This week, Victoria revealed that it will be shifting towards providing compulsory consent classes across all state schools as early as next month.
The move is massive, expanding on the Respectful Relationship program already in place in Victoria, which, before today, centred broadly on relationships but didn’t zero in on the deeply problematic issue of consent. The shift has been triggered by the Victorian Government’s consults with Sydney-born sexual assault petitioner Chanel Contos, whose Teach Us Consent petition has earned almost 40,000 signatures since launching just a few weeks ago.
While Victoria’s action is a step in the right direction, Australia’s sex education system as a whole has long been criticised.
For years, and in some cases—decades—there have been calls to broaden the curriculum in a number of ways, to feature more inclusive experiences around sex. This study called for an overhaul of sexual health programs back in 2013, stating that the system deeply fails young same-sex and gender-fluid or gender-questioning people. There’s also been a movement to educate young people around sex as a means of mutual respect rather than a “conquest” and more recently, one of the more fundamental anchors of teaching sex to all—addressing what really defines consensual sex, the only kind of sex that should ever be had.
The last few weeks have been like a reopened wound into Australia’s endemic culture of, as former Prime Minister Julia Gillard might put it, “sexism and misogyny". There are renewed appeals to address Australia’s inconsistent approach to what defines sexual consent, with ages of consent and definitions varied depending on which state or territory you live in. The idea of “consent apps” has sparked fiery national debates. Horrific experiences from Brittany Higgins, Saxon Mullins, and Grace Tame have surfaced and sadly resonated with thousands, with former NRL player, and mental health advocate Joe Williams prompting on the ABC’s Q+A special Consent airing that “we need to demand better”.
Chanel Contos’ petition site also features over 3,500 testimonies related to alleged sexual assault incidences in high school—stories that feel eerily all too familiar. For Contos, and for the tens of thousands of voices joining her, and the many more staying silent, it’s time to radically change sexual consent education in Australia.
Here, we chat with Contos about how her petition got off the ground and why it's important to keep these conversations going.
So, How Did This All Start?
“It started with an Instagram poll posted to my Sydney following asking, ‘Have you, or has anyone close to you, ever been sexually assaulted by someone who went to an all-boys school?',” says the former Kambala student.
“I then asked for testimonies of the assault, only detailing the school of the perpetrator, not their name. Testimonies started coming in, and I created a petition with the intention to show principals of schools around Sydney—but then it really took off.”
Contos has since collected thousands of testimonies of alleged sexual assault and violence, and while this number is still climbing, the reality is that almost one million Australian women have experienced sexual assault perpetrated by a male in the last 10 years.
“Even though I knew sex education wasn’t adequate in Australia—I didn’t know it was this bad and so inherently sexist,” Contos says.
"Barely anyone was taught about female pleasure. The clitoris was removed from diagrams in certain schools in biology and sex ed. Abstinence is widely taught. We are not equipping younger generations to have pleasant sexual experiences. The thousands of testimonies were confronting—but not at all surprising.”
What's The Overarching Problem?
Australia’s justice system is flawed when it comes to supporting survivors of sexual violence—this investigative piece by the ABC reports that more than 140,000 sexual assaults were reported to police in the last 10 years and police rejected almost 12,000 of these. What’s worse is the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare actually deems sexual assault as a major crisis in Australia and reports (Sexual Assualt In Australia 2020) that young females in their late teens are more likely than other Australians to be victims of sexual assault, with young males of the exact same age group most likely to be recorded as perpetrators.
This is where Contos believes core change and education need to happen around sexual consent.
“We need to teach what rape culture is, we need to teach that we live in one,” she says.
“We need to teach what toxic masculinity and slut-shaming is and discourage it. We need to explain that victim-blaming is currently the norm but that is not okay. We need to teach about queer sexual education and consent. We need to teach girls that when they are ready to have sex, they will enjoy it. The narrative that all men want is sex, that girls must avoid it, and that sex is only pleasurable for men makes it really hard for girls to differentiate between consensual and non-consensual situations.”
Now, What's Next?
At this point, Contos describes the culture of sexism in Australia as something she feels is still significantly “omnipresent” and while the last few weeks have been a tsunami for change, there’s still so much ahead.
“I have 4,000 testimonies that haven’t yet been reviewed. This needs to be done as soon as possible but [it] is draining,” she says. “I am in the process of creating a pro bono committee of professionals who can advise me on how to direct my campaign, and in creating a proposed holistic curriculum. Next, is to take this further in other states and territories and get it spoken about in parliament, the media, and schools across the country.”
As for how we can all help keep the traction on this going, Contos urges everyone to keep sharing the petition, keep emailing your school or old schools and keep emailing your state and Federal MPs.
In NSW, there’s now an e-petition you can sign calling for consent to be taught earlier to reduce the extent of sexual assault experiences among young people in NSW. It requests that holistic sex education be included in the curriculum, addressing facets of toxic masculinity, rape culture, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, sexual coercion, and enthusiastic consent, as well as queer sex education.
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