“It shows that it’s structural. Systematic. It shows that it goes through all levels from high school all the way to parliament. It shows that if things were done properly earlier, future girls would be safer”.
This was the response Chanel Contos, the woman who started an online petition calling for better sexual education in schools, gave when asked on The Today Show what the results of her petition can tell us about the recent Brittany Higgins allegations.
Higgins is the former Liberal Party staffer who was allegedly raped in the office of her former boss, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, by another male staffer.
Since the allegations came to light just over a week ago, three other women have come forward with further allegations claiming the same man sexually assaulted and harassed them at different times while working in Parliament House.
The case has brought to light the toxic workplace culture that appears rampant and rife throughout Parliament. But Parliament is just the tip of the iceberg.
Contos, a former private school girl who attended Kambala School in Sydney’s affluent Eastern Suburbs, has sparked her own #MeToo movement with the flooding of her Instagram with thousands of responses and testimonies of young men and women who all attest to the prevalence of rape culture and misogyny that exists amongst our young people.
She has since started a petition for better sex education at school which you can sign here. The testimony collected has, at the time of writing, reached 70 pages which are publicly available to read here. It’s gut wrenching stuff but important to see the situations young people far too often find themselves in.
As Contos’ comments, it’s bottom-up root and stem structural reform that needs to take place in Australia if we are going to keep young people safe and stem the tidal wave of sexual assault that appears endemic in our society.
How Bad is It?
In a word, bad. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that in 2018, one in five women in Australia experienced sexual violence. That’s 20% of the female population, or some 2.5 million people.
Men experienced sexual assault in that year at a rate of seven times less than their female counterparts – a stat that should not be diminished based on numbers alone as male sexual assault continues to be a taboo and often ridiculed topic.
The ABS data also showed that 97% of sexual assault offenders were men and that 15 to 19 year-olds were the highest offenders. That means that high school aged girls are likely the highest recipients of this violence and highlights the importance of better sexual education in school.
As far as we can tell, that education and knowledge level for young people is worsening. The latest National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey found that understanding of violence against women has declined for those ages between 16 and 24.
For example, one in eight respondents to the survey believed that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.
Even worse, two in five Australians surveyed said women make up false reports of sexual assault in order to punish men.
While the survey concluded that “most young Australians have a good knowledge of key aspects of violence against women” they also point out that a lack of understanding around consent in this age group is “concerning”
The gaps here “can result in victim-blaming. This is particularly worrying given the rise of digital image sharing and dating apps.”
When the 2017 revelations about widespread sexual assault allegedly perpetrated throughout Hollywood by producer Harvey Weinstein came to light, it sparked a reckoning throughout the entertainment industry that ultimately changed attitudes towards women.
Here we have our own moment to act. Contos has opened a floodgate of honesty, with thousands of people desperate to share. But to confine it to young people or the school system is short sighted. Instead of considering those and only those people who have responded to the petition as the only ones who have suffered, we need to look at this like the canary in the coal mine.
It should be a national wake up call that one question about sexual assault on social media from a woman who, not too long ago, had a relatively small following, would gain over 300 responses in 24 hours, and, within a week, have over 3000 testimonials and 21,000 signatures.
While these figures and these stats are shocking, this is a flashlight in the darkness and in no way captures the extent of it. It highlights the lack of reporting in sexual assault statistics and the inability for young people to speak up about their experience through lacking the language and the understanding to do so.
In reaction to this, some of the named schools have been trying to repress this information by pressuring students not to sign up to or read the testimony. Contos has also received violent responses from men online.
At the same time, Home Secretary Peter Dutton has stated he did know about the Brittany Higgin’s allegations before they were made public and there is indication that the Australian Federal Police took two years to inform Members of Parliament about the assault.
These are all indicators of the extent to which this is and will remain a problem until we get serious about it.
What Needs To Change
As Contos has made clear, the conversations we are having with our kids around consent and equality are happening way too late and are not nearly robust enough to get the point across.
For most parents, the topic of sex and and all the associated complexities that go with it is handled by the school their kids attend. Parents select schools based upon their own principles around the teaching of sex and morality, often for cultural or religious reasons. Rightly or wrongly, the responsibility to educate young people therefore falls largely to teachers.
While Australia has a national curriculum that teaches comprehensive sexuality education, it’s up to each state and territory to offer guidelines to school on how to teach sex education. Sex ed is, for example, not compulsory in Queensland and it is up to parents and carers to educate children on this topic.
New South Wales on the other hand has a Kindergarten to Year 10 syllabus which focuses on respect and consent explicitly. This means there is a massive disparity in how sex education is taught and the quality of the teaching across the country. Some schools are really trying, while others are not.
In addition, private, independent, and religious schools are largely free to dictate their own curriculum and can choose to teach sex ed however they want.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously decided to remove his two daughters from public school education because an education programme aimed at reducing rates of sexual assault and gender-based violence made his “skin crawl” and doesn’t meet his “values.”
Speaking to Alan Jones on 2GB in 2018, Morrison asked “how about we just have state schools that focus on things like learning maths, learning science and learning English?” in response to a Victorian public school exercise that used a bisexual woman with 17 previous partners as an example.
Part of the shocking nature of the revelations presented in Contos and Higgin’s cases is the level of cover up that is apparent. Throughout the testimonies given in Contos’ survey, young men are routinely let off the hook by a permissive attitude towards their behaviour and a lack of willingness to ruin the reputation or career prospects of the perpetrators.
Similarly, the amount of people who knew about the alleged assault against Brittany Higgins and did nothing to pursue proper action grows day by day to include those close to the PM, despite his protestations that he knew nothing about it.
This kind of attitude from our leaders is indicative of how much the national culture needs to change before we will stop hearing that attacks like this have taken place.
How to Change It
It’s a big ask but, as mentioned, education is key. We need a national curriculum that teaches consent from a young age and is enforced across all education centres. While education around this topic frequently clashes with religious and conservative values, leaving young people without this information is leaving them vulnerable and the less they know, the more open they are to being taken advantage of.
Consent doesn’t need to be explicitly sexual in nature. Conversations around sharing, respect, and understanding bodily autonomy can be had with very young children without having to expose them to the full weight of the world.
According to United Nations data, countries with poor quality sex education have higher rates of teenage pregnancy, a lower average age of first sexual experience, and a higher rates of STIs.
While this is the structural change necessary, it is also up to us to call out sexist language and attitudes when we see it as a culture that permits derogatory attitudes to women also makes it easier for men to assault them.
You can also help get this topic to the top of the political agenda by calling or emailing your Federal Member of Parliament or your State Member of Parliament and asking what they plan to do to improve understandings around consent.
If you’ve been affected by anything in this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch with someone. You can call the 1800 Respect national helpline on 1800 737 732, Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis line on 131 114, or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.