Legislators have finally laid a foundation to fix the dire state of sex education in Michigan with a bill that would teach sexual consent — its definition and application — in classrooms across the state. Alarmingly, the term “consent” is nowhere to be found in sex education laws in Michigan, making the amendment, formally introduced by State Rep. Tom Cochran (D–Mason) and State Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr. (D–Meridian Twp.) last Tuesday, all the more necessary.
Sex education in Michigan, beyond meeting basic guidelines set forth by the federal and state governments, is largely decided by individual school districts and the advisory boards appointed by the district. These guidelines include teaching important issues regarding sexual contact, such as how to reduce risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancy, and details of legal codes surrounding sexual relations. However, only requiring these base standards gives districts and teachers the opportunity to instill various biases toward the subject material, be it for religious or political reasons, leading education to differ from district to district.
Further, by only explaining the ramifications of unprotected sex and continuing to emphasize abstinence-only or abstinence-based relationships, sex education in Michigan continues to perpetuate the status quo of either unrealistic or unsafe sexual relationships. Without a definition of consent written in the guidelines and a discussion about why consent is important, sex education in Michigan fails to foster behaviors that prevent dangerous sexual situations. This means students are left with a haphazard education about cultivating safe and fulfilling sexual relationships. Given that limited understanding, among other reasons, the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is no surprise.
H.B. 4903, commonly called the “Yes Means Yes” bill, sets forth a definition of sexual consent as an agreement that is affirmative, conscious, voluntary and made by both parties. Lack of any of these parts renders an act non-consensual — silence, lack of resistance or a prior history of sexual relations do not fulfill this agreement.
With 22.5 percent of female undergraduates at the University reported to have experienced “some form of nonconsensual touching and kissing or oral, vaginal or anal penetration,” it’s clear a culture change is sorely needed. Though a “yes means yes” definition of consent may be considered extreme or unrealistic by some, removing ambiguities in sexual encounters is absolutely essential if sex culture in this country is to change.
That said, the wording of the bill lacks precision in how consent is taught by stipulating that the agreement is true only if it is made by “conscious” individuals. The bill needs to specify that consciousness is not black or white, and acknowledge that there is a grey area where an individual is conscious but impaired due to alcohol or drug use and therefore unable to make safe decisions.
While the bill only covers the way consent is taught in Michigan’s classrooms, the new-and-improved definition must soon appear in Michigan’s penal code. In the meantime, it is critical that this bill passes, and that legislators don’t allow religion, politics or potential awkwardness get in the way of ensuring a safer future for all.