Cushman: Protect Utah Students by Teaching Them Consent


(Courtesy Ruth Basagoitia)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer


Last month, threats from one student to carry out a “rape day” at Cedar High School in Cedar City, Utah left students and parents terrified. Rape is not a joke. It isn’t funny to threaten violent crime against classmates – or anyone for that matter. Given Utah’s sexual assault statistics, this gross attention-grab illuminates the need for better consent education. Our education system must expand consent and sexual violence prevention education in high schools to stop “jokes” like this one and, in general, make our communities safer.

Although this Cedar High student thought it was funny to make a joke about rape, Utah’s rise in sexual assault rates is not funny. The state’s rape and sexual assault statistics make up the only violent crime rate that’s higher in Utah than the national average. One in six Utah women and one in 25 Utah men will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Thousands of Utahns live with the trauma of sexual assault every day, which, makes this threat to carry out a “rape day” even more disgusting.

Despite these frightening rates, Utah severely lacks funding for sexual violence prevention. In 2011, Utah only spent $569,000 on sexual violence prevention. And while the state spent $92 million on perpetrators of sexual assault and rape, only $16.5 million was spent on victims. Utah shouldn’t just accept that its citizens are at a higher risk for sexual violence — they should instead work to put an end to it. But our funding doesn’t reflect that goal. We direct so much money towards the consequences of sexual violence, but we spend little money to prevent such crimes from happening in the first place.

Sex education in Utah also lacks education about consent. Speaking from my own experience, I remember reading maybe a paragraph in our textbook about consent, and my teacher made a point to say it was important. That was the extent of what I learned about consent in my health class, and it was far from enough. My class never learned how to identify signs of coercion, how to leave uncomfortable sexual situations or how to respond to emotional manipulation. I feel like my education left me to the wolves because it did not prepare me for the sexual situations I ended up facing.

Not only is our sex education not meeting the needs of Utah students, it is incredibly controversial to make changes to it. During the 2021 Utah legislative session, House Bill 177 aimed to include more in-depth discussions about consent in Utah’s sex education curriculum. The bill became subject to fierce debate and the House eventually rejected it, even after significant modifications and reductions were made.

These actions dismiss the reality of sexual assault violence in our state. Much of the controversy surrounding H.B. 177 came from Republican legislators and parents who don’t want to teach consent to teens who “cannot legally consent to sexual activity.” However, regardless of how much many parents want their teens to be abstinent, those teens will likely face sexual experiences. And what’s worse, the events at Cedar High demonstrate that those teens do not have an adequate grasp of the importance of enthusiastic consent.

1 in 10 high school and college students admit to forcing someone into sexual activity. 14.3% of Utah high schoolers say they experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months. Given the amount of underreporting of sexual crimes, these numbers could be even higher. We do our students a disservice by not providing sex education relevant to the situations they will face. Learning about consent does not mean that high school students will consent to sex while they’re young or even before they’re married. Instead, it gives them the tools to say no and leave situations when they don’t feel ready. However, under-preparing them has real, dangerous consequences. Rather than pushing an abstinence-focused education, we should give Utah’s teens the knowledge they need.

When a plane crash happens, we cover it on the news for days. It makes national headlines. It results in an investigation as to how and why this could happen. As a society, we decided that plane crashes are unacceptable so we have put a lot of resources into preventing them. We need to treat sexual violence like a plane crash. Instead of waiting to deal with its consequences, Utah needs to step up and work to prevent it from happening in the first place. More funding needs to be directed toward sexual violence prevention efforts. Better consent education needs to be a part of Utah sexual education. Preventing rape and sexual assault starts with providing the resources to keep people safe.


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