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Utah lawmakers nix idea requiring ‘consent’ as part of sex education

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation that would have required Utah’s sex education curriculum to include instruction about consent — including what does not constitute consent — was defeated by the House Education Committee Monday by a vote of 4-7.

HB177, sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, also would have required instruction on coercion, sexual violence behavior deterrence, and sexual assault mitigation as part of sex education instruction for students in grades 7-12. Parents must opt-in for their child to participate in sex education classes.

“My motivation is not to get some liberal curriculum into the schools as many people have made that accusation, but rather to give kids information that they can use to protect themselves,” Moss said.

Issues of consent are not exclusively sexual in nature, she said.

“It could be saying no to sending a photo of yourself, or no to your sending me a photo. Or it could be saying, ‘No, I don’t want to go to a party where there might be illegal activity,’” Moss said.

Some committee members argued that refusal skills are already part of Utah’s health curriculum standards adopted by the Utah State Board of Education in 2019.

Some, like Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said there were technical problems with the bill, explaining that consent is defined elsewhere in Utah laws and those laws are intended to protect children.

Alan Buys, a victim advocate who formerly worked at Utah State University, urged the committee to adopt the bill. Buys said some of the students he worked with disclosed to him that they had “done sexual things without getting consent and didn’t have a clue” that they legally should.

“The misconception that we’re having here is that there are the monster perpetrators, the ones that are are manipulative and vile, but there are also these unintended, frankly ignorant perpetrators who just need a little education to understand that they have to ask, ‘Is it OK if I kiss you?’ or ‘Is it OK if I do X, Y or Z beforehand?’”

Teaching only refusal skills puts the responsibility on victims to say no, Buys said.

“We know that it’s perpetrators who need the education because people who say no still get assaulted,” he said.

Dr. Kellie Woodfield, an obstetrics-gynecology resident at the University of Utah, also spoke in support of the bill.

“When done correctly, consent instruction can reduce the incidence of sexual violence, not by magically convincing a generation that ‘no means no,’ but by dismantling the cultural conditions then actually underscore the sexual violence, including discriminatory attitudes, ignorance and gendered power differentials,” Woodfield said, explaining that she was not representing the university.

But others like Deanna Holland said the teaching of refusal skills, now part of the state standards, “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.”

Moss disclosed that her three daughters were sexually abused by a relative during their childhood and it caused great distress in their family for years. She believes that her daughters, who have their own children in their teens and some in college, have done a better job of teaching their children about sex education and about consent than she did.

“I believe that parents are the primary educators of their children’s sexual education but schools can open the door for conversation,” said Moss.

A retired high school English teacher, Moss said she has spent nearly half of her life around teenagers and she is aware of anecdotes and government data that show “Utah teens continue to grapple with unhealthy and abusive dating relationships.”

“Consent is not about engaging in sexual activity. Consent is agreeing to behaviors within one’s personal boundaries and set comfort level. Teaching students about consent can help keep them safe from predators or sexual abuse, but it can also be about simpler things like whether they want to play a game or get a hug from a classmate,” she said.

The panel also voted to hold HB177 at the committee level rather than return it to the House Rules Committee. Moss said she plans to continue to work on the legislation to attempt to address concerns raised by committee members.