Content warning: This article contains details and accounts of sexual assault.
What did your first lesson on consent and sex look like? Perhaps you were taught in pre- or primary school that your body belongs to you, and if you were feeling uncomfortable or unsafe, a simple “no thank you” would restore a safe barrier and protect you from unwanted interactions with other children. Chances are your main form of sex education came in high school, with the classic condom-on-a-banana lesson accompanied by awkward giggles and inappropriate jokes.
I remember sitting with the rest of the year 11 girls in my co-ed school’s drama room, aged 16, being captivated by a charismatic ex-cop’s presentation on “consent”. We were taken through a list of what counts as assault, told that “date rape” is the most common form of assault, and listened carefully as he comedically demonstrated how to escape a situation. I walked away thinking how great it was that we were now equipped with the tools to avoid date rape — telling our “date” that we have to freshen up (because, according to the speaker, that’s what all men think women do before sex) then locking ourselves in the bathroom before calling for help or climbing out the window to escape.
As it turns out, this same presentation (albeit a few years later) enlightened Chanel Contos to the conclusion that she had, in fact, been raped. “That was my only form of consent education. And I thought it was great because I found out that I had been sexually assaulted.” she says.
It had taken Chanel two years to discover her assault was classified as rape, and that it wasn’t her fault. Looking back, she tells me reporting her assault was out of the question because it would involve her parents. “I probably would have got in trouble for it because we live in a victim-blaming society. And I had snuck out that night, so I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. I thought it was my fault,” she says.
Now 23 years-old, Chanel fronts the Teach Us Consent campaign, an initiative she launched in an effort to push for mandatory consent education in schools. The idea came to her at a friend’s sleepover in 2019. She was sharing her own sexual assault experience in high school, only to find out another close friend had also been sexually assaulted by the same boy. “We all started talking about sexual assault, and realised we have endless stories [of assault] between ourselves. My first testimonies were from the girls at that sleepover,” Chanel says. It snowballed from there.
The fight for education
Chanel’s initial idea was to gather her friends’ testimonies and take them to her old school principal and plead the case for consent education to be introduced to the curriculum. Her idea was put on hold while she completed her Master’s degree in gender and education in London. That is until a class discussion about sexual coercion brought her peers’ testimonies to the forefront of the conversation.
“[A classmate] from Tanzania was talking about how virginity testing happened when she was at school and that was her first experience of sexual coercion. I shared my story straight after hers and I was thinking I can’t really relate. I grew up in a really, really privileged area, but I realised that on weekends with other school kids, sexual coercion was just a part of life. People were expected to and forced into having sex, and if you were passed out, no one cared,” Chanel recounts. “I remember the group of people in the zoom call looking at me like ‘what the f*ck?’ That’s when I realised it’s not normal.”
But the real lightbulb moment came when Chanel caught up with a friend from Sydney was also living in London. Her friend spoke of another assault Chanel wasn’t aware of, and the pair discussed all the instances of sexual assault they witnessed and stopped as teenagers. “I was just furious,” she says.
“That’s when I posted the first Instagram story and that’s what started Teach Us Consent.”
What was expected to be a dozen testimonies recounting stories of sexual assault (many of which involved boys from elite Sydney schools) quickly became 500, and at the time of writing there are 6723 testimonies posted for public viewing on the Teach Us Consent site. The movement has amassed a large public following, with more than 44,000 signatures on the petition to make consent education mandatory in schools.
Chanel and her team of volunteers use the @teachusconsent Instagram account (as well as her own account @chanelc) to educate followers on topics about sex (think sex myths, stealthing and toxic masculinity), publish updates on the latest in consent reform and ask followers questions to gather real-world insight and personal stories of sexual assault, misogyny and the reality of being a woman or non-binary person.
The results of one the most shocking polls were posted in August last year. Chanel posed the question “What does your rapist do now?”. The answers were shocking: “Dux of his school”, “winning medals at the Olympics”, “he’s a doctor” and “He is in a long-term relationship. I still haven’t had sex since the rape”. Chanel’s polls and Q&As reveal the dark and disappointing reality of gender inequality and the justice system in Australia.
But Teach Us Consent has not gone unnoticed. Chanel Contos has become a household name, and she been working closely with education ministers, school principals and the Australian Curriculum Reporting Authority (ACARA) to pull together a new mandated sex and consent education curriculum for K-12. At the time of writing, the proposed curriculum has been approved by the ACARA board and is waiting for approval from the Minister of Education. If it is approved, a new curriculum will be mandatory in schools across Australia.
On October 21 last year, the Teach Us Consent petition was taken to the NSW Parliament to debate whether to implement holistic and earlier consent and sexuality education in the curriculum. The result was unanimous, delivering cross-party support for stronger consent education.
Another major win for the movement is The Affirmative Consent Bill, which was passed in NSW on November 23. The bill reaffirms the notion of “yes means yes”, not just “no means no”, acknowledging there are many instances of sexual assault in which the victim is unable to talk or move due to the body’s “freeze” fear response. The bill also affirms a person’s right to withdraw consent at any time (including in the instance where one act was agreed to but another sexual act wasn’t); clarifies specific definitions of sexual acts; and revokes the ability for a defendant to claim self-induced intoxication made them misinterpret consent.
“I’m very much in support of the new affirmative consent policy because it teaches people that the default isn’t yes and I think it’s a really good step in the right direction,” Chanel tells me. “It also means that we have to start teaching yes means yes, not just no means no.”
So how do we teach this? The proposed curriculum from Chanel and ACARA starts from kindergarten, where “we start talking about possible boundaries and what it means to say yes and no, how to handle rejection and how to say no,” Chanel explains. “That’s as simple as playing with each other in the playground and saying ‘this toy is mine, you can’t borrow it’ or ‘you can borrow it now, but only for an hour’. And then that gets continuously built upon. What I would like to see is kids as young as year 5 and 6 start talking about what sexual harassment is, what grooming is, what sexual assault is and where to get help for these things, so that children can identify what they look like and how to deal with it.”
By years 7 and 8, students will learn about sexual consent explicitly — what it is, what to do if it happens to you and what the punishment is for offenders. It’s a good start, but Chanel takes issue with the lack of mandatory PDHPE curriculum in senior school. “In the time where students are most sexually active and most vulnerable to these sorts of things, that’s where we should be talking about the positives of sex and like how to have sex,” she tells me. “But that’s a complete structural change. I think pick your battles — trying to get Australia to implement a mandatory sex subject in Year 11 and 12 is probably not the best hill to die on.”
She’s right — it’s taken until 2021 to raise awareness around just how prevalent sexual assault, gendered violence and inequality is in Australia, not to mention the extent that even the most prominent politicians go to sweep it under the rug. Thanks to the likes of Chanel, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, these issues have dominated the media and become increasingly common in chats among friends, family and even between strangers. We’re finally taking baby steps forward, and education is the next frontier.
“It’s important to make discussions about consent, sex and relationships a normal part of the dialogue in your home,” says Dr Katina Lines, psychologist and CEO of Act for Kids Australia. The organisation provides evidence-based, trauma-informed professional therapy and support services for children who have experienced or are at risk of harm, and recently commissioned research about consent education in childhood.
According to Dr Lines, the findings show a lack of awareness about the importance of teaching young children about consent and body ownership. The concept of bodily autonomy continues to be misunderstood, with 69 per cent of Australians believing that adults shouldn’t have to ask children for permission before they touch them. The same research found that only 44 per cent of parents, carers and grandparents have been open with their children about consent.
“Consent should be taught from a young age, including using the correct anatomical names for all body parts, such as penis and vagina,” Dr Lines explains. “It’s also important young children know they have a right to say who can and can’t touch them. Early education is key to empowering children to seek help when they feel unsafe.”
The Netherlands are leading the charge when it comes to early consent education. The Dutch allow their children to play outdoors in the nude and encourage self-discovery; parents are given access to information on encouraging their children to learn about their own bodies, and schools take on a more inclusive approach to sex education with an emphasis on preventing sexual coercion, teaching boundaries and eliminating homophobic behaviour.
“Australia doesn’t even think this stuff exists,” says Chanel. “It’s been proven to work; to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and STIs, to reduce rates of sexual assault, it’s been proven to make teens have sex older when we talk openly and freely … It’s up to Australia to adopt this approach.”
Although not readily accessible in schools in Australia, this open approach to sexuality and consent education is available on the web. Sites like Think or Blue, an inclusive “feminist parenting resource”, are packed with information and tips on how to educate and be open with children about sexuality and consent.
While she’s still deciding what the future of Teach Us Consent will look like, Chanel is clear about the importance of education and moving beyond the current standards of what consent looks like: “It’s such an injustice in our society that we get sexually assaulted and people sexually assault people without even realising it because there’s a lack of education. And if lack of education is why you thought it was okay to catcall people … you don’t need to be ashamed about that. It’s how you act going forward and how you interact with people now that you know.”
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How to teach your children about consent
- Give your toddler authority over their body. This can be as simple as telling them before you pick them up.
- Teach them the names of body parts from early on. The Act for Kids research found that only 29 per cent of parents and carers say “penis” and “vagina” are standard words in their child’s vocabulary.
- Help them identify emotions early on. Frustration is a normal human response, but it’s important to let toddlers sit with the feeling and process the emotion even if it’s uncomfortable. This forms the basis of handling rejection.
- Respect their “no”. If your child asks you to stop tickling them or doesn’t want to be touched or hugged, respect their decision. They need to feel in control of their own body; forced interactions should not be normalised.
- If you are told “no”, don’t bargain. This may teach them that coercion can get you what you want.
- Teach them boundaries with other children. Not all children like physical touch (a hug, for example) so teaching your child to ask before they do something is essential.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual violence or any other unwanted behaviour, call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit 1800respect.org.au.
Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW and the features writer for WILD and WellBeing. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature.