McCall James: Sex Ed? What’s that? Utah’s health education needs help.

There is a correlation between a lack of consent education and high rates of sexual violence.

(Alexie Zollinger | Amplify Utah) The Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center and the Center for Health and Counseling offer informational materials regarding sex education to Salt Lake Community College students.

Ask anyone outside of Utah what their most vivid memory is from their high school sex ed class, they’ll probably say something about their teacher putting a condom on a banana. Ask anyone who grew up in Utah, myself included, and their answer is probably, “Health class? What was that?”

Nowhere in the United States is robust sexual health and consent education more vital than in Utah schools, where in 2019, 7.3% of high school students had been physically forced into having sex. Unfortunately, Utah holds the badge for one of the highest rates of rape in the nation, with one in six women and one in 25 men reporting their experiences.

Utah is in dire need of curriculum reform to reduce these rates. Legislators who oversee the public school curriculum regulation need to include consent in the public education system’s sexual health education program.

Utah’s existing health classes are ineffective, revolving around the state-mandated abstinence-plus curriculum. Under this system, current lessons may include information about contraception and condoms but must always promote abstinence first. Such a requirement deprives students access to information they need, including a more robust understanding of healthy relationships and refusal skills.

Abstinence can be an effective method of preventing unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but only when coupled with other critical topics such as consent, which the current Utah curriculum lacks. As a result, students leave high school unprepared for the world.

Rather than improve sex education, every year the Utah Legislature and lobby groups attempt to weaken it. (Yes, to make it even more inadequate than it already is.) This past year was no different.

In February 2021, the Utah Legislature failed to pass either a House or a Senate bill that would have enhanced the current curriculum. The proposed bills added language regarding what does and does not constitute consent, outlined “sexual violence behavior prevention education” and included new sexual assault prevention strategies.

People of all ages, religions and sexes bravely came forward in support of the bill, me included, yet the legislators supported the minority of voices who assert that the omission of consent language is the only way to promote “abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterwards.”

There’s a problem when the people who represent the state’s constituents are unable to recognize the correlation between a lack of consent education and the high rates of sexual violence. Rather than acting in the student’s best interests, state representatives and school board members falsely claim that teaching consent leads to unintended pregnancy, infidelity and, more generally, increased sexual activity.

When students are not taught consent, or simply what a healthy relationship looks like, young people lack communication skills in relationships. Teaching consent does not lead to teenagers having sex, rather, a failure to teach consent guarantees that they will have inadequate sexual assault mitigation skills, placing them at unnecessary risk.

There is ample evidence supporting advanced sex education curriculum reduces unwanted pregnancy and intimate partner violence, while empowering students to practice empathy and healthy decisions. Without a reformed system that includes consent, Utah’s history of sexual assault will only continue.

Schools can provide a safe environment for learning consistent and all-inclusive health education, but only if legislators allow them to do so. Although resources such as non-profit community centers, parental guidance and the internet exist, there is no guarantee that students in Utah have access to these resources. Therefore, Utah must include sexual assault prevention strategies and instruction on consent for students in the public school system.

Healthy lifestyles curriculum helps students communicate better with family, peers and teachers about issues that affect their health and relationships and helps young Utahans make informed and thoughtful decisions about their lives.

The well-being of Utah students who become Utah adults is in the hands of the lawmakers. It is on them to implement consent policies in the Utah health education curriculum. For now, it is on us as constituents to advocate for accurate, age-appropriate sex education lessons that will benefit generations of Utahns to come.

McCall James

McCall James, a Salt Lake City native, is a master of public health candidate at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.