On back-to-school night recently at Oak Canyon Junior High School in Utah County, eighth grade health teacher Staisha Sheffield was waiting for parents to arrive, and ready to explain — carefully — what she teaches their 12 and 13-year-olds about sex. In Utah, that’s an all-around challenge.
“They [the students] think it’s so awkward, it’s so crazy,” Sheffield said as a janitor nearby polished a hallway floor. “They ask me all the time, ‘Why do you teach this?’”
Her typical response to the students — and what she was prepared to tell their parents — is she believes sex ed is really important. Even if what she can teach them is limited.
Like other red states, sex ed is a hotly contested topic in Utah. Teachers like Sheffield have to be cautious about what they say, careful never to promote any kind of sexual behavior.
Sheffield, for instance, can talk about how birth control medication or condoms can prevent pregnancy, for example. According to state law, however, she can’t inform students on how to find it or use it.
“I’m not doing condoms on bananas,” Sheffield said with a laugh. “I like my job, so, none of that.”
When students ask a question that might veer that way, Sheffield said she has a response ready: “We don’t cover that in the curriculum, that’s not something we’ll be discussing.”
But a new law that went into effect earlier this year does encourage Utah health teachers to broaden, in a sense, the sex education curriculum. Now, teachers are expected to educate students on “refusal skills” and the harmful effects of pornography.
The choice in terminology — refusal, rather than consent — there’s a distinct reason for that.
The original language in the proposed law was oriented toward consent. It made clear that it was the responsibility of both parties to ensure that any sexual act is consensual. But, some argued that teenagers don’t have the authority to consent.
“Kids need to be taught this is statutory rape,” Maryann Christensen said during a committee meeting for the new sex ed bill after it was introduced in February.
Christensen, who was representing the conservative Eagle Forum, and others were adamant that the language in the bill should not justify sex between teenagers in any way — consensual or otherwise.
“It doesn’t matter who the actor is. It doesn’t matter if it’s an adult. It doesn’t matter if it’s another minor,” Christensen continued. “When children are subjected to sex, it is statutory rape.”
In the bill that lawmakers sent to the governor’s desk, legislators decided that any consent language should be dropped in favor of an emphasis on refusal skills.
In the case of eighth grade students, there’s little that a 12 or 13-year-old can consent to under Utah law. But sex education is also taught in tenth grade, when students are turning 16, and the law for that age is different.
Kristin Hodson, a sex therapist based in Salt Lake County, thinks the conversation should be different too.
“We’re ignoring that there are things that kids legally can consent to and there are things they legally cannot,” Hodson said. “When we teach those skills, we’re then empowering both parties.”
With regard to how refusal skills are defined by the new law, there is an important caveat. According to the law’s language, it’s a student’s “obligation to stop [their] sexual advances if refused by another student.”
In that way, the new law mirrors the idea of consent. But Hodson still has a problem with the language.
“It really puts a lot of pressure on the person refusing, instead of having both parties understand a lot more clearly about what consent is and what it is not,” Hodson said.
As both a certified sex therapist and as a mother of school-age children, Hodson sees Utah’s sex education as falling short. Kids will educate themselves, often through watching pornography, she said.
“I worry that we’ve set up kids to be the blind leading the blind,” Hodson said. “Kids are googling information and then they’re sharing that information. They don’t know if it’s accurate.”
Hodson disagrees with the argument that the more students are taught about sex, the more they’ll want to have sex. She believes the opposite is true: that the more they know, the more careful they’ll be and the more likely their first sexual relationship will be what she considers healthy.