is as ‘something that adults in loving, consenting relationships choose to do, as a way of showing each other they love each other’. I don’t shy away from the fact making love is a normal part of a healthy relationship. Because well, it is. Of course we know, it is not only adults that have sex. With around 50% of people engaging in sex before the age of 18 it would be naive to continue to talk about sex in this way as students get older. In high schools, we tend to talk about sex as something that can happen as part of a healthy respectful relationship. The assumption is that this is a monogamous, usually long or longer term relationship. It is important to note that young people can actually engage in healthy, respectful sex that is not necessarily part of a long term relationship. Casual sex can be respectful. Hooking up can be respectful and friends with benefits can also be respectful. In comprehensive sexuality education we want all of the relationships young people engage in, to be respectful, so be mindful how you frame it and what assumptions you may bring to the conversation.
Having said that when we are talking about healthy and respectful relationships what exactly does that mean?
What is a healthy, respectful relationship and what should our young people be looking for to know if their relationship is healthy? In Al Vernacchio’s book, “For Goodness Sex” he refers to healthy relationships for teenagers as ones that include the following 4 things; 1. Healthy relationships have equitable levels of power. Age holds a lot of power in high school. Especially socially as older kids are more influential, can stay out later, may be more sexually experienced, may drive and may even be able to drink. Even a year 8 and a year 10 student would be considered unequal in power and it would be almost impossible for the year 10 not to take advantage of that. Half your age plus seven is the rule of thumb for appropriate age differences in relationships! 2.Healthy relationships allow you to maintain your individuality within the relationship. Each person should be happy and comfortable maintaining their own friends, interests and time to themselves. Constant contact is not healthy. This is a challenge with mobile phones when each person is contactable 24/7. At first this can be flattering of course but it must be noted, it isn't ideal. Encourage them to think of the relationship in three parts. Themselves, the other and the relationship. Becoming ‘one’ is not the goal. 3.Healthy relationships allow both positive and negative feelings and different opinions to exist. This isn’t dissimilar to friendships and teenagers tend to get it when you explain it that way. If you aren’t able to tell your boyfriend,girlfriend or the person you are dating, that you can’t see them tonight because you are studying or have something else on, then that’s a problem. Can they tell them you don’t like the movie they suggested you watch or that they hate Japanese food? They should be able to. 4.Healthy relationships have reliable commitment patterns. Basically, do they turn up when they say they will? Each person has a responsibility in the relationship to be reliable and if one person, including you, is falling down on that then It’s not a great sign. Basically, teenage relationships should be easy and fun and leave each person feel better about themselves not worse. If they don’t then really encourage your child to think more about why they are in the relationship at all.
As my Mum told me when I was 19 and in a questionably healthy relationship, “Love should make you happy!”.