A controversial bill making its way through the Colorado legislature would add information about healthy relationships and consent to the state’s sex education curriculum.
Should the bill pass, Colorado would become only the ninth state in the U.S. to require teaching about consent as part of sex education in K-12 schools.
“Recognizing that even the adults in this building don’t understand personal boundaries, it’s a worthy conversation to start having with our kids,” said Rep. Susan Lontine, the Denver Democratic representative who introduced the bill, HB19-1032, and who last year filed a sexual harassment complaint against a fellow lawmaker.
“I think it’s really important that we start [teaching kids about consent] at a young age so they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “I can tell you from the conversations I’ve had with kids in the Denver area that is something they want.”
The topic of consent – when both partners agree to a sexual activity and understand what they’re agreeing to – has been in the spotlight thanks to the #MeToo movement and the sexual assault allegations faced by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which he has denied.
Lontine’s legislation, “Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education,” would update a 2013 law to bar promoting sexual abstinence as the sole preventive method for students and prohibit excluding the sexual experiences of LBGTQ students, among other things. It includes a $1 million grant for schools that choose to offer students a comprehensive sex education curriculum.
Though a hearing last week on the bill drew hundreds of people and lasted more than 10 hours, one of the least controversial parts of the bill appears to be the consent provision.
Lontine called it “one of the more important pieces of [the bill] that we’re not talking about.”
Candi Cushman, director of education issues and initiatives at Focus on the Family, a group that opposes the bill, said they take issue with the lack of parental involvement more than teaching about consent.
“I think where the controversy comes in is how are parents going to be involved in this,” she said. “There is concern that the legislation is crossing the line beyond just simply communicating to kids that assault is wrong, or what their boundaries are, but it’s crossing that line and getting into sexual experimentation without involving the parent all the time.”
Eight states require mention of consent in sex education
In most states, parents do not even have the chance to be included in conversations about teaching consent at their child’s school.
Only eight states and the District of Columbia require mention of consent or sexual assault as part of sex education, according to a 2018 study by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.
The eight states — California, Hawaii, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia — are among only 24 states in the U.S. that mandate sex education in public schools, according to the study.
The study also found that the majority of public school students in America don’t know how to identify behaviors that demonstrate healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“I think it’s still a really contentious issue and it kind of boils down to community norms around premarital sex, because that’s what we’re really talking about here,” said Catherine Brown, a study author and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Some believe it’s giving permission for young people to have sex and that’s something they’re not comfortable with.”
Brown said she has noticed an uptick in states’ interest in adding consent and healthy relationships to their sex education curriculum because of #MeToo and last year’s high-profile Kavanaugh hearings, during which Christine Blasey Ford, a college professor, accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct while they were in high school.
Efforts to add consent to the curriculum are most effective when they are started by students, according to Brown’s research.
“It’s a really exciting development,” she said. “They’re going out and talking to their legislators and they’re making change that will matter to them.”
Moira Lees, a seventh-grader in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, is among the students pushing Colorado legislators to add consent to their sex ed curriculum. She was one of handful of students who testified in favor of the bill last week.
“I believe that consent is very important in relationships and just in the real world,” Moira, 14, told “GMA.” “I don’t think I’m the only middle schooler that wants to learn this stuff.”
Moira, whose mother also testified, was motivated to speak out after seeing language in her school’s dress code and her older brother’s sex education curriculum that she thought implied that clothes girls choose to wear can be consent for boys.
“Our dress code says that dresses should not be worn that distract from learning purposes and it’s really sexist,” she said. “I thought it was important [for legislators] to hear from a middle schooler’s point of view.”
The Colorado bill passed the Colorado House committee that Moira testified before last week and is now headed to the House Appropriations Committee.