The Australian government has shown it can react decisively to major crises like the coronavirus pandemic and should treat sexual assault in the same way, says consent activist Chanel Contos.
In an interview with Central News the Sydney 23-year-old, whose sex education petition has sparked a nationwide debate, added timing was critical in reforming the curriculum given the current epidemic of sexual assault within Australia.
“I’ve personally been submitted five times more testimonies than the amount of COVID deaths in Australia this year,” she said.
“The Australian government has shown they can do unprecedented things when the country is in crisis, and we are in crisis.”
What began as an Instagram poll has propelled Ms Contos to lead a national conversation on Australia’s sex education and revolutionise the way we teach consent.
Declaring that Australia’s sex education curriculum is “leading to behaviours that are to the detriment of our society”, her passionate advocacy has made waves across the country. A former student of Sydney’s Kambala girls’ school, Chanel is unapologetic in her demands for Australian schools to redress their lack of consent education.
“For some reason, Australia is in denial that teenagers are sexually active,” she said.
“Teaching consent to someone who is 16 is like teaching someone how to drive when they already have their licence. It just doesn’t make sense.”
— 60 Minutes Australia (@60Mins) April 25, 2021
Advocating for a more holistic sexual education to be taught earlier in the school curriculum that acknowledges rape culture, sexual coercion and queer sex, Chanel reflects on how she realised there was a fundamental flaw with the system.
“The first time I got told what consent was accompanied with me realising that I had been sexually assaulted,” she said. “That was in year 10.”
Chanel recalls the night she and a friend broke down together after realising how strongly their sexual assault experiences had affected their future sexual relationships. She realised how many girls must share similar stories of pain, and how many boys are ignorant of their harm.
Within a month of posting an Instagram poll asking her followers whether they or anyone close to them had experienced sexual assault, Chanel’s teachusconsent website was flooded with over 3,000 testimonies and nearly 39,000 signatures calling for change.
“I never expected this type of response, but I’m very inspired by how many people have been brave enough to come forward and put their sexual assault experiences out there,” she said. “It’s anonymous, but it’s still such a difficult process.”
UTS Professor in Digital and Social Media and an expert on sexualised media, Alan McKee emphasises the importance of normalising the conversation of consent for healthy sexual development.
“Expressing consent out loud is part of the romance; it’s part of the sexiness of it,” he said.
“To encourage young people to talk openly and honestly about sex, and to clearly communicate what they want and what they don’t want, well I think that’s integral to developing sexual agency.”
UTS Program Manager for the Respect. Now. Always campaign against sexual assault and harassment, Catharine Pruscino recommends having appropriate conversations about consent and agency throughout all life stages.
“Consent should be learnt as a concept in pre-schools, primary schools, high schools and beyond. In interpersonal relationships, in group settings, in professional settings,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be this touchy subject. If we were asking, ‘do you consent to lend somebody your car’, you wouldn’t have an issue with that, would you?”
We need governments involved. We need specialist government bodies that deal with sexual assault and gender-based violence. We need parents to be involved. We need training for teachers.
Yet reforming sex education is only the tip of the iceberg to addressing the issue of rape culture. For Chanel, education is the most crucial way to create long term cultural change and recognise the societal pressures that influence how men and women experience sexual relationships and intimacy.
“We need governments involved. We need specialist government bodies that deal with sexual assault and gender-based violence. We need parents to be involved. We need training for teachers,” she stressed.
“It’s all part of an important education process, and it’s a lot harder to educate someone when they’re older than when they’re younger.”
Initially hoping that the leading private schools that she could get into contact with would listen to her, Chanel’s activism has spread nationwide as hundreds of Australian students have reported sexual assault and rape allegations.
“I had a call from Moriah College last night, one of the most heavily affiliated religious schools, and they told me they’re taking on board everything I said and doing workshops with their students to discuss these issues,” she said.
“It feels so good to hear schools not take the defence. Sexual assault is happening in all our schools, and what matters now is how we handle it.”
For Ms Pruscino, a new world order that eliminates a culture of sexual violence and harassment can only be achieved by integrating consent education for the whole community.
“It’s short-sighted to set these expectations of behaviour and only talk about students,” she explained, “That’s a fictitious construct that doesn’t recognise that there is a whole dynamic ecosystem with teachers and staff that signpost values.”
Schools tell young girls that it’s their job not to be raped and to be careful with how they dress because men are these primal creatures that can’t control themselves, yet they negate their responsibility to teach sex education effectively.
Sharing his expertise on the impact of pornography, Prof McKee said the conservative sentiments of school institutions have driven gendered attitudes towards sex and consent.
“Schools tell young girls that it’s their job not to be raped and to be careful with how they dress because men are these primal creatures that can’t control themselves, yet they negate their responsibility to teach sex education effectively,” he said.
“That’s when young people start turning to pornography. But it was never designed to teach consent. It’s entertainment, so you can’t blame it for being used for a purpose it wasn’t meant for.”
Using her Instagram page to engage and educate, Chanel regularly puts up polls to gauge how her audience has experienced the implications of gender norms that churn out submissive girls and entitled boys. This is her way of visualising Australia’s rape culture.
“The most common type of rapist are entitled rapists who are constantly pushing people’s boundaries for their own pleasure,” she explains, “It’s our society that developed them, not long-term generational trauma or abuse.”
“We need to empower women, and we need to teach men to empathetically appreciate women and recognise that another person’s body is just as valuable as their own.”
Likening the disconnect between gendered expectations towards sex as an ‘empathy gap’, Chanel urges both females and males to reflect on their behaviour and identify how even micro-aggressions form the foundation of rape culture. She willingly acknowledges her role in bargaining with the patriarchy.
“It’s objectifying women, slut-shaming and victim-blaming,” she describes, “it’s these seemingly throwaway comments that have the most impact on changing within yourself and calling out others around you for exhibiting that behaviour.”
Chanel promises to do better, and she advocates for every Australian to follow suit and join in breaking the cycle of sexual violence for future generations.
Main image of Chanel Contos supplied by Chanel Contos.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. Another helpful resource maybe Sexual Assault Counselling Australia: 1800 211 028. In an emergency, call 000.