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Group aims to fight sex assault in Utah with additions to education curriculum

A group of women are working to change health education in Utah, in hopes of preventing sexual assault and promoting healthy sexual behaviors. (Photo: Getty  Images)
A group of women are working to change health education in Utah, in hopes of preventing sexual assault and promoting healthy sexual behaviors. (Photo: Getty Images)
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A group of women is working to change health education in Utah. Their goal is to help prevent sexual assault and promote healthy sexual behaviors.

Utah law mandates that health classes, which includes sex education, be taught with abstinence-based lessons that promote the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to wait until marriage to have sex.

Abstinence-only sex education often excludes other types of sexual and reproductive health education, such as birth control and safe sex. Comprehensive sex education, however, teaches the use of birth control and sexual abstinence.

The women behind We Will Utah, an organization that focuses on sexual education and empowering survivors, said they're fighting to tailor health education to the needs of Utah--and not define it as "abstinence-only" or "comprehensive."

"Personally, I don’t like the debate between abstinence and comprehensive sex education," Jenna Lawlor, a member of We Will Utah, said. "Based on my educational and professional background, quality sex education includes topics like consent, sexual assault prevention, healthy relationship skills, and media literacy, along with the other topics already being taught in Utah schools... Those are the topics we need in sex education to prepare children for healthy adult relationships."

The women have been working with lawmakers to change education, in hope of protecting Utahns from being assaulted, becoming a sexual assault perpetrator and from damaging and dangerous sexual attitudes, Brittney Herman, the founder of We Will Utah, said.

House Bill 177, sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, would require students to learn about consent, coercion, sexual violence behavior deterrence, and sexual assault mitigation strategies. None of these topics are required in current health education courses.

"I am sponsoring H.B. 177 because two Brigham Young University graduate students reached out to me as a result of their personal experiences and research that revealed that a high percentage of women in Utah are victims of sexual assault and/or unwanted sexual advances," Moss said. "By giving young people the knowledge and skills to protect themselves from sexual violence, it will not only ensure that every child in Utah can be protected, but consent education can also help them have healthy relationships."

"These small changes include teaching students what is and is not consent, what coercion and other forms of sexual violence looks like, and how to recognize and use refusal skills. We also want to provide deterrence and mitigation education to students so they are less likely to commit an assault, and they know what to do if they are assaulted," Ashley Freddie, president of We Will Utah, said.

The hope is that these additions to the curriculum will help stop, or significantly lower, sexual assaults in Utah. Herman said,

Utah has a rate of rape and sexual assault far higher than the national average and education is the most effective means to combat these issues.

In September 2020, Utah ranked as the 11th most dangerous state for rape and sexual assault in the United States. According to FBI crime statistics, Utah has a rate of 55.5 rapes and sexual assaults per 100,000 people. In comparison, New Jersey's rate is 16 and Alaska's is 161.6 per 100,000. The national average is 41.7.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey, someone in the U.S. is sexually abused or assault every 109 seconds. It's estimated that 68% of cases go unreported.

One out of six women will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and 80% of the time the victim will know the attacker, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, known commonly as RAINN.

In Utah, 68.55% of the population is part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to stats from the Church. A study published in the "Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma" in 2017 found that women affiliated with the Church are more likely to be victimized in all forms of sexual coercion at higher rates than men report perpetration.

Researchers assessed the sexual experiences of 208 college students affiliated with the Latter-day Saint Church. Nearly 30% of the women reported having given in to sex acts when they did not want to because they gave into a man's continual arguments and pressure. 5% of men reported having participated in sex acts with a woman who coerced them.

In addition, 13% of the women and 2.6% of the men reported having sexual intercourse with another person when they did not want to because of the other person's persistence.

We Will Utah wants to bring those statistics down to zero.

"I joined this cause because I was sexually assaulted as a young teenager and felt like my community and education had failed me," Herman, an active member of the Latter-day Saint Church, said. "I know it's hard for people to understand me when I say this, but I didn't even realize that what happened to me was rape. I carried around guilt and shame for years for something I thought was my fault."

Herman strongly believes, and has dedicated her to life to advocating, that better education would have helped her.

"I could have understood that what happened to me was assault sought help sooner," she said.

I can live with the fact that I've been sexually assaulted, but I couldn't live with myself if I knew there was something I could do to prevent this from happening to others and I chose to do nothing.

The idea of helping prevent sexual assaults by educating kids when they are young is not a new concept. In recent years, several news outlets, including NPR, have reported on various school districts and leaders in the United States who are testing education as a weapon against assault.

WomenNC, an organization focused on advancing gender quality in North Carolina, complied various studies about the effects of sex education on sexual assault prevention. They found that many studies pointed toward men's misunderstanding or disregard for sexual consent.

"As a result of the study, the researchers recommend that these men need 'a strong educational component focused on clarifying different behaviors that all constitute sexual assault, but do not follow the stereotypically imagined scenarios related to rape.' The researchers take that conclusion even further; 'If improper beliefs and attitudes were supplanted with acceptable ones, the potential for sexual assaults might be reduced,'" the study states.

Unfortunately, education won't stop every sexual assault, but We Will Utah hopes it will help prevent some.

"Developing an understanding of consent and bodily autonomy can and will help your child be aware of their own body and make their own choices regarding it, as well as others," Freddie said.

I fully believe that if I had and if my perpetrator had been educated on consent and the nuances surrounding it, the situation would have played out differently.

We Will Utah also works to empower survivors by making them feel heard and connect them to resources.

"We Will Utah facilitates conversations surrounding being a survivor that makes me feel seen as an individual. Discussions surrounding assault are taboo and avoided. We Will Utah really reaches out to survivors to help them know they aren’t alone in their experience," Freddie said.

The women hope that House Bill 177 will provide age-appropriate tools to children as they grow up.

"How can we teach children proper sex education if we can’t use the word consent in sex education? How can victims realize what happened to them is wrong if we don’t teach them that it is?" Freddie said.

But, it will take more than just a new curriculum to make change happen.

"I think sex education is most successful when parents, schools, and the community are working together to educate our youth. I hope as we update sex education standards, schools and families will be better prepared to provide youth with the information they need to be safe and create healthy relationships," Lawlor said.

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And for parents who may be worried about the effects of speaking more openly about sexual behaviors and attitudes, We Will Utah says not to fear.

Sex education doesn’t encourage children to have sex, but arms them with tools for future interactions that will keep them safe both in mind and body," Freddie said.
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