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Teaching Consent as Part of Sex Ed

Twenty-four states mandate sex education in schools; only eight of them also require a curriculum on consent.

Twenty-four states mandate sex education in schools; only eight of them also require a curriculum on consent. Shutterstock

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Sex ed classes in Illinois schools must include a lesson on consent under a state law that goes into effect in January.

Legislation signed into law this week in Illinois will set new guidelines beginning next year for teaching the concept of consent in middle school and high school sexual education classes.

Illinois does not currently require schools to teach sex education. Schools that do offer the class were already required to cover the issue of consent, but there was no uniform guidance on how to define the concept or what a lesson plan might look like.

The new law aims to change that. It calls for discussions about consent to include a number of points, including the definition of consent as “a freely given agreement to sexual activity;" that consenting to one sexual activity does not imply consent to all types of sexual activity, that consent can be withdrawn at any time and that what a person wears—revealing clothing, for example—does not constitute consent.

The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and by an overwhelming majority in the House. Its requirements will go into effect in January.

“Consent is not just a matter of yes and no. Consent is a very complex subject that needs to be explored in a comprehensive way,” said state Rep. Ann Williams, a Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor. “We need to arm our students with the tools to understand consent.”

Williams was inspired to draft the bill in the wake of a Chicago Tribune investigation that uncovered rampant sexual assault in the city’s public school system. In the aftermath the school system changed the way it investigated claims of sexual assaults, but did little to focus on preventing the assaults in the first place, Williams said.

“That was troubling,” she said on the House floor in March. “But this is what this bill is about—the prevention of sexual abuse and assault.”

Illinois is one of several states, including Colorado, to consider similar measures in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In total, 11 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia) and the District of Columbia require consent to be addressed in sex education classes. A total of 24 states mandate sex education; only eight of those also require consent to be taught as part of that curriculum.

Those discussions are important because they allow young people to learn what constitutes healthy boundaries in relationships, said Brigid Leahy, director of government relations for Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

“People, including young people, have sex, and it’s about time we have a conversation about that,” Leahy told One Illinois. “When sexuality is approached with silence, young people can experience violence, increased risk of negative health outcomes, and unhealthy relationships. Accurate and complete information about their health and rights empowers youth to build healthy lives.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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