(ABC4) – Brittney Herman was in high school when she was raped through coercion by her then boyfriend.
But at the time, she didn’t understand that it was rape, Herman, the founder of the nonprofit organization We Will, says. We Will is dedicated to sexual assault prevention and mitigation.
“I didn’t know what consent was. I didn’t know what coercion was, and I don’t believe my partner at the time knew those things either, so I was left with all these what ifs,” she told ABC4. “What if I had known that consent was a thing or that coercion was a thing? Would I have been able to seek help earlier than I did because I didn’t hear about these concepts until late into my college years?”
By that time, Herman says she had already experienced significant trauma from the event.
“I was left with all these what ifs and kind of feeling really frustrated at my sexual education that no one had ever told me about consent and that I had the right to refuse consent and what coercion was and what rape or sexual assault looked like,” Herman tells ABC4.
According to Herman, this experience, combined with research she conducted during her juris doctorate program at Brigham Young University Law School on sex education, inspired her to reach out to Utah’s Representative Carol Spackman Moss to have her sponsor House Bill 177.
Through her research, Herman, who authored the bill, says she found that sexual assault was preventable through education.
“Sufficient sex education looks like consent, coercion, or refusal skills, and once I discovered that these concepts could prevent sexual assault, I knew I had to do something about this,” she says, “because I can live with the fact that I’ve been sexually assaulted, but I can’t live with myself knowing I could do something to prevent it from happening to others and choosing to do nothing.”
H.B. 177 is currently being held in committee and has undergone several changes from the original version. It would require the State Board of Education to set forth curriculum to teach students about consent and what does not constitute consent, preventing sexual violence behavior, and sexual assault resource strategies.
The bill would teach students about coercion, a topic that is not currently being discussed in Utah schools, Herman states. It would also provide instruction on refusal skills from the perspective of teaching perpetrators to recognize various forms of a no so that they could cease moving forward.
The curriculum would deter individuals from committing sexual assaults through teaching about the effects of sexual assault on survivors and empathy for individuals, she explains. It also would introduce sexual assault mitigation strategies or resources for those seeking help after a sexual assault.
According to Herman, people generally don’t realize how big of an issue sexual assault truly is.
Utah.gov states that rape is the only violent crime in Utah that is higher than the national average, while crimes like homicide, robbery, and aggravated assault have ranked half to three times less than the national average in the past.
Studies show that one in six women and one in 25 men will experience rape or attempted rape some time in their life and about one in three women will experience some type of sexual violence, the site says.
“Clearly what we’re doing now isn’t working, but legislators, although they’re fantastic and they do amazing things, I think that they’re simply not aware of how to best address these issues…,” Harman shares. “They do their jobs very well, and they just want to make the best informed decision they can, but they just don’t have the tools that they need.”
When asked why she thinks the bill didn’t pass, Herman says that people, in general, are not educated on these issues. The research she conducted is one of the first and only research studies that shows that sex education can prevent sexual assault, so it is really new information she says.
She also says that it is possible lawmakers “don’t understand the importance of this and that they maybe don’t understand what it’s like to be a survivor and to know that something could’ve helped.”
Apart from educating children about resources if they become victims of sexual assault, the curriculum is designed to teach would-be perpetrators to recognize when someone has not given consent.
“Eight out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the perpetrator, and oftentimes that is an intimate partner who might simply not understand the rules of consent and coercion and effects that a sexual assault could have on their partner and even that what they’re doing could be considered a sexual assault,” Herman explains.
However, this does not mean that they are not 100% culpable in committing assaults, she clarifies.
In drafting the bill, Herman says she worked with a victim’s advocate who worked with individuals on sports teams to teach what is wrong and what’s not in terms of consent.
“These men, they often have questions. They truly don’t understand behaviors that are coercive and things like that. Really, it’s a matter of informing these individuals. That way they do not commit assault, and if they still choose to commit assault, then we’ve also removed all doubts,” she says.
Opponents to the bill say that Utah’s current sex education is sufficient and already includes teaching students refusal skills.
Under the bill, parents still have the right to choose if their child participates in sex education.
The bill proposes that students begin receiving this instruction in 7th grade. Herman says that some have said this is too young.
“Unfortunately, these individuals are not too young to be sexually assaulted or to sexually assault one another,” she says.
And what she would say to parents who may be concerned about the curriculum?
“I would say to do the research, to understand how harmful it is to have your child endure a sexual assault and to think of how much you would not want your child to perpetrate a sexual assault against another person. It goes back to that idea of you might feel like they’re too young to learn about it, but students their age, including maybe some of their own children, are being sexually assaulted or have sexually harmed another individual…”she says.
“I would just encourage them… to not be afraid and to have open communication and open conversations with their students and with their children to help create a safer environment, a safer community for all Utahns.”
You can view the full bill below:
Click the square in the bottom right corner for full screen.
To learn more about House Bill 177, visit utah.gov.