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Proposed Illinois Law Would Require Sex Education Programs To Focus More On Consent

By Kate Thayer Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  If passed, schools would have to include several points in their teachings on consent, such as explaining that people cannot consent if they are intoxicated or asleep.

Chicago Tribune

Teaching "no means no" in sex education isn't enough, according to a proposal in the Illinois legislature that would require Illinois schools that offer sex education to provide more thorough lessons on the issue of consent.

Lawmakers in the Illinois House are expected to vote on a bill that offers a more nuanced definition of consent in sex education programs for sixth- through 12th-graders in public schools.

Sex education is not mandated by law in Illinois, but schools that have such programs must include certain themes, like the issue of consent.

But the current law does not define consent, nor specify what instruction about it should include, said state Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, main sponsor of the bill.

"Consent is much more complex a topic than 'no means no,'" she said. "It looks a lot different if someone is in a position of trust and authority ... or if there is alcohol or drugs."

If passed, schools would have to include several points in their teachings on consent, such as explaining that people cannot consent if they are intoxicated or asleep.

The text of the bill specifies that "consent is a freely given agreement to sexual activity" and that "consent to one particular sexual activity does not constitute consent to other types of sexual activities."

The bill goes on to specify what should not be mistaken for consent, such as what someone is wearing, and that consent to past sexual activity does not mean consent to future sexual activity.

Williams said she spoke with social service organizations and survivors of sexual assault when drafting the legislation, which would leave it up to each district to develop its own curriculum

In the wake of the modern #MeToo movement, educators and legislators around the country are linking lessons on consent to sex education in order to strengthen sexual assault prevention efforts. This has led to similar laws passed in other states, said Jennifer Driver, state policy director for the Sexuality Information and Education Council for the United States, a Washington-based organization that offers fact-based sexual education resources.

"I think too often young people were learning only about" pregnancy and STD prevention, Driver said. "Prevention only covers a small amount of what they need. Young people really need to learn about consent and healthy relationships," said Driver, adding that research supports this tactic.

Driver said she appreciated that the Illinois legislation addresses issues including that what someone is wearing does not play into consent. "For a long time, we've done a lot of victim blaming," she said. "This shifts the focus, and it reinforces that it's not your fault."

These lessons are essential at an early age, even as young as kindergarten, said Dan Rice, director of training at Answer, a Rutgers University organization that provides sex education resources.

Young children can learn about boundaries outside the context of sexual activity, he said. Answer provides programs that use sports analogies for younger children, he said. They learn things like: "Just because a person agrees to play one sport doesn't mean they will play more than one," Rice said. "And, they have the right to change their mind."

For kindergartners, lessons can revolve around personal boundaries, that they don't have to hug anyone and that you need permission to hug, Rice added. "These are basic concepts even a kindergarten child can understand."

Rice said these conversations should come up before sixth grade, the earliest it's required in the Illinois bill, and that although these laws are a positive step, they often don't go far enough in providing training for teachers or oversight to make sure districts comply.

"It really depends on how the school district takes this and really runs with it," he said.

The Robert Crown Center for Health Education, based in Hinsdale, travels to more than 600 Chicago-area schools to provide sex education. Last year, it closed its center that hosted field trips to convert to a mobile model.

Now the center is also adapting to the #MeToo era, adding lessons on consent to its programs, said Katie Gallagher, director of education. The programs typically target fourth- through eighth-graders.

"We are weaving in some basic understanding on consent as early as fourth grade ... in different terms they understand, in everyday situations," she said, adding that consent is not discussed in sexual terms until older grades.

"No means no doesn't explain it all," she said. "What does yes mean? (Kids may wonder) is yes because you wore a certain outfit? Is yes because she let me hold her hand?"

Gallagher said not only are consent lessons now typically more nuanced, but also more often discussed.

"People are recognizing we need to build some education around this based on what's happening with adults," she said. "We need to be talking to kids about this, so there's a change in future generations."

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