New sexual education law tackles “outdated” Illinois school code

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Illustration by Cynthia Zhang

The new law required consent be taught required consent be taught in sexual education classes through an eight-part definition through an eight-part definition. Liv Harmening, an educator and advocate at the Northwest Center Against Sexual Assault, said the law was an important update to an outdated curriculum.

Delaney Nelson, Reporter

When State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) was in high school, she said her sexual education curriculum was taught by a gym teacher who wasn’t trained in the subject. At the time, some of her peers seemed to be dating their teachers.

If a comprehensive course on consent existed, she said she and those young girls might have realized they were actually being assaulted and abused by their teachers.

Last year, Williams created and sponsored a state law requiring all sex education courses in grades six through 12 to include an “age-appropriate discussion on the meaning of consent,” which the curriculum bases on an eight-part definition.

The law went into effect this January. Instruction emphasizes that a person can withdraw consent at any time, a person cannot consent if they are unable to understand the nature of the activity and a person’s manner of dress does not constitute consent.

Williams told the Daily several newsworthy events, including the hearings and appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the Stanford rape case, motivated the law.

“The question in my mind was, ‘Where’s the conversation about consent?” Williams said. “Do people not understand when someone is passed out from drinking too much alcohol or someone says no? Where’s the missing link? So we kind of started to explore the issue of consent and we reviewed the Illinois statutes. We found that under the sex-ed code, there was a very limited mention of consent.”

YWCA Evanston/North Shore, located at 1215 Church St, leads lessons and discussions on consent and healthy relationships in Evanston/Skokie District 65 middle schools and at Evanston Township High School. Verda Bhatti, the domestic violence training and prevention manager, said YWCA has only been able to impact sexual education at ETHS through their physical education department.

YWCA employees visit these schools and work with them to develop and customize a program at each. Bhatti said YWCA aims to present to each grade level, but has to plan according to the school’s schedule. Bhatti said the curriculum builds on itself, each year adding another layer to what consent is and what it looks like.

Before the bill passed, Bhatti said the curriculum already included consent. In response to the law, the current sexual education curriculum goes into greater detail about consent. For example, in addition to teaching second graders about touching, instructors intentionally identify body parts. The organization provides students with resources to contact in the event of sexual assault or harm.

“It’s not easy bringing new conversations into the classroom,” Bhatti said. “We understand completely that we are opening a door for conversation. We don’t go and say, ‘We know everything and after we’ve spent this 40 minutes session with you, you will know everything,’ either. We kind of leave the door ajar for them to reach out to us with more questions or if they need resources.”

Williams said the bill faced some pushback. One concern legislators had was that teachers may not be adequately trained to take on the material. Williams said that’s where outside organizations can come in.

Bhatti said schools appreciate outsourcing sexual education instruction to outside organizations like YWCA, who are specifically trained in these topics.

Liv Harmening, an educator at the Northwest Center Against Sexual Assault, said health teachers shoulder the burden of covering every experience that a human body might go through. Such a thorough curriculum can be overwhelming, especially for educators with inadequate resources.

Teaching students about sexual violence and consent in the context of other subjects, like history and English, can relieve some of that pressure, Harmening said.

Harmening said the language around sex education in the Illinois school code is “laughable in how outdated it is”, but the new law is a promising step toward improving discourse in schools and reducing sexual violence. The law’s explicit definition of consent gives teachers tools to know exactly what to say.

“You don’t prevent violence by raising awareness as your only tool,” Harmening said. “You don’t just go into a room and say, ‘Hey please don’t commit acts of sexual violence.’ Don’t tell people what not to do. It is more effective to tell people what to do.”

Harmening said it’s important to acknowledge sexual violence as a form of oppression tied to other types of injustice, such as racism, redlining, housing and food insecurity. For Harmening’s organization, CASA, this could include partnering with domestic violence shelters, groups working for tenant rights and those fighting for affordable housing.

Ryan Spooner is a prevention educator with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. Spooner said that for the most part, students have been excited to talk about sex in a relaxed and safe environment. He said effective sex education programs make students feel comfortable, and function as a conversation rather than a lecture.

Some critics said the bill included content that was too mature for younger students. But with content presented in an age appropriate manner, the educators agreed the earlier students learn about these topics, the better.

“Pushing boundaries or escalating sexual harm often will begin in high school and build up until college, where somebody commits sexual assaults,” Spooner said.

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Twitter: @delaneygnelson

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