Illinois lawmakers are aiming to provide a more comprehensive definition of “consent” to schools’ sex education classes.

While current law says that consent must be talked about in sexual education courses, there is currently no definition included in the mandate.

Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said she sponsored the bill because of stories of sexual assault coming out of Illinois and other states.

In the aftermath of those stories, Williams noticed many people were talking about background checks and discipline. But, to her, there was an important issue not being addressed.

“I began to hear from constituents, many moms, who felt that what was missing from the conversation with their kids, is how to prevent the assault in the first place,” Williams said at a Capitol news conference. “Missing from the conversation was how to teach what consent is and what consent isn’t.”

Williams has introduced House Bill 3550, which directs schools to have an “age-appropriate discussion on the meaning of consent” and also provides a definition for consent. While current law states consent must be talked about in sexual education classes, there is no definition or explanation.

In Williams’ bill, consent is defined as “a freely given agreement to sexual activity.” The bill states that how a person dresses does not imply consent. Also, if someone has consented to past sexual activity, that consent doesn’t apply to future sexual activity. In addition, the bill says consent can be withdrawn at any time.

According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, in 2015, 11.5 percent of girls in high school and 6.4 percent of high school boys in Illinois reported being forced to have sexual intercourse. That’s higher than the national average, where 10.3 percent of high school girls and 3.1 percent of boys reported this.

Williams said the statistics are troubling.

“Illinois teens, and teens everywhere, should have access to a comprehensive and affirmative consent education curriculum as part of an effort to prevent sexual violence,” she said.

Local advocates of sexual violence prevention hope that having a fuller definition of consent can make students understand it better.

A definition also could help stave off some of the “mixed messages” young people get from the media when it comes to consent, said Carrie Ward, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Carol Merna, the CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse, said learning about consent is vital for teens.

“Educating teens about consent is a critical step in teaching them how to have and maintain healthy relationships and how to set and respect boundaries," she said. "... We are encouraged to know Illinois is looking at this topic seriously and are taking steps in the right direction: to educate students, to help them create healthy relationships, and to build safe communities.”

Among its education programs, the center offers a teen dating violence curriculum that is used in many Tri-County Area schools, Merna said.

It includes lessons on "how to create and cultivate healthy relationships, how to define consent, how to recognize warning signs of an unhealthy relationship, and outlines resources available if students need help," she said. "Teaching students how to define consent, recognize when it’s there and when it isn’t, and to give them the vocabulary to verbalize their thoughts and feelings clearly are all crucial to help their development into young adults."

Vaughan, executive director of the Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault, said she remembers giving a presentation and people telling her they never talked about consent in school.

Sometimes, Vaughan said, having a conversation about it can open up “a whole new world” for people.

″(Consent leads to) having a more open, trusting relationship,” she said. “Consent is a big thing. ... That’s why we (wanted to) focus on that for community outreach.”

Clare Frachey, a preventionist and community advocate with the Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault, said that’s why House Bill 3550 is a positive step forward.

“These things are starting to come up in the media. Our culture is shifting rapidly around these subjects, so it’s really cool to be witnessing these changes legally,” Frachey said.

Williams said topics like setting personal boundaries and respecting personal space are always appropriate for those in sixth grade, or even younger.

“As the #metoo movement continues to evolve and sexual assault in schools continues to be a serious problem, it’s clear that we need to ensure all students receive age-appropriate instruction for what consent means,” Williams said.

Peoria Public Schools spokesman Thomas Bruch said the district thoroughly emphasizes consent in in its curriculum for students, with lessons for students beginning in the sixth grade and continuing each year through ninth grade in the family life and sexual health lessons.

When talking about consent in their classes, Ward said educators should keep in mind it is important to equip students with knowledge related to their bodies and their decision making.

Shame is something teachers should stay away from when teaching about consent, Frachey said. Instead, they should focus on empowering students.

“From what I’ve experienced, people really respond to being empowered to do something, or rising up to the challenge of being better,” she said. “Just being like, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, you can make changes for yourself in your own life. ... You can always change, you can always modify and adjust based on what you learn.”

Brigid Leahy, director of governmental relations for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said providing and asking for consent is all about setting personal boundaries, and respecting those of one’s partner.

“People, including young people, have sex, and it’s about time that we have an honest conversation about that,” Leahy said. “When sexuality is approached with silence, young people can experience violence, they can have an increased risk of negative outcomes, and they can have unhealthy relationships.”

Williams said the issue is constantly evolving.

“I do anticipate in the future we will be taking a close look at the sex education statutes in a comprehensive manner,” she said. “Our goal here is just to ensure that consent, which we believe is a foundational component of sexual assault prevention and should be an important piece of the sex ed conversation, is at the forefront.”