Utah rejects bill that aimed to teach consent in sex education classes

<span>Photograph: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

Despite chronic struggles with sexual violence in Utah, lawmakers in the state have rejected legislation that would have changed the state’s health education curriculum to teach consent and prevent unwanted sexual behavior.

The legislation, called HB177, was defeated by Utah’s house education committee by a vote of 7-4.

The bill’s defeat was part of a larger conservative pushback across America. Some politicians argue, wrongly, that consent instruction teaches students it is OK to have sex, said Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at the State Innovation Exchange.

But “that is not what consent means,” Driver said, and informing young people about sex education and consent is necessary to protect them. “When you don’t teach sex education, when you’re not teaching about consent, you actually are putting young people at harm – in harm’s way,” she said.

In Utah, parents must opt in for their child to participate in sex education classes. The bill would have also mandated instruction on coercion, sexual violence behavior deterrence, and sexual assault mitigation as part of sex education instruction for students in grades seven to 12.

State representative Carol Spackman Moss, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said the bill would have updated the state’s sex ed curriculum to include information about consent, which the bill defines as “freely given, informed, and knowledgeable agreement” either “to do something” or “for something to happen”.

It would have taught students how to understand and communicate other people’s boundaries without shaming victims. And it would have provided “sexual assault resource strategies” for survivors, who could use them “to address the physical and psychological effects of sexual assault”.

“This is to give kids tools, and it all has to do with giving them the language and knowing that you have rights,” Moss told the Guardian. “It’s so common sense.”

In recent years, the #MeToo movement has brought awareness to sexual misconduct in all corners of the United States and underscored much-needed conversations about consent. Yet it has simultaneously revealed how many people – including adults – misunderstand the concept, and the real-world implications of that ignorance.

In Utah, where rape is the lone violent crime perpetrated at a higher rate than the national average, teens and young adults suffer a scourge of unwanted physical contact and the lasting trauma that comes with it.

Around one in seven of the state’s high-schoolers reports experiencing sexual violence in a year, while 7.6% say they have endured forced sexual intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

College students also deal with rampant sexual misconduct: the number of reported gropings at Utah’s colleges nearly tripled in 2018 compared to three years earlier, the Salt Lake Tribune found.

But in the state’s schools, current sex education standards focus on “refusal skills” to prevent sexual misconduct, a reactive tactic that puts the onus on victims instead of perpetrators.

“It’s not like people who are sexually assaulted don’t say no,” said Dan Rice, executive director of Answer, a national organization for sexuality education resources. “The perpetrator is doing what they’re doing because they’re not hearing the no, they’re not accepting the no.”

Opponents in Utah argued that state standards for resistance instruction were already adopted by the state’s board of education in 2019. Others, including several Republican colleagues, insisted consent has been defined by other Utah laws intended to protect children.

“[Refusal skills] lets us teach children the necessary skills the good representative wants. I’m uncomfortable adding consent into our curriculum when our current curriculum already teaches these safety skills,” said Deanna Holland, vice president of the anti-abortion group Pro-Life Utah.

Currently, Utah law mandates that abstinence-based sexual education be promoted as the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in health classes across the state. Critics have long argued that focusing on refusal places an unnecessary burden on the victim.

“We know that it’s perpetrators who need the education because people who say no still get assaulted,” said Alan Buys, a victim advocate. He urged the committee to adopt the bill noting some of his students had “done sexual things without getting consent” because they “didn’t have a clue” that they should.

“The misconception that we’re having here is that there are the monster perpetrators, the ones that are are manipulative and vile,” he said. “But there are also these unintended, 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 legislation, revising technical issues raised by state committee members.

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