It would help if Utah schools allowed real sex ed classes, Tribune Editorial Board writes

Far too few cases go to trial. Lawmakers can start by requiring more education about boundaries and refusal.

It is the most vicious of circles.

Women who are victims of sexual assault often fear reporting the crime to police will gain them nothing.

That, at best, no one will believe them or, worse, that investigators, medical staff, acquaintances, even loved ones, will shame and blame them rather than help them seek justice. Justice that, even if it doesn’t undo the trauma, may prevent another woman from suffering the same pain.

Recent research focused on police and prosecutors in Salt Lake and Utah counties shows the fears seem well-founded. It shows that a small percentage of sexual assault reports lead to arrests, and a small percentage of arrests lead to trials, much less convictions. Add in the fact that most sex crimes aren’t reported to police in the first place, and the numbers look really awful.

The work merely confirms the criminal justice system does far too little to investigate and prosecute sex crimes. So victims are discouraged from reporting them or, having done so, from subjecting themselves to the gantlet of seeing the case through.

So nothing gets better.

Top prosecutors in both counties see what’s wrong and have pledged to do better. That, clearly, is necessary. But even a big improvement in the way police and prosecutors receive, screen and handle cases isn’t going to get us where we need to be.

It is significant that the research team behind the new study is headed, not by a sociologist or a criminal justice expert, but by Julie Valentine, who is associate dean for undergraduate studies and research and an associate professor at Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing.

“Rape is a health care issue,” Valentine says.

That’s true. And, like most health care issues, treatment is often necessary and there is usually room for improvement. But prevention is better.

And the prevention of sexual assault is everyone’s business. It is the work of police and courts, but also of individuals, families, youth groups, religious organizations and schools.

Everyone should be teaching their daughters how to set limits, how to stand up for themselves, that they are allowed to say so when they don’t want to be touched or pursued or to engage in any kind of intimacy.

And everyone should be teaching their sons the same things.

It would help — a lot — if Utah schools required, or even allowed, genuine sex education classes, versus the watered down abstinence-based program it has now. As that still seems too much to ask, a reachable goal might be a new version of a bill sponsored in the last session of the Utah Legislature by state Rep. Carol Spackman Moss.

That bill would have instructed the Utah State Board of Education to add materials on how to avoid sexual assault and the behaviors that can lead to it, such as unwanted touching or other grooming behavior, as well as information about where to seek help if such an assault occurs.

The bill barely made it out of committee and failed on the House floor by eight votes. One of the sticking points apparently was the notion of “consent.” Even though the term was removed from later versions of the bill, there was apparently a fear that so much as using the word would convey that young people have a right to consent to sexual activity. Which, if they are under 18, they don’t.

It echoes the thoroughly unfounded fear that the whole point of sex education is to teach underage people to have sex. This is a fear that, in Utah, apparently still needs to be accommodated.

So a new version of the bill, which Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, is preparing for the 2022 session of the Legislature, avoids the loaded term and concentrates on teaching information and skills necessary to avoid assault and other unwanted, boundary-violating behavior.

That’s an idea that conservatives and liberals alike should be able to get behind. Utah voters should contact their lawmakers and tell them to support the 2022 version of the Spackman Moss bill.

And don’t say that such knowledge and skills should be taught only at home or at church. Because, clearly, they aren’t.

Editor’s note: Anyone needing assistance or resources with respect to sexual assault should contact Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline, at 1-888-421-1100.