Moira Lees, 12, sat in a padded brown chair at the witness table of a Colorado Capitol meeting room overflowing with adults last week and told state lawmakers she wants her Douglas County middle school to talk about consent in sexual relationships.
And she wasn’t the only student to speak up. At least six young women and men shared their personal experiences and concerns with the way Colorado schools teach or, in most cases, don’t teach about consent.
Consent is one of the least talked about but most significant changes being proposed to sex education in Colorado – a part of House Bill 1032 that largely went unnoticed during the 10-hour debate Wednesday about abortion, abstinence, sexual positions and LGBT relationships.
The idea of requiring verbal consent before sexual activity has been spreading across college campuses for the past two decades, but Colorado would be just the ninth state to require teaching consent as part of sex education in K-12 schools.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, would require school districts that choose to teach sex ed to include lessons on “how to communicate consent, recognize communication of consent, and recognize withdrawal of consent.”[RELATED: Colorado sex ed bill: Social media reaction to #HB1032]
The bill comes in wake of the #MeToo movement, which has sparked a national conversation around sexual misconduct and led to the downfall of many powerful public figures. Former Colorado lawmakers are among those who have been accused of bad behavior.
“Given what happened in this building last year, even adults seem to not have an understanding of appropriate boundaries,” Lontine told The Denver Post. “I think it’s really important our kids have an understanding on that.”
Sex education has evolved since the General Assembly’s last bill on it, which passed in 2013, said Alison Macklin, a vice president at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, which helped write the bill. “Contraception is great to learn about, but it’s really these soft skills and supporting people holistically that’s critical to changing behavior.”
Macklin said the language around certain topics like healthy relationships wasn’t as clear as it could have been and caused confusion for some schools and let others opt out of the discussion entirely.
“Teaching young people how to give consent, how to receive consent, how to communicate about what they want to do and don’t want to do sexually, we know that those pieces are more impactful in a young person,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider sexual violence a serious public health problem, and their research says 8 percent of girls and 0.7 percent boys experience rape or attempted rape before they turn 18. Most of those attacks were perpetrated by a peer, according to the CDC.
In addition, Lontine’s bill references a 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey that found 18.5 percent of kids who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual have “reported being physically forced to have sexual intercourse against their will.”
“It was really inappropriate,” she said.
A critic of the sex education bill, Centennial Institute Director Jeff Hunt, said he thinks one reason consent wasn’t discussed much during the nine hours of testimony is that most people of faith support it.
“We didn’t get in there and rip it to shr and say everything in this bill is bad,” Hunt said. “I think there is some room for some conversation here.”
He points to a section that requires teaching how drugs and alcohol can impact decision-making and be used to “perpetrate sexual violence.” That’s a great opening for parents to talk to their children about their values, Hunt said.
She told the committee the person who sexually assaulted her “looked nothing like the bad guys in the movies.”
“We can no longer afford to tolerate such ambiguity.”