Bill seeks to add 'consent' to sex-ed conversation

State Rep. Ann Williams sponsors bill that goes beyond ‘no means no’

State Rep. Ann Williams calls the issue of consent “an essential component” to sex education. (BlueStreamRoom)

State Rep. Ann Williams calls the issue of consent “an essential component” to sex education. (BlueStreamRoom)

By Ted Cox

Illinois sex-education classes should fully explore the issue of “consent,” according to a new bill sponsored in the General Assembly.

State Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago led a news conference in Springfield Thursday on her sponsorship of House Bill 3550, which would amend the state’s sex-ed curriculum for grades 6 through 12 so that it “must include an age-appropriate discussion on the meaning of consent.”

Calling it “an essential component” to sex education, the Chicago Democrat said her bill would “assure that consent is at the forefront of any conversation.”

“The definition of consent is a critical component of that learning,” added state Sen. Kimberly Lightford of Chicago, lead sponsor in the Senate.

Lightford spoke of being a victim of sexual assault in her early 20s, and said better sex education in public schools could only help students deal with the issue and perhaps prevent such assaults.

“We blame ourselves, we remain silent for decades,” Lightford said, “and that’s because we’re afraid.”

“No means no,” added state Rep. Karina Villa, of Batavia, another lead sponsor in the House. “Why not also explain what consent looks like?” She called the proposal “a positive step forward for generations to come.”

“Understanding consent is a critical part of the conversation on sexual-assault prevention,” Williams said. “We cannot wait until students go to college or into the workplace to have a discussion about what it means to consent to sexual interaction. We need to start early with age-appropriate instruction on what consent means.”

Williams cited a recent report from the U.S. Sexuality Information and Education Council that found Illinois teens experienced higher percentages of physically forced intercourse, physical dating violence, and sexual dating violence compared to the national average.

“People, including young people, have sex, and it’s about time we have a conversation about that,” said Brigid Leahy, of Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “When sexuality is approached with silence, young people can experience violence, increased risk of negative health outcomes, and unhealthy relationships. Accurate and complete information about their health and rights empowers youth to build healthy lives.”

Leahy said the familiar mantra “no means no” doesn’t go far enough to address what does — and doesn’t — mean yes.

“Silence is not consent,” Leahy said. “Young people need to learn about consent … in the classroom with their peers.” She added that the issue of consent is “getting lost in sex education.”

Leahy pointed out the bill does not constitute a mandate, in that currently local school districts can decide for themselves whether to teach sex ed. But “when they teach it, they have to follow what is in the law,” she added.

The language in the bill establishes:

  • Consent is a freely given agreement to sexual activity.

  • Consent to one particular sexual activity does not constitute consent to other types of sexual activities.

  • A person's lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use or threat of force does not constitute consent.

  • A person's manner of dress does not constitute consent.

  • A person's consent to past sexual activity does not constitute consent to future sexual activity.

  • A person's consent to engage in sexual activity with one person does not constitute consent to engage in sexual activity with another person.

  • A person can withdraw consent at any time.

  • A person cannot consent to sexual activity if that person is unable to understand the nature of the activity or give knowing consent.

According to Williams, her bill would establish clarity in the sex-ed curriculum, because “educators are left in the dark on how to teach consent more consistently.”