Overview of Unequal Partners

The 4th edition of Unequal Partners: Teaching About Power, Consent, and Healthy Relationships, equips educators with 50 lesson plans to help adolescents and young adults learn about and explore the dynamics of both healthy and unhealthy relationships.

The 4th edition is organized into two volumes:

  • Volume 1: Designed for young and middle adolescents.
  • Volume 2: Designed for college students.

Both volumes include age-appropriate lesson plans utilizing interactive teaching methods such as role-plays, small group discussions, and scenarios. A trauma-informed perspective helps participants explore sensitive and critical topics, including communicating about consent, understanding power dynamics, recognizing warning signs, helping a friend, and analyzing media influences. Originally written by award-winning sexuality educators Sue Montfort and Peggy Brick, the 4th edition is edited by Kirsten deFur and includes lesson plans by 22 additional contributing authors.

Volume 1

This lesson helps participants examine what self-care means, identify strategies to practice self-care (and associated barriers), and take steps to develop and execute their self-care action plan.

This lesson for young adolescents raises participants’ awareness of their goals for the future and helps them identify barriers to those goals, including relationships that get in the way of their hopes and plans.

This lesson for young adolescents helps participants identify the qualities they value in any friendship, including a dating relationship.

This lesson for middle adolescents explores the components of a healthy relationship, examines the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and provides an opportunity to practice making that distinction.

CHECK IT OUT! Assessing a Personal Relationship
In this lesson for middle adolescents, participants discuss the qualities they value in relationships and consider how to assess a relationship. They also learn a process for communicating their feelings and needs to a partner.

TO PROVIDE, PROTECT, NURTURE OR BE NEEDY – Exploring Gender Expectations
This lesson for middle adolescents gives participants an opportunity to explore assumptions about gender and compare and contrast those assumptions with the healthy relationships components of honesty, equality, respect and responsibility.

YOU FREE FRIDAY NIGHT? Meeting People, Asking Someone Out and Getting Rejected
This lesson for middle adolescents helps participants consider opportunities to meet other people, effective and ineffective strategies for asking someone out, and how to handle rejection.

A TRUE FRIEND – Assessing Power and Control in Friendships
In this lesson for young adolescents, participants gain a better understanding of relationship dynamics, and apply them to real scenarios. They are encouraged to collaborate with peers to develop diverse strategies for building more positive interactions.

WHO’S IN CHARGE? Exploring Power in Relationships
This lesson for middle adolescents uses a variety of strategies to raise consciousness about the problems of power and powerlessness in relationships. It suggests that in healthy relationships each partner respects the rights of the other to equality in making decisions regarding the relationship.

This lesson for middle adolescents helps participants recognize inequalities in relationships and determine if those inequalities also indicate an abuse of power.

WARNING SIGNALS: Recognizing Clues to an Unhealthy Relationship
In this lesson for middle adolescents, participants examine behaviors that could be problematic, as well as more significant warning signs.

In this lesson for middle adolescents, participants examine a variety of reasons someone might stay with a partner, consider the barriers to leaving a relationship and discuss strategies to overcoming those barriers.

This lesson for young adolescents teaches participants about consent and engages youth in thinking about how to gather important information before saying yes or no.

This lesson for young adolescents encourages young people to practice asking for consent. In turn, it also allows them to either give consent, or to practice saying “no.”

This lesson for young adolescents seeks to increase young people’s awareness of the laws about sexual activity and how they can learn more about those laws.

This lesson for middle adolescents illustrates the definition of consent and helps participants understand concepts by putting them into practice.

“YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO” – Defining Consent and Non-Consent
In this lesson for middle adolescents, participants practice using their critical thinking and decision-making skills for gaining and giving consent.

In this lesson for middle adolescents participants practice assessing a situation for the ability of an individual to give sexual consent.

This lesson for young adolescents helps young people understand that people problems are “normal” and provides a model for addressing these problems in real life.

WHAT TO DO? Dealing with Partner Problems
This lesson for middle adolescents gives participants the opportunity to examine dishonest, unequal, irresponsible, or disrespectful partner behaviors, to identify alternatives for dealing with those behaviors, and to practice responses to those behaviors.

In this lesson for middle adolescents, participants will learn how to define assertiveness and assertive skills, assess their own level of assertiveness and practice using negotiation skills through a scenario activity that demonstrates responsibility and how assertiveness plays a role in being responsible.

WHAT’S UP, DOC? Understanding Styles of Communication
This lesson for middle adolescents helps participants recognize the different styles of communication and gives them an opportunity to create assertive messages.

This lesson for young adolescents examines types of problems someone might need help with and ways to reach out for help from a trusted adult and/or a local service organization.

During this lesson for middle adolescents, participants review sexual consent laws and discuss ways to get help by examining a specific scenario.

WHAT DO I DO? Supporting a Friend with Relationship Issues
This lesson for middle adolescents outlines what friends can do to support someone, and things to avoid doing, and provides an opportunity to role-play their skills.

This lesson for middle adolescents asks participants to examine their values about relationships between people of different ages, explore reasons someone may be interested in an older or younger partner, and practice giving advice to a friend who is having relationship issues due to a difference in age.

This lesson for middle adolescents provides an opportunity for participants to examine the ways that an older partner can have power over a younger partner, and review the experiences of some people who were in unhealthy relationships with older partners. Participants also discuss ways to find helpful resources.

This lesson for middle adolescents examines reasons someone may be interested in an older partner, evaluates the impact of power on particular relationship scenarios, and gives participants an opportunity to evaluate relationships using the Unequal Partners model of healthy relationships: Honest, Equal, Responsible, and Respectful.

This lesson for middle adolescents encourages dialogue regarding sexual boundaries and values by having participants review relevant topics related to sexuality and relationships, develop thoughtful survey questions, interview adults they trust, and review interview results together. Note: This lesson requires two sessions to complete.

IN THEIR OWN VOICES – Stories about Adult Teen Relationships
This lesson for middle adolescents examines expectations and disappointments in relationships and raises awareness of the difficulties common in relationships between a teen female and a partner who is significantly older by presenting the true-life experiences of four female teens, and the older partner of one of them, in their own words.

Volume 2

TAKE A SELFIE: Strategies for Self-Care
This lesson helps participants examine what self-care means, identify strategies to practice self-care (and associated barriers), and take steps to plan, develop, and execute their self-care action plan.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER – Healthy Relationships Are Hard to Do
This lesson helps participants explore how relationships are represented, specifically examine common tropes in romantic comedies (“rom-coms”), and practice talking about healthy relationships by developing a commercial for honesty, equality, respect and responsibility.

STAY IN YOUR LANE – Setting Personal Boundaries
In this lesson participants define personal boundaries and how to make, protect and reinforce these boundaries in various relationships.

In this lesson, participants explore a variety of elements that are important to balance in a long-term relationship (LTR), and discuss strategies for developing and maintaining that balance.

BEHIND THE MUSIC – Music Literacy and Healthy Relationships
In this lesson, participants critically examine the messages they are hearing in the music that surrounds them, and think about how they might infuse the qualities of a healthy relationship into the lyrics of their favorite songs.

The purpose of this lesson is to consider one longstanding euphemism/metaphor for hooking up or having sex and a new take on sexual euphemism presented by Al Vernacchio in his TED Talk titled “Sex needs a new metaphor.” Here’s one to deconstruct outdated power dynamics in sexual relationships.

“THAT COULD HAVE GONE BETTER” – Breaking Up with Honesty, Equality, Respect and Responsibility
This lesson provides participants with an opportunity to reflect on break-up best practices and healthy ways to respond to a break-up. In addition, participants will think about what they can do both internally and externally to care for themselves after a break-up happens.

WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? Identifying and Responding to Problems in Relationships
This lesson helps participants identify and evaluate the severity of relationship issues and practice having conversations with friends and partners in response to issues that are a “big deal.”

During this lesson participants will examine their own experiences of how they are treated based upon their own gender identity, and how power influences experiences of gender.

HOLES IN CONDOMS AND FLUSHING PILLS – Relationship Abuse and Reproductive Coercion
This lesson explores intimate partner violence by focusing on the role of reproductive coercion and the link between abusive relationships and sexual health.

GETTING BETTER OR GETTING WORSE? Assessing Relationships and Planning Break-Ups
This lesson helps participants recognize when a relationship is deteriorating, identify ways for a person to leave an abusive partner, and plan for a break-up.

TEARS, SMEARS AND FEARS – What Can Happen after a Break-Up?
This lesson helps participants examine possible reactions to a break-up, evaluate their values about smearing behaviors, and understand the realities of relationship-related stalking.

WHAT’S UP WITH THE WORDS WE USE? A Quick Study of Sexual Slang
This lesson explores the ideas associated with particular slang and encourages participants to think about how slang can impact the way we think about sexual activity. 

POWER AND PRIVILEGE – What’s Sex Got to Do with It?
The goals of this lesson are to give participants a deeper understanding of the concepts of privilege and power, and to help them see the role of power dynamics in sexuality and sexual relationships, how privilege affects them, and how to manage these challenges.

IT’S NOT JUST ONE THING – Identity, Intersectionality and Relationships
This lesson helps participants examine their own identities, learn about intersectionality, and explore specific ways intersectionality is related to unhealthy relationships.

LEGAL AGE OF CONSENT – Around the States and around the Globe
This lesson will enable participants to look critically at existing laws regarding age of consent in their states, other states and around the world by discussing the possible reasons for such laws, and examining their own, and others’ opinions.

This lesson uses an adaptation of Emmeline May’s essay “Consent: Not Actually That Complicated” to help participants explore the nature of consent. By exploring consent in everyday activities, participants gain a better understanding of how they may give or deny consent in any activity, sexual or not.

This lesson helps participants examine the meaning of enthusiastic consent and practice communicating enthusiastic consent.


Understanding BDSM, Consent and Negotiation
This lesson helps participants understand the meaning and scope of BDSM, the role that consent plays, and the factors that need to be considered when engaging in BDSM behaviors.

Foreword for Unequal Partners

By Al Vernacchio, MSEd

Humans are hardwired for relationships; we need them to survive and thrive. Our natural inclination is to reach out to another seeking connection, whether that be body to body, heart to heart, or mind to mind. At their best, relationships are mutual and sustaining; they benefit those in the relationship and the larger community. That can’t happen when relationships get derailed by prejudice, power, mistrust or fear. As a proponent and practitioner of comprehensive sexuality education, I am drawn to lessons, programs and curricula that have as their starting point the inherent goodness of people and the positive power of relationships. The materials published by The Center for Sex Education are grounded in these values, and they are the ones I reach for when looking for both practical ideas and inspiration.

For me, the following are core values that need to be included in any discussion of relationships. All of them are represented in the new two-volume edition of Unequal Partners:

  • Every healthy relationship and every aspect of the relationship should be a choice. If we are not free to enter a relationship or to leave it, then we are in bondage rather than relationship.
  • It is important to think about our long-term relationship goals. What kind of sexual or romantic relationship do we ultimately desire? Once we know that, we can ask whether our relationship patterns are moving us closer to or farther away from our long-term relationship goals.
  • Knowing who we are is an essential element to having a healthy relationship with someone else. When we forego authenticity in pursuit of popularity, security or acceptance we cannot maintain honest and healthy relationships.
  • Every healthy relationship is equally balanced, allowing each person the freedom and responsibility to become more true to themselves while in the relationship.
  • Every healthy relationship entails work; none come effortlessly or can be neglected.
  • We can have healthy relationships. We deserve healthy relationships.

One of the traps sexuality educators and sex ed curricula can fall into is centering lessons on the negative consequences of unhealthy sexuality and relationships while ignoring the fundamental goodness of healthy sexuality and relationships. They start with a focus on disease, dysfunction and distress. I have always maintained that healthy sexuality is not developed from lessons that focus on “no, don’t, and beware.” This does not mean that we ignore or shy away from potential negative consequences, but that we see them as aberrations rather than inevitabilities. That isn’t the message young people get from our “if it bleeds, it leads” news philosophy or the anything-but “reality” shows that so easily capture their attention. They are bombarded by examples of relationships that are rooted in treachery, deceit and exploitation, stories that portray our worst rather than our best potential. I love Unequal Partners because it avoids this trap entirely.

When I start the unit on relationships in my own class, we don’t go immediately to the sexual or romantic relationship. We start by talking about friendship. Often the healthiest relationships teens have are with their friends and yet they often fail to make the connections between all they’ve learned about being a good friend and how that might inform what it is to be a good sweetheart. When I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, my mentor, Dr. Ken George, defined sexual/romantic love as “best friend plus sex.” While I don’t think that definition works so well today, given the “hook-up culture” and “friends with benefits” phenomena young people can be immersed in, I do think identifying the qualities that make for a successful friendship (which may include mutuality, flexibility, openness to growth, and emotional intimacy, among others) can be a good starting point to build a picture of a healthy sexual relationship (and to talk about why hook-ups and friends-with-benefits situations can crash and burn). This is especially important for young and middle adolescents as they are less likely to have had a sexual or romantic relationship, but all have had a variety of friendships.

I also tell my students to think of their relationships as living things that need care, attention, work and nurturing. This is not the same as giving our sweetheart(s) these things, which, of course, we have to do as well. No matter how many people you think are in a relationship, add one more — the relationship itself. Treat it as a living, breathing entity you have created; you are its caretaker. If it sounds like I’m saying a relationship is like a child, I guess I am. If that’s too scary, think of a relationship as a wonderful plant that you want to keep healthy so it can remain lovely and fragrant. When we see relationships as inert we increase the risk of assuming they are self-sustaining, and neglecting them.

The idea of a relationship as a living thing is also useful when talking about fair fighting. The first thing young people, and sometimes older people, need to know is that sweethearts fight. Fighting isn’t necessarily a sign of a troubled relationship. In fact, learning to fight fairly with a sweetheart can make a relationship stronger. The problem is that we seldom learn how to fight without also learning how to win. I always tell my students, “If you’re fighting with your sweetheart and either of you wins, the relationship often loses. You want a solution to the fight where the relationship wins. That means both of you may not get exactly what you want, and that’s OK. If the relationship emerges from the fight stronger, everybody wins. If the relationship loses, everyone ultimately loses as well.”

The fourth edition of Unequal Partners contains dozens of lesson plans that will help learners from middle school through adulthood create and maintain relationships that are healthy and vibrant, and avoid relationships that are tainted by oppression, prejudice, power differentials and coercion. The lessons value individuality, authenticity, honesty and growth and are inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations. They do not shy away from potential relationship problems; rather, they teach the skills necessary to recognize, confront and overcome them. In doing this, they do not perpetuate the assumption that we should walk into relationships with our shields up and our defenses at the ready.

I believe that we must begin any lesson on relationships by remembering that our sexuality is a force for good in the universe and its inherent goodness is the foundation upon which relationships are created and maintained. We need to provide as many vivid examples of relationships that work as those that don’t. We need to be as deliberate in teaching the skills that nourish a relationship as we do the skills that protect against exploitation and abuse. We need to lead with hope and the unshakable belief that we are more loving, more honest, more open and more interested in equality than even we believe we are. The authors and contributors to the fourth edition of Unequal Partners share this philosophy, and I am proud to stand with them in endorsing this fantastic collection.

Endorsements for Unequal Partners

“If every classroom adopted at least one lesson from this manual, the world would be a more compassionate place. Power, privilege, respect, and communication aren’t just violence prevention lessons or relationship lessons, they are imperative life lessons! Unequal Partners is a worthwhile tool for any educator dedicated to developing kindness and emotional literacy in their students.”
Jill McDevitt, PhD, MEd
Sexologist & Sexual Violence Prevention Activist

“The meticulously designed lessons provide educators with tools of relational negotiation, boundary formation/maintenance, utilizing power and influence responsibly, and deconstructing communication and sexuality language. Unequal Partners is an unrivaled curriculum for critical thinking, empathic dialogue, and responsible choices.”
James C. Wadley, PhD, LPC (PA, NJ), ACS, NCC
Principal, Association of Black Sexologists & Clinicians

“An unequaled resource for starting powerful conversations with young people about issues too often overlooked.”
Sam Killermann
Speaker, Author, Activist

“Your lessons on boundaries, consent, evaluating relationships, managing disappointment, maintaining resilience, and spotting power and control, among others, give young people tools to effectively negotiate, collaborate in and enjoy good experiences and relationships.”
Susan Stiritz, MBA, PhD, MSW
Senior Lecturer, Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis

“This manual fills in many of the gaps in relationship education, providing guidance on everything from healthy friendships and dating to breaking up and coping with rejection. If every young person learned all that Unequal Partners has to offer, I believe we would see the shift that is needed to eradicate violence in our world and to embody peace.”
Heather Simonson, LMSW, CSE
Sex Therapist, Sexuality Education & Counseling Services

“Like its predecessors, this new edition of Unequal Partners is enormously helpful and contains comprehensive, user-friendly lesson plans that are adaptable to a variety of audiences and settings. Teaching about power and consent is difficult. For those of us working in this field, this book is an essential addition to our toolbox.”
Carol P. Stenger, MEd, MA
Director, Advocacy Center for Sexual Violence at the University of Albany, SUNY

“Unequal Partners is a must-have resource! The easy-to-use guide provides educators with dynamic new ways to teach about consent and relationships, and students with the opportunity to think critically about topics that are crucial to their sexual and emotional health.”
Alison McKee, MEd, CSE

“Unequal Partners is a terrific and encompassing way to bring the conversation of consent into different settings, helping all involved think of the psychological, cultural, and experiential aspects that echo within and around sexual dynamics.”
Tomas Casado-Frankel, LMFT
Child, couples and family therapist

Unequal Partners, 4th edition

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