The Official News Publication of Herriman High School

The Herriman Telegraph

The Official News Publication of Herriman High School

The Herriman Telegraph

Consenting to Progress — moving beyond refusal skills.

Credits: Monash University

Salt Lake City — with the legislative session underway, bills addressing many pressing issues will be debated over the next few weeks. One such topic is sex education. Utah’s abstinence-centered sex education not only sets a dangerous precedent by replacing concepts such as “consent” with “refusal skills” but also discourages education about the use of contraception. The restrictive provisions of the Utah sex education curriculum, namely its revision of consent with “refusal skills,” add to the stigma and systemic challenges many sexual assault survivors face.

According to the Utah Health Curriculum, “refusal skills” refer to a student’s ability to “clearly and expressly refuse sexual advances by a minor or adult.” While consent accounts for the permission of all the people participating in sexual activity, refusal skills put the onus on one person to prevent escalation. Consent, which is rooted in mutual understanding and respect, is optional according to Utah law. This is especially troubling because, in 2022, Utah was above the national average for rapes per capita. And, according to Utah State University, Utah is ranked 9th for rape cases per capita. 

With no foreseeable decline in this trend, public education is indispensable to educating students about consent. Moreover, the language of consent must also change. Rather than emphasizing the phrase “no means no,” the state must introduce affirmative consent to the conversation. As in, replacing the adage, “no means no,” with “yes means yes.” While consent is a mutual agreement, affirmative consent helps establish boundaries that are often manipulated through pressure in the absence of explicit agreement. 

The absence of a “no” does not always imply “yes.” It is crucial that children learn about the distinction. For instance, somebody who is unconscious or threatened by their surroundings is less likely to say “no.” 

Even though Utah stresses abstinence-focused education, learning about consent would not impede that goal. In fact, with affirmative consent, the boundaries are more firmly established. Refusal skills rely on culturally acceptable social cues. However, that creates the opportunity for exploitation. For instance, conveying a “no” through body language is not always possible. Body language is an interpretive cue. It varies from person to person. Moreover, in cases of sexual assault, it shifts the responsibility entirely onto the victim.

As Sophie Hayssen points out in Women’s Media Company (WMC), “Unlike consent, refusal skills don’t take into account threats or manipulation, or the reality that those being sexually assaulted often mentally freeze, preventing them from yelling or fighting back. The cost of “refusal” for many victims can also become complicated when their assailants are more physically imposing than they are.” Refusal skills put undue pressure on the victims.

To bring meaningful change to rape culture, the language regarding sexual assault must change. Most students have their formative experiences with romantic relationships during high school. It is essential that public schools adequately educate students on the social and emotional boundaries necessary for a healthy relationship — an integral part of that education is consent. Sexual abuse is multifaceted and devastating. To limit it, comprehensive education is necessary.

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Bhavika Malik
Bhavika Malik, Editor and Chief

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