In the age of Kavanaugh’s trials and the #MeToo movement, consent has become a hot topic in American news. From SNL sketches to campus discussions, everyone has something to say. However, there is still much uncertainty about what consent even is, how to give it, and what constitutes sexual assault. Particularly, in Illinois, recent legislation has attempted to address this issue.
Teachers and students alike agree that this information should be delivered through schools—early and often. In a survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, more than three in four adults wish they had been taught more about consent, sexual assault, and sexual assault resources in schools. However, across the United States, only eight states require that sex education classes mention consent, out of only twenty-four states that mandate any sexual health education at all.
In Illinois, delivery of sex ed classes is inconsistent. Illinois has one main public statute involving sexual health education, Public Act 098-0441, which outlines that Illinois public schools are not required to provide sexual education, but if they do, curriculum must be “developmentally and age appropriate, medically accurate, evidence-based, and complete.” The material guidelines are meant for students in grades six through twelve, and include topics such as recognizing and rejecting unwanted sexual advances, resisting negative peer pressure, and applying these skills to settings such as the workplace and college campuses. If the school chooses to teach sexual health, curricula is required to cover both abstinence-focused and contraceptive-focused approaches to pregnancy prevention. Parents can also choose to opt their child out of these classes.
There is no mandate included in the original act for inclusion of affirmative consent within these sexual education curricula, nor is there any mention of healthy relationship guidelines. However, Public Act 100-0684 adds on to this previous legislation. HB5148, signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner in August of this year, also amends the curricula, stating that “course material…in a sex education course shall include…material and discussion on what constitutes sexual consent.”
Despite the inclusion of consent into the sex education curriculum, uniform delivery of this material across Illinois is still limited due to the school’s ability to opt-out of offering these classes at all and parental ability to remove their children from these classes. Furthermore, since sexual health education programs are not uniformly required among the 860 school districts in Illinois, tracking their material is complicated, making the development of standardized consent-related material all the more difficult.
Despite this fact, strides have been made to include consent in curriculum guidelines. In 2014, the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Enhance Physical Education Task Force published a set of standards for youth physical development and health knowledge, aimed at guiding schools in writing health curricula and making sure students reached certain wellness benchmarks. These standards also include information on developing sexual health curricula that align temporally with students’ development.
Of particular interest to curricula on consent, standard twenty-four outlines goals for “communication and decision-making skills,” part 24C of which alludes to issues of consent. “Students who meet the standard can demonstrate skills essential to enhancing health and avoiding dangerous decisions,” which includes learning “refusal skills,” demonstrating ability to identify and respond to uncomfortable or dangerous situations, and identifying health-related community resources. Additionally, the Illinois State Board of Education published a guidance document on sex education, directing sexual health programs to be based off of provided resources, such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Heath’s resources for Exemplary Sexual Health Education.
Outside of sexual health education legislation, however, it is clear that Illinois teens have a need for more rigorous affirmative consent education and protection from sexual violence. According to a 2018 state profile on sexuality education from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Illinois teens experience higher percentages of forced sexual intercourse, dating violence, and physical or sexual violence, compared to the national averages. This trend is consistent across all demographic groups and is likely the result of the previously discussed irregularity in sexual health education across the state. According to a CDC-led survey of schools nationwide, only 10.9 percent of Illinois schools cover the full recommended scope of nineteen sexual health topics, including all medical and contraceptive information, but 97.8 percent of Illinois high schools, including 94.4 percent of Chicago schools, teach students about “sustaining respectful relationships.” This category is assumed to imply teaching about consent, but no guidelines for this category were mentioned in the report.
Despite this, it is clear that some amount of non-standardized content on consent, under the context of respectful relationships, is being delivered to students across Illinois. The recent pushes towards greater education on consent in the classroom, as well as increased attention to consent in American society as a whole demonstrate that informing students about consent will remain relevant within education. The new education bills put into place in Illinois this year, plus the post-election blue shift in legislative seats across the state, hopefully will usher in future changes to the realm of sexual health curriculum.