A proposal to expand the content of sex education in Utah to include consent and the dangers of pornography easily cleared the House on Thursday in a 66-5 vote.

HB286 sponsor Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, originally intended to move sex education to a computer-based format, but reversed those plans after meeting with various groups on the issue.

“Often we have willow trees when we start and whittle them down to toothpicks,” he said. “I’d say this is a mighty fine toothpick we have here.”

HB286 directs the Utah Board of Education to establish curriculum standards on “refusal skills,” including the ability to refuse sexual advances and the obligation to cease advances when refused. Students will also learn about the criminal prohibitions on activities like sexting.

“I think they’re critical areas that need to be included in our curriculum today,” Fawson said.

Thursday’s vote included the support of both Republican and Democratic representatives. But Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, commented that Utah parents should not be limited to only the abstinence-based curriculum currently allowed by state law.

King has sponsored a number of sex education bills in the past aimed at permitting comprehensive lessons on human sexuality in public schools.

“I continue to be troubled by the degree to which we want to deny parents the ability to get access for their children to a comprehensive education curriculum about sexual activities,” he said.

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Requires the Utah Board of Education to include instruction on consent and the harms of pornography in sex education standards. - Read full text

Current Status:

Filed Law Introduced in House House Committee House passage Senate Committee Senate passage Governor's OK

Feb. 20: Utah lawmaker abandons online sex ed effort to instead urge lessons on consent and the dangers of pornography

Miriam Hall was 11 years old when she was first exposed to hardcore pornography, she said Tuesday.

Now a high school senior, Hall said she remembers being in class and using a school computer when a pornographic pop-up advertisement appeared on her screen.

“I just felt dirty, and I felt scared,” she said. “I was ashamed of what I had seen.”

Now, as Miss Springville-Mapleton, Hall has helped sponsor in-school presentations by the anti-pornography advocacy group Fight the New Drug. She said pornography addictions undermine healthy relationships and marriages, and that addicts should be supported in the same way as drug and alcohol users.

“We celebrate people who are in recovery,” Hall said, “but we’re not talking about pornography as a drug, even though it has been proven to be one.”

Fight the New Drug has been accused of selectively promoting research that carries anti-pornography conclusions. And some studies, including a 2017 project at Brigham Young University, have found that perceived addiction to pornography is highest among religious individuals who misattribute shame as a compulsion.

Hall was speaking in favor of HB286, which would broaden Utah’s sex education law to include instruction on consent — or “refusal skills,” according to the bill’s language — and the harmful effects of pornography.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, earned the unanimous approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, after significant revisions that abandoned Fawson’s initial concept for the legislation.

Fawson initially intended to create an online sex education program for students to complete at home under parental supervision, but he substituted HB286, in part due to concerns of cost and developmental requirements.

Little has been done since Utah lawmakers declared pornography to be a “public health crisis” 2016, Fawson said, and statistics on pornography use and the average age of exposure for children show that more education is needed.

“Some of these statistics are not just alarming, but disturbing,” Fawson said. “This is a really important step.”

While Fawson’s presentation to the committee focused on pornography, several students who spoke in favor of the bill emphasized the need for lessons on consent.

Adam Herbst, a senior at Park City High School, said he previously lived with an abusive mother but didn’t fully understand until he was 15 that he was the victim of a crime.

“You can’t assume that children are learning consent in the home,” he said. “If I had a better sexual education program in my school, then my life could have been different.”

HB286 instructs the Utah Board of Education to establish curriculum standards on a student’s ability to refuse unwanted sexual advances, the obligation to cease sexual advances when refused, and the criminal prohibition against transmitting explicit images.

“Teaching [students] that sexting is actually illegal is something that didn’t apply to my age group going through high school,” Fawson said. “But it certainly applies today.”

But representatives from the Utah Eagle Forum, Family Watch International and Worldwide Organization for Women questioned the phrasing of “unwanted sexual advances,” saying it suggests children need not refuse consensual activities.

There’s no such thing, legally, as “wanted” sexual activity with or between minors, Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said.

“They should be taught to refuse all sexual advances,” she said. “These are students. These are children.”

The committee briefly considered amending the bill to remove “unwanted,” but Fawson argued that it is important to differentiate between consensual and nonconsensual actions within the broad spectrum of activity that could be described as sexual.

“Are we teaching kids to say no to hugging?” Fawson said. “Are we teaching kids to say no to kissing? What is a sexual advance, and do we have to then define what all sexual advances are?”

Before the committee voted, one of its two Democratic members remarked that HB286 resembled failed sex education proposals sponsored in the past by minority-party representatives.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said her head was spinning to hear so many comments in favor of a proposal to broaden Utah’s sex education curriculum.

“This sounds a lot like comprehensive sex education bills we’ve had in the past,” she said.

When Fawson responded and said his bill was not a comprehensive proposal, Moss interrupted by saying, “Oh, come on.”

Sex education in Utah is categorized as “abstinence-plus.” The law allows for some discussion of sexually transmitted diseases and contraceptive methods, but teachers are prohibited from encouraging the use of contraceptives, encouraging sexual activity outside of marriage, or discussing “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior.”

A previous prohibition on the advocacy of homosexuality was repealed last year in the face of a court challenge on the grounds of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.