Despite chronic battles with sexual violence in Utah, state lawmakers have opposed laws that would have changed the state’s health education curriculum to instill consent and prevent unwanted sexual behavior.
The legislation, dubbed HB177, was rejected by the Utah Education Committee by 7-4 votes.
The bill’s defeat was part of a larger conservative setback across America. Some politicians wrongly argue that the consent form teaches students that it is okay to have sex, said Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange.
But “that’s not what consent is,” Driver said, and there is a need to educate young people about sex education and consent to keep them safe. “If you don’t teach sex education, if you don’t teach consent, you are actually putting young people at risk – in harmful ways,” she said.
In Utah, parents must choose to have their child take sex education classes. The bill would also have mandated classes on coercion, deterring sexual violence, and mitigating sexual assault as part of sex education classes for students in grades 7-12.
State representative Carol Spackman Moss, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said the bill had updated the state’s curriculum to include information about consent, which the bill defines as “freely given, informed, and knowledgeable agreement.” , either “to do something” or “to make something happen”.
It would have taught students how to understand and communicate other people’s limits without shaming the victims. And it would have provided sexual assault survivors with resources that they could use to “address the physical and psychological effects of sexual assault”.
“This is to give tools to kids, and it all has to do with giving them the language and knowing you have rights,” Moss told the Guardian. “It’s such common sense.”
In the past few years, the #MeToo movement has been raising awareness of sexual misconduct in every corner of the US and highlighting much-needed consent talks. At the same time, however, it has been shown how many people – including adults – misunderstand the concept and real implications of this ignorance.
In Utah, where rape is the only violent crime perpetrated higher than the national average, adolescents and young adults suffer from a scourge of unwanted physical contact and the long-term trauma associated with it.
Roughly one in seven high schoolers in the state said they had experienced sexual violence in one year, while 7.6% said they had experienced forced intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 youth risk behavior survey.
College students are also dealing with rampant sexual misconduct: The number of reported assaults in Utah colleges nearly tripled in 2018 compared to three years earlier, the Salt Lake Tribune found.
In state schools, however, current standards for sex education focus on “rejection skills” to prevent sexual misconduct. This reactive tactic puts the victims in the act instead of the perpetrators.
“It’s not that people who are sexually assaulted don’t say no,” said Dan Rice, executive director of Answer, a national organization dedicated to sex education resources. “The perpetrator does what he does because he doesn’t hear the no, he doesn’t accept the no.”
Opponents in Utah argued that the state standards for resistance teaching were passed by the state education committee back in 2019. Others, including several Republican colleagues, insisted that consent was defined by other laws in Utah for the protection of children.
“[Refusal skills] Let’s teach children the necessary skills that the good representative desires. I feel uncomfortable adding consent to our curriculum when our current curriculum is already teaching these safety skills, ”said Deanna Holland, vice president of the anti-abortion group Pro-Life Utah.
Currently, Utah law requires abstinence-based sex education to be promoted in health classes across the state as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Critics have long argued that focusing on rejection puts an unnecessary burden on the victim.
“We know it is the perpetrators who need the training because people who say no are still being attacked,” said Alan Buys, an attorney for the victim. He called on the committee to adopt the bill that found that some of his students “did sexual things without consent” because they “had no idea” that they should.
“The misconception we have here is that there are the monster abusers who are manipulative and obnoxious,” he said. “But there are also these unintentional, frankly ignorant, perpetrators who just need a little education to understand that they have to ask.”
Moss and other reproductive rights advocates have vowed to continue efforts to pass the law and revise the technical issues raised by members of the State Committee.