At the start of this year, Chanel Contos was an Australian student studying for a master’s degree at university in London. Now, she’s at the head of a movement aiming for nothing less than the demolition of rape culture in Australia.
It’s a testament to the often uncommon power of social media’s capacity for good but never in her wildest dreams did the 23-year-old imagine that she would end up here.
Speaking to The Latch from London via Zoom, the former student and now full-time campaigner told us that she “didn’t ever think this would happen.”
“Not at all, like, at all. I literally would have been really happy if my old school and the neighboring boys school did something about it”.
She speaks like a woman immersed in her field and has extensive, insightful answers to all of the questions we throw at her. It feels like if anyone can get this done, she can.
In case you’re unaware, back in February, Contos posted a seemingly innocent but provocative question on her Instagram story.
“If you live in Sydney: have you or has anyone close to you ever experienced sexual assault from someone who went to an all boys school?”
73 per cent replied yes.
The poll received a few hundred of responses but along with them came testimonials — the written experiences of survivors desperate to share their story.
Her Instagram page soon became a hub for an outpouring of grief and truth telling that laid bare the fantasy of rape as something that only happens sometimes, to someone you don’t know, and always makes headlines.
Contos now has reports of everyday sexual assault from tens of thousands of people right across the country and, with her masters degree wrapped up, she is returning to Australia as soon as she can to meet with the Prime Minister and continue to speak out on the horrifying normality of sexual assault in this country.
Speaking with us, Contos outlined her plan to improve consent education in schools across the country and change the culture to one in which everyone is safe.
Changing the Narrative
How do you demolish rape culture? One approach is to focus on education. While it sounds like a huge challenge, it’s a little more straightforward than it appears.
Every six years, Australia conducts a review of the national curriculum. That review is overseen by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and takes into account information from top education bodies across the country.
Right now, the curriculum is in its final stages of review, with a deadline for changes in December.
The review dives into all aspects of school learning from foundation year to year 10 and has already sparked huge debates over the teaching of indigenous history, climate change, and gender.
Teach Us Consent, the campaign founded by Contos, has been working to have more comprehensive consent education incorporated into the curriculum.
The group is currently aiming to fundraise $100,000 for a targeted advisory approach that could see consent education transformed in the country for the younger generation.
“There’s essentially like 10 people’s minds who we really need to change,” Contos explains.
“We are holding events to do that and we are working closely with them. But we need the masses, we need them to know the masses want this and we need to put pressure on them.”
Contos started and grew the site TeachUsConsent.com completely off her own back, working with pro bono and volunteer support.
The campaign has already raised $31,000 but it’s going to be a tall order to acquire the necessary hundred.
The money is essential for the upkeep of the campaign and will seek to deliver comprehensive education reform, teacher training programmes, media campaigns, and partnership programmes with NGOs, government, educational institutions and the private sector.
Contos also wants a billboard campaign across Australia that highlight the significance of the problem.
“That’s like a ‘we mean business’ to people like Alan Tudge, the Minister for Education. As long as it’s somewhere that he drives past every day, that’s what matters”, Contos said.
“With the resources behind us, we have a much higher chance of being able to achieve this goal.”
The Times are Changing
It would be impossible to ignore the rapidly changing attitudes and national conversations around consent and sexual assault. Allegations have ripped through the halls of power in this country, Grace Tame was made Australian of the Year, and the Brittany Higgins case has shifted the needle on accountability.
Yet there is still so much to be done. The landmark Respect@Work Report authored by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins recently found that workplace sexual harassment in Australian is both prevalent and pervasive, and that the current legal and regulatory system is insufficient to effectively deal with it.
Last week the Senate passed the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, legislation based upon the work of Jenkins that brings into law some of her recommendations.
While it was reported that the government only included 49 of 55 recommendations made, only 12 of those recommendations were for specific legal changes, half of which made it into the bill.
Just this week, Scott Morrison spoke at the National Women’s Safety Summit, acknowledging that Australia “has a problem” with the way it treats women.
“There is still an attitude, a culture that excuses and justifies, ignores or condones gender inequality that drives ultimately violence against women, and that is on all of us,” Morrison said.
While this might never have been possible without the revelations of 2021, Morrison still misses the mark when it comes to understanding the experiences of women.
He read out letters that he had received, detailing the experiences of sexual assault survivors, something Grace Tame immediately picked up on as not the way to handle such sensitive information and something Morrison has been picked up on before.
Scott has just finished his opening keynote address at the Women’s Safety Summit in which he appropriated private disclosures from survivors to leverage his own image.
Gee, I bet it felt good to get that out.
— Grace Tame (@TamePunk) September 6, 2021
“How could he possibly get out there and give that speech and then only accept six out of the 12 recommendations in the space of a month?” Contos asked.
“One of the things he said was that men feel as though they own women, which was a good use of language because we’re putting the blame on men in the situation”.
“But then he went on to say that women are often coerced and it’s like, well we don’t just coerce ourselves!
“He talks about how much emphasis we need to put on women’s safety in Australia yet his actual policies are completely contradictory to that.
“We need policy change from the top down and we need cultural change from the bottom up, and then, hopefully, it meets somewhere in the middle.
“But it is a friggin’ task”.
Thankfully, Morrison doesn’t have direct input into the changes to the national curriculum. While he can give opinions on it, it’s ultimately down to ACARA to make those decisions and Contos is hopeful that those changes will be implemented.
“It’s basically a handful of people who can make the decision about this and I’ve spoken to all of them personally. They are hindered by political factors but they themselves do, to an extent, understand the problem.
“They’re kind of playing a political game within that, but it doesn’t dishearten me”.
Since the Teach Us Consent website’s launch, over 43,000 Australians have signed the petition for comprehensive consent education in schools, with more than 6500 people sharing their stories of sexual assault on the website.
Contos says that that is just a fraction of the testimonies that she has received but that, over the past few months, she herself does feel the conversation and the awareness shifting.
“It’s going to be hard to get to that point where it suddenly starts shifting, but then it just will, exponentially. As soon as it’s more normal for a teenage boy to call out their friend for perpetuating rape culture than it is to engage in rape culture, things will just tumble so quickly. But we need to reach that point.
“We need to empower people to speak up to injustices, we need to engage boys and men in the conversation in doing this, we need to like lead by example with government policies. We need it to come in from all angles.
“But I do think that there has been a wake up call for Australia, just in the current media cycle in the last six months as a whole.
“The most most important thing is that I’ve had so many messages of people being like, ‘I spoke to my family about this for the first time’. I was with someone last night who told me that she told her dad that she was sexually assaulted and her best friend told her dad that she was sexually assaulted.
“He was crying but unfortunately, it needs that sort of connection. We need to understand that, wow, this is real. This happens to people every day. And I feel like that is happening more, which is exciting”.